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The Classic "John Murray"

Travel Collection


 

 

 

 

(This portrait shows the third John Murray, who started the Murray Handbook series in 1836. )

In keeping with our goal of preserving the world's greatest travel literature from obscurity, Classic Travel Books has begun reissuing the most important travel books originally published by the famous house of John Murray which are at present both out of print and out of copyright.

While many companies can take justifiable pride in having published notable exploration and travel books, the Murrays’ contribution to the encouragement of travel has been outstanding.

This unique family publishing dynasty was founded in London in 1768 by the first John Murray, a former officer in the Royal Marines, who could never have foreseen that six generations of his descendants, all named “John Murray,” would stand at the helm of one of the greatest ever publishing houses.

The unrivalled string of literary giants who have passed through the door of the family’s house at 50 Albemarle Street would outshine the Hollywood “Walk of Stars.” Jane Austen,  Lord Byron, Walter Scott, Washington Irving,  Bokhara Burnes,  Charles Darwin, Herman Melville, David Livingstone, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Freya Stark, Kenneth Clark and Patrick Leigh Fermor all came to John Murray to have their books published.

As these names indicate, the Murray family were undeniable supporters of fine literature. Yet additionally they made unique contributions to the art of travel.  For instance, the third John Murray launched the famous “Murray’s Handbooks” in 1836 that predated Baedeker, a series of informational travel guides that served as the forerunner of today’s “Lonely Planet” style guides.

Yet it is the Murrays’ support of travel literature that stands out particularly. When Austen Layard discovered the ancient city of Nineveh, he published his account with Murray in 1853. Likewise when Paul du Chaillu returned from Africa in 1890, having confirmed the existence of the gorilla, a hitherto mythical beast, it was to Murray that he went for publication.  The Murrays were, without doubt, the most important publishers of travel and exploration of the period.

Sadly, after nearly two hundred and fifty years, the current John Murray (the seventh) reluctantly decided to sell the family firm, given the brutal corporate climate of 21st century publishing and bookselling. After most careful thought he sold it to Hodder-Headline who were looking for a distinguished up-market imprint, and they continue its fine tradition and keep it as an autonomous imprint within their Group.   Please click here to go to the John Murray section of their website. 

While it is common practice to preserve endangered species such as pandas and whales, what is often overlooked is that singular human achievements are often also at risk. Given the current climate of publishing it is all too often what sells, as opposed to what is good, that is published.  We believe that an extraordinary wealth of travel experience and fine travel writing of the quality of  past John Murray travel titles is in danger of being lost. This fear was reinforced by the recent demise of J. A. Allen, the owner of the famous Allen equestrian publishing company. Despite a lifetime dedicated to discovering and publishing the world’s most influential equestrian books, upon his death in the late 1990s the exceptional legacy of this unique man was largely lost to posterity.

Classic Travel Books has, therefore, begun a long term project wherein the finest travel accounts originally published by John Murray will once again be reissued using our state-of-the-art 21st century POD technology. We believe our practice of resurrection publishing will not only serve as an example of literary conservation, but also ensure that the priceless knowledge found in the past Murray travel titles will be provided to the public at an affordable price. This latter concern is a vital element of our work as a recent study showed that fifteen randomly-chosen first-edition Murray travel titles would cost a reader $37,000 if the books were purchased from rare book dealers.  

Finally, thanks to the foresight of the current John Murray, the immensely valuable family publishing archive consisting of over 150,000 manuscript items together with ledgers and letter books have been placed for safe-keeping within the National Library of Scotland with access for all. In order to promote the study of literature and publishing, Classic Travel Books will make an annual donation to the John Murray Archive based upon the sales of the family’s reissued travel classics.   Please visit the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland website.  And please click here to read "John Murray Archive comes to life," a story on the BBC website about Michael Palin opening a major new exhibition in Edinburgh full of historic letters, documents and rare books.

John Murray had this to say about our endeavours:  "I am  delighted that many of the classic John Murray travel titles are to be reissued by Classic Travel Books  - it's a marvellous idea."

We are currently preparing more than a dozen past Murray titles for reissue.  Please click here to see The John Murray travel titles available in either the Classic Travel Books or Horse Travel Books Collections.

For more information on the history of the John Murray family, please go to this page on Free Traveler.

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