The origins of the FBM

On the left is a sketch believed to be of JS. Born in 1852, he ran a small but prosperous trouser maker's workshop in Manchester and was also a lay non-conformist preacher who proclaimed socialism from his pulpit. It is not surprising that the only picture we have of him is this one doubtful drawing; J was not one to sit about being photographed or having his portrait painted. His mission was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. He believed that everyone was entitled to education as a right and did everything he practically could to bring education to the poor and exhausted workers of Manchester's mills and factories. He helped to found three schools (all now sadly demolished) and gave night classes in the backrooms of alehouses. One day in 1887, he was walking past a library and saw two labourers throwing books into a cart. To J, books were the means by which you could better yourself and therefore precious, so he didn't like to see them chucked about. He asked the men what they were doing with the books and they told him that they had instructions from the librarian to take them away and burn them. Appalled, J gave them two shillings to take the books round to his house and unload them, then went to have a word with the librarian.

Today, council libraries still discard books in fair to good condition, by major authors or on interesting subjects at an alarming rate. We cannot find any reason for this other than that some librarians seem to think it makes the shelves tidy if there are fewer books on them. This stupidity only means more books for FMB groups to sell if they happen to be in the right place at the right time. Too many decent Library books are still ending up in landfill.
J's long-suffering wife, Sarah, came home from her shopping to find the hall piled high with dusty books and J pacing up and down in deep thought. She began to complain but J said "every man is entitled to the educational and civilizing effect that is to be had from owning books. I am going to sell these very cheaply and give the proceeds to some charity." "Why not just give them away, J, surely you give more to charity than can be gained by the sale of a few old books" asked Sarah, thinking no doubt that they might be out of her hall the more quickly that way. "A charitable donation is not the main purpose, my dear. Working people need to take pride in the purchase of their personal libraries by their own efforts."

A carpenter friend knocked up a folding table, J loaded table and books onto his cart and pushed them round to the nearest mill at going home time. He soon aquired helpers and because of the famous masks, articles began appearing about him in the newspapers. Soon, other groups of masked booksellers sprang up in Manchester and all over the industrial north. The The Federation of Masked Booksellers was born.

...but why the masks?

Many people ask why FMB members wear masks when we're behind our bookstalls. We have seen that JS was an energetic philanthropist; he also believed in doing good by stealth. Hence, he did a lot of his good works anonymously. He decided therefore that the identities of all who helped out on his bookstalls should be concealed behind masks. J's wife, Sarah, made him several fine masks of various materials. The need for masking did not go down too well with some of his friends and helpers, but they were used to J's eccentricities and mostly went along with his wishes. Indeed, some lady helpers incurred J's dissaproval by sporting exotic masks adorned with tassels, sequins, large feathers &c. On the right is a rare photo taken some time just before WWI of an FMB group formed by Lancashire mill girls; clearly they had no cash to spare for fancy masks. Until they became a regular part of the Manchester scene, there were a few unpleasant incidents with the local constabularly, who thought the masked booksellers were burglars - although why the police thought that burglars would be a) appearing in broad daylight wearing masks and b) selling second hand books was never adequately explained. Apparently, the masks still cause the police anxiety; a midlands group reported being approached at a Gay Pride Festival and asked to explain themselves. The constables heard all about J and the early days of the FMB, and went away bemused.

Today, FMB members still wear masks when they go about their work, as a tribute to J, those early members of the FMB and their great achievements.


By the turn of the century, there were FMB branches throught Great Britain, Ireland and in many parts of the world. Crates of books were shipped off to Egypt, India, China, Australia and New Zealand. But with the coming of world war, many masked booksellers volunteered for service, mostly nursing or other non-combattant work, so the books remained in their boxes unsold. There were a few exceptions. Chief Engine Room Artificer Pickering, RN, of HMS Southampton ran a bookstall for the ship's crew, though Naval regulations meant he couldn't wear his mask. He kept the books stowed in a locker close by his battle station. At Jutland, when HMS Southampton was hit by a devastating salvo, the locker full of books absorbed the blast and probably saved Pickering's life.

After the war, poor J was incapacitated by illness, probably caused by standing behind a bookstall in all weathers. He was unable to continue his charitable works and members of the FMB were either dead, ill or had other priorities, so the FMB declined as more and more member groups stopped operating. However, looked after by his faithful Sarah, he still sold books from the front room of his old house which was as full of boxes as always. Sarah never did get her hall free of books for long. People were always bringing books for him to sell, or rummaging through the boxes for their favourite authors, so the house was a busy place. If you were a regular or spent a bit, Sarah might even make you a cup of tea. J died in 1928 and Sarah in 1936, both greatly mourned by many.

"...the whole front room was piled high with books, so that it was quite difficult to look at them all. In their midst, J presided in an armchair; there was no attempt at arrangement by category or anything like that, but if you said 'have you got anything about South American reptiles", J would think for a bit, then point to a pile of boxes and say 'try under there'. He was usually right."


In 1998, Glasgow library assistant Doreen McFee was walking through the town, photographing old buildings on her day off. Looking up, she noticed the plaque you see on the left. She liked it because it showed books being handed out, so she took this photograph. A school crossing lady was standing nearby and, seeing her interest, said:
"Of course he should be masked really."
"What? Who should?" said the puzzled Doreen.
"Yon wee man giving the books out."
"But why should he be masked?"
"Because he's a Masked Bookseller," sighed the school crossing lady with exaggerated patience. A lengthy conversation ensued, during which it transpired that the school crossing lady's gran had been a Masked Bookseller, that there had been several FMB groups in Glasgow, and the plaque was on a building used by them as a warehouse - suggesting a rather larger operation than J's front room.

On her way back home, Doreen passed a theatrical costumiers; in the window was a display of Venetian masks. She says she felt as if she was in the hands of fate. She chose a purple and gold mask with just a few black feathers on one side. Doreen got on the phone and the boxes and bags of books soon started arriving. The first Masked Booksellers stall for 80 years was held outside her house the following Sunday, raising 96 for local charities. Since then, new Masked Bookselling groups have been springing up everywhere; as well as in several UK towns, there are groups in Australia (where it had been remembered fondly) and some even in Eastern Europe.


Hard evidence of the early activities of JS and the Federation of Masked Booksellers is frustratingly difficult to come by. For example, it is believed J may have corresponded with a Mrs Humphrey, an Edinburgh lady who started the Repository for Gentlewomen in 1882 (we are farely sure this correspondence was still in existance before WWII). This organization helped poor gentlewomen gain a living by providing an outlet for the sale of their handiwork. We feel sure that J would have been enthusiastic about such an initiative. However, there was a split, Mrs Humphrey was unjustly blaimed for certain irregularities, so she moved on to set up the Self Aid for Gentlewomen in 1893, with similar aims. The two organizations amalgamated in 1977, becoming the Royal Edinburgh Repository and Self Aid Society, which happily still continues today at its shop in Castle Street, Edinburgh. It's the place to go for a wide variety of high quality craft work and excellent home-made cakes.

The Masked Booksellers were certainly not the only philanthropic organization to go around in masks. Between 1930 and 1947, the National Trust, no less, received donations from a shadowy group known as Ferguson's Gang. The gang is believed to have chiefly comprised five young women who hid their identities behind masks. in 1933 a masked member of the gang deposited 100 worth of Victorian silver coins on the Trust secretary's desk. In 1935, a masked member of the gang was interviewed by the BBC. Their donations enabled the purchase of fine old buildings which would otherwise have been lost to us as well as stretches of the Cornish coastline, also land in Derbyshire, the Lake District, Devon and Wiltshire. Being so enigmatic, we know little about them - or where they got the mask idea from. Remembering that the Federation of Masked booksellers was somewhat in abeyance at the time when Ferguson's Gang began their activities, we can only speculate that as children, they may have seen some masked booksellers in action. Perhaps not surprisingly, photographs of the gang are few; in the one on the left, which is supposed to be them having a picnic in 1935 (they liked picnics very much), they are not even wearing masks!

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