Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nelson, Thomas (1822-1892)

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882313Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 40 — Nelson, Thomas (1822-1892)1894George Stronach

NELSON, THOMAS (1822–1892), publisher, younger son of Thomas Nelson (1780–1861), who was founder of the firm of Thomas Nelson & Sons, was born at Edinburgh on 25 Dec. 1822. He was educated at the high school of his native town, and entered his father's business at the age of seventeen. The business was then extending, owing to the tact and energy of William, the elder son [see below]. The staple of their trade was the reprinting of standard authors at a low price. In 1844 Thomas was entrusted with the establishment of a London branch, of which he had charge for more than a year. In 1846 the firm removed from the West Bow to larger premises in Edinburgh at Hope Park. There all the operations connected with the production of books—printing, stereotyping, bookbinding, lithographing, engraving, and woodcutting—were carried on with great success. Ultimately the workmen numbered six hundred. Thomas proved an energetic superintendent of the manufacturing department. From his earliest years he showed a remarkable turn for mechanics, and in 1850 he invented a rotary press, with curved stereotype plates fixed on cylinders, and with a continuous web of paper. This press was the original of all the rotary presses now in use for newspaper work, but he did not patent the invention. He also introduced into the business many devices in printing, bookbinding, and photo-zincography, and the Nelsons became widely known for the beauty and accuracy of their typography.

The firm soon devoted itself largely to the production of story books and books of travel or adventure by popular authors, especially intended for juvenile readers. Thomas also initiated a series of school-books—written principally by himself—with maps and atlases, and he also edited ‘The Children's Paper,’ which had an enormous sale. Into his maps and atlases he introduced, in addition to lines of latitude and longitude, the measurements in English miles. After the Education Act of 1870 had created a demand for improved school-books, the Nelsons started their ‘Royal Readers,’ which were at once imitated by all the great publishing houses. A fire in 1878 completely destroyed their premises, nothing being saved but the stereotyped plates. But while the fire was raging Thomas telegraphed for new machines, and in a few days sheds were erected near the Queen's Park, and the business proceeded as usual. Within a year huge buildings were raised, and all the departments were in full work on a larger scale than before. Thomas extended his operations by becoming a partner in the firm of Bartholomew & Co., the well-known map engravers, whose premises adjoined his own.

Nelson was a liberal in politics and a free churchman. He identified his firm with the free church, and published its ‘Monthly Record,’ ‘Children's Record,’ and other official documents. He wrote numerous letters to ‘The Scotsman,’ advocating disestablishment without disendowment.

After two years of delicate health he died at Edinburgh on 20 Oct. 1892. His life was one of incessant toil, and he left a fortune exceeding a million. In 1868 he married Jessie Kemp, daughter of James Kemp of Manchester and South America.

Besides writing and editing a large number of school-books, Nelson was the author of: 1. ‘New Atlas of the World. By Th. Nelson and Thomas Davies,’ London, 1859, fol. 2. ‘A Class Atlas of Ancient Geography,’ Edinburgh [1867], 8vo.

William Nelson (1816–1887), his elder brother, born on 13 Dec. 1816 at Edinburgh, was educated at the high school, where he gained the classical gold medal. Subsequently he entered his father's business as bookseller and publisher in 1835. With his brother Thomas, William gradually built up the business. He was in every respect a capable man of business, but took life much more leisurely than his brother, and in his beautiful home at Salisbury Green gratified many refined tastes, such as the collection of china and bronzes, gathered together in travel in all parts of the world. He also interested himself in the improvement of his native city, and he expended large sums in restoring St. Bernard's Well on the Water of Leith, the Argyll Tower, St. Margaret's Chapel, and the Old Scottish Parliament House in Edinburgh Castle. At Kinghorn, in Fifeshire, the birthplace of his mother, he erected a memorial cross to Alexander III, the last of the Celtic kings.

In July 1887 he was presented with the freedom of the burgh of Kinghorn, and he died at Edinburgh, on 10 Sept. 1887, on the eve of a visit to Greece. His remains were accorded a public funeral by the city, and interred in the Grange cemetery. On 24 July 1851 he married Catherine Inglis, daughter of Robert Inglis of Kirkmay, Fifeshire. He left a widow, four daughters, and a son. Eveline, the eldest daughter, was married in 1874 to Thomas Annandale, professor of surgery in Edinburgh University; and in 1886 the second daughter, Florence, married Simon Fraser MacLeod, K.C., of London (Scotsman, 11 Sept. 1887; Wilson, William Nelson: a Memoir [with portrait]).

[Obituary notices in Times and Scotsman, 21 Oct. 1892; Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. xix. pp. lviii–lxii; Scottish Typographical Circular, November 1892; Curwen's Hist. of Booksellers; Sir Daniel Wilson's William Nelson: a Memoir.]

G. S-h.