Thomas Harrison Roberts is one of a number of publishers whose names I've stumbled across at various times while researching early popular magazines. Although you could hardly call him famous, since he worked at the coal face of the cheaper end of literature, I guess he could be known to some. He was the publisher of Ching-Ching's Own, which was once quite a collectable boys' magazine from the late 1880s. He may eventually turn out to have a rather more important place in the history of popular magazines if it can be proved, as Roberts once claimed, that he was the first to publish complete novelettes in penny mags., a claim I've been unable to prove or disprove.
He was born in Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey, in late 1849 or early 1850, the eldest child of Thomas (a grocer) and Amelia Roberts. By 1861, the family were living in lodgings in Westminster and Thomas pere was described as a house painter and his wife a laundress. By 1871, Thomas junior was working as a publisher's clerk and living in lodgings in Finsbury.
He then set himself up in partnership with John Rogers Pearson and Robert Henry Squire, and was trading as T. H. Roberts & Co., Essex-street and Fleet-street, London, wholesale newsagents and publishers. The original partnership was dissolved in October 1881 with the departure of Pearson; Roberts and Squire continued as partners for only a couple of months and their partnership was dissolved in January 1882.
Roberts presumably began publishing in the late 1870s during this period of partnership, although it is almost impossible to be certain which titles he was involved in at that date. He could certainly be found at 42 & 43 Essex Street, Strand, in around 1879 and it is almost certain that he was trading as W. Lucas, in the late 1880s. (W. Lucas would appear to be one William Lucas whose printing business was to be found at Victoria House, Newcastle Street, in the mid-1870s. As a publisher, W. Lucas seems to have disappeared in around 1902 by which time it is likely that connections with Roberts had been long severed.)
In 1893, Roberts boasted in a magazine editorial that he had started the trend for magazines featuring complete long stories:
Fifteen years ago I initiated the "complete weekly novelette" movement, which has since become so popular in this country, as is evidenced by the scores of imitations of my original venture.He also claimed to have published nearly two hundred millions of complete novels (I'm guessing this is the combined sales of his various titles). "I mention this fact," he said, "to show I know something about popular fiction."
Certainly his business must have thrived, keeping him busy as a publisher and editor. By 1891, the firm was equipped with one of those newfangled telephones and a call to London 2903 might well have put you through to Mr. Roberts.
His later publications included Photos. The Popular Album (9 Feb-21 Sep 1895) subsequently continued as Photos and Sketches (1895), Boys’ Stories of Adventure and Daring (26 issues, 1898), The Gainsborough Novels (1901-), My Own Novels (1902-) and many others.
Harrison's original company must have gone through a number of changes in the late 1890s and early 1900s, with many new publishers appearing, most notably Alfred Harmsworth, who undercut many of his rivals by publishing half-penny papers, half the price of the "penny dreadfuls" that had been appearing since the 1860s. A move into general magazines with Lazy Land in 1893 proved to be a false start and it lasted only 45 issues before being incorporated into another of Roberts' titles, Good Company.
In January 1898, one of Roberts' creditors, the Roxburghe Press, petitioned for the winding up of Roberts' company in the High Court; presumably the company survived as it was to continue for another decade.
The members of the company of T. Harrison Roberts Ltd. met on the January 23, 1908, and, at an Extraordinary Meeting, passed a resolution "That it has been proved to the satisfaction of this Meeting that the Company cannot, by reason of its liabilities, continue its business, and that it is advisable to wind up the same, and accordingly that the Company be wound up voluntarily."
Roberts briefly re-established himself as T. Harrison Roberts (1908) Ltd., which was listed in phone books at 1 Plough Court, Holborn, London E.C. The company was almost immediately announced—in October 1908—that it was to be voluntarily wound up; it was still listed in the January 1910 phone book but was gone by the July 1910 edition. T. Harrison Roberts (1908) Ltd. was struck from the register of companies in March 1913. T. H. Roberts also disappeared from the phone book in around 1913.
Roberts was married to Elfrida and had at least two sons (Thomas (c. 1874- ), who continued his father's footsteps as an editor; and William (c.1876- ), who became an engraver). Thomas and Elfrida were living in Reigate in 1901 and subsequently moved to "Freda Cote", Blenheim Park Road, Croydon, at which address he is listed in the phone book from 1908 to 1915, the year he died. The death of Thomas H. Roberts is recorded at Croydon, aged 66.
His sons maintained one of his legacies, the Balaclava Light Brigade Charge, a fund set up in 1897 as a means to keep needy survivors of the famous charge from the workhouse.