Something about Frank Karslake

Frank KarslakeFrank Karslake (1851-1920) is remembered for a number of things.  In the wider world, he is remembered chiefly for having founded the Guild of Women Binders, which for a brief period either side of 1900 produced some exhilarating work, much admired,  much collected, and still capable of thrilling.  Less well remembered is that in parallel to the Guild, he also ran the Hampstead Bindery – its work perhaps less distinctive, but exquisite in itself.

Gwladys Edwards

Guild of Women Binders. Bound by Miss Edwards, possibly Gwladys Edwards. © The British Library Board.

Within the book trade and among its historians, he is further remembered as the founder in 1902 of the annual “Book Auction Records”, a work which in the days before such things had migrated online, was not only a rich repository of information (if sagely interpreted), but completely indispensible for the serious bookseller.  In its early years it was also often enlivened by Karslake’s own reminiscences and thoughts on the book trade of his time – these heavily drawn on in my earlier posts in the “Book-Hunters of 1888” series.  He was also the man whose single-minded energy and drive led to his founding the Second-Hand Booksellers’ Association (now the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association) in 1906, serving as its first Secretary until his death in 1920.  These are all, in their varying degrees, good things.

Johanna Birkenruth

Binding by Johanna Birkenruth, Guild of Women Binders. © The British Library Board.

Perhaps a greater thing – one that appears to be no longer remembered at all – is that in 1886, he founded the Society for the Suppression of Hydrophobia and the Amendment of the Dog Laws.  It was an event widely noticed in the press at the time and the agenda was simple: to stamp out rabies in this country by measures eventually including muzzling and licensing.  There had been twenty-six or twenty-seven deaths from rabies in London alone in 1885.  Public support was large: Karslake, still spelling his name Kerslake at this time, lectured on the subject, called public meetings, published his “Hydrophobia : Its Cause and Prevention” in 1890, and brought about decisive action.  By the turn of the century, the disease was all but eliminated in this country, although he returned to the subject once more right at the end of his life with “Rabies and Hydrophobia : Their Cause and their Prevention” (1919).

hampstead bl

Binding by the Hampstead Bindery. © The British Library Board.

Nothing to his discredit in any of this, far from it, but Karslake has not been a man universally admired.   The auctioneer Tom Hodge of Sotheby’s, writing in 1907 to his fellow book-auctioneer John Edmund Hodgson, outlined his reasons for refusing an invitation to a dinner of the new Second-Hand Booksellers’ Association: “I too have received an invitation to the dinner but I shall certainly not accept it … I consider it entirely a mistake and altogether inadvisable for Auctioneers  to be looked upon & ranked as one of the trade; secondly the Association is far too closely identified with its founder [Karslake] …  The Association, started by the Secretary, is an obvious attempt to reinstate himself in the good opinion of second-hand booksellers but until the Association absolutely eject him I do not see how it can ever get a good reputation …  I very much regret that many ever honest men have in any way allowed themselves to be coupled with Mr. Karslake.  I do not think you & I need care two pins about it beyond being careful to keep clear of it …  We are not of, nor in the trade & booksellers must be made to remember this …” (quoted in Frank Herrmann’s “Sotheby’s : Portrait of an Auction House” (1980).

Leaving aside Hodge’s general feelings about his best customers, there were clearly very specific issues with Karslake.  There is no mention at all of any of this in the ABA’s own centenary volume,  edited by Giles Mandelbrote and published as “Out of Print & Into Profit” (2006), in fact there is little mention of Karslake at all.  Curiously he is not even indexed in the booksellers’ section, although this he plainly was for most of his life.  The only passage of any substance comes from the late Anthony Rota, reiterating the tale of the famous dinner at the Criterion restaurant where the association was founded in December 1906.  Of Karslake himself he wrote: “The man responsible … was Frank Karslake (1851-1920).  A successful businessman, he is said to have made most of his money from land deals in North America, where he owned at least three ranches.  Around the turn of the century he returned to his native England and once more took up the trade which he had earlier found so satisfying.  Back in London, in 1902 he became founding editor of ‘Book Auction Records’ … which he published from his imposing house in Pond Street, Hampstead”.  As both Anthony’s grandfather and great-grandfather (Percy Dobell and Bertram Dobell) would have known and worked with Karslake on the ABA Committee, I think we have to take this as how the trade itself has historically viewed Karslake.

Beyond that, Karslake’s daughter Madge Karslake (1886-1962), who took over his duties as Secretary to the ABA, contributed some affectionate personal reminiscences to “Book Auction Records” after his death in 1920, but there is no clue there either as to what the issues that so enraged Tom Hodge may have been.

Karslake was born Frank Kerslake in Birmingham on 20th July 1851 and baptised on 12th October 1851 at St. Thomas – the son of John Kerslake, bootmaker of 41a New Street, and his wife Mary Anne Findon, whom he had married in 1843.  The spelling Kerslake was retained until the 1890s.  The family seem to have been prosperous enough: along with their five children, the Kerslakes had two domestic servants in 1861.  The following year, the family moved to London.  Shortly after, Mary Anne Kerslake died – according to Madge Karslake young Frank returned from school one day, “walked into the drawing-room, and there found the mother he adored, lying dead upon the sofa  … A born lover of books, to those ever dear companions my father turned for consolation in those early days of bereavement.  The treasured volumes were smuggled to his room to be read by the light of a candle; a forbidden possession which was kept hidden away, to enable him to read, long after the daylight had faded”.

In the autumn of 1867, according to Karslake’s own account, he was working in a “branch” of his father’s business in Coventry Street, “supposed to be learning the business.  But the occupation was one for which I had neither taste nor capacity”.  When his father let the premises to the bookseller David White, former assistant and subsequently manager of Henry George Bohn’s great bookselling business (where he had worked alongside Bernard Quaritch), the young Karslake prevailed upon White to take him on as an apprentice.  There may have been some slight reinvention in this account, Karslake’s father, who had remarried, seems to have been on his way down in the world by this time –working as the manager of someone else’s boot and shoe business by 1871 – but certainly Karslake went to work for White and followed him to Bond Street when White went into partnership with the well-known Frederick Startridge Ellis.  It was White’s system of cutting up and meticulously filing catalogue slips which was later to inspire “Book Auction Records”.

robson-kerslake-adAt some point in or about 1873, the young Karslake decided to set up for himself.  It was on 4th December of that year that he married Martha McGregor (1851-1924) at Caterham – she was the daughter of a sergeant-major in the Royal Artillery.  They were to have nine children, all of whom lived to adulthood.  By then he was apparently sharing a bookshop with a younger brother in Booksellers’ Row.  According to his daughter, Karslake then for some reason attempted to have an alternative career on the stage.  It was not a successful venture and by 1881 Karslake had returned to bookselling, this time in partnership with Bartholomew Robson, a bookseller he had known since their days in lodgings together (for whom see my post of December 24, 2015).  It was a successful partnership and the business in Coventry Street was plainly prosperous.  It is true that in James G. Nelson’s “Publisher to the Decadents : Leonard Smithers in the Careers of Beardsley, Wilde, Dowson” (2000) there is a claim that “Robson & Kerslake”, as the partnership was known, “often sold ‘under the counter’ pornographic books” – a claim echoing one made in Mary S. Lovell’s  “A Rage to Live : A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton” (1998) and repeated with more force in Colette Colligan & Margaret Linley’s “Media, Technology, and Literature in the Nineteenth Century” (2011) – but there are perhaps far too many good books now in major collections with a “Robson & Kerslake” provenance for this truly to be regarded as any major part of their trade.


Morning Post, 12th March 1891.

In 1892 Karslake decided to emigrate to California and begin a new life.  According to his daughter this was for reasons of health and on doctor’s advice.  Farmland for instantly profitable fruit-growing in Placer County, California, had recently been heavily advertised in glowing terms in the English press and this was Karslake’s destination.  On his own admission he borrowed £1,800 from David White – about £750,000 in today’s terms on the basis of average earnings (other measures are available) – “for a special temporary purpose”, although according to his daughter he was offered “what was considered to be a high position of trust with an English firm”.  For her, at the age of six, it was an idyllic time: “It was midsummer 1892 when we arrived in California, a beautiful time of year there.  My father had three ranches, and our house was built according to his ideas; and a perfect home it was.  From the long panelled drawing-room in which a hundred persons could stand up to dance, to the great play room and gymnasium on the top floor; everything had been perfectly planned.  The house stood on the height of a hill, and from the verandah there was a glorious view … thousands of peach trees in bloom … the matchless blue of a Californian sky”.

The idyll soon came to an end: “It was not long before my father realised that there was nothing in the post which he had accepted, and nearly four years later he decided to return to England, where he once again became a bookseller”.  The newspapers and archives of the period tell a rather different story.  The two eldest sons had gone on ahead, but the remainder of the family sailed from Liverpool on the “Alaska”, bound for New York, on the 9th July 1892 – the passengers still listed under the spelling Kerslake.  It was a spelling never used again.  Quite why the Kerslakes became Karslakes somewhere along the way is not explained. Perhaps it simply betokened a new start in a new life.  Perhaps the name had always been pronounced Karslake and the family had grown tired of correcting other people’s mis-spellings – I have sometimes felt the same way about my own first name – ‘Laurence’ spelt with a ‘u’, perfectly correct and wholly orthodox – and yet people insist daily on spelling it with a ‘w’.  But, for all that, to change the spelling of your name by a single letter in mid life is an odd and slightly suspicious thing to do.

SouthseaWhat Madge Karslake does not mention is that her father returned to England at least twice before bringing the family home for good in 1896.  He returned alone, as Frank Karslake, fruit-grower, in July 1893, and again in June 1895, this time as Frank Karslake, merchant.  And what he was doing on these return trips was touring round the country drumming up custom for his so-called ‘agricultural college’ – an institution of which he was variously described as both founder and principal – no mention at all of his being employed by anyone else.  The “Portsmouth Evening News” (17th August 1895), for example, announced that Karslake (Principal of the Placer County Agricultural Training College, Penryn, Placer County, California), was to give a public lecture entitled, “California, the Wonderland of the North American Continent” – the lecture to be illustrated with “80 Oxy-Hydrogen Lantern Slides of the scenery of the Yosemite Valley, The Sierra Nevada, The Big Trees, The Fruit Ranches, Orange Groves, Ranch Operations, &c., &c.  Any questions may be asked at the close of the Lecture. Tickets and Prospectuses of the College may be procured, free of charge …”.


London Evening Standard, 17th August 1894.

A subsequent report in the same newspaper (29th August 1895) gives the gist of the lecture: “The object of the College is to provide a place where British youths who emigrate to the far West may be taught their business.  Too often, he [Karslake] said, it had happened that parents had sent their sons out as a pupil to some colonial farmer, and paid a heavy premium in order that he might receive some practical training.  But the farmer having secured the money treated the youth as an ordinary farm hand, so that when thrown on his own resources the latter was not much better acquainted with colonial farming than when he left England.  Parents who sent their sons out to the Placer County College, however, could rely on their being thoroughly taught, and afterwards assisted to start ranching or fruit growing for themselves”.

Quite what qualifications a forty-four year old bookseller might have for running an agricultural college – beyond the usual distressing tendency of booksellers surrounded by books on all manner of subjects somehow coming to believe that they know everything that’s in them – are not at all clear.  A year later, the “Manchester Courier” (Saturday 26th September 1896) carried an article bluntly headed, “Frauds on British Immigrants in California”.  It deals mainly with land fraud and the selling of ranches on false valuations – and it may perhaps be that Karslake was a victim of this himself – but the British Consul-General at San Francisco, a Mr Warburton, also specifically noted “the case of the Penryn Agricultural College … as to which there had been serious complaints.  This institution was suddenly closed by notice dated June 18 which the Consul-General gives in full … signed by one Frank Karslake. The student who brought this Mr. Warburton’s notice wrote:— ‘I regret to say that the majority of us are entirely without means, either to support ourselves or protect our interests’, and a later notice warned the students that no food could be supplied to them after June 30 last. ‘These unfortunate young men or boys’, says Mr. Warburton, ‘are thus thrown suddenly and without warning on their own resources, with very little prospect of obtaining employment’”.  Karslake and his family had arrived back in England on 13th March 1896, their adventure abandoned, but he was still lecturing on the merits of his college in Glasgow in April, and still advertising it widely in the press until the end of May.  In the whole of the “Manchester Courier” article he is the only person mentioned by name in respect of the frauds.  While it is possible that this was a well-intentioned enterprise which unfortunately went wrong, the available evidence would appear otherwise.

35 Pond Street

35 Pond Street, Hampstead.

Back in England, Karslake returned to bookselling with a shop on the Charing Cross Road and it was also at about this time that he acquired the imposing house in Pond Street. For a failed venture, Karslake seems not to have come out of it too badly.  The newspapers take up his story again in 1899.  A short piece in the “York Herald” (Saturday 18th November 1899), headed “Artistic Bookbinding”, continues, “As is well known, the higher branches of book-binding prove very remunerative, and a man who is strong and original can make a very comfortable living at it.  People prize their books so highly, and desire to see them so well adorned that they are glad to pay for original and artistic work.  Mr. Frank Karslake, who has two daughters engaged in book-binding, and intends to have two other daughters taught the craft, commends the Guild of Women Binders in London to the notice of parents with daughters whom they wish to learn a useful trade to enable them to earn a livelihood in a light and remunerative employment which  requires taste, skill, and thoroughness”.


Yorkshire Herald, 18th November 1899.

This sounds for all the world like a variation on the agricultural college scheme (or scam) – and almost certainly it was.  Karslake went bankrupt early in 1904 and the official hearings throw further light.  The “Manchester Courier” (Friday 19 February 1904) reported the matter with reasonable neutrality: “A sitting was held in the London Bankruptcy-court, yesterday, for the public examination of Frank Karslake, from whose statements and the Official Receiver’s observations it appeared that in December 1894, he opened an agricultural college in California, receiving students at an annual fee of 100 guineas, but the venture proved a failure, and he returned to England.  The debtor was now described as of Pond-street, Hampstead, and Charing Cross-road, bookseller.  He had also carried on a book-binding business, which was known as the Guild of Women Binders.  He advertised for and obtained lady pupils at a fee of 50 guineas each and agreed to teach them according to the system carried on at the Hampstead Bindery.  Also, after 12 months, if they made themselves proficient, to engage them at a salary of not less than a guinea a week, or to provide them with piecework.  The statement of affairs showed liabilities £2,769, of which £1,955 were expected to rank, and an estimated surplus in assets of £769.  The debtor further stated that his Californian college was killed through the Jameson Raid, the result of which was that young men went out to South Africa to fight the Boers, instead of entering his college and growing apples in California. (Laughter)”.

The “London Daily News” (Friday 19th February 1904) in a report headed “Lazy Lady Students : An Industrial Fiasco” added additional detail: “Mr. Frank Karslake, bookseller, of Charing-cross-road, said that amongst his ventures was a bookbinder’s business, started in May, 1898, at Pond-street, Hampstead, known as the ‘Guild of Women Binders’.  He advertised for and obtained lady pupils at a fee of 50 guineas to teach them bookbinding according to a system carried on at the Hampstead Bindery, South Hill Park.  Since January, 1901, he had received as premiums £2,405.  No doubt that business had resulted in a loss, although he never realised it until shortly before the failure.  What with the waste of gold and leather, and the fact that many of the pupils preferred reading novels to working, or learning to work, it was bound to be a loss.  It suffered from the want of a proper supervisor.  One of the main causes of his failure had been the war in South Africa, his business being mainly in luxuries, the demand for which consequently fell off.  The hearing was adjourned”.

Dividends were paid from time to time, but it was 1912 before Karslake was finally discharged from the bankruptcy.  The bankruptcy laws were draconian and it must have taken some sleight of hand to hang on to the house in Pond Street.  We can quite see why Tom Hodge took such a dim view.  And such then was the man who founded the ABA – an extraordinary mixture of a man, a man who did so many undoubtedly good things, but who was also, in all likelihood, a fraudster – and certainly an undischarged bankrupt theoretically disqualified from business.  Perhaps he was simply unlucky in his ventures – I am not at all sure.  David White, whose probity was a byword, remained a true and loyal friend.  Bartholomew Robson was among the first to join the ABA.  The trade as a whole was forgiving: in 1913 at the annual dinner of what had now become the International Association of Antiquarian Booksellers, “the thanks of the Association, together with a handsome service of plate, and a testimonial subscribed by 122 members, were presented to him”.  He died on 25th March 1920 – probate granted to his widow, his effects declared at a meagre £314.8s.4d.

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice introduced in 1997, served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute and at Gresham College. He teaches annually at the London Rare Books School and also organises the monthly Book Collecting Seminars at Senate House, University of London. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. A major essay on the same subject also appeared in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011”. More recently, he contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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