An Unrecorded Cheap Repository Tract: The Rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram

A guest post by Dr David Stoker, formerly of the Department of Information Studies, Aberystwyth University.

The tile page of The Rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram
The tile page of The Rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram

The publications of the Cheap Repository for Moral and Religious Literature (usually known as the Cheap Repository Tracts) were the literary sensation of the last five years of the eighteenth century. Around one hundred and twenty seven titles were published by the English religious writer and philanthropist Hannah More, together with a small band of helpers, to counteract the ‘corrupt and vicious little books and ballads which have been hung out of windows in the most alluring forms or hawked through town and country.’ They were a means of providing the common people with ‘religious and useful knowledge … an antidote to the poison continually flowing thro’ the channel of vulgar and licentious publications.’ A committee was established which issued a prospectus for the project early in 1795. The tracts sought to point out the pitfalls of drunkenness, debauchery, idleness, gambling, riotous assembly, and seeking to rise above one’s station, whilst simultaneously praising the virtues of honesty, industry, thrift, patience and an acceptance of one’s pre-ordained place in society. Others dealt with contemporary political issues such as the evils of slavery or corrupt electoral practices. They did so by means of ballads and short instructive tales published as chapbooks or broadside ballads, emulating traditional forms of Street literature. One in three were designated ‘Sunday Reading’ and contained simplified Bible stories or else a specifically religious message.

The scheme proved to be enormously successful. During the first six weeks (March 3-April 18, 1795) 300,000 copies were sold wholesale. This figure had more than doubled by July; and by March 1796 two million had been disposed of. They were not just a publishing phenomenon in Great Britain. Separate editions were printed in Dublin and copies were soon taken to America and reprinted there. Beilby Porteous, the Bishop of London, sent copies to the West Indies and to Sierra Leone, and hoped that missionaries would introduce them into Asia.

There are five series of the English tracts: the earliest examples were printed by Samuel Hazard of Bath between March and May 1795. By May 1795 he could no longer cope with the demand and was joined by John Marshall, an established London printer and publisher of Street literature. Between January 1796, and November 1797, Hazard was demoted to the role of distributor and Marshall took over as sole printer. However, following a dispute with Hannah More in November 1797, he was dismissed from his post and the printing contract given to his rival, John Evans. Marshall was unhappy with his treatment by More so during 1798 and 1799 he published a further seventy three titles of his own, which are similar in content and appearance to the official tracts and are often confused with them. Most of the titles went through several editions and there has been widespread confusion in the bibliographical record, with many editions remaining unlisted and numbers of ghost entries with the same edition being listed twice but under different formats.

From visits to libraries in the UK and North America, I have amassed a large number of digital photographs of title pages and other bibliographical details, which has proved to be the most effective way of identifying editions. I began reporting this information to the English Short-title Catalogue (ESTC) about two years ago, and John Lancaster, a volunteer editor of the ESTC database, has been working with me since then. We have discovered many new editions and variants to existing editions, and have removed a number of ghost entries, but we had no expectation of finding an entirely new title. This is because virtually all of the known titles also appear in one or more collected editions of the tracts published between 1796 and the 1830s. However, a visit to Lambeth Palace Library in March of this year identified the following.

The rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram; shewing the dreadful end of them and their party. Being a story calculated to instruct all persons belonging to the Societies of United Englishmen, or United Irishmen; and earnestly recommended to such as may be invited to join them, Sold by J. Evans, (Printer to the Cheap Repository for Moral and Religious Tracts,) No. 41 and 42, Long-Lane, West-Smithfield; and J. Hatchard, No. 173, Piccadilly, London. By S. Hazard, Bath. And by all booksellers, newsmen and hawkers, in town and country.

The work contains the usual series title ‘Cheap Repository’ on the title page, but does not appear in any of the collected editions, nor is it mentioned in the major published studies of the tracts. It does not appear on the Worldcat database, or the catalogues of the British Library, Bodleian, or Cambridge University. One copy only is listed on the UK COPAC database – the one I saw at Lambeth Palace Library. At the time of its discovery it did not appear on ESTC (but has now been added under the reference number N504854).

The tract is a retelling of the Biblical story of Korah and his brothers who rebelled against Moses and of their subsequent destruction; drawing parallels with the contemporary situation in Ireland and warning the populace of the dangers of insurrection. From the opening phrase – ‘At a time when rebellion has broken out in Ireland,’ the tract can be dated, quite accurately to the early summer of 1798, when there were fears that the continuing Revolution in France might give rise to a similar situation in the British isles. The date is confirmed by the names and addresses given in the imprint. There are no indications of authorship but Hannah More wrote more than half of the official tracts and remained associated with the scheme throughout 1798, although the title does not appear in her collected works. In common with other Cheap Repository Tracts the title page contains the statement ‘Entered at Stationers Hall’ but no trace of any entry has been found in the microfilm copies of the Stationers’ Register.

Exactly why this tract was not reprinted .with the other Cheap Repository Tracts and why only a single copy now appears to survive, is not clear. The virtual suppression of the Rebellion by mid-July of 1798, leading to the Act of Union in 1800 may have been a factor.

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