Samuel Fancourt: Founder of the First Circulating Library
Charles Hayter had been at Lyme oftener than suited her; and when they dined with the Harvilles there had been only a maid-servant to wait, and at first Mrs Harville had always given Mrs Musgrove precedence; but then, she had received so very handsome an apology from her on finding out whose daughter she was, and there had been so much going on every day, there had been so many walks between their lodgings and the Harvilles, and she had got books from the library, and changed them so often, that the balance had certainly been much in favour of Lyme.
To the Editor:
The formation of the circulating library has conferred such an obligation on the reading public, that it will perhaps thank an admirer of your work for affording them some particulars of the life of one who was the author and origin of so innocent and profitable a scheme.
Samuel Fancourt, a native of the west of England, was at the beginning of the last century pastor of a congregation of Protestant Dissenters in Salisbury, where he had a number of hearers for near twenty years. Professing a creed very different from the opinions of Calvin, as appears by his numerous publications, he incurred the displeasure of persons of that persuasion, and a controversy arose, in which clergymen of the Establishment and Dissenters had an equal share. It turned on the divine prescience, the freedom of the human will, the greatness of the divine love, and the doctrine of reprobation.
Driven from a comfortable settlement to the great metropolis, where he acquired no new one as a teacher, Mr. Fancourt, about 1740 or 1745, established the first circulating library for gentlemen and ladies, at a subscription of a guinea a year for reading; but, in 1748, he extended it to a guinea in all, for the purchase of a better library, half to be paid at the time of subscribing, the other half at the delivery of a new catalogue, then in the press, and twelve-pence a quarter besides, to begin from Michaelmas 1754, to the librarian. Subscriptions were to be paid without further charge to the proprietors, but only from the time of subscribing; out of which quarterly payments were to be deducted the rent of the rooms to receive the books and to accommodate subscribers; a salary to the librarian, to keep an open account and to circulate the books; a stock to buy new books, and duplicates as there was occasion; the expense of providing catalogues, and drawing up writings for settling the trust. This trust was to be vested in twelve or thirteen persons chosen by ballot out pf the body of proprietors, and the proposer, Mr. Fancourt himself, was to be the first librarian, and to continue so as long as he discharged his office with diligence and fidelity. Every single subscription entitled the subscriber to one book and one pamphlet at a time, to be changed ad libitum for others, and kept ad libitum if not wanted by other subscribers. Mr. Fancourt advertised himself also in these proposals as a teacher of Latin, which he engaged to enable pupils to read, write, and speak with fluency in a year or less; or twelve guineas a year, one guinea a month, or twelve-pence an hour, allowing five or six hours in a week.
Not to trace the poor librarian through every shifting of his quarters, he fixed at last at the corner of one of the streets in the Strand, where, encumbered with a helpless and sick wife, turned out of fashion and outplanned by a variety of imitators, and entangled with a variety of schemes, not one of which could extricate him from perplexities, this poor man, who may be said to have first circulated knowledge among us, sunk under a load of debt, unmerited reproach, and a failure of his faculties, brought on by the decay of age and precipitated by misfortunes. His library became the property of creditors, and he retired in humble poverty to Hoxton-square, where some of his brethren relieved his necessities till the close of his life, in his ninetieth year, June 8, 1768. As a preacher, though neither what is now called popular, nor pastor of a London congregation, he was occasionally called upon to fill up vacancies, and is said to have acquitted himself with a considerable degree of manly eloquence. He published three or four occasional sermons, besides his tracts against Calvinistical principles, which were answered by Messrs. Morgan, Norman, Bliss, Millar, and Eliot, all, or mostly, Dissenting ministers, and defended in various pamphlets by the author.
This article, outlining the life of Samuel Fancourt, founder of the first circulating library, was first published in Ackermann's Repository, March 1824.