Books to buy in late Victorian Britain

J. H. Slater, a lawyer by training, who became the doyen of late Victorian writers on rare books, deserves to be far better known than he is. It is scandalous, for instance, that someone with so much influence and practical discernment  has no Wikipedia page ). He often comes across as  a grumpy, somewhat world-weary and cynical guide to the world he knew so well. Though occasionally inspirational ( particularly on incunabula ), his observations on the second hand book trade in general were often shocking when he made them, and continue to be distressing to many collectors today. Take some of the comments in his chapter entitled ‘ books to buy ‘.

‘ Few collectors, who are not specialists, care very much for the utility of their libraries; in many cases, indeed, it is not a question of utility at all, but of extent, though I apprehend that no one would wish to crowd his shelves with rubbish merely for the sake of filling them. As an immense proportion of the books which have been published during the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries clearly come under that category, the collector has much to avoid, and stands in need of considerable experience to enable him to make a selection…’

Such a statement might be regarded as sacrilegious to many collectors who feel that any writing that has reached the stage of publication must, ipso facto, be worthy of respect. The fact that a book printed in the sixteenth century has survived into the twenty-first doesn’t mean that it is worth collecting. The often argument that such a book reflects the morals, taste or intellectual climate of the time is not a valid one. Discernment must be another factor and that can only be acquired through knowledge and scholarship, or ‘experience ‘,as Slater goes on to argue.

Slater cites the example of Naude, the seventeenth century bibliophile whose method of purchasing, was ‘ if not unique, was at any rate, uncommon’.

‘His favourite plan was to buy up entire libraries, and sort them at his leisure; or when these were not available in the bulk , he would, as Rossi relates, enter a shop with a yard measure in his hand, and buy his books by the ell. Wherever he went, paper and print became scarce: ‘ “ the stalls he encounters were like the towns through which Attila had swept with ruin in his train”  

Then there was the notorious bibliomaniac Rev. Richard Heber (1773 – 1833 whose great wealth was spent on a vast library that occupied eight houses in Britain and the Continent. His dictum was ‘ no gentleman can be without three copies of a book, one for show, one for use and one for borrowers ‘. In 1834, after his death, the sale of his books occupied 202 days, and in the words of Slater, ‘ flooded the market with rubbish —a worthy termination to a life of sweeping and gigantic purchases, made in the hope of acquiring single grains of wheat among his tons of worthless chaff’.

Continue reading

Destroyed manuscripts— horror stories to chill the blood




Found at Jot  HQ,  the pamphlet published by Winfred A. Meyers ,a well known dealer in autograph letters and manuscripts, containing  the talk she gave at the ABA Book Fair  at Albemarle Street, London, in 1961 on  ‘ How to Collect Autograph Letters and Manuscripts ‘.


Meyers sets off by making a good case for collecting autograph letters from a historical point of view. She argues that a letter or set of letters may help a ‘professional’ scholar piece together episodes in the life of a particular person, possibly solving a puzzle that has perplexed other scholars for years; letters can also immediately connect an amateur with the author of a work in that person’s library. So far,  so good. These are obvious benefits of collecting autograph letters. Meyers then comes to the horror stories of letters and historical documents lost, irretrievably damaged through neglect, or deliberately destroyed. What she tells us is indeed a litany of terrible losses:

‘…it is amazing after what has befallen letters and documents in the not so distant past, how much has survived. The rats that gnawed the letters from Elizabeth’s favourite courtier, at Belvoir Castle; the parish registers that turned into solid glue in the wet cellars of another stately home; Somerset House in 1840 sending the Exchequer Accounts of Henry VIII and the Secret Service Accounts of Queen Elizabeth to the waste paper merchant: the old India Office turning out the records of the Indian navy to the paper mills; the French Revolutionaries destroying and dispersing the papers of the Monarchy, and the restored Monarchy destroying the papers of the French Revolutionaries; the British army destroying the White House papers in 1812; the Southern States destroying their records before the advancing Union Army in the Civil War; the Sinn Feiners’ destruction of Dublin Castle records; the salvage drives and bombing of two wars; the mouldering records in a pigsty at Arundel Castle; the toy-drum and lampshade-makers’ part; Cassandra Austen tearing up the letters of her sister Jane, and George Washington’s widow tearing up all George’s letters to her and a terrible story I just heard of a collection of Emily and Charlotte Bronte letters that were torn up only last week…’ 

Continue reading

O Rare Amanda !

Amanda Ros calling card 001

In June 1973 Bevis Hillier, connoisseur of English porcelain and friend and biographer of John Betjeman, wrote a piece in The Times concerning an archive of manuscripts, published books, letters and photographs  of Larne’s best loved citizen and arguably Britain’s worst writer, Amanda McKittrick Ros, that had come onto the market. The collection, assembled over many years, mainly from members of her family, by journalist and founding member of the British Communist Party, Eric Mercer, had been sold by him to the bookseller A.F.Wallis just before he died in 1972 aged 89, and Wallis now wanted  £4,500 for it.

Forty-six years ago this was a tidy sum for a writer mainly known for her comedy value. Back in the 1920s, when smart Oxford undergraduates like Betjeman and Waugh took part in competitions to discover who could read out passages from Ros’s novels and poetry without laughing, such an archive might have fetched more. But even in 1973, years after her star had faded somewhat, £4,500 for such a unique collection seems a bargain today,  especially when we learn that the MS of Enemies of Promise by the minor writer Cyril Connolly was up for sale at the same time for a cool £2,000 !

Few would dispute that Ros has ever been truly fashionable, but her books, all of which were originally privately printed, are still collected and first editions, especially of her verse, are hard to come by, mainly because of their small print-runs. But no publisher in 2019 would dare bring out large editions of her books partly because she is still not well known enough and partly because we have become rather po-faced about ridiculing people who evidently had no talent, whether as writers or marathon runners.  Continue reading

A West African Diary part two

freetown_1947In our first extract from the diary kept by an anonymous male visitor ( possibly of African heritage) to West Africa early in 1954 we left him looking around Freetown in February. We continue with his observations from the 13thof that month.


‘ People one pass in the street at 7.30 a.m. have pleasant odour. Had some paw-paw this morning. Did nothing spectacular this morning and afternoon. Went to the City Hotel this evening with Mr John and meet there a Swede seaman who had been in hospital. He is waiting for a ship to go home.


Feb 14.

I went to the City Hotel this morning for a cup of tea. From the Hotel veranda I saw a queer thing—a middle age European and wife entered their car; the wife sat in front with the driver, the husband sat in the back alone. Got a cable from Sam at 11 o/c A.M.


15 Feb.

Camara & I went to the City Hotel. There we were invited into the august comp. of Lawyer Mahoney, Markus Jones, Admin. Officer, who travelled on the Apapa with us, and a local newspaper man, and a building contractor. The discussions were very enlighting.


16 February.

I saw a distasteful scene this afternoon in a primary school near Victoria Pk. A teacher was caning juvenile with all the vigour he can muster. Its was discraceful . Advance 30/- to John.


February 17, 1954.

I met a Somali in Victoria Pk. We were both listening to the radio news . Finally we got to know each other . I learnt a lot from him. He is a Moslem. The Syrians and the Indians in Freetown do not respect nor trust the inhabitants . They would rather keep a stranger in the city. There are three million Syrians out of Syria. Continue reading

Another jolly good goose supper !

Another piece for this modern day ‘Diary of a Nobody ‘Tjaden diary 1950 pic 001(although William L. Tjaden was actually somebody in the gardening world). Should have gone up at Christmas, but better late etc.,

The words of our previously unidentified gardener diarist ( see earlier extracts from a 1957 diary) on Friday 29 December 1950. He has now been unmasked as William L. Tjaden (b.1913), who was married to the adorable Madge in 1945 and by 1950 had become the 37 year-old Chairman of the North Kent Dahlia and Gladioli Society.

In the quieter days of these immediate post-war years, long before the festive season was an excuse to stuff your face with chocolates while watching box sets, life in the Tjaden household at Christmas was a time for still more potting, transplanting and tying up plants. In a period when for many, including the Tjadens, the wireless and the gramophone were the only sources of home entertainment, William and Madge took advantage of both in the dark and freezing winter of 1950. And in a rather Dickensian note we find that before factory farms had made chicken and turkey available to all, goose was perhaps the more popular festive poultry. The Tjadens ate Polish goose on Christmas Day, while the same meat was eaten on the 29thand 30th. If this was the same goose it must have been a huge one.

Nor did New Year’s Eve (a Sunday) mean a rest from gardening chores. William cycled over to Bexley to buy 2 gallons of creosote ( shopping on Sunday was, it seems, legal then ) and spent all afternoon attending to his growing frames. Instead of copious amounts of alcohol, the couple took tea at 6.45, and having taken a decision to ‘ ignore the New Year ‘, were in bed by 11. [R. Healey]

Diary of a Nobody (part 4)

chrysanthemum displaySeptember and October turn out to be very busy months for our gardener. He spends huge amounts of time preparing blooms for various local shows — spraying them with Malathion, deshooting ( etc etc), wins some prizes, including a first place, is disappointed by failures ( is second out of three), resents the success of other exhibitors and moans about the rain destroying blooms. He is writing articles for the Chrysanthemum Society and visiting various national exhibitions in London.

Perhaps ashamed at his poor performances in the language while on holiday he enrols for  Italian classes at the famous Morley College, but as they fall on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, regrets that he might be a poor attender ( Chrysanthemums come first, no doubt!). He later attends some on Monday evenings. He pores over his holiday snaps, worries when some don’t arrive on time, and pastes the flowers he picked in Austria and Italy into an album. And for the first time we discover that he has children. It’s the first mention of them in his Diary—unless they are someone elses’ children. And his cycle journeys to his mum become more frequent. On one visit in September she cooks him a ‘smashing dinner ( chicken and Xmas pudd)’ . On another occasion he brings her some of his prize blooms, leading on 28thSeptember to the perhaps unique and certainly hilarious diary entry in the history of diaries—‘ visit Mum, take her some ‘ mums ‘.

He still doesn’t own a car or a TV set, but he does buy a spanking new hi-fi gramophone and wireless combined, which he feels is ‘pricey ‘ at £29 ( it is really, considering that his monthly salary is probably around £50). As ever, in the evening entertainment is confined to listening at home to light opera, a talk on the Third Programme, a radio play on the Home Service, or the occasional game of canasta at a friend’s home. He never seems to visit the pub with ‘the lads‘ from work. Perhaps the redoubtable Madge wouldn’t like him to. Continue reading

‘Every woman with stockings is a whore’ and other scurrilous entries in an early nineteenth century common place book

Here is a dual purpose thick octavo notebook bound in calf with a clasp. Nineteenth century diary & common place book 001The front part is a short record of travels in Germany and Belgium in which the anonymous male diarist, who is accompanying his mother, at one point tells us that he was born in 1802, is very scathing about the appearance of most of his travelling companions. In one instance he remarks that the young son of the parson in the party ‘seemed to be as ugly as his father and as vulgar as his cousin’. He is singularly unimpressed by most of the foreigners he encounters along the way. For instance, he notes that his fellow diners at the Table d’Hote, were ‘12 disgusting looking Germans who luckily eat enormously & spoke little ‘. The following evening diners at the same table were’ rather more disgusting in their appearance & manner of eating than the day before ‘. Predictably, he is also critical of the meals he is obliged to eat and the inns that serve and accommodate him. In one inn he accuses the landlord of serving him a dish of greyhound puppy.  Our diarist certainly places himself above the common lot. He seems knowledgeable about art and is a little snooty regarding the collections he views, suspecting that most of the paintings were copies from the masters. More positively, he is often ecstatic about the scenery and buildings he encounters and he particularly praises cathedrals and castles. We yearn for more, but unfortunately, the diary stops abruptly after thirty pages.


The back pages of the volume is devoted to anecdotes, jokes of dubious taste in English and French and snatches of Arabic —in ink and pencil and in different hands. The passages in Arabic may also be indecent, of course.

Here is a selection of the more publishable remarks from this section of the volume:

Gold and Paper

At a fashionable whist party, a lady having won a rubber of 20 guineas, the gentleman who was her opponent pulled out his pocket book and tendered £21 in bank notes. The fair gamester observed with a disdainful toss of her head.“ In the great houseswhich I frequent, Sir , we always use gold “. That may be so, replied the gentleman, but in the little houseswhich I frequent we always use paper.”

Appropriate text.

Mr Sterne (possibly the author of Tristram Shandy), the day after his marriage took for his text: “ We have toiled all night and caught nothing”

Royal Favour.

A low frenchman boasted in very hyperbolic terms that the king had spoken to him; & being asked what his Majesty had said, replied” He bade me stand out of the way “. Continue reading

 The Poetry Reading—a literary squib by John Heath-Stubbs

From the archive of the booksellers and publishers Eric and Joan Stevens is this carbon copy of a squib typed out by the poet John Heath-Stubbs and signed by him  on 30 May 1963.I say ‘ typed out ‘, but as he was virtually blind by this time, and there are no typos, it is unlikely that he actually did so. In his later years the cult figure Eddie Linden, hero of the book Who is Eddie Linden?,read to Heath-Stubbs, so he may also have been a sort of amanuensis in the sixties.

The poem, which is entitled ‘Poetry Reading ‘and appears unpublished, pokes fun at various eminent and not so eminent literary figures of the period. The occasion was a meeting to commemorate a ‘notable Georgian poet ‘ and was arranged by  ‘ The Organisation for Ossification Of Literatwitters ‘, which may be a swipe by Heath-Stubbs at the Royal Society of Literature, which had elected him a fellow in 1954.Identifying the poet being celebrated is not easy. Most of those who contributed to the famous Georgian anthologies were born in the 1870s and 1880s and weren’t around in 1963.The last of the genuine Georgians, Ralph Hodgson, died in 1962, so the poetry event may have occurred in that year or soon before. If he is ruled out the only other   possible contender would be Edmund Blunden, although the ‘Merton field mouse’ (as Geoffrey Grigson called him ) isn’t generally regarded as a Georgian poet. However, Blunden did receive the Royal Society of Literature’s Benson medal.

The other literary folk ridiculed —the Chairman,  ‘Estaban Heartsleeve ‘, ‘ Sandy Sladge of the Sunday Sludge ‘,‘ Sir Solon Sepulture ‘, ‘Mr Bang with his prizefighter’s roar ‘ and ‘Mr Bing’ —- are even more difficult to place, although the last two men, respectively ‘ tall and blond ‘ and ‘ short and pink’, should be a little easier to identify. The satirist reveals the name his friends knew him by (‘Stubbs’) at the close of the poem, as well as his avowed liking for alcohol and pub-going. He had been, after all, a prominent member of the Soho crowd in the ‘forties.

Today the RSL, perhaps aware of its past reputation for ossification, seems to have gone too far in the other direction. Seemingly anyone who has published at least two books, is well known as a reviewer for the nationals, and is a regular on TV, radio and at literary festivals, is offered a fellowship. Sadly, quite a few lack the literary skills of past Fellows. The Society also unashamedly reflects the current popularity of literary biographies and crime fiction to such an extent that the list of Fellows contains more writers in these genres than novelists, dramatists  and poets. Many believe that by a too ready recognition of these doubtful genres as ‘literature ‘it has betrayed its original aims.


Diverse Paths Lead Diverse Folks to Rome


Rome visit typescript 001An unusual item found among the archives at Jot HQ the other day is an eighteen page Xeroxed typescript bound in cloth and illustrated with rather poor Xeroxes of various art works.  Entitled Diverse paths lead diverse folk to Rome, it narrates a fortnight’s vacation in the Eternal City during May 1955. This particular copy was presented to the author’s travelling companion, the eighty year-old ‘Nell’ Hill.

The author, who identifies himself at the end of the narrative, was M. T. Tudsbery (‘Tud’), formerly the BBC’s Civil Engineer, and the man who in 1932, with the architect George Val Meyer, was responsible for Broadcasting House, the iconic BBC HQ in Langham Place. The other companion on this trip was Alan Campbell Don (1885 – 1966), who was Dean of Westminster at the time. Nell was his cousin.

It goes without saying that for the Dean this was not his first visit to Rome. However,   for Nell the occasion was a double first —it was her debut flight and her first trip to the Italian capital. Not so unusual for someone born in 1875. What is far more astonishing is the fact that this was also Tudsbery’s first visit. It would seem that this civil engineer, who must have studied the history of architecture, had never deemed it necessary to explore a city of such amazing and significant buildings –which included one structure, the Pantheon, which had been built by Hadrian himself, and had survived totally intact.

Tudsbery’s previous lack of exposure to the wonders of Rome may go some way to explaining his childlike enthusiasm for everything he encounters–from the Colosseum and the Pantheon to the paintings of Fra Angelico, Carravagio and Raphael. In contrast, as a civil engineer he was quick to notice all the inadequacies of the various ‘modern’ buildings in the city although he also admired scale of the main railway station. Tudsbery also had a good ear for the amusing anecdote. At the Colosseum he overheard an American tourist express amazement at the extent of the bomb damage inflicted by German aircraft on this ancient building! Continue reading

Short story by D — “Morphine…”

This was sent in by an old friend (writer and book dealer Robin Marchesi) – an occasional follower of jot. It concerns another old friend dead these seven summers…

Not long ago, I stumbled on a sheaf of papers acquired in the mid 1990s. I recalled the old friend, who left them with me.

His name was Derek Briggs and he was educated at Culford School near Bury St Edmunds, where he was recognized as a brilliant scholar. He made it straight to Kings College, Cambridge, but only lasted a year, before being sent down. As I recall marijuana was involved.

He went to London in the early 70’s where he established himself, as an underground figure with an esoteric air, exploring the varying options on offer, without visible means of support, other than his quick wit, intellect and charm.

No enemy of almost any drugs, he evolved from being a ‘pre-digital’ ‘couch surfer’ in London, to a world wanderer; in a permanent struggle, with himself, to survive, in the semi mystic state, which had become ‘normal’ to him.

Continue reading

My Book of Confessions…

Benn June confession page 001Here’s an oddity that turned up recently at Jot HQ. The Querist’s Album: a Book for Confessions and Autographs (Glasgow, n.d., but c 1880) is a pocket-sized tome comprising several sets of pages meant for autographs together with questions addressed to the person supplying the autographs. All the questions are the same.

The questions are obviously addressed to young people—perhaps those in their late teens or early twenties. In this particular copy only around half the pages are filled and many responses date from the late Victorian or Edwardian period. One of those from this era was the actual owner of the book, one M.E.Laxton, who was given it by her aunt.

Most of those supplying an autograph have also answered the questions. However, Miss Laxton dodged many of them and appears to have found some impertinent, including one asking if she was ever in love.   A few have merely signed their names, but have left the question pages blank. One anonymous male has only answered a handful of the questions. When asked what is the most beautiful thing in Nature he has replied ‘ Woman ‘, and when asked at what age should men and women marry replies 45 for a man and 60 for a woman. This person also confesses to having been married twice and been in love thirteen times. Another male, a Mr Grant Miller, replies to the questions in what appears to be a ballpoint pen, even though he dates his answers to 1910. His ideal woman is Sophia Ridsdale. Then we have ‘Edith Broughton’, who also uses a ball point pen for her answers dating from April 1905. A further respondent is ‘Clement Bartholomew’.

Continue reading

Diary of a Nobody (part one)

chrysanthemum displayWe at Jot 101 are fascinated by MS diaries. It’s a wonderful day when we find one kept by someone famous, but sometimes it’s the journals of anonymous marrow growers and dahlia fanciers living in the leafy suburbs that can be windows into past lives. Such a diarist was the man who acquired a thick T.J.& J. Smith Dataday diary, possibly as a gift from his ‘ lady wife’ at Christmas in 1956, and began filling in the entries, starting with the 1stJanuary 1957.

As far as we can see, the name of the diarist doesn’t appear anywhere in the volume—why should it? Back in those days it wasn’t deemed necessary for the owner to fill in personal details. And anyway, if the volume was lost and someone known to the diarist found it, compromising or embarrassing entries in it might take some explaining! We do, however, know something about the man himself which would probably identify him to anyone in his community who might discover the diary. That he was married to Madge (sometimes shortened to ‘M’) , worked  in the City or in Whitehall (possibly at the Treasury) , lived in south-east London, where he was both a diligent DIY-er, and  an very enthusiastic member of the Bexleyheath Chrysanthemum Society, is easily determined. Almost every other entry concerns either his garden activities or his home improvements. His daily grind in the City is rarely, if ever, mentioned, and most entries on central London relate to shopping trips or entertainment. Here was a man who, like so many others, endured a sometimes ‘unpleasant‘ job  for the sake of his weekends at home. Continue reading

Tribute to Balzac / Balzac Mania

Found – this handsomely printed card (in its original envelope) with a poem addressed to Balzac’s American bibliographer William H. Royce by a minor American poet Alfred Antoine Furman. Furman is unknown to Wikipedia but produced a small body of poetry including, in 1918, some American poems on World War 1. Royce worked for the well known New York book dealer Gabriel Wells in the 1920s. Wells was a major player in rare books and manuscripts at the time at the time.  Wells and Royce shared a deep interest in Balzac (it was Wells who saved Balzac’s house at Passy from destruction), and during this time the firm became the centre of the sale of Balzaciana. Royce himself assembled a major collection of Balzac material. His Balzac library was sold and his papers were donated by his daughters  to Syracuse University.  Balzac collecting was at its height at the time and lavish editions of his work (in English) were produced. Furman’s poem has Balzac as the greatest author ever ‘…the figure of a genius so supreme/ The ages show no equal.’ It is hard to imagine an American rare book dealer paying for the preservation of a European writer’s house in our time..although a few could afford it. The poem reads:




Balzac is still held in high esteem as a writer, although he has been surpassed in renown by Proust and possibly Hugo. Few people now plough through all 90 volumes of his Comédie Humaine. One great fan was the playwright (and artist ) August Strindberg, himself a writer of world class – he described reading La Comédie Humaine as like living a second life, the highest praise. He credited Balzac with giving him ‘..a kind of religion – which I would like to call non dogmatic Christianity.’

The manuscripts of George Bernard Shaw

3e5c4065586acf3e602e984d11e6506f--george-bernard-shaw-vintage-surfIn The Book Handbook for 1947 F.E.Lowenstein, the biographer of G. Bernard Shaw, quotes from an article published in The Daily Sketch of 3rd November 1941 which recounted how in 1928 American bookseller Frank Glenn headed a syndicate of dealers which bid in London for some Shaw MSS.

“…Shaw unblushingly mentioned £5,000 at first with the remark that ‘you cannot buy the writings of a genius for a farthing ‘ . But eventually he must have come down, for the group obtained some manuscripts for £400. Now a single item has been sold for £500.”

This notice caused Bernard Shaw to write a letter to the paper, which was duly printed in the issue of 12th November. Here is an extract:

“ Allow me to warn Mr Glenn and all who it may concern that I have never sold a manuscript in my life, nor autographed an edition for sale, nor even a single copy to be auctioned at a bazaar.

“…The transaction to which Glenn refers no doubt arose out of the enterprise of somebody who, having obtained specimens of my handwriting from some correspondence on which he had engaged me, imitated it as best he could in pages from my published works, had photostats made of them and sold them as Shaw manuscripts.

“No such manuscripts had ever existed, as I write for the Press in Pitman’s phonetic script (without reporting contractions) which is then translettred on the typewriter by another hand and sent to the printer.

I have presented a few pages of the Pitman script to public libraries with a fancy for such relics ( I kept ten pages of St Joan picked at random for this purpose ), but the rest have been ruthlessly torn up and are not available even for the waste paper war salvage”. Continue reading

A warning for all collectors of manuscripts

Boerhaave picA snippet featured in the miscellany Medley dated October 1936 comes from ‘Ripley’ in the Sunday Express. It concerns the famous Dutch physician Dr Herman Boerhaave (1668 – 1738), ‘founder of clinical teaching’ and called by some ‘The father of physiology’:

“When he died his effects were sold by auction, and among his manuscripts was a sealed book for which there was a heated scramble. It was sold for £2,000 in gold, and when opened was found to contain all blank pages except one on which the doctor had written:

 “Keep your head cold —your feet warm, and you’ll make the best doctor poor “

I wonder if there are similar instances of bibliomaniacs fighting at auction for a particular sealed manuscript or printed book with annotations by an eminent, and perhaps controversial, person. Information welcome.


Needwood Forest – The axeman cometh…

Cottage in Needwood Forest (Joseph Wright)

Found a few years ago in a job lot is this manuscript copy of a poem which ranks among the most famous ‘local’ poems in the English language. Needwood Forest was published privately in Lichfield in 1776 by one Francis Noel Mundy, a Derbyshire squire alarmed by plans to cut down and enclose much of the large Staffordshire forest he had known since his childhood.

Continue reading