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Saturday, 12 April 2014


There is circumstantial evidence that my 5x great grandmother Jean Mudie (c1764-1842) is descended from the Mudies of Dundee, prominent merchants and guildsmen of that city. At this distance in time I may never be able to prove or disprove it. But if it’s true, I have in Charles Edward Mudie a cousin worth honouring.

Charles Edward Mudie (1818-1890)

Charles’s father was a stationer and bookseller in Dundee, a burgess of the city. But in 1810 at the age of twenty-nine he moved with his wife to London, opening new premises in Cheyne Row, just off the Chelsea Embankment. The shop prospered, selling newspapers and secondhand books, and the couple raised a family – Charles was born there in 1818 and in time entered the family business.

At the age of twenty-two Charles opened a new branch in Bloomsbury and began to publish books himself. In 1842 he started lending books to the impecunious students of the University of London nearby, charging them a guinea a year (£1.05) to borrow one book at a time. Thus Mudie’s Subscription Library was born.

Mudie’s Select Library

It was a huge success, and after ten years Mudie’s Select Library (as it was known) moved to larger premises at 509-511 New Oxford Street. Eight years later in 1860 those premises were themselves enlarged, and over time the company opened branches in the industrial centres of Northern England – in Birmingham, York and Manchester – although never as far north as his roots in Scotland.

Mudie’s buying power was immense. Emerging at the same time as WH Smith, he had a comparable influence on the publishing industry. He would not stock novels of what he considered dubious morality, which in turn influenced Victorian literary taste. On the other hand in 1859 he bought five hundred copies of Charles Darwin's newly published On the Origin of Species, thereby greatly contributing to the dissemination of Darwin’s theories.

First edition of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (Chapman & Hall, London, 1861) in three volumes

In 1861 he bought almost the entire first edition, and most of the second, of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The purchase illustrates another aspect of his influence on publishing practice. Novels were expensive, and generally beyond the financial reach of even the new middle classes. It was one of the reasons for the success of Mudie’s lending libraries - readers borrowed instead of buying. The publishing industry responded by issuing longer novels in parts, usually in three volumes which could be bought separately over time, as Great Expectations was. As well as increasing sales for the publisher, the three-volume novel or triple decker was also good for subscription libraries who could charge for three loans instead of one.

The triple decker disappeared almost overnight in 1894 when both WH Smiths and Mudie’s stopped stocking them. By then cheaper single volume editions of many works had begun to appear. Private subscription libraries were also under attack by then, from the rise of the public lending libraries of many town and county councils. As I wrote here recently, that’s what did for the Lewes Library Society in 1897.

Readers with armfuls of books outside Mudie’s Select Library Limited, in an illustration in London Society, 1869

Mudie’s, which had become a limited company in 1864, soldiered on until the 1930s before different reading habits, cheaper books and free public libraries finally killed off Charles Edward Mudie’s influential library model. Today, local libraries are closing at an alarming rate across Britain because of deep government cuts to council funding. Who’s to say we won’t see a return of private subscription libraries such as Mudie’s in the near future? Proud as I am of my possible cousin, I hope not.

Saturday, 5 April 2014


Where are you, Jean Mudie? I know your name, your years of birth and death, your mother’s and father’s names (Ann, and James who died in 1776). I know your husband and your descendants for seven generations ending in me. I go back to you, but I can’t see where you came from.

Jean Mudie is one of my sixty-four 5x great grandmothers. I couldn’t put a name to most of the other sixty-three, so I suppose I should be quite pleased even to know hers. Hers was not a high family; and that far back, information is scarce. She was most probably a weaver like her husband John Gavine. He was born in Forfar, a weaving town in the county of Angus in Scotland, but moved to the nearby city of Dundee as a young man, perhaps in search of work. There he met and married Jean in 1792 at the age of 26, and there their four children were born.

A weaver and spinner in Dundee, with a loom and wheel of the sort in use at the end of the eighteenth century (photo: Dundee HeritageTrust)

John did well to catch a Mudie. The Mudie family were prominent merchants in the city for centuries – Sir Thomas Mudie was Provost (the Scottish equivalent of mayor) of Dundee from 1648 to 1653, and there’s a large Mudie population with its own plot in Dundee’s ancient burial ground, The Howff.

The Howff is considered one of the most important historical cemeteries in Scotland, some say second only to Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. Like Greyfriars, the Howff sits on land once occupied by a Franciscan monastery, whose monks were known as grey friars from the colour of their habits. Both institutions were abolished by the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the Reformation in the late 1550s, and both were designated as new burial grounds for their respective cities in the early 1560s because the old ones were full.

The Howff, Dundee (picture by K.A. Laity from her splendid blog)

In Dundee the Franciscan church had been used by the city’s craft and trade guilds for assemblies. When the church was pulled down, they continued to meet on the site, and so the Greyfriars’ Yard became known as the Howff (the Scots word for a meeting place). One of the earliest references to such gatherings in the graveyard is for Dundee’s weavers. According to an article by the late Colin Gibson, the weavers are recorded as having "convenit within ye Holff and comowne burriall” on 13th June, 1585. (Holff is a variant spelling, Gibson notes, in the same way that Golf and Gowff are variants.) The now-demolished north wall of the yard used to carry the inscription “This is the braboners’ head roum.” Braboner is the old Scots word for a weaver.

The Howff was in use as a burial ground for three hundred years, from its designation by Mary Queen of Scots in 1564 to the last interment there in 1857. From early on the Mudies had their own "place" or plot there. Provost Sr Thomas Mudie was buried there in 1660, beneath the mortcloth. This "cloth of death" was available for rent from the city's Guildry to be draped over the coffins of its favourite sons and daughters, and the records still exist for its hire from 1655 to 1817. Each trade within the Guildry had its own mortcloth, although unfortunately the records don't show which cloth covered Sir Thomas. Ten other Mudies were similarly honoured.

The burial records for the Howff survive from the late seventeenth century onwards and in their transcribed form the entries for Mudies alone cover fourteen pages (compared to less than two for Gavines, for example). Amongst them there are some fifty references to Mudie weavers including, in 1772, the burial of Robert, son of James Mudie, weaver. Could this be an infant brother to Jean?

My head is full of Mudies and weavers and Howff burials. But the truth is, I don’t know what James Mudie did for work, or how or whether he and his daughter are related to the rest of the large extended Mudie family in Dundee. All I know is what I’ve told you, and in addition that both Jean and John Gavine are also buried in the Howff. There must be a connection somewhere!

Saturday, 29 March 2014


I am part of the diaspora of the Tough family. In various spellings and pronunciations, the name comes reputedly from Norman knights called De Touche who fought alongside William the Conqueror. The name may have been given to the knights by their English opponents – one source suggests it comes from an Old English word “toh,” meaning “vigorous, steadfast or stubborn.” I’m proud to be toh.

By the fourteenth century their descendants had settled in the northeast of Scotland around Aberdeen. It was there, at Kirkton of Tough, that Aberdeen Angus beef cattle were first raised. Through time my ancestors began to spread southwards in search of work, and my own direct line echoes the experience of working men and women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Kirkton of Tough, near Alford, Aberdeenshire

First they became tenant farmers in the fertile plains of Stirlingshire. Later they adopted the new technologies of the industrial revolution, becoming roadside blacksmiths, enginemen and ironworkers. As education spread among the working classes, so my great grandfather John Scott Tough became a clerk in the ironworks instead of a manual worker. And his son Jack became a doctor, a pioneering plastic surgeon.

Other branches of my Tough ancestry acquired new trades. The family of the surgeon’s cousins moved into the city of Glasgow and pursued a related career, as butchers! Residents of Clydebank still remember the slogan over the shop door on Kilbowie Road – “If it’s Tough’s, it’s Tender!” And of course they sold Aberdeen Angus beef.

Tough’s the butcher was on Kilbowie Road in Clydebank near the Singer railway station (which is on the left in this 1930s view) – perhaps it was that striped awning on the right

Tough is a great name for a slogan in some businesses, perhaps not others. The butcher turned it to his advantage; and for Alexander Tough & Co, of the Clyde Ropeworks in Greenock (opposite Clydebank across the River Clyde) it should have been a positive boon to its advertising. In fact the family firm, founded by Alexander Tough in 1796, seems only to have woken up to the fact in 1961, the year they changed their name to Tough Ropes.

By the time Tough Ropes closed down in 1979, it was the last firm in Scotland making ropes for marine and land-based industry. It remained in Tough family ownership throughout its 183 year history, surviving and adapting to the changing demands of the shipping world. In its lifetime it saw high-rigged sailing ships vanish in favour of steam; coastal shipping decline with the advent of trains and motor cars; hemp give way to nylon; and wars once fought by navies being conducted by air forces.

Clyde Ropeworks were one of several along the Clyde estuary which grew to serve the ship-building industry there – these ones were at neighbouring Gourock

The Second World War was perhaps its finest hour. By then Alexander Tough’s great great grandson George Hughes Tough was at the helm. The demand for naval rope was at its highest, while the supply of raw materials from the Far East was disrupted. The Clyde estuary was a frequent target of German air raids and both Greenock and Clydebank suffered enormously from blitz bombardment. The Clyde Ropeworks were themselves damaged in May 1941 (and elsewhere their London office and their Cardiff stores were completely destroyed). But within two days they were back in production, using substitute materials when imported ones were no longer available and – their justifiably proud boast – meeting every order placed with them, with not a single coil of rope rejected. Toh indeed!

Saturday, 22 March 2014


Thomas Woollgar was my great aunt Helen Verrall’s great great grandfather and a man after my own heart, so fascinated by so many things that he found it hard to settle on any one thing. His was a constantly enquiring mind. A draper to trade, he taught himself medicine and natural history in his time off and was a compulsive student of the past and present of his town, Lewes in Sussex.

Lewes, Sussex, painted by JWM Turner in c1796

He wrote everything down. His observations of local botany, his transcriptions of monumental inscriptions and ancient records, even the names and trades of everyone living in Lewes – the surviving notes in his neat handwriting, bound in huge leather-bound volumes, are now in the care of Sussex Archaeological Society. The books, known as Specilegia Lewensis (a Lewes Miscellany), form a priceless snapshot of the place in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Only a generation after the pioneering naturalist Gilbert White, Woollgar's botanical collections were the earliest studies of the area’s ecology and fossil-rich geology. A year after his death his friend and fellow naturalist Gideon Mantell named a locally occurring ammonite, Collignoniceras woollgari, in his honour.

Collignoniceras woollgari, discovered in lower chalk deposits around Lewes by Gideon Mantell in 1822

Thomas was a founder member of the Lewes Library Society, one of the thirteen people who on 1st January 1786 chipped in half a crown each (12.5 pence) and a monthly subscription of a shilling (5p) to set up nothing less than a temple to the arts and sciences built of printed words. Members could nominate books for the library to purchase with their subscription fees, and by 1824 the collection contained some 3400 volumes for a membership which now numbered 92. Gideon Mantell signed up in 1789.

From the start it had lofty aims. No type of publication was expressly excluded, but as Gideon noted in 1824,
A taste for light reading seems rather to have gained ground among the members, which is perhaps mainly to be attributed to the excessive popularity of the works of “the author of Waverley.” [The first of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels appeared in 1814.] It is to be hoped that the leading members of the establishment, will always exert themselves to prevent the character and importance of the collection from being lessened by too great an influx of works of mere imagination. That this institution should ever become assimilated to a common circulating library, would be a matter of sincere regret.

1839 Fisher edition of the Magnum Opus, the collected Waverley novels: pulp fiction to Gideon Mantell, but they did look good on the shelves

Thomas Woollgar served as the library’s second president from the early 1800s until his death in 1821. By then the joining fee had risen to six guineas (£6.30), and the monthly subscription to five crowns (£1.25). Thomas’s tenure was marred by unproven accusations of his financial impropriety. He was succeeded by a Lewes upholsterer, William Verrall, another founder member of the society and another ancestor of my great aunt Helen.

And lest you think that it was all dry-as-dust high literature and learned non-fiction for those early readers, I can tell you that romance blossomed among the shelves of their first-floor library in Lewes High Street. It was announced in 1794 that two founder members were to wed – Thomas Woollgar and Anne Webb, “a woman of most amiable character” according to Gideon. Thomas was made a partner by his employer as a wedding gift, but four years later resigned to pursue knowledge fulltime. Anne died in 1815, and "her removal [wrote Gideon] caused a blank in Thomas’s enjoyments that even time could not supply." They were reunited by Thomas’s death only six years later. The Society continued until 1897 when its books were donated to Lewes's new public library.
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