Marking the Centenary of the Woman who founded Scotland’s Longest Running Literary Prizes: Janet Coats Black

by Lucinda Byatt

Days after the Armistice bells rang out, Janet Tait Black, née Coats, died on 15 November at the age of 74. A year or so earlier, in 1917, she had drawn up a will that would establish her reputation as a significant philanthropist, following the Coats family’s tradition of supporting education, health and welfare. But Janet had also added a charitable legacy that was unique to her, and a complete novelty: she founded two prizes to be awarded to the best works of literature in memory of her husband James Tait Black. Her bequest launched what have become the UK’s longest running book prizes, but for years her initiative remained largely unnoticed, masked by her husband’s name.

Janet was the daughter of Thomas Coats, one of four brothers who inherited the Paisley-based thread manufacturing company that was renamed J.&P. Coats in 1830. One of a large family, she grew up in Ferguslie House, looking across at Ferguslie Mills. She was in her late thirties when she met James Tait Black, a wealthy widower more than twenty years her senior, who was a partner in the renowned Edinburgh publishing house, A.&C. Black. The couple were married in Paisley, in 1884. James was closely involved, among other projects, in the production of the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. For Janet, married life involved travel abroad, and moving to London, where the publishing house was based after 1889. Her own literary aspirations resulted in two volumes of poetry, one of which was published as Verses and Rhymes, in 1899. The anonymous initials J.C.B. on the cover can now be identified as Janet Coats Black, and the book has a touching dedication: “To my husband’s patient help and supervision I owe the bringing out of this little book.”

Like other Scottish industrialists, the Coats family had a reputation for philanthropy. In 1900 Janet’s brother James Coats Jr. established the Coats libraries, 4,000 of which were given to villages and schools throughout Scotland. Each “library” consisted of a bookcase containing about a hundred or more volumes of “biography, history, fiction, and poetry”, and the works were carefully selected to meet the benefactor’s proviso that they must contain no religious works. Satchels were supplied so the children could take the books home, and a qualified oculist was available to fit spectacles if needed. Portable libraries for the “northern lighthouses” were also provided in a similar initiative.

When James Tait Black died on 5 November 1911, at Millearn House in Ayr, an obituary paid tribute to him as “zealous and judicious book-collector”. After his death, Janet preserved their joint book collection, and his manuscripts, since they are mentioned in the inventory made in 1918. When deciding how best to commemorate his life, it was his love of books, as a collector, reader and publisher, that was the deciding factor. Finalising her will in war-time Britain, she must have viewed reading, and indeed writing, as precious, propitious endeavours, and it was this vision that she had the courage to uphold.

J.&P. Coats Limited had floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1890 and following her death Janet’s personal estate was valued at £314,150, nearly two-thirds in the form of Coats shares. Her standing as a leading philanthropist was announced under headlines such as “£43,000 for charities” and “Legacies to Scottish Institutions: Ayr Lady’s Will”, but the bequests were all named after others. The largest single sum – £20,000 – was bequeathed to the Indigent Gentlewomen’s Fund to “provide annuities for indigent gentlewomen, natives of Paisley”, as a memorial to her mother, Margaret Glen. Now known as the Royal Society for the Support of Women of Scotland, this bequest helped scores of women and retained its distinct characteristics until the recent reorganisation. Janet also left £4,000 in memory of her brother, James Coats Jr., who had died in 1912, and a quarter of this sum was reserved to the Northern Lighthouse Keepers to fund the libraries that her brother had established alongside the school libraries but had not provided for in his will.

But it was the bequest in her husband’s name that would achieve the most renown. Shrewdly instructing that £11,000-worth of shares in J.&P. Coats were to remain invested, Janet stipulated that the two prizes would be rewarded from “whatever income said fund produces after paying expenses, including the fee to the judge.” She also specified the prize categories: “(first) the best biography or literary work of that nature each year, and (second) the best novel or book of that nature of each year judged from a literary standpoint but taking the word in its fullest and widest meaning – the choice to be made by the Professor of Literature of Edinburgh University whom failing the Professor of Literature of Glasgow University.” She named the prizes “The J. Tait Black Memorial Book Prizes”, “being a memorial to my husband who was deeply interested in the best and most educative and elevating works of literature”. Edinburgh knew a good thing when it saw one and the first prizes were awarded in 1920 by the Regius Professor of English for works published in 1919. They have been awarded every year since, forming an unparalleled record of literary achievement that, thanks to this farsighted woman, will celebrate its centenary next year. It would be fitting for the University of Edinburgh to mark this milestone with a fund or prize named after its founder, J.C.B not J.T.B.

Lucinda Byatt’s entry on Janet Coats Black is in the New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, eds Elizabeth Ewan, Rose Pipes, Jane Rendall, Siân Reynolds (Edinburgh University Press, £35)