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A David and Goliath story: Thomas Carnan vs the Stationers' Company

In 1744, a young man welcomed a historic legal victory by apparently driving ‘repeatedly, in triumph, round St. Paul’s Church yard and through Paternoster row, in his lofty phaeton and pair’.  Thomas Carnan was an enterprising individual who had moved from Reading to London and who had his eye on the profitable market for almanacs and other such useful items with equally nebulous definitions. In his way, of course, was the Stationers’ Company. In 1603, the English Stock was established by this livery company to capitalise on the monopoly granted them by King James I, which gave them the sole privilege to print certain religious work such as primers, psalms, psalters, and also almanacs and prognostications. Significantly, the privilege was to last without end, meaning the Company and its Stock printing and publishing arm was in a highly lucrative position.

The case of Thomas Carnan vs the Stationers’ Company built on the victory of Donaldson vs Beckett of 1774, when the perpetuity of copyright was challenged. Carnan’s own success came on 29 May 1775 when the judges ruled that the Company and the English Stock’s grant only covered approved almanacs and that not only could such copyright not last in perpetuity, but that they could not be granted exclusively. 

The proceedings of this case are detailed in the Trade Records of the Stationers' Company archive in Literary Print Culture. Here, the researcher can start with a look at the offending articles – examples of the kind of almanacs printed by Carnan, which Cyprian Blagden believes showed off ‘Carnan’s better standard of printing and more up-to-date Almanack [sic] compilation’.  One of the items from 1779 proudly states ‘Printed for T. Carnan, in St. Paul’s Church-Yard; who dispossessed the Stationers Company of the exclusive Privilege of Printing Almanacks, which they had unjustly monopolized 170 years’.

Image © The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Not everyone was convinced of Carnan’s superb printing, however; the Company took the time to list faults they had found in his work, years after the ruling which shook their monopoly. Such endeavours might have been undertaken to build up a case against the ruling. The fastidiousness of the list has to be admired: the author writes that ‘the like errors might be pointed out in the almanacks for prior years besides the errors in the calendar part of Carnan’s almanacks, the other parts of them abound with scurrility and abuse of government, of the Scotch nation, and persons eminent for their rank, their piety or their learning’. One of the examples of such slander he claims to have found includes the words ‘Scotch lakes are cover’d o’er with ice, their hills with frost, their heads with lice’.

Image © The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Other efforts to have Carnan cease and desist included an injunction put upon him in November 1773, in which the Company reiterates their ‘exclusive right of printing’, with failure resulting in the levying of a £200 fine.

Carnan’s perseverance and victory in 1775 marks a watershed for the nature and role of the Company within the copyright sphere, and provides a unique and useful point of commencement for further research into its history. It also harks at other players within the world of printing, publishing and copyright – such as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge – and of ideas such as the control of the printed word and its relation to government and religion. Carnan himself, however, was free to concern himself with the profitable world of almanac printing without worry, as shown by his jaunts in his phaeton in the heart of the City.


Literary Print Culture will be published in September 2017. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at


Sources consulted include:

West, W. Fifty years' recollections of an old bookseller (Cork: printed for the author, 1835), 21, via

Blagden, Cyprian, ‘Thomas Carnan and the Almanack Monopoly’, Studies in Bibliography, Vol. 14 (1961)

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