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BIRMINGHAM: ITS LIBRARIES AND ITS BOOKSELLERS
BY ROBERT K. DENT
(Chief Librarian of Aston Manor Public Library.)
Unlike Bristol and Leicester and Manchester, Birmingham has no ancient library foundation to point to as evidence of the far-seeing wisdom of its early benefactors. The oldest library in the city was that in connection with King Edward's School, of which it is recorded by Calamy that the Rev. Thomas Hall (founder of the King's Norton's School Library) gave a number of books towards its formation, about the middle of the seventeenth century. In 1733 the Rev. W. Higgs, the first rector of St. Phi ip's Church (now the pro-cathedral) founded a library free to all clergymen of the Church of England in the town and neighbourhood,' which is now preserved in a room set apart to that purpose in the rectory in St. Philip's churchyard. It consists la gely of old books of divinity, but some attempt is made to keep up with the demands of the time, chiefly in this class of works. The only bock of note in the collection is a first edition of Εικων Βασιλικη. There are many fine old works in the Library of King Edward's School, including two copies of Walton's famous Polyglot.
The first public library was founded in 1779, as a subscription Library, by some of the foremost inhabitants of that period when Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Joseph Priestly and other Birmingham men were making the town famous for its scientific and literary coterie throughout England, as Baskerville had already made it famous throughout Europe by his magnificent editions' of the classics, his Cambridge Bible, and his beautiful editions of Milton, Addison, Congreve, and other English classics. The Lunar Society of Birmingham included among its members and occasional visitors many men famous in science, art and literature at that period, and it was chiefly to the members of this society that the Birmingham Old Library, as it is called, owed its foundation. By degrees this library (which, when it was founded in 1779, could stow away all its literary possessions in a small cupboard) grew to be one of the most important proprietory libraries in the provinces. It is now housed in a new Library Building in Margaret Street; erected from designs by J. A. Cossins, and comprises reading, conversation and smoking rooms, as well as a valuable library, the growth of a century and a quarter, containing many valuable works, county histories, the transactions of the learned societies, and other high-class works not usually found in subscription libraries.
Almost immediately after the passing of the Free Libraries Act of 1850 an attempt was made to carry out its provisions in Birmingham, but although the leaders of thought in the city were ready to adopt the act, the inhabitants were not prepared for it as yet, and it was not until 1860 that the act was adopted, and for some years only a temporary library, in hired premises, was available for use by the people, and even that was somewhat remote from the centre of the town.
But in September, 1865, a Central Lending Library was opened in the presence of a large number of visitors to the British Association, which held its meetings in Birmingham in that year for the third time. In October, 1866, a well-stocked Reference Library was opened in the same build ng by the late George Dawson, whose inaugural address on that occasion is one of the classics of the Free Library movement. One room in the new Central Free Library was devoted to the housing of a suitable Memorial Library of works by and relating to Shakespeare in every known edition. This room remained bare and empty until 1868, when it was fitted up in an appropriate manner, and the Shakespeare Memorial Library opened to s udents of his writings and of the literature gathered around them, from all parts of the world.
Year by year both libraries were enriched by valuable donations: a rare collection of Cervantes literature, a collection of Birmingham books and pamphlets, as complete as effort could make it, the priceless Staunton Collection of Warwickshire Books and MSS. (including, besides many rare early printed books, the famous Manuscript Guild book of Knowle, the MS. Cartulary of Thelsford, and the priceless Manuscript of one of the old Coventry Mysteries, the Pageant of Sheremen and Taylours '); and choice books in every department of literature were purchas d as opportunity afforded. But, alas, the reckoning of all the treasures in this valuable library is distressful, for on the 11th January, 1879, a fire broke out (during the progress of work on the necessary enlargement of the Library building), and nearly all the contents of this great treasurehouse perished. The Guild Book of Knowle, and a few of the Shakespeare books were saved, but even in comparison of the total number rescued from the flames, the character of the salvage was most disappointing. Precious manuscripts and unique
books were suffered to perish, while unimportant books and odd volumes of bound newspapers were rescued. It was, no doubt, a moment of panic, and the rapidity with which the flames took hold upon the books of the Reference Library precluded that calm, orderly choice of books to be rescued which one naturally wishes could have been undertaken.
But what was lacking in this direction was undoubtedly atoned for in the splendid enthusiasm with which the work of reconstruction was undertaken. While the ruins were yet smoking, the men of Birmingham met together and resolved to rebuild the Library, and to form a collection richer, if possible, than that which had so tragically perished. Upwards of £14,000 was subscribed in a few weeks, almost without solicitation; while offers of help came from all quarters. From our late Queen Victoria, from the universities and printing clubs, from the British Museum, from public libraries and publishers, came the most generous offers of donations, and when the reconstructed Library was opened it was found indeed to be richer in literary treasures than that which had been destroyed. Many unique manuscripts were gone for ever, it is true, but a very valuable Warwickshire collection, and an even more extensive Shakespeare Memorial Library had been formed. The former is now rich in MSS., drawings, prints, &c., and the priceless gem of the collection is still, as it was in the lost Staunton Collection, the Register of the Guild of St. Anne of Knowle, extending from 1407 to 1535. This has now been transcribed and printed by the Birmingham Archæological Section, and is henceforth secured from actual loss, as we trust the original will be in future. A new Cervantes collection has been formed-not, it is true, so complete as the one destroyedand several other special collections have been added, notably the prints of the Photographic Survey of Warwickshire, a work of the highest importance to future archæologists of the county.
The Shakespeare Memorial Library is now housed in a room adjoining the annexe of the Reference Library, appropriately fitted, and comprises about 12,000 volumes, including all the obtainable editions of the works of our great dramatist, including all the four folios and several early quartos, a large body of Shakespeariana in various languages, and works relating to the history of the drama and the stage, together with prints, portraits and a remarkable collection of Shakespeare illustrations formed by the late Mr. H. R. Forrest during the course of a long lifetime.
The total number of volumes in the Reference Library (including the Shakespeare Library) was at the end of last year 186,951; while in the Central Lending Library there are over 31,000, and in the nine Branch Libraries there are nearly 90,000 volumes, thus offering to the inhabitants a store of over 120,000 volumes for home reading, conveniently distributed over the entire area of the city, and housed in well-appointed buildings, with good news-rooms at each branch, and at the central library.
Among other Birmingham libraries, may be mentioned that at the Medical Institute comprising over 13,000 volumes, among which are many rare early treatises on Medicine; the Law Society's Library (over 12,000 volumes), which has a good collection of Reports of Celebrated Trials; the University Library, which includes the late Mr. Hensleigh Wedgewood's collection of works on Philology, and a representative collection of European Scientific works; and the Library in connection with the meeting-house of the Society of Friends, which is somewhat extensive, and in earlier years made up to some extent for the lack of a free public library, to those who were fortunate enough to obtain access to its well-stocked shelves.
In several of the districts and boroughs immediately surrounding the city are good free libraries, as for instance, Aston Manor, Handsworth, King's Norton and Selly Oak, and Smethwick, and a new one is in course of formation at Erdington. The Aston Manor Library has a fine Reference Library of over 10.000 volumes, including many valuable fine art books, a Manuscript Book of Hours illuminated by Spierinck (circa 1480), which is fully described in Bradley's Dictionary of Miniaturists, and a good collection of local books.
It was a favourite saying thirty years ago that Birmingham was "a paradise of Booksellers," and certainly in those days it numbered among those who followed the calling of a second-hand bookseller some widely-known names. If the story of the late WILLIAM BROUGH, for instance, could be told in detail, it would present many a "romance of bookselling." It was to his enterprise that the discovery of an unpublished report of Carlyle's Lectures on the History of Literature was due. He was a man of great enterprise, and he it was who, on the publication of Latham's Johnson's Dictionary in four large quarto volumes, surprised the publisher's traveller by enquiring if the usual rule of "6 thirteen as twelve" would be adhered to, and thereupon ordered the baker's
dozen of copies of that great work. If a "remainder" which promised well was offered to him, he was seldom satisfied with aught less than the entire stock, and many a book of this class he "cleared." The present writer well remembers his taking a stock of eight hundred copies of Bertall's "Communists of Paris," a quarto, the stock of which presented a most formidable appearance in his store-room.
It may be well understood that, trained in such a school as this, Mr. WILLIAM DOWNING (who learned his business with Mr. Brough) became a worthy upholder of the old tradition; and having succeeded Mr. Cadby in the old-established business at the top of New Street, soon made the "sign of the Chaucer's Head" famous among book-lovers everywhere. It would be difficult to recount the book-rarities which have distinguished Mr. Downing's series of Catalogues (an unbroken series of monthly "bookcirculars" extending over thirty-six years), for Mr. Downing has been unusually fortunate as a mighty book-hunter. He has numbered among his customers many of the most famous men and women of his time. The late Mr. Gladstone was a frequent customer, and when he came to Birmingham in 1888, in the height of the Home Rule movement, he wrote a charming postcard expressing his regret that he could not pay a visit to the Chaucer's Head, "as he feared it would be impossible for him to walk the streets at that time." Sir Henry Irving rarely came to Birmingham without calling upon Mr. Downing, and the same may be said of Ellen Terry. The late George MacDonald, Thomas Carlyle, Ruskin, Tennyson, and many others of note were among Mr. Downing's customers, and the old bookseller reckons among his choicest treasures a certain album of autograph letters from those who have bought books from the "Chaucer's Head" during his long and honourable career. In the distribution of the productions of the Kelmscott and other famous presses Mr. Downing has borne a notable part. He was called into the councils of the late William Morris when the question of price of the first volume printed at the Kelmscott press was under consideration; and from that time forward he was intimately associated with the sale of these works, as well as those of the "Vale" and "Doves" presses.
Mr. JOHN HITCHMAN, of Cherry Street, commenced bookselling in the same street (on the site of the eighteenth century "Cherry Orchard" of Birmingham) in 1872, and has, like Mr. Downing, steadily continued the issue of a monthly catalogue during the whole period, now nearly thirty-five years.
Mr. JAMES WILSON, of Bull Street, was for some time an assistant of the first Charles Lowe (one of the old race of second-hand booksellers who is kindly remembered by many old collectors) and first set up in business at 22, Cannon Street in 1874. He has been worthily known for enterprise and as an indefatigable book-hunter during the last thirty years or more. The tale of his treasures would occupy a long space, and the frequent notice accorded to him in the London and provincial Press is evidence of his fame among book-lovers. The late Mr. Ruskin was among the regular readers of the "Hutton House Book Catalogue," and his satisfaction with the bargains he secured through Mr. Wilson's aid is expressed in letters of his which the bookseller numbers among his treasures. "I'm delighted more than I can tell you with the book," wrote the famous art-critic on one occasion, "I never got such a bargain in my life." Again he wrote: "I wish you a Happy New Year and many nice friends of old Books," and he adds words which must have won the heart of Mr. Wilson's young man, "Please give the extra 2s. 6d. to your packer." Mr. Wilson had in one of his earlier catalogues perhaps one of the most complete collections of Ruskin literature ever offered for sale. He has had many unique books in his time, a very interesting 17th century MS. diary kept by a famous portrait painter found its way to the National Portrait Gallery (it had been all but consigned to the bookseller's fourpenny box !), the Mander collection of materials for the history of Coventry, the editio princeps of Piers Plowman, and the famous theological library of the late Dr. R. W. Dale, have been among the noteworthy items in a long and interesting series of catalogues issued by Mr. James Wilson.
(NOTE BY EDITOR.)
When, at five years of age, I used to sit dangling my legs from a high chair in the shop of my cousin, William Cornish, in New Street, Birmingham, looking at the children's books which, among others, he used to sell, I little thought that half-a-century later I should be concerned in the publication of an account of the libraries and booksellers of my native place. We may well talk about "the whirligig of time"! I must have been a dreadful nuisance to Mr. Cornish, for I haunted his place in every spare hour, and he must have been a most amiable man, for I remember how he listened patiently while I told him that I meant to read all the books when I too became