Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Stockdale, John

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STOCKDALE, JOHN (1749?–1814), publisher, born in Cumberland about 1749, was brought up, it is said, as a blacksmith, then became valet to John Astley of Dukinfield, Cheshire, and eventually removed, about 1780, to London, where he was engaged as porter to John Almon [q. v.], the publisher. When Almon retired from business in favour of John Debrett [q. v.], Stockdale opened an opposition shop; and, ‘being a man of natural parts, he soon became conspicuous in business in spite of much eccentricity of conduct and great coarseness of manners’ (Gent. Mag. June 1815). Among the numerous works bearing his name as publisher are: Ferguson's ‘Roman Republic,’ 1783, an edition of Shakespeare's ‘Dramatic Works,’ 1784, Edwards's ‘History of the West Indies,’ Chalmers's edition of Defoe's ‘History of the Union,’ Phillips's ‘Voyage to Botany Bay, and Dr. Johnson's Works,’ 1787 (vols. 12 and 13 of which Stockdale edited). He also issued ‘Debates in Parliament,’ 1784–90, an edition of ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ and Aikin's ‘Country round Manchester,’ 1795, originally intended to be merely an account of the neighbourhood of Mottram-in-Longdendale, with which Stockdale had personal acquaintance. In 1788 he published the Rev. John Logan's ‘Review of the Charges against Warren Hastings,’ which was conceived by the government to embody a libellous charge of corruption and injustice against the House of Commons. Stockdale was accordingly prosecuted. The case came before Lord Kenyon in December 1789, and Stockdale was eloquently defended by Erskine (see Erskine, Speeches, 1847, vol. iii.; Parl. Hist. xxvii. 1–7; Howell, State Trials, xxii. 237). Erskine contended that the defendant was not to be judged by isolated passages, selected and put together in the information, but by the entire context of the publication and its general character and objects. Stockdale was acquitted, and so conspicuous a triumph for the liberty of the press led to the passing of the Libel Act of 1792, which established that a man was not to be punished for a few unguarded expressions, and committed to the judgment of the jury the construction to be placed on an alleged libeller's general purpose and animus in writing.

Stockdale again figured as defendant in an action for libel brought by Joseph Nightingale [q. v.] in 1809, when he was amerced in 200l. damages. Towards the end of his career he dealt largely in the surplus printed stock (‘remainders’) of other publishers, and excited the jealousy of the regular traders by a series of sales of books by auction which he established in various parts of the country. By his earlier speculations he acquired considerable property, but afterwards he was less successful; and the circumstance of having to make an arrangement with his creditors is said to have preyed upon his mind and accelerated his death, which took place, at the age of sixty-five, on 21 June 1814.

He married Mary Ridgway, a native of Roe Cross, Mottram-in-Longdendale, Cheshire, and sister to James Ridgway, a well-known publisher of Piccadilly, London. By her he had several children, including Mary R. Stockdale, who wrote:

  1. ‘The Effusions of the Heart: Poems,’ 1798.
  2. ‘The Mirror of the Mind: Poems’ (with an autobiography), 1810, 2 vols.
  3. ‘The Life of a Boy,’ 1821, 2 vols.;

besides translations from Berquin and others, and some minor pieces.

His eldest son, John Joseph Stockdale (1770–1847), was admitted to the freedom of the Stationers' Company on 3 Aug. 1802, and afterwards took up the livery. He compiled and edited a large number of books, including: Wellesley's ‘Events and Transactions in India,’ 1805, ‘Cevellos's Usurpation of the Crown of Spain,’ 1808, and ‘Sketches Civil and Military of the Island of Java,’ 1811. He was the publisher of the notorious ‘Memoirs of Harriette Wilson,’ 1826.

During the recess of 1836 Stockdale commenced an action against Messrs. Hansard for the publication of a libel in an official ‘Report of the Inspectors of Prisons,’ in which certain strictures were made on some obscene books alleged to be published by Stockdale. The verdict went against Stockdale, upon a plea of justification; but Chief-justice Denman, in summing up, made a declaration adverse to the plea of ‘privilege’ which Messrs. Hansard had set up in their defence. Stockdale thereupon brought another action, and the case was thenceforth tried upon the single issue—whether the printers were justified in printing animadversions on Stockdale by the privilege and order of the House. The latter having ordered the Hansards to plead, the court of queen's bench unanimously decided against them. The costs were paid by the treasury; but it was decided that in case of any future action Messrs. Hansard should not plead at all. Stockdale duly brought another action in the recess of 1839, and judgment went in his favour by default. When, however, the sheriffs of Middlesex proceeded, by order of the court of queen's bench, to put the verdict into effect, the printer fell back upon parliament for protection. Accordingly the sheriffs and other persons who sought to carry out the orders issued by the law court against the Hansards were imprisoned by order of the House of Commons. These protracted and vexatious proceedings were only brought to a close by the passing in 1840 of the 3 & 4 Vict. c. 9, by which it was enacted that proceedings, criminal or civil, against persons for the publication of papers printed by order of either house of parliament shall be stayed upon the production of a certificate to that effect (May, Parliamentary Practice, 1893, pp. 99, 138 sq.). Stockdale was thus finally defeated, and the printer was indemnified. He died at Bushey on 16 Feb. 1847, aged 70.

[Gent. Mag. 1814 i. 701, 1815 i. 649, 1847 i. 452; Chadwick's Reminiscences of Mottram, pp. 22, 64; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Lowndes's Bibliographer's Manual (Bohn), p. 2942; Dict. of Living Authors, 1816; Bray's Life of Stothard, 1851, pp. 36, 37; Erskine May's Const. Hist. 1865, i. 460, ii. 113; communication from Mr. C. R. Rivington, clerk to the Stationers' Company.]

C. W. S.