It’s not every day that you get a chance to claim a bit of Scottish literary history! This Friday – 21 August – marks the 90th anniversary of the presentation of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize which was set up by my cousin, Janet Tait Black neé Coats. The awards – one for biography and the other for fiction – have a glittering history (the recipients include no less than four Nobel prize-winners). As always, they will be judged by the Professor of English at Edinburgh University – on this occasion, Edinburgh’s first female Regius Professor Laura Marcus – and the presentation ceremony takes place at the Edinburgh Book Festival.
I’ve tried to work out my exact relationship to Janet but my genealogy skills are not up to the task: all I know is that her father, Thomas Coats (1809-1883), was my great-great-great uncle. So if anyone can shed any light on what to call that sort of cousin-ship (exactly how many times removed!?), I’d be delighted to hear from them!
James Coats (d. 1833) and Catherine Mitchell had ten sons, including James and Peter Coats, who founded J&P Coats in Paisley in 1830. Sir Peter Coats was my great-great-great grandfather – his line marches down through the generations, first his son George Coats, then Ernest Coats, and finally Ian Coats, my mother’s father.
Thomas Coats (Janet’s father) was the fourth of the ten sons. He trained as a textile engineer and was also an active Baptist. He joined the family firm in 1832 or after his father’s death, and together with his brother Peter, the managing partner, they oversaw its massive expansion over the next fifty years. On 13 October 1840 he married Margaret Glen and, like most Victorian families, they had a vast family, six sons and five daughters – the last surviving child was Margaret, who died unmarried in 1946. Like his other brothers, Thomas Coats was a generous philanthropist and his most substantial gift to the community of Paisley was the Thomas Coats Memorial Church, which was funded by his family in 1894.
Janet Coats was born on 15 February 1844, probably at Maxwellton in Renfrewshire, since Ferguslie House, also in Renfrewshire, was not purchased by her father until 1872.
Janet married James Tait Black in 1884. This was very late for the time as she was already 40; indeed, she and James had no children. However, their marriage doesn’t seem to have lacked romance and there is undoubtedly a story waiting to be told behind their meeting and subsequent engagement: Janet’s younger brother, the dashing George Coats (1849-1918), who became the first Baron Glentanar, had married Margaret Lothian Black on 23 December 1880. Margaret was James Tait Black’s daughter from his first marriage to the daughter of Mr Maurice Lothian – not sure of her name, but her father was “widely known and respected in Edinburgh’s legal and ecclesiastical circles”. However, the first wife had died leaving James a wealthy and well-connected widower. Janet Coats was a spinster and she must have been delighted to find herself being courted by this civilised and educated 58-year-old who “was an accomplished musician, had acquired considerable proficiency as a painter in water-colours and as an amateur in all branches of photography, and was a zealous and judicious book-collector”. It must have seemed a perfect match – with more genealogical puzzles (viz Janet’s step-daughter was also her sister-in-law, making the Glentanar children her grandchildren and nephews and nieces!)
James Tait Black remained active in his father Adam’s publishing firm, A&C Black, until as late as 1899 and died in November 1911. There is a lengthy obituary in The Times which describes his involvement in the publishing world of the time:
As a publisher Mr. Black is worthy of mention as having been an early and successful leader in a movement which has since reached great dimensions, the sixpenny reprints of the Waverley Novels, which had a great success, having been largely due to his sagacity and enterprise. His most noteworthy achievement was the production of the ninth edition of the “Encyclopædia Britannica,” which was begun about 1870 and reached its completion in 1888, In the literary as well as in the commercial aspects of this work he took a warm interest throughout, alike during the editorship of Professor Baynes and during that of Professor Robertson Smith. That latter in 188o put on record a cordial tribute to the ability and liberality which the publishers had shown, not only taking “the warmest interest in the literary work, but also giving the editors the manifold assistance which can be derived from a practical knowledge of affairs.”
As mentioned above, highlights of A&C Black’s publishing history include the purchase of the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1827, the copyright of Scott’s Waverley novels in 1851, and in 1896 the already eminent biographical collection Who’s Who (which Adam Black, James’ son by his first marriage, is said to have won on a coin toss!!).
While Janet’s husband was alive, they may have commuted between Edinburgh, London (where a office was opened in 1889) and Ayrshire, but James Tait Black is also said to have owned Underscar Manor, outside Keswick, in Cumbria, where they may have spent holidays. The following extract from the Listed Building register for Underscar (although the manor was delisted in 2000 and is now a hotel) highlights the delights of the scenery and the spectacular site:
The land on which the building stands, together with other parcels of land , was purchased by William Oxley in1856 for £1340. The house was completed in 1863. The house was sited within extensive grounds, set with specimen trees, and with a walled garden to the east, and enjoys unrivalled views of Derwentwater. William Oxley died in 1861.
An extensive and prominent villa in the Italianate style, spectacularly sited and recently carefully refurbished, the style and siting of which aptly characterises the flavour of the mid-late C19 developments around the Cumbrian Lakes by industrialists and entrepreneurs.
After James’s death, Janet clearly wanted to commemorate his lifetime love of books, as a collector, reader and publisher, and she left a bequest in her will of £11,000 “to be used for two prizes of whatever income the fund should produce after paying expenses, including a fee of £50 to the judge”. Writing in 1935, Bessie Graham could still claim that these prizes were “the most valuable in Great Britain”.
I’ll be going to the presentation on Friday evening and I hope that the standard continues to live up to my great-great-great-cousin’s hopes, and that it proves a truly fitting memorial for her husband, a great Victorian bibliophile.