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Thomas Ostell

Bookseller and publisher of London

Thomas Ostell was born on April 16, 1778 at Mawbray. He was to become a member of a prominent literary circle in Regency London!

His parents were Jacob and Sarah Ostle. Jacob was a joiner. Sarah was an Allison from Mosser, near Cockermouth. Her family were prominent members of Pardshaw Quaker meeting.

When Thomas was two, the family left Mawbray and moved to Cockermouth. Their removal to Pardshaw was noted in the Holme Monthly Meeting minutes. Jacob set up in business there as a cabinet maker and grocer. Thomas must have attended Cockermouth Grammar School. The poet Wordsworth also attended this school, before moving on to Hawkshead. He was eight years older than Thomas so it seems unlikely the two ever met there.


Cockermouth in the 18th Century

At some time Thomas left for London. Unfortunately the Pardshaw MM records for this period are missing so the exact date remains uncertain. He must have served some sort of apprenticeship to a publisher or bookseller and it seems unlikely that this would have been in Cockermouth.

According to "LONDON PRINTERS & PUBLISHERS", by 1804 he had set up as a bookseller in Ave Maria Lane. One of his first publications was “Ostell’s New General Atlas of all the principal states and kingdoms throughout the world”. Single pages from the second edition of this book, published after Thomas’s death, are frequently offered on internet auctions for around $300 each. First editions seem to be very rare indeed – not even the Bodleian Library has one!

Pages from Ostell's Atlas

On 4 July 1807 Thomas published “The Eloquence of the British Senate” by the essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830), his most prestigious venture. Perhaps the stress involved was just too much. He died on December 11th. He was buried in the Friends' Burial Ground at Bunhill Fields. The Quaker records note that he "died of consumption" while a death notice in the Carlisle Journal says "Suddenly, a few days ago, by the bursting of a blood vessel".


Title page from Hazlitt's book

In his will he appointed Joseph Johnson, a bookseller of St Paul's Churchyard, as executor and trustee to wind-up his business. Johnson, who must have been a close friend, was a very distinguished publisher, at the centre of educated middle-class Unitarian society in London. He published Hazlitt's father (a Unitarian preacher) as early as 1766, and was to publish Hazlitt’s first book in 1805. He was also the publisher of Wollstonecraft, Blake, Paine, and most radical and dissenting authors of the day. Wordsworth published his first book with Johnson in 1793. Coleridge published with him in 1798.

It seems quite amazing that a boy from a remote and backward village in Cumberland could have been moving in such distinguished circles. He must have spoken with a broad Cumbrian accent. It speaks volumes for the education he received at Cockermouth and for the emphasis which Friends have always placed on this and of their great love of books. Had Thomas not died at such a tragically early age, 29, he could have gone on to become one of the greatest Quaker publishers ever.

Some other Ostles were also involved in the London booktrade.

Another Thomas had offices in Leadenhall Street and published this book on mathematics.

In 1840, a William Ostell is listed as a “printer in a small way of business” at 24 Hart St. , Bloomsbury. Around the same time, Ostell and Lepage were operating from 6 Tudor St. , Blackfriars and 1, Whitefriars St, Fleet St.

Research by Joan Palmer, Pauline Harkness and Bridget Casson with invaluable help from Duncan Wu, Professor of English Literature at St Catherine's College, Oxford. Prof Wu is working on a biography of William Hazlitt and it was he who first alerted us to the connection between his subject and Thomas Ostell.

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