Benjamin Guy, bookbinder


Benjamin and Hannah Guy, about 1860

Benjamin Guy was my great-great grandfather and he was a bookbinder by trade. He was born in 1810 in London and was baptised on 19th August at St Andrew, Holborn. His parents were Benjamin and Sarah Guy (nee Monger) and Benjamin senior was a haberdasher with premises in Cross Street, Hatton Garden. 

Benjamin junior must have served an apprenticeship with a bookbinder as a young man but I haven’t been able to find any records to confirm this. Wikipedia says this about bookbinding:

Bookbinding is a specialized trade that relies on basic operations of measuring, cutting, and gluing. A finished book might need dozens of operations to complete, according to the specific style and materials. Bookbinding combines skills from other trades such as paper and fabric crafts, leather work, model making, and graphic arts. It requires knowledge about numerous varieties of book structures along with all the internal and external details of assembly. A working knowledge of the materials involved is required. A book craftsman needs a minimum set of hand tools but with experience will find an extensive collection of secondary hand tools and even items of heavy equipment that are valuable for greater speed, accuracy, and efficiency.

The first time Benjamin Guy appears in records as a bookbinder was when he married Ann Marshall at the age of 23. They had a son, also called Benjamin, in 1834 and Ann died the same year. In 1840 when Benjamin was 30 years old, he married again. His second wife was called Hannah Welby and she had been born in Canterbury, Kent in 1816. I don’t know how or when Benjamin and Hannah met, but Hannah came from an extensive family which had branches in London as well as Canterbury, so it seems likely that she was visiting family in London when she met Benjamin Guy, who was six years her senior. The year after they married the Guy family was recorded in the 1841 census living in Harrison Street, St Pancras. By this time they had a son, William, who was 4 months old, as well as Benjamin’s son from his first marriage, who was now 6 years old.  

In about 1850 Benjamin and Hannah Guy moved their family to Lancashire, and at the time of the 1851 census they were living in Mill Street, Newton-le-Willows. In the intervening years four more children had been born – Hannah, Ellen, George and Margaret – so there were six children in the family altogether. Hannah’s sister, Nancy Elizabeth Welby, was also visiting at this time, probably to help with child care. 

It is not clear why they moved to Lancashire but Newton-le-Willows was a railway town and a growing industrial centre in the 19th century, home to the Vulcan foundry which was one of the UK’s leading locomotive manufacturers. And of course the Lancashire cotton mills were very busy at this time, which would have created work for many different trades.  It was also the case that as the nineteenth century progressed, business became more challenging for bookbinders. There was increased literacy and demand for books but rather than creating more bookbinding work, this made publishers seek cheaper and more mechanised ways of binding books. A traditional bookbinder like Benjamin Guy might have found it difficult to get enough work to support his growing family and this might have contributed to the family’s decision to move to the industrial north of England in search of better opportunities to make a living.    

By 1861 they had moved to Church Street in Newton in Makerfield and four more children had been born, Henry, Sarah, Alice (my great grandmother) and Nancy. In this census daughter Hannah’s occupation (age 17) is Bookbinder, and Ellen’s (age 15) is ‘Care of Family’. It seems likely that their mother Hannah was ill at this time, as she died later that year, at the age of 45. The children were aged from 20 years to 1 year old when their mother died, and it looks as though the older ones were allocated either to bookbinding work or to the care of the house and their younger siblings. These must have been tough times for them all but they do seem to have stuck together as a family.    

Ten years later in 1871, Benjamin had moved his family again, this time to Hulme in south Manchester. Three of the older children were still living with their father at this time, William (age 30, bookbinder), Hannah (age 27, bookbinder) and Ellen (25, housekeeper and dressmaker), as well as the three youngest, which included my great grandmother Alice, who was 14 by now. Benjamin was clearly still getting a lot of support from his older children, both in his work and in his domestic life.  

On 11 February 1874, when he was 64 years old, Benjamin was admitted to Lancaster Moor Asylum, and he died there shortly after on 1st March. The admissions register for the hospital doesn’t give any information about his illness but it seems likely that his children cared for him for as long as they could and probably only took him to the asylum as a last resort. The fact that he only lived about 3 weeks after his admission to the asylum suggests that he was incurably ill on admission.   

Probate was not granted until December 1876, nearly three years after Benjamin’s death. His effects were worth under £200 and were awarded to his oldest daughter ‘Hannah Guy, spinster, of Thurza Street, Manchester’. It is not clear why it took so long for probate to be granted, but if he had been suffering from some kind of mental illness before he died, he might have been unable to make a will, or any will he did make might have been contested.     

Bookbinding tools

Bookbinding tools

Picture credits

Bookbinder at work – The_Art_of_Bookbinding,_Zaehnsdorf,_1890.djvu, Public Domain, 

Photo of bookbinder – Jean-Pol GRANDMONT [CC BY-SA 3.0 (

Bookbinding tools – The_Art_of_Bookbinding,_Zaehnsdorf,_1890.djvu, Public Domain, 

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