THE MYSTERY OF WILLIAM CAFFYN
William Caffyn was a publisher of penny-part serials in the 1840s who suffered a similar fate to many of his contemporaries – imprisonment for publishing a libel and bankruptcy – and who subsequently appears to have vanished without trace. Yet he could have had a rather more illustrious career – Frank Jay, in his study of cheap Victorian periodicals Peeps into the Past, wrote that "he ranks next to [Edward] Lloyd in sensational literature".
Caffyn was born in the Southwark parish of St. George on 28 September 1806, the son of John Caffyn, an ostler, and his wife Ann. He was baptised, as William Buckle Punsham Caffyn, at the parish church of St. Saviour's, Southwark, on 16 March 1821, the family's address given as Red Cross Street. Where his name originated from, and why he was baptised at the age of 15, is a mystery.
In the 1841 census, he is shown as a bookseller living in Mile End Old Town, married to Ann, born around 1811. Unfortunately, there is no online record of his marriage. Also living with him were three children – Julia, aged 7; Mary, aged 2; and John, aged 7 months. The only online record for any of these is for Julia's baptism, which took place at St. Dunstan's, Stepney, on 25 June 1837, with William described as a stationer.
According to the Book Trade Index, Caffyn began operating out of 31 Oxford Street, Mile End, in 1836, probably as a stationer and/or bookseller. He first appears as a publisher in August 1844, when he advertised Bell's Life Gallery of Comicalities, a series of comic engravings by artists such as George Cruikshank and the Punch artist John Leech, which had originally appeared in the periodical Bell's Life in London (at the time the country's leading sporting newspaper). According to Caffyn's advertisement, the original engravings cost 6,000 guineas, although he was selling them for one penny a sheet.
Three years later, Caffyn began issuing penny–part serials. The British Library Catalogue lists five of these, and a further five titles are listed by Frank Jay (with the proviso that there were "many others"):
- Jerry Abershaw, or The Mother's Curse (by the author of 'Dick Turpin' [i.e. Henry Downes Miles]) (30 nos.) [1847-48]
- The Ruined Cottage, or The Farmer's Maid: A Romance of Real Life (credited to Hanna Maria Jones, but likely to have been written by James Lindridge) (78 nos.)
- Santo Sebastiano, or The Heiress of Montalvan: A Romance of the Eighteenth Century (by Catherine Cuthbertson) (68 nos.) 1846-47
- De Lisle, or The Shipwrecked Stranger: A Romance of Real Life (by James Lindridge) (49 nos.)
- The Mysteries of Old Father Thames: A Romance (attributed to Thomas Frost) (32 nos.) [1848?]
- Alice Leighton, or The Murder at the Druid Stones (by Thomas Frost) (51 nos.) [1847?-48?]
- Melina, the Murderess, or The Soldier Victim (29 nos.)
- Emma Mayfield, or The Rector's Daughter (by Thomas Frost) (52 nos.) 1848
- David Watson, or The London 'Prentice (24 nos.) [1848?]
- The British Log Book
All of these are dated between 1846 and 1848. Some were published in collaboration with William Mark Clark of Warwick Lane, Paternoster Row, and George Vickers, of Holywell Street, with Clark re-issuing at least four (The Ruined Cottage, Alice Leighton, De Lisle and Emma Mayfield) in the 1850s.
In May 1849 Caffyn appeared before magistrates charged with libel, his address being given as 31 Sydney Street, Mile End, and he subsequently appeared at the Central Criminal Court on 18 June 1849. The libel was published in a periodical called Sam Sly, or The Town, which Caffyn had been publishing since the previous year. This was a somewhat scurrilous gossipy magazine modelled on The Town, which had been founded in 1837 by the printer Joseph Last and edited by Renton Nicholson until its closure in 1840.
The libel centred on the Rev. Robert Liddell, the Vicar of Barking, who, the magazine alleged, had had an affair with his cook. First up in the dock was James Winch, a bookseller in Barking, who claimed that he knew nothing about the magazine's contents, but was nevertheless found guilty and imprisoned for six months. Caffyn and two other defendants, John Tredgold and John Philip Crantz (the latter named in the Old Bailey transcript, although The Times gave his name as William Smith), pleaded guilty. Caffyn, as the publisher, was pressed to identify the author of the libel, but explained that he was unable to do so as "There was a box in his shop to receive communications for Sam Sly, and they were all anonymous." It was also said in Caffyn's defence that while he had been unaware of the libel when it was published, he had stopped selling the magazine as soon as he was made aware of it, and, indeed, the magazine was now defunct. Even though the prosecution was not pressing for punishment, its main concern having been to suppress the magazine, Caffyn was fined £10, imprisoned for six months and bound over in the sum of £100 to keep the peace for three years.
Crantz, who was alleged to have opened a shop in Barking specifically to sell the magazine, was sentenced to six months in prison and bound over for three years; and John Tredgold, who was Caffyn's apprentice, was discharged on his own recognisance of £100. Crantz later re–appeared as the publisher of the Weekly Chronicle.
In late 1850/early 1851 Caffyn found himself in a debtors' prison. In January 1851 he was summonsed to appear in the Court for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors, where he was described as a "Bookseller, Publisher, Newsvendor and Proprietor of a Circulating Library". His imprisonment was, however, a ruse to clear his debts by underhand means. In March 1851 he applied to be discharged, a petition which was opposed by one of his creditors, the publisher William Mark Clark. As The Times reported (24 March 1851), Caffyn "had allowed all his stock and furniture to be seized by a person named Twigg, to whom he had given a bill of sale on account of an alleged debt." This, in the judgement of the Bankruptcy Commissioner, was a clear fraud. "The insolvent and Twigg had concocted a fraudulent bill of sale and then sought, by means of a friendly arrest, to get rid of the creditors by a discharge from this court." The Commissioner ruled that Caffyn "had the power of getting out of prison as he got in, by the aid of his friend Twigg", and Caffyn's petition for discharge was dismissed.
Caffyn was still in prison (the White Cross debtors' prison) on the night of the 1851 census (Sunday 30 March), but that is the last we know about him. There is no sign of his wife and children in the 1851 census, although William was shown on the Electoral Register at 31 Oxford Street, Mile End, in 1852. After that date, the whole family has disappeared. What happened to them is anybody’s guess.
* Following up on Robert's feature, I managed to track down a couple of additional bits of information which are worth adding here. One thread I tried to tease was what happened to Caffyn's family, as, due to their odd and easily misspelled surname, they seemed to have disappeared entirely from any records. I did discover that Mrs Caffyn was Mary Ann Caffyn, born in Queenborough, on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, circa 1811, although I have yet to discover her maiden name.
Her children include Julia, born circa 1834, Mary Ann, born 1838, and John, whose birth seems to have been in late 1840 but unrecorded. Another daughter, Rebecca, was born in 1842. I believe Mary Ann (the daughter) may have died in 1844 and John, too, may have died as he is not to be found living with his mother in 1851. The family was listed under the name Caffin and Mrs. Caffyn's occupation was given as News Agents Shop. Daughters Julia and Rebecca were living with her at 3 Oxford Street, in the borough of St. Dunstan, Stepney, London.
It was at the St Dunstan All Saints church that Julia Caffyn and author Thomas Frost—12 years her senior—posted their marriage bans in August 1851, following closely on the heels of the death of Frost's first wife. Julia had a son (Henry Caffyn Frost) and two daughters (Julia, Alice) by Frost, and the family, including a son (William T.) from Frost's first marriage, were living in Westminster in 1861. However, Frost subsequently abandoned his wife and children and began living with his third partner in 1867. Julia, by 1881, was living with her son Harry and his wife Lillian (nee Cooper) in Grafton Street, Soho.
Some of the penny partworks published by Caffyn were subsequently reprinted by William Clark (Caffyn's former creditor), including Alice Leighton, Emma Mayfield and The Ruined Cottage.