Untold lives blog

14 December 2012

John Mackinlay - “a dirty old brute”

“The usual talk of a Saturday night amongst the [bookbinding] trade was about who had got the last new roll cut, its pattern and cost, and the last new tale of anecdote of Mackinlay.” ‘Black Jock,” as he was nicknamed, was even commemorated in song (binders’ gatherings were frequently musical). John Mackinlay was a trained bookbinder, born in Dumbarton, Scotland.  Despite being a “shocking bad workman” he managed to establish successful workshops in Covent Garden, London (at 8 Bow Street and then 33 Southampton Street), by employing 8 to 9 talented binders including the best finisher (practitioner of gold tooling) of the day.  Mackinlay “was short, thick-set, carried his head very much forward, very shrewd, quick eye, drank beer, a dirty old brute.  In his best days he was not above 5 feet 5 inches”. His character proved to be as unprepossessing as his appearance.

Mackinlay was democratic in the exercise of his ill humour, abusing everyone from fee-paying clients to errand boys.  His workers perhaps bore the brunt; a lame binder was sacked for his infirmity, and another employee for whistling.  Mackinlay refused to deal with customer John Philip Kemble, the actor manager of the neighbouring Covent Garden theatre, because he “talked tragedies to him” and forced his foreman, the gifted finisher Charles Tomlinson, to take his order instead.

Gold tooling from a binding produced by Mackinlay’s workshop
Gold tooling from a binding produced by Mackinlay’s workshop BL, G.8032  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

As a master, i.e. workshop owner, Mackinlay joined 3 other proprietors who had their striking employees arrested in 1786 as they tried to achieve an hour’s reduction in the working day (which ran from 6am to 8pm). Being friendly with Mackinlay was no safeguard against his temper.  He attacked a fellow ‘prosecuting master’, James Fraser, for poaching his foreman, and a “sair tussle” ensued at a leather merchant’s shop where the “men rolled each other over in the leather until both were exhausted.” 

This Quilp-like character gave rise to numerous anecdotes, but, as historian Ellic Howe pointed out, many are “not fit for polite society”!

P. J. M. Marks
Curator, Bookbindings. Printed Historical Sources

Further reading about John Mackinlay (1737-1821):
A Collection of Manuscripts relating to the Art and Trade of Bookbinding. [A transcript made c.1945 of the fourth of a series of manuscript volumes compiled by John Jaffray, dated London, 1864.]
Ellic Howe, ‘London Bookbinders: Masters and Men, 1780-1840’ in The Library Fifth series, v. 1, no. 1, June 1946, pp.28-38



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