9:00am Friday 9th March 2012
By The Wimbledon Society
Exactly 200 years ago tomorrow on 10 March 1812, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the book that made poet Lord Byron a household name, was published by John Murray II (1778-1843), second head of the publishing family that began in the 18th century and continued right into the 21st.
The book sold out in just five days and Murray, whose family was probably the most successful in publishing ever to live in Wimbledon, had as much reason to celebrate as the poet himself.
The firm’s list of published writers since then is dazzling. Byron’s contemporaries included novelists Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen.
In time they were followed by Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, David Livingstone’s Missionary Travels, the letters of Queen Victoria, William Gladstone’s most famous book on the church and the state, Murray’s Handbook for Travellers (first of all modern travel guides), the travel writings of Freya Stark and Patrick Leigh Fermor, the poems of Sir John Betjeman, the cartoons of Osbert Lancaster, and jointly with the BBC, Kenneth Clark’s Civilization.
Although the John Murray firm has always been associated with its headquarters at 50 Albemarle Street, Mayfair, members of the family lived in Wimbledon on and off for around a century, from the days when John Murray II was working with Byron until after the First World War.
John Murray II had “a little cottage” in Wimbledon at the time he published Lord Byron’s controversial poem on Don Juan in 1819. It appeared without their names but still attracted a mob outside Albemarle Street protesting about its “bawdy” contents. Lady Caroline Lamb, a passionate fan of Byron, wrote to Murray asking to meet him at the cottage, which was serving as his bolthole from the London crowd. Byron himself was away in Italy at the time.
Murray’s son, John Murray III (1808–1892), bought four acres of land off Parkside and built a villa at Somerset Road on the brow of a hill with a lake. He called it Newstead after Lord Byron’s seat, Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire.
The house became a mansion with around 20 bedrooms. Every day John Murray III would walk the mile and a half down to Wimbledon Station and could be seen correcting proofs on the train into central London. When he died in 1892 he was buried in the family tomb at St Mary’s Church in Wimbledon Village.
Within a year Sir John Murray IV (1851–1928) moved back to Albemarle Street with his wife and son - later Sir John Murray V (1884–1967) - but his brother, Alexander Henry Hallam Murray (1854-1934), a designer and illustrator for the family firm until 1908, stayed at Newstead until selling it after 1918.
The firm continued under successive John Murrays until John Murray VII sold it in 2002. The family archive from 1768 to 1920 was sold to the National Library of Scotland.
The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.
For more information, visit wimbledonsociety.org.uk and www.wimbledonmuseum.org.uk.
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