Walter James Leighton

Walter James Leighton (1850-1917), who became president of the ABA in 1909, was born into the very heart of the London book-trade – certainly the third and quite probably the fourth generation of a family of London bookbinders. He was first cousin to the celebrated John Leighton (1822-1912), artist and designer, and the wider family almost certainly included Jane and Robert Leighton of Leighton, Son & Hodge, the well-known Victorian publishers’ binders, as well as the Leighton Brothers (George Cargill Leighton, Charles Blair Leighton and Stephen Leighton), pioneers of colour printing (see A Blocking of Leightons).

Born at Westminster on 2nd August 1850 and baptised at St. James Piccadilly on 27th August 1850, Walter James Leighton was the son of the bookbinder James Leighton (1802-1890) and his wife Annie Fordham (1827?-1868), who had married in 1847. The immediate family firm had been founded, apparently as early as 1798, by his grandfather John Leighton (d.1857) who, with his wife Eleanor Mann (d.1850), had occupied premises at 40 Brewer Street, Golden Square, since at least 1819. It was here that Walter Leighton spent his early years – and indeed the whole of his working life. His grandfather was still alive at the time of his birth but had by now retired and the firm, previously styled John Leighton & Sons, had recently become John & James Leighton – a partnership of the two sons, Walter’s father, James, and uncle, John Leighton (1800-1883).

The firm had already diversified into bookselling as well as bookbinding, a change reflected in the census return of 1861, when James Leighton and his young family (Walter had four sisters) were living in Hartland Terrace, St. Pancras. James Leighton was here for the first time recorded simply as a bookseller, then employing two men. Walter’s mother died when he was just seventeen, by which time he was already training in the family business. By 1871, living with his widowed father at 14 Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill, he was himself recorded as a bookbinder.  

On 22nd Aug 1882 he married the nineteen-year-old Eva Eliza Ratcliffe Porter, the daughter of a farmer, at St. John the Evangelist, Waterloo. The following year, on the death of his uncle, he became a full partner in the family business, which became James & Walter James Leighton for a few years before reverting to the J. & J. Leighton style after his father’s death. And by 1891, recorded as a master bookbinder, he was living with his wife at 4 Foxmore Road, Battersea.

His wife died in 1901 and for much of the later part of his life he lived with his four sisters at 1 Fulham Park Gardens, Fulham – the business remaining throughout the period at 40 Brewer Street until his death in 1917. He died on 16th November 1917. Probate was granted on 8th August 1918 to his nephew, Herbert Sidney Leighton – his effects stated at the impressive sum of £344,392.15s.4d. The ledgers and stockbooks of the firm for the period 1896 onwards are held by the British Library.

The business continued, becoming a limited company in 1920, moving to 25 Heddon Street and then in 1928 to 100 Great Russell Street. The managing director at this time was H. W. Davies, who had been manager and cataloguer with the firm for many years. At various times the firm's customers had included Gladstone, Carlyle, Michael Faraday, Sir William Osler, William Morris and Lord Birkenhead.

Laurence Worms, revised April 2014