Sunday 23 December 2012

Thomas Aylwin - Merchant of the Seven Years War

Modern day Rue Notre Dame, Quebec City
Bookplates offer a tremendous opportunity to study those men and women who laid the foundations of the country we live in today.  Thomas Aylwin, an English merchant who conducted trade in Quebec City after its capture by General Wolfe’s army in 1759-60, and then in Boston until the American revolution broke out, had this beautiful Chippendale armorial bookplate made for his bibliographic possessions. 

Aylwin was born in Romsey, Hampshire, England in 1729.  He pursued a merchant’s life and eventually established himself at Quebec City after its capture from the French by General Wolfe’s army in 1759-60.   As one biography of him noted, “he was doubtless among that set of merchants of whom Governor Murray said in 1764: they have resorted to a Country where there is no money, and . . . think themselves superior in rank and fortune to the Soldier and the Canadian.”  At Quebec City, Aylwin’s partner was Charles Kerr and the two men specialized in the retail sale of imported products including dry goods, foodstuffs, wine, hardware, stationery, and other merchandise. After Charles Kerr died in 1765, Aylwin carried on at Quebec until about 1769.  After that, records indicate he moved to Boston, where he continued to operate as a merchant until the outbreak of the American Revolution.  Along the way he had married Lucy Cushing, daughter of the US Supreme Court Justice William Cushing, on 11 September 1771.  Together they had three sons. 
Thomas Aylwin's book plate

Fleeing the outbreak of war, Aylwin returned to Quebec City with his family in 1776 and set up a new business on Rue Saint-Jean, later renting a house on Rue Saint-Joseph. On 23 October 1777 he bought two houses on Rue Notre-Dame, in the business district, from merchant and legislative councilor Thomas Dunn for £948.  Over time the range of products he advertised in the Quebec Gazette steadily broadened.  He died at Quebec City on 11 April 1791.  Throughout his life Aylwin seems to have enjoyed moderate prosperity, and the inventory made after his death reveals that he lived comfortably, though not in luxury.  Included in this inventory was the record of a library of some fifty volumes that included works of history, law, religion, and poetry, as well as business.

I secured Aylwin’s bookplate amongst a small collection of heraldry items I bought earlier this year.  Interestingly it was not listed in the famous Franks collection catalogue, but it was listed in the 1895 catalogue of Canadian bookplates assembled by Quebec Ex Libris authority Phileas Gagnon (G.4755 and G.S. Appx).  Given that his estate noted that Aylwin owned “some fifty volumes” I can’t help but wonder just how many of these bookplates have actually survived over the last 250 years.  Is this the last one?  Does anyone else have one of these in their bookplate collection?  If you do please let me know.  Until next time …

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