Catalogue description William Downing, bookseller and publisher, of Birmingham

This record is held by Birmingham: Archives, Heritage and Photography Service

Details of MS 1366
Reference: MS 1366
Title: William Downing, bookseller and publisher, of Birmingham

Catalogues, letters and miscellaneous papers


The records listed below comprise the archive of an important provincial bookselling business. They span the period approximately 1870 up to 1940 when the shop premises were bombed.

Date: 1861 - 1966
Held by: Birmingham: Archives, Heritage and Photography Service, not available at The National Archives
Language: English

Chaucer Head Bookshop, Birmingham

Downing, William, 1844 - 1910, Birmingham, bookseller and publisher

Physical description: 5 series
Immediate source of acquisition:

Records of William Downing and the Chaucer Head Bookshop purchased from Daniel McDowell

  • Book industry
Administrative / biographical background:

William Downing and the "Chaucer Head" archive


The bookselling and publishing business known as the Chaucer Head Bookshop was founded John Cadby in 1830. It was originally located at 74 New Street, Birmingham.


William Downing was born in Birmingham in 1844 and at the age of fourteen was apprenticed to William Brough who had a bookshop in Paradise Street. Afterwards he set up in business by himself and the in 1870 he succeeded Mr. Cadby in the business of the Chaucer Head Library and Bookshop.


Downing became a major figure in the antiquarian book trade and a prominent individual in Birmingham's intellectual and social life. His shop apparently became a meeting place for many of Birmingham's leading citizens, including Samuel Timmins and Joseph Chamberlain. He was honorary treasurer of the Birmingham & District Library Association from its formation. He was also very interested in the theatre and the archive includes correspondence with such people as Ellen Terry. His son, W. H. Downing, together with Sir Barry Jackson, John Drinkwater and others founded the Pilgrim Players an amateur dramatic group which was the forerunner of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Downing was also chiefly responsible for replacing the books in the old Birmingham Free Library after the disastrous fire of 1879.


The business removed to Temple Row in 1870 and remained there until 1922 when the lease of the premises expired. The site was acquired by Rackhams and new offices were found firstly in Corporation Street and then in Bristol Street. In the meantime, in failing health, William Downing offered a partnership to Bernard Martin; and on Downing's death in 1910, Martin succeeded to the business. Dorothy Withey also joined the firm as chief assistant and cataloguer.


The shop in Bristol Street was occupied by the business until 1940 when the premises were destroyed in an enemy air raid. Bernard Martin and Dorothy Withey, who were now in partnership moved to premises in Horse Fair; and on the death of Martin, Miss Withey became sole proprietor. She removed the business to premises in Stratford-upon-Avon in the late 1950s.

Link to NRA Record:

Have you found an error with this catalogue description?

Help with your research