We are moving!

Thanks to all of you who have followed us on this site. We are moving but please come with us! Henceforth this blog will continue on Senate House Library’s website at http://www.senatehouselibrary.ac.uk/category/historic-collections/. We hope you’ll continue to follow us there.


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.

From the Reading Room – English Goethe Society Archives.

Fabienne Schopf of the University of Stuttgart has been in the Reading Room consulting the archives of the English Goethe Society and I asked her why:

I am consulting documents, e.g. letters, annual reports and the Publications of the English Goethe Society (EGS), London. I am especially interested in the period between 1886, when the Society was founded, until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.  A similar society, the Goethe-Gesellschaft was founded in 1885 at Weimar, Germany.  My master’s thesis will compare and analyze the efforts and publications of the societies

Founded in 1886 with the aims ‘to promote and extend the study of Goethe’s work and thought, and to encourage original research upon all subjects connected with Goethe’ (English Goethe Society, First Annual Report presented at a Business Meeting 1 December 1886), the English Goethe Society continues to be active today. 

Many of the Society’s records were lost in the bombing of University College London in 1940, where they were stored at the time.  The core of the papers now available to researchers at Senate House Library was in the possession of Ella Oswald, the daughter of Dr Eugen Oswald, a founder of the Society, and were depositied with The Institute of Germanic Studies in 1955.

The collection now consists of c.1500 items, with the majority of them catalogued online.  Among the the collection’s files of correspondence, administrative records and publications are some more unusual artifacts, including fragments of Goethe’s hair (EGS.5.2.PER (iii)), 18th-century silhouettes (EGS.5.2.SIL) and a bust of Goethe. 

 EGS uncat-4652

EGS 5.2 Sil-4659

Beautiful Things – The Insects of Surinam.

This is the first of a series of occasional postings regarding beautiful things I have come across whilst doing the part of my job that involves fetching books for readers.  Beautiful Things is a record of accidental discovery.

The Insects of Surinam is a volume of sixty plates by Maria Merian.  Published in 1705 the illustrations and descriptions concern the metamorphosis in the life cycle of insects. The Latin title translates ‘The metamorphosis of the insects of Surinam, in which the caterpillars and worms of Surinam, with all their transformations, are drawn and described from life, each of them placed on the plants, flowers and fruits on which they were found’.

The Guava

The Guava

In 2004, Special Collections displayed the volume as part of an exhibition on natural history; the accompanying guide states:

Merian travelled to Surinam (Dutch Guiana) at the age of 52 in 1699, financing her trip by selling her paintings and collection of insects, in order to study insects in their natural habitats.  She remained there for 21 months, breeding, collecting and sketching insects.  Merian financed the publication of her subsequent book on insects of Surinam herself, losing money on the venture.  Two versions were published, one with the text in Latin (shown here), one in Dutch.  Merian engraved three of the 60 plates, a team of three engravers the rest.  They depict about 90 studies of caterpillars evolving into insects, mostly life-size, and include the names and local uses of plants.

The engravings are the first extensive visual record of South American plants and insects and the first record at all of many of the subjects.  Later editions add 12 more plates based on the drawings of Merian’s elder daughter, Johanna.

The Casava root with a piece of bread.

The Cassava root with a piece of bread.

The work was also exhibited in 2008 at the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where the guide noted:

‘Each image was organized around a single plant and was accompanied by a text in which Merian described the colors, forms, and timing of each stage of transformation. By including the caterpillars’ food sources in her natural history illustrations, Merian brought a more ecological approach to the study of metamorphosis.

Merian’s work helped to disprove the common belief that insects reproduced by spontaneous generation from decaying matter such as old meat or rotten fruit, and her aesthetic sensitivity raised the standards of scientific illustration.’

The J. Paul Getty Museum – Los Angeles

The Casava or Manihot.

The Cassava or Manihot.

Beautiful Things – Text and photographs by Charles Harrowell.

The Dingwall Papers: Conservation of a Diverse Collection

EJD cropped 1Welcome to the Dingwall project blog! This blog will follow a project funded by the Wellcome Trust to catalogue and conserve just one of the University’s diverse collections held in the archives of Senate House Library.

First off, a brief introduction to the life of Eric John Dingwall with some key points from his life:

  • Born in Ceylon in around 1891 (Dingwall was unsure of his actual date of birth)
  • A Graduate of Pembroke College, Cambridge, he joined the staff of the Cambridge University Library in 1915 as a volunteer and went on to become an assistant librarian, leaving in 1918
  • In his youth he developed an enduring interest in magic and was eventually elected to the Magic Circle.
  • This informed his approach to the investigation of the physical phenomena of mediumship, his major contribution to the Society for Psychical Research which he joined in 1920.
  • In 1921 he spent a year in the United States as Director of the Department of Physical Phenomena at the American Society for Psychical Research
  • He was then appointed research officer to the British Society in 1922. He also had an interest in sexual deviation and peculiar sexual practices, which annoyed some of his colleagues at the Society and led to the termination of his appointment in 1927
  • Released from his responsibilities at the SPR he continued to publish books
  • In 1932 he was awarded his DSc from University College London
  • After the war he became Honorary Assistant Keeper at the British Museum Library (later the British Library) where he became a recognised authority on historical erotica, as well as on magic and psychical research
  • He also continued to publish books including two collections of short biographies of strange characters
  • Married twice, his first wife left him and his second died in 1976. Dingwall spent his remaining years independently and alone until his death on 7 August 1986.

In his will, Dingwall stipulated that his collection of notes and press cuttings be gifted to the University of London on his death. The collection arrived at the University in 1990, and is housed in the Historic Collections department of Senate House Library. It includes slip indexes, scrapbooks, albums and technical correspondence files. After a successful application to the Wellcome Trust, a grant was given to enable the cataloguing and conservation of the collection.

Once catalogued the collection will be open to viewing for research under supervision with the exception of the technical correspondence, which will remain closed until 2025 (as requested by Dingwall in his will).


A small collection, a wide perspective: my placement and the 4 boxes of Rudolf Said-Ruete

In January the Library hosted Ivan Donadello, an MA student at UCL’s Department of Information Studies, on a two-week work placement. Ivan has kindly contributed the following piece on his time with us.

‘During my brief placement at Senate House Library, I was in a state of constant awe when walking up and down – and getting lost on – the floors of what was the first library I visited when I moved to London some years ago. The beautiful building and its features became somewhat of an every-day pleasure whilst I was discovering the best part of the library.

In fact, the two elements that made the experience in the Historic Collections so inspiring were books and staff. It is clear that enthusiastic and competent employees are key to making Senate House Library the unique place it is. From the cataloguing to the organisation of book exhibitions, to the digitisation of the material and its preservation, I had the chance to speak to members involved with rare and special collections as well as members of other departments. It is a necessity, more than mere good practise, to display those resources in every possible way, both physically and digitally, as the main risk would be to consider them solely as beautiful objects to be preserved having little relevance on current streams of research. Instead, innovations and successful ideas can spring from any sort of experience and libraries have lots to contribute in that respect.

Initially, the specific project for the placement involved the drafting of a list with proper bibliographic records of the items contained in 4 little boxes recently discovered in the Library’s Depository. Only labelled “Rudolf Said-Ruete”, they contained books, pamphlets, booklets and newspaper cuttings in English, French and German from the first decades of the 20th century. Even though the identification of the original owner was an easy task, it is still unknown how and why the material arrived at the library. Leaving this highly exciting mystery to the SHL staff, we can say that the collection itself is relatively small in dimension but broad and interesting in its content.

As the collector was a journalist with a passion for international affairs and politics, and the son of an Omani Princess and a German merchant, it was intriguing to discover elements of a highly connected world well before any claims of globalisation. The collection ranges from a pamphlet on the Panama Canal issued in 1909, to a very brief contribution on the German colonial question after the First World War, to a request for recognition of the Irish State to the American Government, to a French booklet on L’opium et l’alcool en Indochine. These are a few examples of the wide scope of the interests of Rudolf Said-Ruete.

What is also quite fascinating was his habit of collecting and literally sticking subject-related press cuttings or letters accompanying the item, or even business cards with the sender’s address, into the books. The object then becomes interesting in itself for the meaning it bears and the function it performs for the collector: an element of his personal identity, a working tool, a memory aid, a resource that is both archival and bibliographical.

From my personal perspective, the experience led me to consider the issue of Hidden Collections, as analysed by a report published last year by RLUK and The London Library. In particular, it would be interesting to investigate further the role of personal memory and its transmission within libraries and the means by which forgotten treasures and hidden collections are discovered.

To discover more about the history that this collection discloses, a good starting point would be Rudolf’s work on his family Said bin Sultan 1791-1856: ruler of Oman and Zanzibar, his place in the history of Arabia and East Africa. Rudolf’s mother, Emily Ruete, also wrote a very famous personal account, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess (New York, 1888), translated into English from the original German version, and An Arabian Princess between Two Worlds (Leiden, 1993).’

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.