The Magazinist
Critical Thinking for Publishers

Thomason's Tracts

Broadly speaking, British journalism was born in the English Civil War, starting around 1640.  This was when the forebears of modern newspapers—the first corantos, newsbooks, and mercuries—began to appear in quantity. 

In those days the most common formats for printed ephemera were broadsides and pamphlets.  Thousands of titles were issued, many printed at unauthorized presses.  Fugitive publishers ran a significant risk—as did their readers and writers.

Because a lot of what we know about the period of the English Civil War comes from the pages of pamphlets and broadsides, their historical value is incalculable.   Astonishingly, most of the surviving material comes from the collection of a single man, George Thomason.  Thomason assembled more than 20,000 different pamphlets and broadsides filling 2,000 bound volumes—quite an achievement.  But what’s really remarkable is that Thomason had the foresight and wisdom to gather the material in the first place.

Thomason was a printer, admitted to the Stationers’ Company in 1626, and doing business under the sign of the Rose and Crown in St. Paul’s Churchyard.  His professional connections enabled him to create the collection, “catching each little treatise as it was hawked about the streets or sold over (or under) the counter,” in the words of a British Library bibliographer in 1897.

Acquiring the material may have been a challenge, but holding on to it was even harder, since authorities from either side would have confiscated it if it were found.  Thomason seems to have used every dodge in the book.  He shipped the collection all over England—to Surrey, Essex, and Oxford—to keep it away from fighting.  He buried the collection, then thought better and dug it up again.  He considered sending the material to Holland for safekeeping but decided he couldn’t risk losing it at sea.  In the end he hid it all in plain sight, putting the collection in specially-constructed hollow table-tops and storing the tables in a warehouse.

Thomason described his collection as “…Pamphletts and other writeings and papers bounde up with them of severall volumes gathered by me in the tyme of the late warres and beginning the third day of November A.D. 1640 and continued until the happie returne and coronacion of his most gracious Maiestie King Charles the second.”

He was not modest about the effort involved:  “long and greete paynes, industry and charge that hath bin taken and expended.”

The majority of the material in Thomason’s collection is unduplicated… in other words, his copies are the only ones that survive.  This suggests that not many of his contemporaries, maybe none at all, recognized the long-term value of these little sheets and booklets.  Some are close to priceless—how would you like to own an autographed copy of Milton’s Areopagitica? 

But in the end, the real value of Thomason’s collection lies in its banality.  His tracts and broadsides are a wonderful reflection of how ordinary people, the “man in the street,” learned about and debated the issues that engulfed England.  A hastily-printed pamphlet rebutting an opponent’s point of propaganda can reveal more about its times than any number of well written, carefully edited history books.

Aware that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, Thomas Carlyle called the collection “…the most valuable set of documents connected with English history; greatly preferable to all the sheepskins in the Tower and other places, for informing the English what the English were in former times; I believe the whole secret of the seventeenth century is involved in that hideous mass of rubbish there.”  

For us, the lesson of Thomason’s collection is at least partly cautionary… proof that you may have good reason not to throw away your playbills, baseball cards, or comic books!


December, 2011


For more information, see:

Early English Books Online

Thomason Collection

Wikipedia

Downloadable List of the Collection