Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring the Ten Commandments

Leaf 36r

Leaf 36r

Printed editions of a substantial French work called La fleur des commandemens de dieu are recorded from the 1490s until at least the 1540s. Wynkyn de Worde first printed an English translation on 14 September 1510. The Senate House Library copy is of the second edition, completed on 8 October 1521. This is the first edition to identify the translator, one Andrew Chertsey, who lived in the London parish of St Clement Dane and produced four other translations of French devotional works for de Worde’s press: Ordynarye of Crystyanyte or of Crysten Men (1502 and 1506); The Crafte to Lyue Well and to Dye Well (1505); The Passyon of our Lorde (1521) and a shorter work (“lytell treatyse”), the Elucidarius (1507 and ?1523).

            The work is in two parts, the first listing and analyzing the Ten Commandments, the second offering short exempla about the results of following or neglecting them. For example, a monk who, fond of sleep, was sleeping in the choir at lauds dreamed that he saw a terrible devil who offered him a spoonful of molten pitch; withdrawing his head suddenly, he banged and hurt it (fol. clviii). A woman was condemned to torture after death which included suffering a toad on her breast which spewed fire in her face, because in life she had exposed her neck and breasts and had worn make-up (fol. clxxxxvii). Rather less unpleasant than reading the text is looking at the woodcut initials, an intriguing mixture of styles: some are like the plainest of initials used in manuscripts, while others are surrounded by flowers in shaded borders, and others, such as the “I” of the commonly used phrase “It is wryten”, have a bird perched on the bottom horizontal stroke of the letter, twisting its head in the direction of the text. The initials provide a closer clue than the text to the reason for acquiring the volume: at the time of acquisition in 1951, the Library held no works by any of the triumvirate of early English printers – William Caxton, Richard Pynson, and Wynkyn de Worde – and was eager to acquire one.


Housing London

New Buildings to be Erected by the Association at Battersea Park

To coincide with the IHR Centre for Metropolitan History conference Mobilising London’s Housing Histories: the Provision of Homes in London from 1850, a small display of books from the Library’s Special Collections can be found on the first floor of Senate House near the Jessel Room.  The display focuses on the problem of and proposed solutions for housing the poor and working classes in London in the late nineteenth century.  Collections featured include the Family Welfare Association (formerly the Charity Organisation Society) Library, which includes rare pamphlets, leaflets and publications of charitable organisations and philanthropic enterprises; and the Library of Liberal politician and trade union leader John Burns.  Burns had a particular interest in the housing of the working classes having been closely involved in the construction of the London County Council Latchmere Estate as a member of the council and MP for Battersea.

Among the items featured are a print of plans for worker’s dwellings at Battersea Park (featured above) constructed by one of the many private philanthropic building companies of the late nineteenth century.  Other items explore social campaigns for better housing by exposing the living conditions of the poorest residents of the capital: No Room to Live: the Plaint of Overcrowded London (1899) by journalist George Haw reveals conditions at the end of the century that had to some extent been exacerbated by slum clearances and the construction of model estates which were often financially inaccessible to the those most in need of improved housing.  Many of the problems Haw describes also have a contemporary resonance: homelessness, competition for housing, chronic overcrowding in dilapidated properties, urban isolation and the problems of block housing and rising rents versus income.

Revisiting a mysterious manuscript

Cowell manuscript


On Wednesday 19 June four panellists gathered to discuss Senate House Library’s MS294, the so-called “Cowell manuscript”. Was this manuscript ascribing Shakespeare’s plays to Bacon the record of two lectures delivered by James Corton Cowell to the Ipswich Philosophic [sic] Society in 1805, as it purports to be, or was it a much later creation? If the former – assumed from the time that the manuscript entered public ownership and was publicised by Allardyce Nicoll in the Times Literary Supplement of 25 February 1932 – it is the earliest written evidence of the Baconian theory of Shakespearean authorship. If not, the earliest evidence for the theory remains Joseph C. Hart’s Romance of Yachting (1848), and mystery surrounds the Cowell manuscript: who forged it and why?

James Shapiro of Columbia University used vocabulary (the phrase “very unromantic”) and the presence of information about Shakespeare in the manuscript which was unknown in 1805 to expose it as a fake in his book Contested Will (2010). In the symposium he expanded upon evidence from the book, showing use of the terms “unromantic” and “very unromantic” from 1700 to 1930 to demonstrate how minimal the use was before the 1820s, and showed how the lectures used material first published by Sir Sidney Lee in 1880. The manuscript was bequeathed to the University of London by Edith Jane, Lady Durning-Lawrence. How it entered her, or her Baconian husband Edwin’s, possession, is unclear. Drawing upon previous publications, especially her transcript of the manuscript with an editorial introduction in Shakespeare Survey, 65 (2012), Karen Attar talked about the Durning-Lawrences and the manuscript. Nicholas Eastaugh of Art Access & Research had examined the ink used to write the manuscript. It was iron gall with silver in it, attributable to the manuscript having been written by a pen with a silver nib. Iron gall ink and pens with silver nibs were used in 1805 and have been used since, such that tests were inconclusive.

Paper analyist Peter Bower talked fascinatingly about the strong, stable wove drawing paper used to write the manuscript. It does not fit the standard paper sizes of the early nineteenth century, and contains no watermark. The paper is identical to paper produced after 1815 by Smith and Allnutt at the Great Ivy Mill in the Loose Valley, near Maidstone in Kent. Bower’s thesis is that the date and name in the watermark had been cut off, and that the reason the paper is not a standard size is because it was cut. Curiouser and curiouser …

The fascination of the topic was evidenced from the fact that the audience remained alert for two hours. Questions evidently remain, and further investigation remains to be done.

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes

One of literature’s most famous detectives, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, is being honoured by a conference hosted by the Institute of English Studies on 21-22 June 2013, ‘Sherlock Holmes, Past and Present’. To provide a display of library materials to support the conference was a matter of course. Certain items were obvious candidates for display: for example, an issue of the Strand Magazine, the original publisher of 56 Holmes stories, and the first edition in book form of some Holmes stories, with Sidney Paget’s illustrations from the Strand Magazine – we chose the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

            Alongside these items, which have been in Senate House Library for more than half a century, we were able to show a recent acquisition. This was a sixteen-page, one-act play about Sherlock Holmes entitled Christmas Eve: An Unrecorded Adventure of Sherlock Holmes. It was written by Sir Sydney Castle Roberts (1887–1966), Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and president of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, and privately printed at Cambridge University Press. We further decided to approach Sherlock Holmes from the angle of Baker Street, using a special collection featuring books on London. Dickens’s Dictionary of London, 1896-1897 (Eighteenth Year): An Unconventional Handbook includes an entry for Baker-Street Bazaar, noticeable for Chinese and Japanese goods of which Sherlock Holmes sometimes made use. We also displayed the issues for 1891 and 1910 of the popular annual guidebook London: Illustrated by Twenty Bird’s-Eye Views of the Principal Streets. Whereas the map of the Marylebone Road area in the 1891 issue, which pre-dates the creation of Sherlock Holmes that July, does not show Baker Street, the map in the 1910 issue does – an indication of Sherlock Holmes’s popularity?

Beautiful Things – London Impressions

London Impressions: etchings and pictures in photogravure by William Hyde and essays by Alice Meynell was published in 1898.  Both the words and the images in this book are beautiful.  Hyde uses a very soft sometimes charcoal like approach to photogravure – a photo-mechanical intaglio printing process that uses light to expose an image on to a plate which is then acid-etched.  The charcoal-like nature of Hyde’s work is accompanied by accurate and fine detail.  This mix of techniques does indeed provide a very impressionistic view of London at the end of the 19th century.  Alice Meynell is now mostly remembered as a poet but she was also a suffragist, a critic, an editor and an early questioner of Europe’s colonial imperialism.  Her prose in London Impressions often speaks of the colours, sounds and other sensory experiences of London.

An Impression

BL Meynell fol-6

‘Add to this the black garments of the crowd, which make every man conspicuous in the light, and the abrupt and minute patches of white – exceedingly pure white of sharp shapes and angles – scattered throughout the drifting and intercrossing multitude.  The white of a footman’s shirt, the white of the collars of innumerable men, the white letters of advertisements, the white of the label at the back of cabs and hansoms, and many and many another little square, triangle, and line of white, are visible to the utmost distances.  They have an emphasis that is never softened; nothing except snow, could be whiter; and nothing, perhaps, makes so salient a part of the enormous fragmentariness of the street view.’ (p. 7-8)

Utilitarian London

BL Meynell fol-4

Terrible London

BL Meynell fol-5

The Climate of Smoke

‘And yet the artificial climate of London is at its best when it is very obvious, and when it has strong scenes of sunset or storm to deal with.  The time when it is insufferable is noonday or full afternoon on a cloudless day in summer, when there is not wind enough to drift it, helpless, out of town, and when it is not thick enough to keep the sun away.  It makes the sunshine ugly.  No beauty, even artificial or obvious belongs to the smoke then, and it plays no antic pranks in mimicry of cloud.  It has no shadow and no menace; it has no opportunity for stage-plays: it is disconcerted, and cannot make a penny theatre of its London.  Every one must know such days, of which the essence should have been their purity, plain and splendid.  By their light is the smoke seen to be nothing in the world but a sorry smirch.  The horizon is thickened with it, and there it wreaks its chief ‘effects’, but all near things are also oppressed by it; the spirit of the sunshine is gone, and a blazing sun upon miles of blue slate roofs and yellow houses, with the uncleanness of smoke just showing in the blaze, is actually that impossibility – sunshine without beauty.’ (p. 10)

Kensington Gardens

BL Meynell fol-3

The Trees

‘The leaves of the street-side tree flutter bright emerald green through the whole night (out of town discolouring night) of leafy summer.  That local colour is never quenched, as human blushes are quenched at night.  It rather takes a more conspicuous quality, under the closeness of the electric light; it is sharply green.  Whereas the days has its mists and veils, and may at times darken a tree nearly black, by setting the sky alight behind it, the night has none of these shadows.  The light of night is stationary and unchangeable, and there are some solitary trees here and there that undergo the unshifting illumination at the closest quarters; the light that knows no hours and makes no journey gleams near upon the motion of the leaves and glosses their faces.  It is beforehand with the twilight, so that the dusk when it comes finds the place taken, and it will not let the tree go until the light of day flows in fully, and dawn is over.’ (p. 12)

London Impressions is a book from the Bromhead Library, a collection of around 4000 volumes almost exclusively about London and Londoners. 

Beautiful Things – Text and photographs by Charles Harrowell.

Underground working

It is 150 years since the London Underground began. Eighty years ago public control was significantly extended over London transport. A file in the archives contains intriguing information about the Underground in the late 1920s. It was compiled by a young official, James Earle Edwards and includes detailed summaries of rolling stock, diagrams of depots and equipment. Edwards also compiled a series of reports from divisional offices.

James Earle Edwards' file (MS1196)

James Earle Edwards’ file (MS1196)

There is a detailed report about the Arsenal match against Blackburn in March 1928, for instance, and its implications for what was then Gillespie Road. Not surprisingly, six booking clerks were needed rather than the usual one for a Saturday afternoon. James Earle Edwards went on become Superintendant of Waterloo station by 1959. A photographer of the same name took some wonderful photographs of ocean liners in the 1940s. Could they have been one and the same?

Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring French didacticism



In 1689 Fénelon was appointed tutor to the bright but ‘terrible’ young Duc de Bourgogne, grandson of Louis XIV. It is for him that Fénelon composed Les Aventures de Télémaque, Fils d’Ulysse around 1694. The tale narrates the moral and political education of a young prince destined to rule. Influenced by the great classical writers, Télémaque fills the gap between Odyssey IV and XV by imagining the adventures of Telemachus and his tutor Mentor (actually the goddess Minerva in disguise). Télémaque was both pedagogical novel and political treatise. It theorised a ‘republican’ monarchy based on simplicity, moderation, pacifism, and wisdom.

Although enjoyed by his grandson, Télémaque did not amuse the Sun King, who read it as a satire on his bellicosity and luxuriousness. The first printed edition, produced in Paris in 1699, was halted by ‘ordre superieur’ before the completion of the fifth book. Having already attracted Louis’s displeasure through his controversial espousal of a ‘disinterested love of God’, Fénelon was stripped of his tutorship and never set foot in Paris again. Louis’s grandson died in 1712, and with him Fénelon’s dream of an enlightened ruler.

Télémaque was spectacularly successful. At least two hundred editions were printed prior to the French Revolution, and it was translated into no fewer than forty languages. Most of Senate House Library’s copies are in the original French, several of them duodecimo editions from the Crofton Collection of little books, with a couple of English translations. This 1717 Italian edition is based on the 1701 French edition of Adriaen Moetjens. The Senate House Library copy is the only recorded copy in any English-speaking country. It formerly belonged to Frederick Stroud Read, first Warden of the University of London Union and an avid book collector.