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 cotton-spinning firm in Paisley, in 1832 or after his father’s death, and together with his brother Peter, the managing partner, they oversaw its enormous expansion over the next fifty years. On 13 October 1840 he married Margaret Glen and, like most Victorians, they had a large 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 philanthropist and he is commemorated in the Thomas Coats Memorial Church, Paisley, which was funded by his family in 1894. His daughter Janet would follow in his steps, and in the wake of other members of the Coats family, becoming one of the most important Scottish female philanthropists of her time.
Janet Coats was born on 15 February 1844, probably at number 80 Maxwelton Road, Paisley, Renfrewshire, and by 1851 the family were certainly living in Ferguslie House, also in Paisley. Janet married James Tait Black in 1884, when she was 40. There is undoubtedly a story waiting to be told concerning their meeting and subsequent engagement. James Tait Black had already been married to Charlotte Lothian, daughter of Mr Maurice Lothian who was “widely known and respected in Edinburgh’s legal and ecclesiastical circles”. Charlotte died in 1861 leaving James with two young children, Adam and Margaret. A third, a daughter Lucy, died of smallpox. It was many years later that Janet Coats, still a spinster, found herself being courted by this wealthy and well-connected widower. James was then 58 and a partner in the renowned publishing house, A&C Black. He was also “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”.
In all likelihood, the couple met through Janet’s younger brother, the dashing George Coats (1849-1918), who became the first Baron Glentanar in 1916. On 23 December 1880 George Coats married Margaret Lothian Black, James Tait Black’s daughter from his first marriage. Janet’s new sister-in-law may have introduced Janet to her father, leading to more genealogical puzzles: Margaret would become Janet’s step-daughter as well as her sister-in-law, making the Glentanar children her step-grandchildren and nephews and nieces! Janet herself had no children.
James Tait Black remained active in the publishing firm set up by his father, A&C Black. After his first wife’s death, there followed twenty-three years of intense publishing activities. He continued to play an important role in the company after marrying Janet in 1884: indeed the company moved to London in 1889. Most memorably, James was instrumental in the decision to go ahead with the renowned ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, also known as the “scholar’s edition”, before A&C Black sold the title to the Americans in 1901.
James Tait Black 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.”
In addition to purchasing the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1827, the highlights of A&C Black’s publishing history include the purchase of the copyright of Scott’s Waverley novels in 1851, and in 1896 that of the already eminent biographical collection Who’s Who (which Adam Black, James’s son by his first marriage, is said to have won on a coin toss!).
While Janet’s husband was alive, they commuted between Edinburgh, London and Ayrshire. James Tait Black also owned Underscar Manor, outside Keswick, in Cumbria. 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 in 1856 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.
In 1917 when Janet drew up her will, she wished to commemorate her husband’s lifetime love of books, as a collector, reader and publisher. This was war-time Britain and reading, and indeed writing, must have seemed to her a particularly precious and auspicious endeavour, one that she had the courage and vision to uphold. Her will gave detailed instructions for a bequest 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”.
Janet died, aged 74, at Underscar, Keswick, on 15 November 1918, just four days after the Armistice ended fighting on the Western front. The first James Tait Memorial prizes were awarded in 1920 for books published in 1919.
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.
2009 update: I’m glad to see that Edinburgh University now includes information about Janet Coats on the prizes website.
2018 update: A short entry on Janet Coats (s.v. Janet Tait Black) is in The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, (eds) Elizabeth Ewan, Jane Rendall, Sian Reynolds, and Rose Pipes, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh University Press, 2018), pp. 426-27.
An article was published in The Herald on 10 November 2018 to commemorate the centenary of her death.
2019 update: This year marks the centenary of the James Tait Black Prize and a series of events are being planned which I will include links to as they appear.