Papers of Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd.

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 237 Coll-25
  • Dates of Creation
  • Physical Description
      66 boxes, circa 158 document bundles, 290 letter books, 27 ledgers (64 linear metres).
  • Location
      Gen. 1728/1-821; E2007.16

Scope and Content

The Papers of Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd. consist of: general day books, ledgers, account books, details of sundry creditors, letter books, and commission books for the years 1861-1915; general correspondence and letters to and from a variety of individuals 1895-1960; material from trade representatives, editorial notices, sales department material; and other miscellaneous material.

Within the Nelson Papers there is a very large body of correspondence between John Buchan and Nelson's covering the years 1909-1929. The correspondence includes letters about manuscripts submitted from authors, about photographs and other illustrations for works, about translations of works published, about terms of contract and royalties, and about new work published by other firms. The correspondence also deals with Buchan's own material. The Buchan Correspondence consists of over 4,700 letters and has been given the shelfmark Gen. 1728/B/1-14.

The papers also include a small tranche (at E2007.16) being correspondence (written between 1945-1961) and other material relating to the Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd. edition of the Life of St. Anselm; and, notices of Hubert Peter Morrison (d. 1971).

Administrative / Biographical History

The British publishing firm of Nelson is still a prominent one. The firm has a long history and its name is derived from a small bookselling business established in Edinburgh in 1789. The founder of the bookshop was Thomas Neilson (1780-1861). Neilson extended his interests to include publishing, particularly of religious and educational texts, and he began with the publication, in monthly parts, of The Pilgrim's Progress. In 1818, the name of the firm was changed to Thomas Nelson because of the tendency among customers to misspell Neilson. In 1835, Thomas was joined in the business by his son William Nelson (1816-1887) and a little later by his younger son Thomas Nelson (1822-1892) who joined the firm at the age of seventeen.

The business, located in Edinburgh's West Bow, gradually built up and extended based on the formula of reprinting standard authors at low prices. In 1852, the elder Thomas retired, and in 1858 the name of the firm changed to Thomas Nelson and Sons, as it has remained ever since. Earlier, in 1844, the younger Thomas was given the task of establishing a London branch in Paternoster Row, and in 1854 a New York office opened in the city's Nassau Street.

In Edinburgh during 1845-46, the firm transferred from the West Bow to larger custom-built premises at Hope Park just to the south of the old part of the city. At Hope Park, with a workforce of six hundred, all the activities connected with the production of books were carried out under one roof: printing, stereotyping, bookbinding, lithographing, engraving, woodcutting, warehousing, and even dyeing of the plain white calico used in bindings. From 1856, colour-printing became a feature of their production and by 1860 the firm was the leading publisher of cheap colour-printed titles. In 1878 however, the Hope Park factory caught fire and nothing was saved except the stereotyped plates. Even as the building burned, Thomas was ordering new machinery and temporary accommodation, and within a year new buildings were raised and all departments were in full production again.

From his earliest years with the firm, Thomas exhibited a mechanical bent and in 1850 he invented a rotary press with curved stereotyped plates fixed on cylinders and with a continuous web of paper - the type of press used in the newspaper industry well into the 20th century.

The production of Thomas Nelson and Sons was largely focused on story books and books of travel and adventure by popular authors, and particularly intended for young readers. A series of school books was initiated, and after the Education Act of 1871 which had prompted a demand for improved school-books Nelson's began their series of Royal readers. In the early 1900s, and certainly in 1907, John Buchan (1875-1940), writer of fiction and history, was a member and literary adviser to Thomas Nelson and Sons. The firm also published his work. Nelson had also published works by Bagehot, Belloc, G.K.Chesterton, Erskine Childers, H. J. Newbolt, Mark Twain, and H.G. Wells, among many others. Another important work was The life of St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1962). This work was published while Dr. Hubert Peter Morrison (d. 1971) was President of the firm.

Today, Nelson's is one of Britain's leading publishers of educational titles, offering materials for all ages, from nursery level to further education, and in all subject areas. In March 2000 its head office was in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey.

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Other Finding Aids

Handlists, H25; H25.1