From the Reading Room: Byrom Research



Tim Underhill from Cambridge writes of his use of the Carlton Shorthand Collection:

I first visited the Reading Room longer ago than I care to admit when I started research for a PhD dissertation, which focused on the ‘Universal English Short-hand’ invented by John Byrom (1692-1763) diarist, poet, local political activist, linguist and FRS – all in all, something of a polymath. Now that I’m preparing an edition and biography of Byrom, as well as continuing my research into eighteenth-century shorthand more generally, I’ve returned to explore more of Carlton’s great collection. I’m really enjoying doing so : it’s a neglected but very rich mine with much to interest current and future researchers in a gamut of fields connected with the history of communications, education and palaeography. Byrom’s was a leading and influential early eighteenth-century shorthand, which he spent so much of his life teaching (for a princely five guinea sum) while also raising subscription support for a printed manual, published posthumously in 1767. Carlton’s collection contains extremely rare, at points unique, evidence relating to Byrom’s subscription project. As is clear from correspondence that Carlton preserved, Byrom’s manual came to be highly prized by shorthand collectors in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So Carlton must have been all the more delighted with his own acquisition of what is a splendid association copy (CSC Byrom [1767] Box 3): this had been presented to Ralph Leycester, Squire of Toft (1699-1776), a leading proponent of Byrom’s system and a close friend for over four decades, whose own shorthand diaries I have been transcribing.

Another Byrom-related treasure in the collection is a letter written by him to Fisher Littleton (MS Carlton 35/12(i)), a Fellow Commoner of Emmanuel College Cambridge, fascinating as an instance of eighteenth-century ‘teaching-by-post’ and for showing that Byrom’s shorthand continued to be promulgated at Cambridge well after Byrom started teaching it in person there.


From the Reading Room.

Kirstin Smith, a PhD candidate in the Drama Department at Queen Mary (University of London), has been in this week looking at a number of volumes from the Goldsmith’s Library of Economic Literature.

[GL] E896 ft cov-5779

Silver vs. gold.  Free silver and the people…  (front cover ) By C.M. Stevans.

The books Kirstin chose to consult concern the debate in the USA in the late nineteenth century as to whether that country should return to the system of ‘bimetallism’, where a nation’s holdings of gold and silver act as a guarantee of the value of a currency.   As the ratio for the value of silver to gold was to be set at 32 to 1, rather than the actual value of 16 to 1, economists agreed that ‘free silver’ would cause inflation.  The key point for politicians was whether this inflation would be beneficial – Democrats thought it would and Republicans did not.  1893 had marked a severe depression in the USA and many believed inflation was necessary to get the economy moving again (a debate still raging today).  It would have been especially beneficial for the farmers of the Midwest and the South, as increased prices for their crops would enable them to repay debts quicker.  The financial establishment of the Northeast, the railroads, industry, diversified farmers and business all favoured the Gold Standard; many of these were creditors and inflation would devalue the loans they had provided.  Free silver was a populist movement that portrayed its campaign as a fight between ordinary Americans against bankers, railroad barons and other proponents of laissez-faire capitalism. 

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Real Bi-Metallism or true versus false coin – a lesson for “Coin’s financial school’. (p. 71) By E. Wheeler

Free silver was also portrayed as anti-British – still a potent vote catcher at that time.  As a policy objective bimetallism failed and the USA moved to the Gold Standard at the end of the nineteenth century, before the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 completely overhauled the US monetary system.

It was with the above in mind that I asked Kirstin why she was particularly interested in the volumes we had fetched for her and how they related to her wider research.  Her answer was a surprise.

‘I’m researching the emergence of stunts as a form of performance, word and concept, so why am I reading about the bimetallism debate in the USA at the end of the 19th century?  One of the earliest references to stunts I’ve found so far is in a New York newspaper in 1897.  It’s about William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat politician who led the campaign for ‘free silver’.  Through Bryan and the Free Silver campaign I am thinking about how stunts relate to value.  I’ve been reading a campaign handbook, Silver vs. Gold.  Free Silver and the people ([G.L.] E.896) by C.M Stevans which as well as being of direct relevance to my research also raises many interesting points concerning modern conceptions of value, currency, guarantee and the power of banks today.’

[GL] E894 p129-5777

Coin’s financial school (p.123) By W. Harvey

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Coin’s financial school (p.21) By W. Harvey


From the Reading Room.

Lily Ford, a PhD candidate at Birkbeck has visited the reading room a number of times over the past six months or so.  On each occasion she has been reading Airopaidia (Porteus Library 05 SR) by Thomas Baldwin. Luckily I caught her on her last visit and asked why she had been reading this text and how it was relevant to her wider research.

Thomas Baldwin’s Airopaidia contains the first British representations of a ‘real’ aerial view. The aerial view had long been imagined – there are ascension fantasies in Cicero, Lucian, and Dante among others, and ‘bird’s-eye views’ had been sketched from hills or steeples for centuries – but it was only with the invention of the hot air balloon that it could be experienced. Baldwin hired the entrepreneur Vincent Lunardi’s balloon and ascended over Chester in September 1785.  He found the change in the earth’s appearance when seen from above the clouds fascinating. He had two drawings engraved and reproduced in colour in the book, and he included quite specific instructions about how to look at them, in order to recreate the sensations of wonder and delight that the views had provoked in him.

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Baldwin’s instructions for viewing are as follows:

‘A Circular View from the Balloon at its greatest Elevation.  The Spectator is supposed to be in the Car of the Balloon, suspended above the Center of the View: looking down on the Amphitheatre or white Floor of Clouds and seeing the City of Chester, as it appeared throu’ the Opening: which discovers the Landscape below, limited, by surrounding Vapour, to something less than two Miles in Diameter.  The Breadth of the blue Margin defines the apparent Height of the Spectator in the Balloon (viz. 4 Miles) above the Floor of Clouds, as he hangs in the Center, and looks horizontally round into the azure sky.’ (p. IIII)

Baldwin’s sense of wonder is captured well by his purple prose:

‘…what Scenes of Grandeur and Beauty!  A Tear of pure Delight flashed in his Eye! of pure and exquisite Delight and Rapture: to look down on the unexpected Change already wrought in the Works of Art and Nature, contracted to a span by the NEW PERSPECTIVE, diminished almost beyond the bounds of credibility.’ (p.37)

Reading Baldwin’s exhilarated account of his flight, and looking at these images, got me thinking about how the aerial view changes our understanding of the world. My PhD thesis considers the cultural impact of flight and representations of the aerial view. It is focused on the 1920s when aeroplanes and aerial photography, invigorated after the rapid technological development of the First World War, became integrated into a more general ‘airmindedness’. But it all begins with Airopaidia.

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Baldwin writes:

‘A Balloon-Prospect from above the Clouds, or Chromatic View of the Country between Chester, Warrington and Rixton-Moss in Lancashire: shewing the whole Extent of the aerial Voyage; with the meandering Track of the Balloon throu’ the Air.’ (p. IIII)

As I understand it, Baldwin paid for the book’s publication and distribution himself, and it does not seem to have made any impact on critics at the time. Senate House’s copy, while not unique (there are 20 copies in UK academic libraries) is inscribed ‘From the author’. It gives me the sense of a more direct link to this fascinating narrative, and I feel very glad to be consulting it 227 years on.

From the Reading Room – tracing female authorship in medieval manuscripts.

This week Julie Tanner has been in consulting lingustic atlases. I asked about her use of these and her wider research interests.


‘Angus McIntosh’s Linguistic atlas of late medieval English is of great use for my research.  I am compiling a diplomatic¹ edition of selected lyrics from the Findern manuscript and it is pertinent to study linguistic profiles of lexis local to the area of South Derbyshire where it is known that the manuscript was compiled.  If any connections can be made between localised language in the atlas and vocabulary from the anonymous lyrics it is possible to use this evidence to support a claim that provincial scribes had further involvement in the production of the manuscript beyond copying the text.  Some of the scribes are known to be women of the Findern family, and many of the lyrics are honest, sincere female-voiced reflections on losing a loved one.  My broader research interest concerns female participation in provincial manuscript authorship and compilation – McIntosh’s Linguistic atlas is of great help in this endeavour.’

Julie Tanner – Goldsmiths College.

 ¹Diplomatic is defined by Peter Beal as follows: ‘The science or study of documents and records, including their forms, language, script and meaning. It involves knowledge of such matters as the established wording and procedures of particular kinds of document, the deciphering of writing, and document analysis and authentication’  (p. 121).

From the Reading Room.

John Tosh (Why History Matters and The Pursuit of History amongst much else besides) has been in this week looking at the A. F. Pollard Papers (MS860). I asked him why the material was of particular interest and how it related to his wider research.

‘I am consulting the papers of A.F. Pollard because, in addition to founding the Institute of Historical Research, he was an early protagonist of Public History, especially during World War I.

The IHR was the first occupier of the site upon which Senate House now stands. It was founded in 1921 and was the first of the Senate Institutes. Its notorious temporary accommodation was named by historians as the ‘Tudor Cottage’.


Public History is a broad set of ideas – loosely it is history that is not singularly owned by professional historians and it also draws on a multiplicity of sources: oral, material, film, web, video, as well as the more traditional primary sources.  Justin Champion sketches the idea at The Historical Association.’

John Tosh is one of the convenors of the recent and ongoing series of seminars at the IHR concerning Public History and at the time of writing there are three seminars to go.

From the Reading Room

Richard Allestree, The Ladies Calling (Oxford, 1675)

l calling

Clarissa Sutherland has been in the reading room this week reading the above volume amongst others.  I asked her about her research and this book in particular.

‘I’m writing about the first English stage actresses of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries for my Undergraduate History dissertation. Through my research, I’m attempting to discover whether these women had any impact on society’s views on femininity, and the lives of ordinary women. Richard Allestree’s tract The Ladies Calling is essentially a conduct book for young ladies, taking them through the fundamentals of femininity – modesty, chastity, piety – and detailing how they should behave throughout life – as virgins, wives and widows. The source was essential to my research as it has helped outline the ‘ideal femininity’ of the late seventeenth century which, in conjunction with texts from the later eighteenth century, will allow me to ascertain what kind of an impact the first actresses had, if any. It has also suggested that femininity in the period was very much a construction, which has been useful in my discussion of the actresses’ ‘private’ (yet fairly public) lives potentially being just as much of a construction as the roles they played professionally. Although not strictly related to my question, I was interested to discover a certain empathy with women in Allestree’s writing, which is often absent from moralising discourse. For instance, his assertion that women could be just as great as men if only given an education is a view which would not have been shared by all of his contemporaries.’

As well as the many published works in its collections, Senate House Library holds a good deal of material relating to the theatre both in specialist book collections and in the archives.  The Ternan Family Papers and the Longley Collection of books concern the life and times of actress Ellen Lawless Ternan, who is also known for her affair with Charles Dickens.  Malcolm Morley was an actor/manager/stage director and the Malcolm Morley Collection and archive cover a wide time period and are rich in material on a range of theatrical subjects.  The Florence Farr Papers concern this leading 19th-century West End actress who was also a women’s rights activist, novelist and journalist. She advocated universal suffrage, equal protection for women under the law and workplace equality.  A bohemian’s bohemian she collaborated with artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and theatrical producer Annie Horniman.

Readers may like to attend a talk and discussion hosted by Jonathan Harrison (Head of Special Collections) and Professor Michael Slater (leading Dickens Scholar): ‘The Malcolm Morley Collection of Dramatic Literature’ will be held in the Seng Tee Lee Centre, Senate House Library, on Wednesday 13th March at 6.00pm.  Those wishing to attend should contact the library office on .

From the Reading Room.

‘Cherries nice, cherries nice, come choose,
Fresh and fair ones, who’ll refuse?’

This week Zahava Dalin came to the Reading Room to consult Rebecca and Rowena by William Thackeray, written under the pseudonym M.A. Titmarsh.  The edition she chose is from the Sterling Library and features 8 hand-coloured illustrations by Richard Doyle. The work was originally published in Fraser’s Magazine.  I asked Zahava why she was interested in this volume and how it related to her wider study.

‘As a student of the M.A. Romantic Studies program at Birkbeck College, I am fascinated by how the Romantics turned to medieval themes and topics as a source of inspiration for their own ideals. I took a course in the sibling program, M.A. Victorian Studies and we were asked to compile a critical bibliography on a novel from the 19th-century Farrer Collection.

Ivanhoe (in disguise), Athelstane, Rowena, Cedric and Wamba the jester.

I chose Sir Walter Scott’s work of medieval historical fiction, Ivanhoe, a Romance.  In the course of my research, I was surprised to discover this spoof of Thackeray’s in the Senate House Library’s Special Collections. It is a humorous continuation to Ivanhoe, in large part based on Thackeray and his contemporaries’ dissatisfaction with the fate of the female protagonists in that novel’s conclusion. His “Icy, faultless, prim, niminy-piminy Rowena” (p. 5) henpecks Ivanhoe, who flees England and his wife for the latest crusade. Eventually Rowena dies, Rebecca avows her Christianity and she and Ivanhoe wed. The novel not only proves that readers in the nineteenth century found Ivanhoe lacking, and in what way, but also provides evidence for Victorian criticism of Romantic ideals.

The King and Sir Wilfrid play chess as the messenger arrives.

Thackeray focuses on what he perceives as Scott’s overly unrealistic idealization of chivalry. On an entirely separate note, Thackeray’s treatment of Rebecca, whom he admires, is entirely antithetical to Ivanhoe’s original conclusion. Though both Scott and Thackeray esteem the Jewish figure, Scott also respects the role of Rebecca’s religious faith in giving her character strength. Thackeray’s solution to the Jewish protagonist, typical of his time, is to convert her.  I highly recommend this text for anyone interested in Victorian reactions to Romanticism, those researching 19th-century satirical texts, or anyone looking at 19th-century literary reactions to English Jewry.’