Founded in London in 1769, Debrett’s is a national institution and leading authority on upper-class society. The company has produced Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage, a comprehensive guide to the holders of British hereditary titles, at regular intervals for more than 250 years.
If you’re curious to discover whether the Duke of Westminster is married or where the Earl of Devon was educated, for example, you can consult Debrett’s pages.
John Debrett’s Surprisingly Humble Beginnings
The origins of this famous reference guide, with its distinctive red and gold covers, may surprise you.
John Debrett, who gave his surname to the volumes and is therefore closely associated with the history of Britain’s privileged few, didn’t possess an elite title or fortune of his own. He earned his living as a bookseller in Piccadilly and was declared bankrupt more than once (being a kindly, trusting soul in the cut-throat world of commerce sometimes led to financial difficulties). Debrett didn’t call a grand mansion home, though his father, a cook, worked for the Earl and Countess of Ilchester at Melbury Park in Dorset.
What’s more, the bookseller had French rather than British heritage (his father’s birth name, Jean Louis de Bret, was anglicised after he settled in England).
Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage was originally titled The New Peerage, suggesting that it was more up-to-date than rival publications, such as The Peerage of England. The New Peerage’s first edition was published in 1769 by John Debrett’s employer, John Almon, a bookseller and journalist whose fashionable premises were located opposite Burlington House (which has long been home to the Royal Academy of Arts and was formerly the Earl of Burlington’s London residence).
Chronicling the Lives of British Aristocrats
For the third edition, Almon passed on the (undoubtedly challenging) task of editing The New Peerage to Debrett, who he praised as ‘a very worthy and respectable young man’. The updated book appeared in 1784. At the age of just 31, and having recently taken over Almon’s shop, Debrett was in charge of chronicling the lives of British aristocrats for the nation.
By the early 1800s, Debrett was well established as a bookseller and editor. As one contemporary account of his life remarked, he was ‘eminent’ in his field. Debrett’s shop was, at the height of its popularity, ‘much celebrated as the resort of the leading Whig noblemen and gentlemen’, who wished to read about and debate intellectual issues and current affairs.
After Debrett’s profile grew, the title of The New Peerage changed. Since the 1802 edition, the bookseller’s surname has been proudly displayed on the front cover. He edited Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage until the end of his life. The final edition Debrett worked on, the 15th, appeared in 1823, a year after he died aged 69.
Compiling information about the lives of British nobles brought Debrett a degree of fame. It’s just a pity he didn’t manage to capitalise on his volumes’ success by achieving financial security.
Debrett’s Importance to the British Aristocracy
Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage has always been important to British aristocrats. It reaffirms their superior social position and records how their elite titles are passed down from one generation to the next. In addition, it’s a valuable source of information for anyone who’s interested in aristocratic families.
150 editions have been published to date. It’s now the only up-to-date reference guide of its kind. The 2019 edition is the most recent – and the first to be sold as an eBook, not only in print.
Helping Individuals to Fulfil Their Potential
Debrett’s has remained a leading authority on the aristocracy for so many years partly by continuing its famous publishing tradition and partly by moving with the times. The eBook is just one example of the company’s efforts to appeal to modern, aspirational individuals.
Debrett’s publishes etiquette handbooks, covering everything from writing emails to planning a wedding. It also offers courses and coaching sessions designed to help students, businesspeople and others to approach social situations with confidence, flair and style.
John Debrett gave his surname to a reference guide more than two centuries ago, and it’s been synonymous with elite lifestyles ever since.
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