225 Years of Letts – The Thomas Letts Years

This year we celebrate the 225th anniversary of Letts. We will mark this extraordinary milestone with a series of articles and events – from the early years right up to today. The second article looks at the transition to the second generation of the family business – run by Thomas Letts.

The fortunes of a business tend to fluctuate with each successive generation of a family. John Letts, our founder, was succeeded by his son, Thomas Letts, the second generation of the Letts family business. Thomas took control in the 1830’s, provided a degree of enterprise and acumen less apparent in his one-time apprentice-bookbinder father.

Thomas diversified the business into maps and a wide range of stationery products and, in the 1850’s, extended the sale of diaries to overseas markets in response to the demand from Britain’s rapidly-growing Empire.

Then, in February 1858, a wonderful exchange of letters between Thomas and Dr David Livingstone, in which Thomas offers a free supply of diaries for life to the famous African explorer and missionary, marks what must have been one of the earliest examples of corporate sponsorship.

Thomas’s foresight in this gesture must have been repaid many times over in that Livingstone kept a detailed and poignant record of his travels in Letts diaries to the day of his death and thus provided one of the best examples of diary-keeping.

In the 1870’s Thomas, who had now been joined in the media business by his son Charles, took advantage of recent changes in company law to convert the business to a limited liability company. At the same time new capital was introduced to help finance the expanding business, and non-family directors became involved.

This, and the more academic nature of Charles, led to tensions between the family and non-family directors which culminated in Charles leaving the company in 1881 to set up on his own and thus create the business which developed into the 20th century publishing business bearing his name.

Thus two competing brands of Letts diaries were published until 1945, when Charles Letts & Co Ltd re-acquired the copyright of the original business founded by John Letts.

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The History of the Letts Diary

Letts has been a name associated with diaries since the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was for the year 1812 that John Letts, the founder of the present-day business, published his first diary and thereby originated a new concept of diary-keeping completely different from the traditional use as a personal historical record.

John Letts had been in business as a stationer in the City of London since 1796. His shop nestled among the arcades of the Royal Exchange and his clientele must have included the merchants and traders in the City. Their requirements were clear: they needed to know about movements of ships to and from the bustling Port of London, as well as being able to control their finances which were commonly based upon rates of exchange. That the early diaries were designed to meet these requirements is readily apparent. Prominence was given to the working week of Monday to Saturday and Sunday was often excluded. In most editions cash ruling was included throughout the diary section and information at the beginning of the diary invariably included the tide tables so essential to those connected with shipping.

While John Letts opened the first shop in 1796, the Letts family have owned a number of shops over the centuries. The newest is an online bookshop called Letts Books.

The diary which John Letts published in 1812 was an innovation in that it was future-focused and not designed simply to record past events. It was a commercial product responding to the growing trade in the City of London. Moreover, the 1812 edition is interesting in that it is quite clearly testing this market.

That this test was successful is demonstrated by the rapid sophistication of the product both in content and presentation, and by the early 1820’s a range of diaries providing different sizes and formats was published.

The diary soon established itself as an essential feature of commercial life, unaffected by the slump which followed the boom years of the Napoleonic Wars. It was given a further boost by the publication of the works of two major diarists – John Evelyn in 1818 and Samuel Pepys in 1825. These publications created a literary interest in diary-keeping and no doubt stimulated demand for the new product in its more traditional role.

This is the first of a series of articles on the history of Letts by Anthony Letts.

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