Eric Dingwall Papers Fully Catalogued

Eric John DIngwall who died in 1986 at the probable age of 95, the official record of his birth in Sri Lanka was eaten by termites, was one of the best read men of his time. He had many unusual, somewhat esoteric interests, and was a keen collector of books, curiosa, objects d’art and automata as well as being a bibliographer, cataloguer and conserver of documents. Thanks to funding by the Wellcome Trust the documents and other material in the Dingwall collection, held in the archives at Senate House, have now been fully catalogued.

The collection comprises a series of scrapbooks and index cards that can be cross referenced, various notebooks and diaries and over three hundred folders of correspondence, closed until 2025 as per Dingwall’s instructions, that contain nine different languages, as well as photographic material and his “haunting and poltergeist” toolkit. The material reflects the subjects that interested him most deeply and reflect his vast knowledge of relevant European and American literature, old and new, and often of literature in classical languages.

There seem to be two principal areas of interest. The first, the study of sexuality, includes human sexual practices and the culturally conditioned attitudes to them, together with erotic literature in all languages. In connection to the latter he became better known in academic circles as the Honorary Curator of the British Museum Library’s “locked case” or as some said “the pornographer royal”. Dingwall added to the collection and bequeathed to it some of his own substantial holdings.

The second area of interest, and for which he was probably better known, was that of psychical research. He investigated many curious cases and had sittings with most of the European and American mediums in the interwar years. His conclusions were largely negative though he admitted witnessing events that greatly puzzled him. This interest was linked to his long-standing interest in conjuring (he was an honorary vice-president of the Magic Circle) and also with his interest in religions and religious beliefs. He believed psychical research could be an important weapon in the ongoing struggle between superstition and rationality. Allied to his interest in psychical research was his interest in, and wide knowledge of, the history of mesmerism and hypnotism, a subject about which his writing broke fresh ground.  

It is hoped the cataloguing of the Eric Dingwall papers at Senate House Library will help facilitate research in area of psychical research and its related subjects as well as into the area of medical and scientific research into sexual behaviour.  An electronic copy of the catalogue can be found on the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue and a printed copy is held in the Historic Collections Reading Room.


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

From the Reading Room

As part of a regular series, we ask one of the researchers using the Historic Collections Reading Room to describe how they are using the collections in their research.  Katherine Johnston, a visiting PhD researcher from Columbia University has been using the microfilm collection Plantation Life in the Caribbean, which reproduces material from the Vanneck-Arcedekne papers, held at Cambridge, and the Simon Taylor Papers (ICS120), part of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies collections at Senate House Library.  As well as bringing together two important archive collections, the microfilm is also important as a surrogate for the fragile original papers.

I have been reading the papers of Simon Taylor, a planter who lived in Jamaica in the late eighteenth century.  He wrote numerous letters to a friend and absentee planter in England, and this week I’ve been looking through about thirty years of correspondence.  This material is incredibly rich, filled with accounts of the weather, plantation management, and the health care of the enslaved populations.  I find his letters to be of interest in part because he discussed political issues, such as debates about the abolition of the slave trade and the French and Haitian revolutions, but mostly because he provides some excellent accounts of health care on Jamaican plantations.  My research focuses on concerns about health in the eighteenth-century West Indies and Taylor’s letters provide the most comprehensive source I have seen to date.  He was not a doctor himself, but was preoccupied with combating illnesses such as yaws and lockjaw that severely affected enslaved people.   

The collection is part of a range of archival material in Historic Collections on slavery and plantations; other important collections include the Newton family Papers (MS523), the Hewitt Papers (MS522) and the Castle Wemyss Estate papers (ICS101).  These resources are complemented by print holdings on slavery and abolitionism in the Goldsmiths Library and Porteus Library.