Sampson Low – publishing for more than 200 years
In 1793, the year when the French Revolution broke out in France, a young printer in London named Sampson Low published a beautifully illustrated prayer book and the first of many novels by famous writers. He was a man of remarkable energy setting up his own printing and publishing company in Soho, but sadly he died in 1800 leaving his business to his son Sampson who was only three years old. When the young boy grew up he worked for Longmans the publisher before re-establishing his father’s family name again in London’s Lambs Conduit Street together with a handsome bookshop and library.
The business grew from strength to strength and Sampson Low became an international publishing figure with business connections in the United States and Australia. He was one of the key publishers in setting up the first international copyright agreement and the net book agreement with booksellers across the United Kingdom. A collection of letters from the heyday of Sampson Low in the early 1860s, which is now held in the Open University library, shows a fascinating array of Mid-Victorian literary figures on his writers’ and readers’ list. There are about 200 letters in all and they have never been published from such writers as Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Anthony Trollope, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Makepeace Thackeray, Richard Blackmore, Mrs Gaskell and Lady Noel Byron.
There are several from eminent politicians of that era too: W.E.Gladstone, John Bright, Henry Mayhew and Lord Shaftesbury. There too are the scribblings of such worthy and well-known figures as Florence Nightingale, the Duke of Wellington and Robert E. Lee. Turn the pages on and you will find such divine and saintly names as those of Cardinal Newman, Charles Kingsley and John Stuart Mill, the philosopher. There are famed artists, too, such as John Everett Millais and George Cruikshank, many of whom illustrated his publications. You will also stumble across immortal American names as well, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Wilkie Collins, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beacher Stowe.
Under Sampson Low’s leadership the publishing business thrived and survived for 60 years, but as he grew older he relied more on his three sons – Sampson, William and Walter. He also took on a promising associate editor named Edward Marston in his main office on Ludgate Hill beneath St Paul’s Cathedral. But sadly his three sons all died before he did in 1886 and Marston took over the firm. Marston recalled his old boss as ‘a man of unusual zeal and untiring energy, but although he possessed excellent business qualities, he was not the man to accumulate a large fortune in trade. His zeal and energy took a less selfish and more philanthropic turn. He was a deeply religious man and perhaps never so happy as when engaged in Sunday duties as a school teacher, or in superintending some good work for the benefit of the poor of his neighbourhood’. Among his charitable works he set up the Booksellers’ Provident Association and left them a handsome legacy. With his son Sampson he also set up the ‘Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire’, a charitable society that saved thousands of lives and became the basis of the London Fire Brigade.
After Sampson died, the firm continued to publish as Sampson Low, Marston and Co. and it flourished well into the Edwardian age. The Low family had lost their involvement with the company, but Sampson Low Marston remained a separate publishing house until the end of the Second World War. For more than 100 years its regular publication of Jane’s Fighting Ships was eagerly read and recorded by navies all over the world. The shortage of paper after the war made life hard for book publishers; even so Sampson Low published such famous children’s authors and romantic novelists as Enid Blyton and Jeffery Farnol. But in 1950 the company was taken over by Purnells, the printers of its novels in Somerset, and became part of the British Printing Corporation (BPC).
However, the media mogul Robert Maxwell bought up the parent corporation BPC in 1981 as part of his over-ambitious publishing empire. Over the next 10 years Sampson Low Ltd was systematically asset-stripped with all its publications being either sold off or closed down. Maxwell himself fell from his yacht and drowned off the Canary Islands on 5 November 1991 and his whole empire was declared bankrupt a year later. Sampson Low was offered for sale for a few thousand pounds; then, when nobody offered to buy it, the company was wound up and de-registered exactly 200 years after it was first founded. The family name was dead … or was it?
George Low, one of the direct descendants of the founder, discovered the remains of the dismembered company at Companies House in Cardiff – and brought it back to life by re-registering Sampson Low Ltd in October 1997. A journalist, editor and publisher, George had worked for both BPC and Longmans and had watched with growing horror as Maxwell dismembered and destroyed his family firm. The Lows now own the company again with his wife Sally as company secretary and his four sons – Sampson, Alban, Joshua and Jacob – as the directors. Outlining their future vision for the next century, George declares: ‘With this new chapter in the history of Sampson Low Ltd, we hope to revive the great days of our Victorian ancestors; to draw a line under the sleazy scandals of the Maxwell regime; and to launch out with confident creativity into the internet era.’