The publishers of the Penny Cyclopæedia presumably believed they were contributing to public knowledge and entertainment at the same time. From their premises in Ludgate Street and their warehouse in Lambeth they printed and distributed a journal that was sold all over the UK and as far as America. The Penny Cyclopæedia for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (to give it its full title) was published and sold between 1828 and 1843 by George Long and Charles Knight, the publication extended to 27 volumes and 3 supplements in 15 years.*
The owners stored copies intended for distribution at the Lambeth site and in December 1840 they had large quantities of issues 1 and 16 in particular on the shelves. This amounted to something like 30,000 reams of paper. The business had so much because they were holding issues against some news from their ‘agent’ in the USA (what that news was I’m afraid is not made clear).
Meanwhile London also had a lucrative market in waste paper. This was sold to shops to wrap goods in. We still do this today of course, and while modern health & safety laws don’t allow it, some of us might even remember when fish and chips was sold in yesterday’s newspapers. Among the businesses that profited from this trade, were those belonging to William Pegg in Blackfriars, and Phillip Hathaway, a stationer in the City. Both men bought waste paper (in the form of copies of the Penny Cyclopæedia a man named Thomas Denny who worked at the Lambeth warehouse.
On the 29th of December 1840 Denny and William Kingate (a former warehouseman and porter at the site) were formally charged at Union Hall Police Court with stealing ‘upwards of a ton weight’ of the encyclopaedia and ‘selling it as wastepaper’.
It was a lengthy hearing, with several witnesses, and I imagine it would have been of some interest to the readership of the Morning Post and other papers, because they would have heard of the Penny Cyclopæedia. It transpired that Kingate had been sacked from the publishing firm but had stayed in touch with his former colleague. They had conspired to rob their employers and profit from the huge reserves of paper stored at Lambeth.
The pair were remanded for more witnesses to come forward but eventually they stood trial at Old Bailey in January 1841. There we find out more about the trade in waste paper as one witness, an employee of Pegg’s in Blackfriars, told the court that Denny had come in offering to sell them paper. Denny had been in before and the man deposed that:
‘he came to us on the 5th of December, about half-past five or six o’clock in the evening with another man, and brought with him some paper as he was in the habit of bringing—he brought some of the Penny Cyclopaedia—I do not know whether there was any other sort—I believe there was some of the Bible—he brought then 4cwt. 2qrs. 14lbs. —I weighed it—it was in the state that these bundles are—(looking at them)—I cannot distinguish which of these bundles it was—it was in this state in quires—it has not even been stitched for the purpose of being sold—we gave him 28s. per cwt., and that lot on the 5th of December came to 6l. 9s. 6d’
Old Bailey, THOMAS DENNY, WILLIAM KINGATE, Theft > stealing from master, 1st February 1841.
So there was money to be made in waste paper, as £6 9s 6d equates to about £285 today. Kingate and Denny had been carrying on this racket for several weeks it seems as one of Pegg’s younger employees recognised them both as regular suppliers. We might ask whether they paid too much attention to where the stock was coming from or why it came without an official docket from the company, but perhaps that was how the trade operated.
The two warehousemen were convicted by the Old Bailey jury and Kingate suffered severely for their conspiracy, as the senior partner and ‘brains’ behind the operation. Denny (aged 30) was sent to prison for 6 months, while Kingate was transported to Australia for 7 years.
[from The Morning Post, Monday, December 31, 1840]
*the company also produced the Penny Magazine which also ran until 1845 when its sales (initially very encouraging) dried up.