Books instead of beer! Hitchin’s legendary travelling bookseller

PUBLISHED: 09:55 21 January 2018

James Rennie on his tricycle, which he used to travel around the villages of North Hertfordshire. Picture: Nigel Billingham

James Rennie on his tricycle, which he used to travel around the villages of North Hertfordshire. Picture: Nigel Billingham


The profession of ‘colporteur’ no longer exists in the 21st century, but in the decades either side of 1900 these door-to-door book salesmen were a ubiquitous part of British life.

James Rennie with his bookstall at Hitchin market. Picture: Nigel BillinghamJames Rennie with his bookstall at Hitchin market. Picture: Nigel Billingham

And Hitchin boasted the so-called ‘king of colporteurs’ in the energetic shape of James Rennie – who was an institution of the district for almost half a century.

Rennie, who specialised in Christian and ‘pure’ literature, was well-known at his book stall in Hitchin market and around the villages of North Hertfordshire.

In this period when ordinary folk taking a greater interest in reading, and colportage was at the height of its popularity, Rennie was reputed to have sold 5,000 Bibles and related literature, as well as 10,000 periodicals, all within a single year.

He also sold Cassell’s Popular Educator, a self-help publication aimed at the education of the working classes in subjects like Latin and Ancient Greek.

Asked why the rural poor should spend their modest income on books, the teetotal Rennie would say: “Books are better than beer, and the reading of these books has, with God’s blessing, made many a sober father and son, mother and daughter, while beer has brought many to shame and ruin.

“Books instead of beer! And we shall have more peace in our homes, and more people to our churches and chapels.”

Now Rennie and his life are the subject of a biography penned by author Nigel Billingham.

Nigel, 69, grew up in Little Wymondley and now lives in the south Wales village of Wenvoe.

He is distantly related to Rennie by marriage – his aunt was the bookseller’s granddaughter – and he decided to write about him three years ago after completing his book about the history of Wymondley’s Baptist chapel.

Hitchin colporteur James Rennie in his prime. Picture: Nigel BillinghamHitchin colporteur James Rennie in his prime. Picture: Nigel Billingham

“Rennie had a connection with Wymondley chapel as his daughter and two granddaughters worshipped at the chapel, and he occasionally preached and played the organ there,” said Nigel.

“I became intrigued by him as one of his granddaughters was my auntie, and I felt his story was so interesting that something should be written about him.

“Colportage is an idea that’s well out of fashion now, but at the time he was a well-renowned and respected local character.”

Rennie was born to Scottish parents in Australia, where his family had gone to prospect for gold. Within five years they were back in Scotland, where Rennie’s father used his Australian riches to set up as a maltster.

Rennie grew up to become teetotal and, in disapproval at what he considered the sinful occupation of his father, joined the Scottish Tract and Book Society as a colporteur.

The society sent him to the Bedford area around 1872, and after five years living in Biggleswade he moved with his family to Nightingale Road in Hitchin – where they lived for the rest of their lives.

His prodigious sales earned him his ‘king of colporteurs’ nickname, and in 1912 a large meeting was held in Hitchin Town Hall to acknowledge 40 years of his work.

Rennie was heavily involved in the temperance movement, and once had to run for cover when one of his talks was sabotaged by a horde of beer-drinkers.

He spent much of his time trekking aroud Hertfordshire villages on foot, visiting hamlets and farms to sell his wares, and in his early years walked more than 20 miles a day. He later travelled by tricycle or train to maximise the number of villages and homes he could visit every day.

James Rennie with his wife and four children. Picture: Nigel BillinghamJames Rennie with his wife and four children. Picture: Nigel Billingham

Rennie published his autobiography, Seed-Time and Harvest, in 1902, and retired in 1920, by which time colportage was waning in popularity. He died in 1926.

Nigel, who has published four books before – three jointly – will launch his book at the chapel hall in Little Wymondley on Saturday, April 14, at 10.30am. The event is open to all and will last an hour, with refreshments afterwards.

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