Debrett's Early History
"You should study the Peerage, Gerald. It is the one book a
young man about town should know thoroughly, and it is the best
thing in fiction the English have ever done." Oscar
An advertisement was placed in the St James's Chronicle for 11/13th July 1780 by John Debrett, in which he says: 'John Debrett begs leave most respectfully to acquaint the Nobility and Gentry and his readers in general that he is removed from the late Mr William Davis's the corner of Sackville Street to Mr Almon's Bookseller and Stationer, opposite Burlington House, where he hopes he shall be honoured with their commands'.
His hopes seemed to have been well founded, for John Debrett remained at his prestigious quarters in Piccadilly, opposite the Royal Academy, for nearly forty years, from which address he produced at least 14 editions of the Peerage, four editions of the Baronetage, plus many parliamentary debates, state papers and collections of verse and prose.
Debrett was also the official publisher to the East India Company. He produced several almanacs including The Royal Kalendar, The American Kalendar, The East India Kalendar, and The British Imperial Calendar (later renamed The Civil Service List). In conjunction with John Murray (another great name in the history of publishing), John Debrett was a founder of The Globe newspaper, first issued on 1st January 1803. Not a bad start for the son of an emigré French-Huguenot pastry-cook!
Although a busy publisher, Debrett was not always in funds (he was married and had four sons and two daughters), and he was twice declared bankrupt. He was found dead in his armchair at his lodgings at 11 Upper Gloucester Street, Regent's Park, 15th November 1822, aged nearly 70. He was described as 'a kindly man who had full opportunity of acquiring a large fortune but from too much confidence and easiness of temper he did not turn it to the best account'.
From about 1818 until his death in 1833 Francis Townsend, Rouge Dragon at the College of Arms, edited the Peerage and Baronetage. The chief proprietors and publishers were a company named Rivington, whose offices in St Paul's Church Yard were close by the College. Townsend's assistant was William Courthope, son of a London shipwright, who eventually succeeded him as editor. Subsequent editors remained quite closely connected to the College of Arms through a network of family relationships, and Debrett continued to be published at regular intervals until 1849. At this date the publisher was one William Pickering, who fell foul of the new copyright legislation of 1842, whereby the duration of copyright was extended to 42 years from the date of publication, or until seven years after the death of the author, which ever was the longer period.
Pickering died in 1854 leaving his family destitute, and there were no copies of Debrett published from 1849 for the next fifteen years. In 1864, however, Dean & Co acquired the copyright and the Peerage and Baronetage (published for the first time in one single volume in 1865) continued as an annual publication until 1973. A Knightage section was added in 1864 and remained a part of the volume until 1973 (by which date the book had reached 3,000 pages). Another title was Debrett's House of Commons and Judicial Bench.
Under the ownership of Dean & Col Ltd Debrett was published from a variety of addresses around Ludgate Hill, Fleet Street and Covent Garden. Two of the principal editors during those years were Dr Robert Mair, an authority on cribbage, who added Mair's School List to the stable, and Arthur Hesilrige, whose mother was Dr Mair's first cousin.
Cyril Hankinson succeeded Hesilrige as editor of Debrett in 1936, and he continued to publish the book throughout World War II. He dramatically described (in his memoir My Forty Years with Debrett) walking along Fleet Street following a bombardment the previous night, with the flames still shooting from the fractured gas mains.
During his editorship Hankinson did much to publicise Debrett. His speciality was tracing missing heirs to titles, and he was extremely successful in this field. He was equally successful in exposing bogus baronets, who for some reason seemed to flourish during the war.
Hankinson's successor, Patrick Montague-Smith, was assistant editor of Debrett from 1946-62, editor from 1962-80, and consultant editor from 1980 until his death in 1986. He was one of the most gifted genealogists of his day, and it was his inspired idea to research and write Debrett's Correct Form, first published in 1971, which in many ways is the foundation stone of the Debrett's website today.