George Cunnew, Bookseller, Stationer and Entrepreneur, 1822 -1898

Cunnew's Bookshop, Parade, Leamington Spa © M Kalas

Cunnew’s Bookshop, Parade, Leamington Spa               © M Kalas

George Cunnew was not Leamington born, but he made Leamington his home and built up a successful business here.  He came from Bethnal Green, one of the poorest parts of the East End of London in the nineteenth century. George, born in 1822, worked for a bookseller, and looking for better opportunities, moved with his wife Mary Ann, three daughters and the eldest of his four surviving sons to set up a bookshop in the Parade, Leamington Priors in the early 1870s. Initially he chose to go into partnership with John Arthur who was already trading as a bookseller at 10 Lower Parade in Leamington, but not having a great deal of experience in bookselling, Mr Arthur was struggling. He had secured a contract with the Free Library to supply newspapers and periodicals but from the minutes of the Library Committee meeting for September 1870 we learn that Mr Arthur had fallen foul of the contract: He was supplying the Library with evening newspapers at 7½% discount but was paying full price for them himself. He asked to have this part of the contract amended but failed to attend the meeting to argue his case. The Library Committee were having none of it.

The partnership between George Cunnew and John Arthur was short-lived. They traded as Arthur & Cunnew and there is some evidence that George tried to revitalise the business. Advertisements in the Leamington Spa Courier in November 1871 offered a twopence in the shilling discount for cash payments on new books. The following October, Arthur & Cunnew held their Third Annual Clearance Sale, the stock consisting of “an endless variety of choice and useful articles highly suitable for birthday, wedding, occasional, Christmas and New Year presents”. This was no doubt intended to rationalise the business by ensuring a speedy clearance of old stock. But the partnership was clearly unworkable and was officially dissolved on 9 November 1872.

The Bookshop included a circulating library which George named The Regent Circulating Library (the premises were directly opposite the Regent Hotel). The Free Library, or public library, had opened in March 1857 but circulating libraries were still popular, particularly for light fiction. Also, an observation had been made at the Free Library Committee meeting of November 1873 that the Library building was “like a barn” and very exposed to the wind. The response of one Committee member to this was “if persons wanted to be perfectly comfortable they could go to the circulating libraries”. And go they did. There was more than one to choose from in Leamington: about this time rival establishments included Henry Wippell’s Victoria Library in Victoria Terrace and Wilson’s Athanaeum at 117 Warwick Street

Cunnew’s bookshop didn’t just sell books – diversification was the name of the game! Continuing the practice started by John Arthur, George supplied magazines and newspapers to the Free Library, and presumably sold them in the shop as well. Also on sale were myriad other goods, such as stationery and what the Victorians termed “fancy goods”. An advertisement in the Leamington Spa Courier one Christmas referred to the establishment as the “Regent Library and Fancy Repository”, where the wares on offer included “an assortment of workboxes, writing desks, tourist cases, inkstands, bookslides, etc.”, as well as “a collection of fancy articles in jet, Irish bog, etc”. It’s a wonder the shop had room for it all.

George Cunnew also acted as agent for tickets for lectures, concerts, theatres and similar performances – a good move to get customers through the door. Later George dropped “Circulating” from the name of his Library and it just became the Regent Library. After 1892 there seems to be no further reference to it, and it reverted to Cunnew’s Bookshop.

George was an entrepreneur, and ever on the lookout to attract customers, he embarked on the Coupon Trading System. It was a scheme in which Cunnew’s bookshop participated along with 12 other Leamington traders but it met with suspicion in some quarters, although there were over 3,000 tradesmen belonging throughout the UK. It was put to customers as a scheme whereby they could pay ready money for goods and yet get their money back – no wonder people were sceptical! This is how it worked: on cash payment, the customer received a 5% discount and a coupon and when he had coupons to the value of £5, he exchanged these for a £5 bond with the General Expenditure Assurance Co. This could be put into a half yearly ballot so that the customer could receive part-payment. Alternatively, the customer could have repayment of one year’s expenditure in one sum 15 years afterwards by certificate (rather a long while to wait!) or 80% of the cash value of his certificates, payable at any time. So how was it funded? It was suggested to the customer that his 5% discount would be invested forhim by the General Expenditure Assurance Co and these funds would be used in order to pay out on the bonds when they were redeemed. In fact, there was no 5% discount because the trader used the funds he would have set aside for this to pay the Company for the coupons, and it was this money that the Company invested. Hardly what the 21st-century shopper would call “transparent”. On the trader’s side, it ensured cash payment at a time when payment on credit was all too prevalent, but surely there must have been better ways to invest! For George, it was a short-lived experiment, and he only placed advertisements for the scheme in the local papers in 1876 and 1877.  He was right to abandon the Coupon Trading System, and the people of Leamington were right to be suspicious. The scheme thrived for some years but then the system of drawing bonds was found to be illegal and had to be discontinued. The company went into liquidation in 1883.

In 1876, ‘Lower Parade’ was incorporated into ‘The Parade’, and Cunnew’s Bookshop was re-numbered 116 Parade. On 1 January 1877, on the closure of the Post Office at 11 Upper Parade, a new branch Post Office opened in Cunnew’s Bookshop. It was also a Money Order Office and Post Office Savings Bank. These were busy days – but George did have his eldest son Alfred, wife Mary Ann and three daughters who all worked in the bookshop at this time. It’s only a small shop – it must have been very crowded! Clearly George didn’t want to spend a minute away from his workplace, however. In 1877, he asked to have his name removed from the jury list on the grounds that he was “in the employ of the Government as postmaster of the branch office on the Parade”. It worked.

In 1898 we find that Cunnew’s Bookshop is a Book Depot for the National Society. This is a Church of England body for promoting the education of the poor in the principles of the Established Church and the depots were set up to supply SPCK publications. Here we are finding a crossover into George’s personal life because he was a deeply religious man and had been a churchwarden at All Saints, Leamington for twenty years.

George died on 10 March 1898 aged 76, quite a wealthy man, leaving estate worth about £150,000 today. His son Alfred who was then 49 took over the business, as his sisters were all married and he was still single, living at home. Apart from a period from 1884-1891 when he managed Leamington’s Theatre Royal, Alfred had spent the best part of forty years in the business, so he knew it inside out.  Eight years later, in 1906 Alfred sold the business to W.H. Smith.

Janice Clarke (nee Cunnew)

July 2016

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