William Flyn, provincial bookseller (1764-1801)


Throughout his career William Flyn, at the Shakespeare, Castle Street, Cork,  juggled the various strands of the business of a provincial bookseller. Proprietor of The Hibernian Chronicle newspaper from 1769, he also printed books, pamphlets, legal and administrative documents, and imported books from abroad. Disaster struck in October 1770 when a large stack of chimneys fell through the roof of his printing office, breaking three floors and burying the printing materials in the ruins. Fortunately his journeymen and apprentices were at breakfast and nobody was injured.[1] He put this setback behind him and his business was resumed. He continued to offer money for libraries and advertised secondhand books for sale, he held a diverse stock of printed materials and stationery, including printed forms, parchment, processes, wafers, music, and stamped paper. He stocked the monthly magazines Exshaw’s Gentleman’s and London Magazine and the Gentleman’s Magazine.

He imported paper and in 1773 he received Post, Propatria, Demi, Royal and Imperial papers made by the ‘noted Sterlings of Rotterdam’.[2] Flyn co-operated with other booksellers in Cork, especially with Thomas Lord and Thomas White, and he acted as subscription agent for books published by Dublin and Limerick printers, subscribing to multiple copies. Publishing books of local interest, often by subscription, he used his Dublin and Limerick contacts to sell these works. In 1773 he opened up a ‘correspondence with a principal bookseller in Holland’ for the importation of books, he kept a catalogue at his shop and readers wanting books in any language would be supplied on reasonable terms.[3] As part of his secondhand stock he carried books in French, and it is likely that his customers sought continental publications which could be supplied from the Netherlands.[4] He sold part books and specialised in the sale of children’s books, some of which were imported from Newbery in London.[5] He issued sale catalogues for libraries which were sold by auction, including the libraries of Dr Joseph Fenn Sleigh and Rev. Dr Marmaduke Phillips in 1770 and Sir Richard Cox in 1772.[6] He was a lottery agent and purveyor of patent medicines. As printer of a successful newspaper he established contacts throughout the Munster region for the sale of his publications.


Flyn is not listed as a freeman of Cork, which suggests that he was a Catholic.[7] However, he managed to span the religious divide in a city whose administration was Protestant-dominated at this period. One of the main strands of his business was the publication and sale of works of Catholic interest, many imported from London. In 1773, together with Thomas White, he advertised a catechism written by the Church of Ireland bishop of Cork and Ross, Dr Isaac Mann, and a Bible for children, offering a discount to ‘the benevolent to buy parcels to bestow’.[8] He carried out printing work for Cork Corporation and other bodies in the city. Cork Corporation paid a total of over £762 for printing work and advertisements in The Hibernian Chronicle from 1777 to 1799, averaging just under £35 per annum for 22 years.[9] Showing a humane and charitable face Flyn was one of the founding members of The Society for the Relief and Discharge of Persons Confined for Small Debts, to which he acted as secretary for thirty years.[10] This society was a model of religious co-operation as can be seen by the make-up of its committees. Flyn printed the accounts of the society from 1774.[11] From subscription lists to his publications it is evident that support for his business came from the clergy and congregations of several denominations, officers of the English army stationed in Cork, local landed gentry and aristocracy, and local officials from the major cities and towns in the region.

All images courtesy of Dublin City Library & Archive (www.dublincitypubliclibraries.ie )

[1] Hibernian Chronicle 4 October 1770. Freeman’s Journal 9-11 October 1770.

[2] Hibernian Chronicle 11 February 1773.

[3] Hibernian Chronicle 25 October 1773.

[4] In 1769 he advertized a two-volume Bible in French, St. Francis de Sales in French, as well as grammars, works of history and philosophy. Hibernian Chronicle 25 December 1769.

[5] Hibernian Chronicle 20 August 1770; 2 January 1772; 16 April 1772; 24 December 1772.

[6] Hibernian Chronicle 12 July 1770; 23 August 1770; 30 October 1770. A Catalogue of a Valuable Library, Collected by the late Chancellor Cox, Sir Richard Cox, and the Rev. Sir Michael Cox, Bart. … which will be sold by auction … at Mr Zachery Morris’s Great Room … (Cork, printed by William Flyn, 1772). ESTCT162448.

[7] Cork City and County Archives, ‘Alphabetical list of freemen of the city of Cork’. Transcribed from collection U.11 ‘Index/Digest to Council Books of the Corporation of Cork with alphabetical list of the freemen’ by John O’Shea. Covers freemen admissions from 31 October 1710 to 25 October 1841.

[8] A Familiar Exposition of the Church Catechism by Dr Isaac Mann, Bishop of Cork and Ross, and The Children’s Bible by an eminent divine of the Church of England. Hibernian Chronicle 20 April 1772.

[9] Richard Caulfield, The Council Book of the Corporation of the City of Cork (Guilford, Surrey, 1876), pp.915, 985, 1009, 1015, 1021, 1042, 1078, 1097, 1107, 1117, 1127, 1132.

[10] Cork Mercantile Chronicle 20 December 1811.

[11] A Short Account of the Institution, Rules, and Proceedings of  the Cork Scoiety for the Relief and Discharge of Persons Confined for Small Debts, accounts have survived for 1774, 1777, 1783, 1784, 1787 and 1797.


2 thoughts on “William Flyn, provincial bookseller (1764-1801)

  1. You may be interested in an anecdote about William Flyn. In the autumn and winter of 1777 the English actors Samuel and Mary Ann Reddish appeared at the theatre in Cork, under the management of Thomas Ryder. Flyn publicised the plays in the Hibernian, and printed the play-bills. When the Reddishes were unable to pay for the printing, Mary Ann visited Flyn to reach an arrangement. In the course of their discussions she told him that she had written a novel called The Offspring of Fancy, which was about to be published in London. Flyn offered to take 50 copies. On her return to London in 1778 Mary Ann sent him the 50 copies, which he duly advertised in the Hibernian from October to December 1778. The Reddishes meanwhile had fallen on hard times due to Samuel’s illness, and were virtually destitute when Flyn, some six months before he was bound to by their agreement, sent Mary Ann royalties of £7.10s.0d. The story suggests that Flyn was enterprising, good-natured and honest.


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