The Most Successful Book-Huntress in the World

Clara Millard“Miss Clara Millard, an English woman, has the enviable reputation of having created a new work for women, and of demonstrating that by persistent effort the business may be made successful.  She calls herself a book hunter, and whatever the volume is that may be needed to complete some portion of the library, she will find it, and she has shown marvelous aptitude and skill in tracing out rare volumes.  In one instance she secured for a New York banker a copy of Browning’s ‘Pauline’ of which before her discovery only seven copies were known to be in existence.  It is true that the work can by no possibility become one in which many may engage, for it requires some qualifications, such as acquaintance with literature and libraries, which cannot be picked up in a moment; but the fact that she has made her special business so successful is evidence that women do not need confine themselves to stereotyped methods of support, but can find business for themselves if they will have patience and persistence”. (From Frances E.  Willard & Others, “Occupations for Women: A Book of Practical Suggestions for the Material Advancement, the Mental and Physical Development, and the Moral and Spiritual Uplift of Women”, New York, 1897).

Clegg's Directory 1891

Clegg’s Directory 1891

Actually, I have had my eye on Clara Millard for some considerable time.  Hers was a name that kept cropping up as I scoured contemporary directories looking for the late nineteenth-century book-trade in my “Book-Hunters of 1888” series of posts.  She stood out, not because she was a woman – there were other women booksellers in London – Lily Cancellor in Chelsea, Mrs Grose in Panton Street, Mrs Kettle in Camden Passage, Mrs Pepper in Lambeth, Clara Simmonds in Mile End, Mary Lee Tregaskis (who was a bookseller long before her husband ever was), Mrs Winn in Wych Street, others no doubt sheltered behind initials rather than forenames – but Clara Millard’s assertive advertisements had a kind of bravura uncommon in the book-trade.  When it comes to the books you are looking for, “Miss Millard has scratched the word ‘impossible’ out of her dictionary”.

Miss Millard of Teddington – then a country village on the outskirts of London just finding its way to becoming a fully-fledged suburb – first announced herself to the world with a sequence of advertisements in the “Morning Post” and the “London Evening Standard” in the spring of 1881.  She was offering not books but a string of luxury items at attractive prices – a tennis set; a musical cabinet table; a golden otter paletot (worth 150 guineas but on offer for half that); a silk and sable cloak; opal, emerald, diamond and sapphire rings; a superb Persian carpet; four charming old miniatures for 100 guineas; an aquamarine necklet and pendant – and so it went on, week after week, month after month, year after year.  By October 1881 she was styling herself Miss Millard, Secretary, Amateur Traders, Teddington, Middlesex, and in the following January she launched a catalogue, also called “The Amateur Trader”, described as “A monthly general advertising medium and subscribers’ universal omnium gatherum”, with herself as “editress” – remember that word, it will crop up again.  Initially the catalogue offered space to anyone who willing to pay a shilling per twenty-four words to advertise items they wished to sell anonymously, but gradually it became a vehicle almost entirely for her own stock.  It aimed to be “pleasing, trustworthy and reliable” and we are assured that “its proprietress has already numerous flattering credentials from a wide circle of correspondents” – it actually subsumed an even earlier publication from the same “proprietress” called “The Ceramic Gazette, and Journal of Decoration and Home Adornment” (1881).  As “The Amateur Trader” expanded rapidly on its original four-page format, testimonials were soon in evidence – “a storehouse of gems” and “it enumerates good things for good people”.


London Evening Standard, 10th April 1890

Gradually the offers of goods for sale in the newspapers were replaced by requests for fresh stock.  These became omnivorous, voracious, all-devouring, relentless, and appeared “without lull or cessation” (although anything which did not pass muster was sent straight back).  Here’s a typical appeal from 1888: “ENQUIRY.  – PLEASE RESPOND.  – Have you any old-fashioned, unwearable jewellery or damaged modern ornaments in gold or silver, silver and Sheffield plate, curios, coins, nic-nacs, artificial teeth, laces, silks, velvets, satins, furs, tapestries, crewels, collections of postage stamps, miniatures, paste articles, books, or anything possessing value or merit? Then for higher prices than elsewhere send them to me per post, rail, or carrier, and in a few hours afterwards you shall have the money to accept or reject, or bring them down personally, between ten and four.  Clara (Miss) Millard, Mulberry House, Teddington, Middlesex” (Morning Post, 15th November 1888).  By 1893 she could state unequivocally that she was “simply the best buyer and the quickest payer in the world for gold, silver, jewels, curios, laces, velvets, buttons, down to artificial teeth” (London Evening Standard, 14th September 1893).  She was particularly keen on artificial teeth (presumably for their scrap value) and often advertised separately for those.

Although books had appeared in “The Amateur Trader” almost from the start – standard sets, illustrated books and first editions of Dickens were all listed in 1882 – they were plainly something of an afterthought and originally just about last on her list of desiderata.  This was soon to change.  Her first separate book catalogue appeared in February 1889, offering black-letter, sporting books, first editions, Americana and Australiana, Napoleonic broadsides, and much else.  By December 1890 there were several different 120-page book catalogues – “The Country Gentleman’s Catalogue”, etc., with “bibliographical notes interspersed”.  By the end of 1892 she could calmly state that, “My book catalogues, embodying a continuous list of rare editions and scarce volumes, have awakened simultaneous echoes of satisfaction and wonderment throughout the length and breadth of the world”.


London Evening Standard, 15th June 1892

Her career was meteoric.  Her publicity machine extraordinary.  By 1887 she was installed in new premises at Mulberry House, which had to be closed for nine weeks the following year to enlarge the showroom.  By that time she had shops in Kingston and Teddington too.  Soon after there were two shops in Teddington (Nos.  38-39 Teddington High Street) and later on she added 39a as well.  Her activities were by now attracting notice worldwide.  There was a profile of this “ingenious lady with fine instincts”, who had “devoted the greater part of her life to the study and acquisition of curiosities”, in “Cassell’s Saturday Journal” (24th May 1890).  She keeps five dogs to deter burglars and sleeps above the showroom to watch over it.  And how does she know the value of things? – “I can hardly tell you.  It is a kind of instinct, acquired by years of training.  I very seldom make a mistake, and I am never taken in by imitations.  I intuitively recognise genuine articles …  I sometimes wonder how I do it myself”.


London Evening Standard, 27th July 1893

When she opened a separate bookshop, it was news as far afield as Cheboygan, Michigan – “A clever English woman, Miss Clara Millard …  has made a new departure in woman’s work, starting a shop for the sale of rare old books.  She calls it ‘The Book Seekers’ Haven’, and she publishes an occasional catalogue of her wares, entitled ‘Eureka’” (Cheboygan Democrat, 8th October 1891).  Across the world in New South Wales an explanation was given, largely lifted from the interview in “The Publishers’ Circular” mentioned below.  “It is now some ten years since Miss Millard, of Teddington, began business as a dealer in antiques, jewels, miniatures, and high-class cabinet specimens of divers kinds.  She has found out that there are collectors and buyers for everything, and she does her best to meet their wishes.  She has bought horses and oil paintings, instruments of science and of torture, playing cards and pearls, old-fashioned fire-arms and fans, sun-dials, carriage gates, and lace …  It is hard to say what is the most remarkable transaction she ever engaged in, but …  she once sent the late Mr.  Frank Marshall (editor of the ‘Henry Irving Shakespeare’) a sapphire ring in exchange for a sow and a litter of nine pigs.  Amongst the consignments which reach her many contain books.  In fact, it was the numerous consignments of literature that led her to take up the bookselling business in earnest, and add a separate department” (Hay Standard, New South Wales, 12th October 1892).


London Evening Standard, 30th May 1895

They were impressed in Scotland too: “One would hardly expect to find a well-stored book depôt in a Middlesex village.  Teddington, however, possesses not only an emporium of literature suggestive of Booksellers’ Row in the Strand, but the proprietrix—Miss Clara Millard —undertakes to find, to use her own forcible words, ‘any book ever published that is still in existence’ …  This lady bibliopole had recently sent her from Russia a magnificent Hebrew bible, written on vellum in a fourteenth century hand, and bound in massive silver of the seventeenth century — the sale price of which is £850.  Miss Millard’s collection of old and rare editions, articles of vertu and pictures, is of great historic and antiquarian interest” (Dundee Evening Telegraph, 30th September 1891).

Bookselling remained only one aspect of the business.  As an antique dealer, “The Publishers’ Circular” (11th June 1892) suggested that she had “perhaps the finest collection of articles of vertù on sale anywhere in the world” – but she was on this occasion being interviewed for their “Booksellers of Today” series.  She was asked if she was resented as an intruder by the regular trade.  She answers emphatically “No!” – she is on excellent terms with her colleagues, gets all their catalogues, reads them all, and buys from about 90% of them.  She has been given carte blanche by a number of American collectors to buy on their behalf.  She seldom attends sales as the number of books that are just sent in keep her staff busy all day long.  And she has a personal “fad for very tiny books”.

Her celebrity probably reached its zenith with a full-scale interview in the society journal, “The Sketch” (14th March 1894), complete with a more formal portrait than that which had appeared in “The Publishers’ Circular” (which, unless I am imagining it, bears the vestiges of a cheeky grin).  “The Sketch” uses the fashionable studio portrait reproduced above – Miss Millard tall, slim, wasp-waisted, and looking no more than twenty-five, according to the reporter.  The interview has already been reproduced and quoted from at length on the Antique Dealers Blog (, so I shall not repeat much of it here – but to her bookselling exploits we can add the sale of Nelson’s original battle orders to the fleet on the eve of Trafalgar to the Queen.  “The Amateur Trader” had already described this in greater detail – it was Admiral Collingwood’s copy, slightly damaged at the fold, which interestingly, in an apparently deliberate snub to contemporary practice, she had “decided not to have ‘neatly repaired’”.  Beyond that, she notes the swift and successful acceptance of a challenge to find a copy of Matthew Arnold’s prize poem, “Alaric at Rome” from a man incorrectly referred to by the reporter as C.  J.  Wise – this is of course Thomas J.  Wise, great book collector and even greater forger – he issued a facsimile in 1893 and there is his letter to her on the subject in the Harry Ransom Center.


London Evening Standard, 23rd March 1900

The most interesting part of the interview is her own account of her entry into the trade: “Oh, when I was sixteen I had to decide upon some way of earning my own living …  I had always lived with people who liked nice things, and I understood a little about curios, so I started with the sale of our own china and curiosities.  I prepared a catalogue, and sent it round to collectors and wealthy people.  The catalogue was a happy thought; it attracted notice, and the whole transaction was so successful that I went on as I had begun”.  She added that she owed a great deal to her mentors, Lady Schreiber (Charlotte Guest), Lady Currie (Violet Fane) and Baron Rothschild – “Thanks to them, I made fewer mistakes than I should otherwise have done.  Then, I have had a larger share of good luck than falls to the lot of most people”.

Elsewhere Clara Millard received laudatory notices in “The Stationer”, “The Bookman”, “The Publisher”, “Publishers’ Weekly”, “The Critic”, “The Englishman”, and even “Notes and Queries”.  There was to be another full-length interview with “the famous lady dealer in curios”, widely noticed elsewhere in the press, in “The Woman at Home” in 1896.  Other women were fascinated – a woman reporter wrote in 1896, “I am sure that my readers will be interested in new occupations for our sex, and I therefore draw attention to what this lady is doing …  Her business may be called that of a book detective …  She produces a number of testimonials from well known literary people showing that she has been singularly successful in commissions on their behalf” (Bristol Mercury, 8th August 1896).


The Book-Lover, 1900

Her advertising is a joy – someone should anthologise it.  Her cataloguing was much admired: the “London Daily News” (3rd December 1895) found it “vigorous” and especially liked the “flowery components” – “In describing her treasures, the lady shows the great critical faculty of zest.  She writes about a miniature, or a piece of lace, as Hazlitt wrote about a fives match, or a prize fight, ‘as if she loved it’”.  As distinguished a prose stylist as E.  V.  Lucas could write that “when she has amassed the fortune that must inevitably be the reward of her energy, [she] should take to literature” (“The Book-Lover”, 1900).  You can read the rest of this passage, in which she takes top billing over Quaritch and Dobell, by enlarging the image.  And she had other famous fans: Baron Friedrich Von Hügel sent a reading list to Maude Petre from Florence in 1899, adding in a postscript that, “There is a Miss Clara Millard, Teddington, Middlesex, who is a professional book-hunter.  She would get you any or all of those old books referred to above, with astonishing quickness, and would not (I hope) charge too much.  Through ordinary booksellers you might have to wait months – years perhaps”.  A testimonial from the United States in 1901 declared, “I have perfect confidence that if I desired the tablets upon which Moses wrote the Commandments you could procure them for me”.  She advertised that as only just beyond the limitation of her powers.

booklabelYou will perhaps sometimes see her little black-and-white bookseller’s label reading, “Miss Millard.  Book and Curio Finder, Teddington, Middlesex”.  The advertising continued unabashed for some years and there was a renewed splurge throughout the “United Queendom”, as she calls it, in 1900.  Thereafter she appears less and less.  The advertising stopped after 1903, although as late as 1909 the “Barnsley Chronicle” could continue to call her by her new tag-line “the most successful book-huntress in the world” (7th August 1909).  But while she disappears from the newspapers at that point, “The Amateur Trader” continued publication until 1916 – the very last issue offering “The Generall History of Women, containing lives of holy and prophane, famous and infamous, of all ages” by T.  Heywood, old calf, 1657, rare £3. 3s”.  We also know from the Antique Dealers blog that she remained in the trade, moved from Teddington to Milford-on-Sea on the Hampshire coast, and was a member of BADA in 1920.


The Athenaeum, 26th November 1901

Clearly I am in thrall.  I am entranced.  I am smitten.  I am becoming obsessed.  She deserves a book or a Ph.D.  thesis, not just a blog post.  Any woman who can promise, forcibly or otherwise, to find “any book ever published that is still in existence”, any woman who can catalogue like Hazlitt, has at the very least my full, continuing and undivided attention.  Add to that her habit of tossing Latin tags into her advertising just for the fun of it – “Floreat Millard”, “et sic de similibus”, and the priceless “Aut Millard, aut nulla” – she is plainly a keeper.

But there is a question, and my question actually, Miss Millard, is – Who are you really?  And where have you sprung from, so finished, so polished, so young, so perfect, so confident, so forcible, so driven, so well-connected, so expert on everything “under the canopy of heaven”, as your advertising has it.  You appear to come from a well-to-do family – you began by selling off the family silver, as it were, but if that is the case, why then did you need to establish a way of earning your own living at the age of sixteen?  And when and how the years of training?  And why the curious expression that you have always lived with people who like nice things rather than speaking of your family?

I ask because, for all your celebrity, for all that you are an icon of the new womanhood, although you are all over the newspapers, although your name appears on electoral registers, in street and trade directories, and even early telephone directories (Kingston 9), I cannot find a single one of the regular archival traces.  There is no record at all of your birth, your death, or even of a marriage which may have masked your name – at least not as Clara Millard.  The census returns of 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 find you nowhere in the vicinity of Teddington or elsewhere.  You are not related, as I thought perhaps you might be, to Wilde’s bibliographer, the bookseller Christopher Sclater Millard – nor even to Evelyn Millard, the famous actress of those days.  In all the regular and conventional ways, you simply do not exist.  And, more than that, the address at Mulberry House, Vicarage Road, Teddington, where you live with your five dogs, which you advertise as your “permanent residential address” from 1887 to 1903, was in 1891 in the occupation of a family called Ellis, and in 1901 that of a family named Spring.  So who are you really Miss Millard?  Because actually, as more of the story takes shape, I find you strangely even more impressive still.

To be continued …

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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One Response to The Most Successful Book-Huntress in the World

  1. sgarhz says:

    I know it’s a bit late, but I think I have fallen in love with Miss Millard.

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