The removal of the British Library from Bloomsbury to St Pancras seems to have ushered in a new, more relaxed, attitude towards the rules governing who can acquire a reader’s card, according to a Guardian article of 2005. In it the Reading Room is described as being crowded with undergraduates, anxious, no doubt, to obtain an advantage over their peers. Under the rules prevailing in 1938, and which are contained in a Guide to the Use of the Reading Room, a copy of which we found recently in a box of ephemera, restrictions which perhaps Karl Marx might have recognised, were doubtless drawn up to limit the number of readers using the famous Rotunda. There is a distinctly schoolmasterly tone to the following advice:
The Reading Room is in fact, as well as in theory, a literary workshop and not a place for recreation, self improvement or reference to books which are obtainable elsewhere…
No person will be admitted for the purpose of preparing for examination, of writing prize essays, or of competing for prizes, unless on special reason being shown; or for the purpose of consulting current directories, racing systems, lists of unclaimed moneys , or similar publications.
‘Racing systems’ and ‘lists of unclaimed moneys’. How redolent of the seedy world of Brighton Rock, which appeared a year later.
There is also a touch of ‘Greeneland’ about the advice offered to those prospective Readers seeking a testimony :
The Trustees cannot accept the recommendations of hotel-keepers or of boarding- house or lodging-house keepers in favour of their lodgers… [R.R.]
“There is a Museum story that when a member of the staff committed suicide in this room ( the Cracherode) by shooting himself his superior’s first reaction was : ‘Did he damage the book bindings ?”
It sounds like one of those apocryphal remarks that are handed down from employee to employee through the decades in great institutions , but according to Barry C Johnson, author of a booklet entitled, A British Museum Legend (privately printed 1984), it was probably a genuine expression of concern by the Keeper of Books for his valuable charges. The suicide in question had taken place in 1922, but as Johnson remarks in his account of the events leading up to the tragedy, no-one he spoke to about the event could recall the name of the unfortunate Assistant Keeper.
His name was, in fact, Henry Symons, and it would seem that he was a well liked and respected figure both at work and at home, though contemporaries agree that he was very reserved and essentially a loner. His low profile at the BM combined with the fact that he doesn’t seem to have published anything of note, or left any personal diaries and only a few letters, made the job of Johnson as biographer, a challenging one, though his own post at the BM, doubtless proved of great value.
There are plenty of biographical anecdotes concerning the experiences of writers using the facilities of the old British Museum Library —from Washington Irving through Karl Marx up to David Lodge and beyond. When the famous round Reading Room was built many incorporated into their fiction memories of studying there. However, we have little idea today of the process by which books were ordered in the very early years of the Library.
So when an actual ordering slip from this period turns up —and one signed by a well known author—it is a rare event. Surely such ephemera are scarcer even than Shillibeer omnibus tickets and must rank among other celebrity souvenirs, such as non-presented cheques signed by Hollywood film stars and the like.
This particular ordering slip was made out by the poet Thomas Campbell (1777 – 1844), whose Pleasures of Hope was a minor success in 1799, and who remained a well known, though hardly revered, figure of the Romantic period. The book he ordered was The History of Edward the Second by Sir Francis Hubert, which first appeared in 1629. We know the book was asked for on August 23rd , but with no year date present we must examine the style of the vestigial remnant of the printed part of the form and guess that the order was made sometime between 1803, when Campbell settled in London, and 1819, when he brought out his Specimens of the British Poets.
If the order was made before 1810 it would be interesting to know if Campbell had problems obtaining a ticket to the Museum, or whether his celebrity as an author removed any barriers to entry. After this date the ticket system was abolished, which made it much easier to access the Library, although readers often had to wait for many hours, sometimes days, for their books to arrive. [RMH]
There aren’t many librarian superstars. Casanova was one, I suppose, but he was better known for his extra-mural activities. Panizzi of the British Museum was possibly another, but a successor, Sir Edward Augustus Bond (1815 -98), was arguably a greater innovator and was certainly more industrious.
Bond proved that if you had natural talent and were hard working and dedicated, you didn’t need a university education to get to the top in the British Museum at least—though this institution was an exception to the general rule that an Oxbridge degree was de rigueur for a career in the world of Victorian scholarship. Bond earned his spurs and his reputation as a gifted palaeographer, especially in Anglo-Saxon, while in the manuscript department of the Museum, which he had joined directly from school at the age of 17 in 1832. Although he ended up as Keeper of the department in 1867, he was expected to remain there until his retirement, so it came as a shock to many with more conventional educational backgrounds when he was chosen for the top job in 1873.
This letter, which is dated 19th January 1882 and was written to Robert Harrison, who may have been a proof reader, belongs to his fifteen year reign as Principal Librarian, when, among other innovations, he introduced electric light into the Reading Room and storage areas( how amazing that there weren’t more fires in libraries during the eras of candles, gaslight and oil lamps) , built a large extension to house prints, drawings, manuscripts and newspapers, and oversaw the publishing of the printed catalogue of books. In the letter Bond refers to certain errors (possibly printing errors) that Harrison has pointed out to him and requests that he:
...be so good as to return to me 2 copies of each set of the Printed Accessions delivered to you during the past year, and I will instruct Messrs Clowes & Sons to send you for the future only one set of the Printed Accessions, together with the Printed General catalogue...
Bond retired in 1888, aged 73, and doubtless spent much of the remaining ten years of his life on scholarly projects. His publication legacy is not big—a four volume facsimile of Anglo-Saxon Charters and an edition of the speeches of Warren Hastings were notable—but his greatest gifts to fellow scholars are the innovations that made the British Museum Library one of the world’s greatest academic collections. [RH]
An extraordinary memento of Ireland’s bloody Civil War (June 1922 – May 1923) is this blue crayon scrawl in a copy of John Scott’s Visit to Paris (1814). The book came from the library of Edward Joshua Cooper, M.P. (1798 – 1863), one of a long line of Protestant occupiers of Markree Castle dating back to 1663.
During the short war between the Anti-Treaty IRA and the Irish Free State forces, a battalion from the latter occupied the majestic Castle for a short time, presumably to consolidate their hold over County Sligo. No doubt, the Coopers wisely decided to flee their family home during this bloody period, which gave some of the Irish officers the opportunity to avail themselves of a splendid library. It is not known how much a certain Captain Cavanagh read of Mr Scott’s book on Paris, or what he thought of it. However, what we do know is that he found the blank pages a very convenient notebook, as made his mark on at least three pages.
The most interesting entry concerns Corporal George O’Mahoney Rogers who, Cavanagh notes, was found ‘drunk and disorderly in (a) Public House at about 9.45 P.M.’ Perhaps at some time, other records will divulge what happened to Corporal Rogers… Or indeed Captain Cavanagh.
Found-- this intriguing bookplate. It can be seen in many books deaccessioned from the club's library. Until I researched the Forum Club I thought it had some occult or theosophical connection, as the women look like priestesses witnessing some sort of vision or apparition. In fact it was a normal London club, but solely for women, with 1,600 members.
It was founded in 1919 as The London Centre for Women's Institute Members, and lasted into the early 1950s. A number of suffragettes and early feminists were members, including Elizabeth Robins, Mary Sophia Allen and Sybil Thomas and Viscountess Rhondda. As well as accommodation for members (and their maids), the club contained a dining room, a lounge, a photographic darkroom, a salon which could by hired for exhibitions, a bridge room, a billiard room, a library and a hairdresing room. Formerly it had been the residence of of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who was Prime Minister from 1905 to 1908. A blue plaque commemorates his residency. During World War I it was The Princess Christian's Hospital for Officers - a convalescent home with 35 beds, affiliated to Queen Alexandra's Military Hospital in Millbank. A website in 2012 reported it was now boarded up but it will probably re-emerge as an oligarch's palace or a hotel.