27 February marks the birthday of one Edward Cave (1691 – 1754), one of my favourite characters of the Georgian scene. Cave is not a household name in the annals of London history and nor was he a born Londoner, hailing as he did from Warwickshire. But in 1731 he founded the Gentleman’s Magazine and was responsible for sharing Samuel Johnson’s talents with a broad readership when Johnson was trying desperately to build his career in London as a writer, having failed dismally and deludedly in trying to succeed as a teacher.
Cave was ahead of his time. He launched Gentleman’s Magazine into the crowded periodical market in 1731 as a general interest monthly with broad content and bigger than its rivals which tended to be more frequent and usually thinner. His was the first to employ the word “magazine” to describe a publication. A magazine back then was understood to denote a large repository, as in the military sense. In the early days, much of the content was borrowed, and usually reworked, a bit like The Week is today. This invited harsh criticism – mainly from jealous rivals – which led to Cave employing writers such as Johnson, who worked for the magazine for several years from 1741. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, barely a year after Gentleman’s Magazine, a rival was launched, called the London Magazine. Strapline: or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer. Shameless!
The Gentleman’s Magazine’s early success was built on reader engagement and in particular Cave reached out to the burgeoning provincial middle classes, making it a truly national publication. He encouraged poetry and published submissions from readers by way of competitions. He also gave much coverage to science and new discoveries, including a paper by Benjamin Franklin. Parliamentary reporting being banned at this time, thinly disguised sketches from the “senate of Magna Lilliputia” were published, mostly by Johnson when he was at the magazine.
Cave’s HQ was in St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell, from where he published. Most of the time Johnson worked on site, largely to ensure that he met his deadlines under his proprietor’s watchful eye. The polymath worked behind a screen, supposedly because his tics and eating habits were said to be offputting for colleagues. Poor Johnson. An illustration of St John’s Gate was the masthead logo of the magazine which survived long after Cave and Johnson’s time, until 1922. It’s only rival in this respect is The Spectator (est. 1711), thankfully still with us. You can still visit St John’s Gate today, which is part of the St John’s Museum, and you can actually see the room in which these writers worked. Interestingly, some decades earlier, William Hogarth’s father ran a coffee house at the site, where punters were only permitted to speak Latin. It was not a success.
Edward Cave lived a varied and full life. Physically well-built, he was a headstrong character, being expelled from Rugby school as a boy and encountering some difficulty completing his apprenticeship having fallen out with the widow of his master. He cut his teeth as a publisher at the Norwich Post while still indentured, no doubt setting him in good stead for his later career as a media baron. In addition to the Gentleman’s Weekly, Cave published several hundred other pamphlets and books, quite a few by Johnson. While doing all this, Cave worked simultaneously for the Post Office between 1721 and 1745, first as a sorter and then as an inspector of franks. He used (or abused) this position to farm news stories. In the 1740s he bought a cotton mill in Northampton, investing in the very latest spinning technology.
Cave was generally not well liked, characterised as being bombastic and mean. Unsurprisingly, Johnson thought otherwise, writing a generous biography. In his later years, he suffered terribly from gout and died at St John’s Gate on 10 January 1754. He was buried at St James’s, Clerkenwell.
Source: DNB is good, but you need a subscription.