3 Sep 2021

Debrett's Digital Transformation

 

John Debrett (1753–1822) must be turning in his grave. The Piccadilly bookseller and publisher inherited the New Peerage, first published in 1769, from his mentor John Almon (John Debrett’s name first appeared at the bottom of the title page in the 1784 edition). The ambitious three-volume work, with its ‘account of all the Peers, either by tenure, summons, or creation, their descents and collateral branches, marriages, and issue, also their paternal coats of arms, crests, supporters and mottoes…’ was destined to become an indispensable reference work for the upper echelons of British society.

John Debrett’s career as a publisher of political texts, official reports and documents, and miscellaneous items on topics as varied as ornamental gardening and advice for young ladies, had been chequered. His bookshop was highly fashionable, but he was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy when he brought out the first edition of Debrett’s Peerage in 1802 (the Baronetage was added in 1808).

By 1816 the work had gained sufficient recognition to be mentioned in Jane Austen’s Persuasion – the snobbish Sir Walter Elliott enjoyed browsing its pages and revelling in his illustrious antecedents. This must have also been a pastime for many socially ambitious mothers, who subjected its pages to forensic examination as they explored the pedigree of their daughters’ suitors.

Throughout its long history Debrett’s has had just 14 editors. Chronicling the complex bloodlines and intermarriages of the British aristocracy is the work of a lifetime. Keeping the book up to date involves tracking the life events – births, marriages, deaths, divorce – of an ever-growing cast of characters, which swelled enormously when the Knightage was also included in 1865. Following the introduction of life peerages in 1958 the numbers swelled once again.

Until the late 20th century the book was published by traditional means. A manuscript was prepared by hand (later typewritten by a pool of typists). It was checked, amended and verified, and finally sent off to be typeset, proofread, corrected and eventually printed and bound. At various points in Debrett’s history, this extraordinary labour-intensive production process was taking place once a year.

Even in the late 20th century, when hot metal typesetting had been discarded in favour of digital and photographic typesetting, Debrett’s was run from a Dickensian office, replete with stacked shelves of ‘Guard Books’ (a traditional file) of proofs, drafts, clippings, and plates, and a card index filing system, which recorded the contact details of all the entrants.

It was not until the early years of the 21st century that Debrett’s developed its own database, which was kept continuously updated. Once every four years or so, it miraculously disgorged hundreds of pages of draft copy, which were then sent out to the entrants for review and correction, before being finalised and printed in a weighty, and expensive, volume.

Naturally, a great deal can happen in people’s lives over the course of four years, and it was frustrating for everybody to watch these life events overtaking the latest edition, which inevitably became out of date.

Now, after an incredibly intense development period, most of which took place during intermittent Covid lockdowns which forced us all to work remotely, we have finally achieved our dream and taken Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage into the digital era. Our wonderful new database is fully searchable, and a range of filters can be used. Entrants can send in news (a marriage, birth or death for example) to peerage@debretts.co.uk, and within a day or so will see their entry fully updated.

With over 150,000 entrants listed in our Peerage & Baronetage database, we hope that this unrivalled digital resource will be seen as the true legacy of John Debrett, who battled bankruptcy and spent time in the Fleet Debtors’ prison, but still believed in the importance, and durability, of his great work.

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