Alexander Donaldson

Personal data
Alexander Donaldson
Date of birth (prefix)
Born 1727
Died March 11, 1794
Broughton Hall, Edinburgh

Edinburgh book-seller, printer and publisher, known even today for the Donaldson v. Beckett landmark court case relating to the copyright laws of the time. Son of James Donaldson (d. 1754), a weaver and sometime Treasurer of the City of Edinburgh, and Elizabeth Weir (d. 1768). Married (1751) to Anna Marshall.

In 1748 he opened his first bookshop in Edinburgh. He moved to London in the early 1760s and set up a shop there with his brother, selling cheap paperbacks printed in Scotland. Their partnership ended in 1773. In 1774 Donaldson won the famous Donaldson v. Beckett court case in the House of Lords, which resulted in the Lords rejecting the notice of a perpetual copyright. Boswell himself was somewhat involved in this case. Donaldson was the sometime editor of the Edinburgh Advertiser, a position which passed on to his only surviving son, James Donaldson (1751-1830).1

In 1789 Alexander Donaldson moved back to Edinburgh and bought Broughton Hall in which he died on March 11, 1794. He was buried in Greyfriars Churchyard, Edinburgh.

  • 1James Donaldson made a substantial fortune in the printing and publishing business and, when he died, left his entire estate, worth about £210,000, to found Donaldson's Hospital - a hospital for the education and care of poor and deaf children, which opened in 1851. Today it still functions as a special care institution for deaf children and has recently been used as a stand-in for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies.
Life with Boswell

Donaldson published several of Boswell's writings, and Boswell gave him favourable mention in several journal entries (ie referring to Donaldson as "the prodigious Vendor of Literature", "the Great Donaldson" and "the Renowned Donaldson" in various entries in his [LJ]). They were probably introduced to each other through Andrew Erskine or George Dempster, both of whom were active in the publishing of the first volume of A Collection of Original Poems by Scotch Gentlemen. Boswell contributed to the second volume and also proofread parts of it for Donaldson.

Boswell had tea with Donaldson in Edinburgh on October 27, 1762, describing him as "a man of uncommon activity and enterprise in business, who has a smattering of humour and a tolerable address. He is very obliging and entertains like a prince".

Boswell mentions Donaldson's arrival in London on April 13, 1763, where they breakfasted together. They met again on April 19. Dr Johnson didn't like him. In 1774 Boswell was one of Donaldson's counsels in the Donaldson v. Beckett case.