The Suicide of Henry Symons—-bookman of the British Museum

“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.

Symons was born in Belgium of Jewish parents, but brought up in Highbury, north London. He was a gifted linguist who had won a place at Oxford, achieved a first in ‘ Mods’ and, thanks mainly to his skills in both ancient and modern languages, won in 1896,  a coveted Assistantship in the British Museum at a princely salary of £200 a year. Having achieved this privileged post Symons might have expected, like so many of his fellow cataloguers, to have become a permanent fixture in what the novelist Angus Wilson, himself a former Assistant, later described as an ‘extraordinary mummified late Victorian world’. But Symons, temperamentally a bachelor, made a fatal error in reviewing his lonely existence and coming to the conclusion that he wanted companionship and children. On holiday in the south of France in December 1921 he met and fell in love with a beautiful French lady of 31 called Marie Drouot, and early in September the following year, at the latish age of 51, got married. From then on his life appears to have taken a rapid downturn. Used to scrimping and saving on an exiguous salary and generally pleasing himself, his incompatibility with a much younger wife, who spoke no English, and his failure to provide a comfortable life for her led to much distress on both sides.  There were frequent quarrels about money and housekeeping and in the end, after just two weeks of marriage, she declared that she could not live with him.

It was probably this announcement that proved the last straw for Symons. He expressed as much to his sister. The newspaper reports suggested that money worries were at the root of the marriage’s failure and the resulting suicide. The circumstances of this were pedestrian enough. Having borrowed a revolver from a colleague, Symons remained at the Museum till late in the evening of Thursday September 21st 1922, then returned to his desk in the Cracherode Room, recorded the cataloguing he had done that day, and promptly shot himself through his right temple. Death was instantaneous. The bullet left through Symons’ right cheek and smashed into a glazed case. It is not known whether any book-bindings were harmed in the shooting.  

At the inquest the Coroner recorded a verdict of ‘suicide while of unsound mind’. Symons was cremated at Golders Green in the presence of a few relatives and friends and colleagues from the British Museum. Marie Symons returned to France soon afterwards and does not seem to have benefited from her late husband’s Will. However, Wadham College, Symons’ alma mater, did receive a bequest of £200, which allowed it to establish in 1923 'The Henry Symons Prize' for an essay on the subject of' 'The condition necessary for the birth of a great architecture (to be considered with reference to medieval architecture'.

As Johnson remarks at the conclusion of his account ‘ although Symons 'name may be forgotten in the Museum, it is remembered still at his College.'

It is to the credit of the British Museum that it allowed one of its former employees to publish an account of an incident that reflected so badly on some of its former staff. As for Johnson himself, Abebooks lists only two copies of this one slim publication by him, but there may be other titles out there. [R.R.]

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