Words by Simon de Burton – a journalist and author based in Dartmoor, South Devon, specialising in heritage and luxury living. He writes for the Financial Times, Country & Townhouse, Daily Telegraph, GQ, and Vanity Fair, among many others.
Welcome back to Purdey Pieces, where each month we explore a highlight from the Purdey archives. This week's pick might look humble, but the 1823 order book carries the weight of history.
Paper sizes were not quite the same during the early 19th century as they are today, but try to imagine a book of portrait format measuring around 16 cm in width by 20 cm in height.
It is not lavishly bound by any means, while its covers and spine could fairly be described as scruffy, its stitching loose and its pages “well-thumbed”. It’s the sort of book, in fact, that many of us might find in the back of a desk drawer, spend a moment squinting at its difficult-to-read contents and then “re-file” in the waste basket.
The particular book we’re dealing with here, however, is far too important to be considered for anything less than careful and considerate preservation. It is the oldest surviving order book kept by James Purdey, and therefore one of the oldest surviving records of James Purdey & Sons.
A slice of Purdey history
It dates from 1823, by which time James Purdey the Elder was 39 years of age and had served his gun-making apprenticeship with his brother-in-law Thomas Keck Hutchinson, moved on to work as a stocker and journeyman with renowned London maker Joseph Manton and the Forsyth Patent Gun Company – and then struck out on his own.
Dr Nick Harlow, Purdey’s gun room manager, says the book was clearly intended to be a rough and ready working tool rather than the landmark historical manuscript that it has become.
“It is very much a notebook, with entries written in a bold, copperplate hand and scratched through in pencil, presumably after the commission had been completed,” he explains.
“The orders appear to have been entered very much as they turned-up, meaning serial numbers are rarely included and only basic information, such as the customer’s name, the stock dimensions and the type of gun required, is added.”
The book is part of a specific chapter in Purdey’s history. “Since it is dated 1823, it must have been started while the business was operating from 4, Princes Street, just off Leicester Square. That makes it one of the few pieces to survive from the firm’s original premises.”
It is carefully stored in the Long Room at Audley House, along with other important archive material – and the list of client names that it contains suggests that firm foundations had already been laid to establish Purdey's reputation as a maker of the best English guns that money could buy.
Bespoke from the start
For Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Fellowes (plain “Admiral Fellowes” in the book) Purdey was to create a single-barrel, 13-bore “to be delivered by October 29”, while Lord St Asaph required “a case of pistols” with eight-inch barrels that were to be accompanied by snake-wood ramrods with brass tips and stoppers and have a “handsome finish” – all of which would have set him back 50 guineas, the equivalent of more than £6,000 today.
A Captain Conroy, meanwhile, ordered a 14-bore “double detonater” (sic) – Purdey’s term for a percussion gun – with a two-foot six-inch barrel and a cheek-piece worked into the stock while, on the first page of the book, reference is made to a gun being ordered by a Mr Wright, a right-hand shooter with a dominant left eye that demanded a special “crooked stock”.
The fact that Purdey & Sons would happily accommodate such a request today ably demonstrates that, exactly 200 years after that first order book was started, the client still comes first – just has always been the Purdey way.
Next month, Purdey Pieces will be honing on the ingenious Measuring Gun, patented in 1872 and believed to have been used to measure all the crown heads of Europe for a bespoke gun.