Ref NoMS 1366
TitleWilliam Downing of Birmingham, bookseller and publisher
Date1861 - 1966
DescriptionCatalogues, letters and miscellaneous papers.

The records listed below comprise the archive of an important provincial bookselling business. They span the period approximately 1870 up to 1940 when the shop premises were bombed.
FormatCubic metres
AccessConditionsLegal Status Private
AdminHistoryWilliam Downing and the ‘Chaucer Head’ archive

The bookselling and publishing business known as the Chaucer Head Bookshop was founded John Cadby in 1830. It was originally located at 74 New Street, Birmingham.

William Downing was born in Birmingham in 1844 and at the age of fourteen was apprenticed to William Brough who had a bookshop in Paradise Street. Afterwards he set up in business by himself, and then in 1870 he succeeded Mr. Cadby in the business of the Chaucer Head Library and Bookshop.

Downing became a major figure in the antiquarian book trade and a prominent individual in Birmingham’s intellectual and social life. His shop apparently became a meeting place for many of Birmingham’s leading citizens, including Samuel Timmins and Joseph Chamberlain. He was honorary treasurer of the Birmingham & District Library Association from its formation. He was also very interested in the theatre, and the archive includes correspondence with such people as Ellen Terry. His son, W. H. Downing, together with Sir Barry Jackson, John Drinkwater and others founded the Pilgrim Players, an amateur dramatic group which was the forerunner of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Downing was also chiefly responsible for replacing the books in the old Birmingham Free Library after the disastrous fire of 1879.

The business removed to Temple Row in 1870 and remained there until 1922 when the lease of the premises expired. The site was acquired by Rackhams and new offices were found firstly in Corporation Street and then in Bristol Street. In the meantime, in failing health, William Downing offered a partnership to Bernard Martin; Martin succeeded to the business. Dorothy Withey also joined the firm as chief assistant and cataloguer. Downing retired from business in 1919 and died in 1929.

The shop in Bristol Street was occupied by the business until 1940 when the premises were destroyed in an enemy air raid. Bernard Martin and Dorothy Withey, who were now in partnership, moved to premises in Horse Fair, and on the death of Martin, Miss Withey became sole proprietor. She removed the business to premises in Stratford-upon-Avon in the late 1950s.
ArrangementMS 1366 William Downing, bookseller and publisher, of Birmingham, 1861 - 1966
MS 1366/A Booksellers Catalogues
MS 1366/A/1 Bound volumes of William Downing's printed book catalogues, issued monthly
MS 1366/A/2 Unbound issues of William Downing's printed book catalogues and leaflets
MS 1366/A/3 Unbound issues of William Downing's extra series of printed book catalogues
MS 1366/A/4 Miscellaneous printed book catalogues issued by William Downing
MS 1366/A/5 Other booksellers' catalogues
MS 1366/B Letters From Customers
MS 1366/C Bookplates
MS 1366/D Printed Material
MS 1366/E Miscellaneous
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