The Botesdale Book Club

Book clubs played an important, but very poorly-understood, role in 18th-century readership. At a time when there were few, if any, public libraries, and books were expensive, private clubs formed to spread the cost.  Groups of a dozen or two members would gather monthly for a convivial dinner, often at a local pub, and their annual subscription fee would fund the purchase of a collection of books that circulated at the meeting.  Frequently, the clubs would sell off the collection at the end of each year to defray the costs of purchasing new books. Such organizations were private and ephemeral and have left very little public record.  One of the few surviving sources is the combined account and loan record book of the Botesdale Book Club of Botesdale, Suffolk, for the period from 1778 to 1789.  The circulation and attendance records fluctuate wildly.  At times as few as three members attended the dinner (“set for three o’clock with adjournment at seven”), and in 1788-89 Mr. Havers managed only two of the eleven meetings. In one year five members borrowed twenty books; in another every member was active and between them they borrowed 130 books. The Betts family were active in the club, a Mr. Betts appearing as a member for the whole of the 1778 to 1789 period of the membership record.  In The Betts of Wortham in Suffolk (1912) we find that the club had been formed in 1748 and “held monthly meetings on the Tuesday after the full moon at the Crown Inn” until 1815, when George Betts recorded in his diary for September 6th, “James and I dined at the Botesdale Book Club for the last time ; it had existed since 1748.” A Mrs. Avice Betts was a subscriber to Joshua Kirby’s Historical Account in 1748, and the Botesdale Book Club itself subscribed to the second edition of Kirby’s Method of Perspective in 1755. For a description of Botesdale in the 18th century, we can turn to John Kirby’s Suffolk Traveller (1735), where the place is described as a “long mean built, dirty through-fare Town, extending it self very near a Mile on the Road. … There is a mean Market weekly on Saturdays, and a Fair yearly on Holy Thursday”. On the bright side, he does close his description of the town with the comment, “Here are several Inns of good Entertainment”.

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