When John Rigby & Co. was repatriated to London from the United States, along with the name, goodwill and trading rights came a large number of old books, accounts ledgers, serial number records and production records.

Examining these old books is a painstaking process, some of them are large, heavy and degraded. However, they offer an insight into the life of Britain’s oldest extant gunmaker.

The most senior of Rigby’s surviving ledgers is the ‘Day Book’, which records every transaction as it happens in the Dublin shop. It records sales, repairs, customers, prices paid and accompanying notes.

It is sobering to observe that this single Rigby book pre-dates the founding of both Purdey and Westley Richards by three decades. When shop staff were entering the first purchase in this volume, Harris Holland was not yet born and the great English gunmaker Joseph Manton was still a teenager.

The book starts with the tantalising caption: ‘From the Old Book’ and the page is dated August 15, 1784. The earlier book has not survived, so these entries are probably the oldest surviving records of transactions in the British gun trade. Some early entries may be copies of previously recorded ones from the end of ‘the old book’ but it soon falls into chronological order.

The first sales entry is dated September 1780 under the name of ‘The Right Honourable The Provost’. The Provost of Trinity College Dublin at the time was The Rt. Hon, John Hely-Hutchinson (of whom there is a portrait by Joshua Reynolds in the National Gallery of Ireland).

Portrait of the Rt. Hon. John Hely Hutchinson by Reynolds, Sir Joshua (1723-92)

The Provost was charged £1. 5s. 52d. for the following goods and services (original spelling and abbreviation unaltered):

To Bushing A Steel Mtd Gun

to Spliceing the Stock of Do

to a Cock Pin & Jaw to Do

to a Ham, Head & Worm to Do

to a New Barrel to a Silver Pistol

to Spliceing the Stock of Do

to a siver Ram … to Do

to a New slide to Do

to cleaning the pair

Paid May 4th 1785

In those days, gentlemen paid their bills when it suited them and tradesmen had little option but to wait. Five years from order to payment must have been somewhat frustrating to a man with a business to run and workers to pay.

Much of Rigby’s work at this time was cleaning, altering and repairing existing guns, pistols and rifles, which would all have been flintlocks. This included re-stocking and re-barrelling.

The first sale of a gun recorded is dated 16 June 1781, to Mr William Pilkington ‘A New Carbine – £2. 10s. 0d.’

Rigby sold a ‘New Silver Mounted Pistol’ to M. Thomas Collins of Parliament Street on 4 March 1782 for £5. 2s. 42d. There followed ‘A best officer’s Carbine’ to Edward Bever Esq. on 3 August 1782.

The first sporting gun is ‘A best brass, rifled fowling piece’ for £6. 5s. 14d. to Mr. William Jackson on 24 January 1782.

The book itself is a quarter bound ledger with cloth and leather cover. Entries cease half way down page 141. The final entry is for sales to The Right Honourable Lord Viscount Dillon, dated 5 January 1797. Dillon amassed a significant bill of £51.7s. 62d. when he ordered ‘A large Patent D Gun with Gold pans & Inlaid etc’ (£36. 8s. 0d.) with ‘A Mahogany Case’ (£1. 14s. 12d.), as well as a long list of cleaning services and repairs to other guns.

The last page of the book has entries about accounts settled, notes like ‘settled with Trueman March 10th ’86, I owe him…” Could this handwriting, referring to “I owe him’ and ‘he owes me’ be the actual handwriting of John Rigby himself? It seems likely, given the use of the first person to refer to debts either way.

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