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15 June 2013

The Guildhall Library

Tag(s): Marketing, Languages & Culture
A regular reader of these blogs recently asked me where I got my ideas from. I replied that as long as I continued to attend interesting events and meet interesting people there was no shortage of ideas. Just this week I could have written about any of the following. On Monday I was invited to attend Ernst & Young’s summer reception for independent directors held at the Victoria and Albert Museum featuring a private showing of the David Bowie exhibition. On Tuesday my wife and I saw an indifferent production of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago redeemed by wonderful bel canto singing by Joyce Didonato and Juan Diego Flórez. On Wednesday I attended the funeral of Mike King, the charismatic Sales Director when I was a sales manager at Pedigree Petfoods. On Thursday my wife and I saw the marvellous Helen Mirren playing the Queen at all ages with her twelve different prime ministers in Peter Morgan’s The Audience. And on Friday I celebrated my birthday, always an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of life. In fact there were two other events this week which probably will stimulate future blogs but I’ll keep my powder dry on those. Instead I want to write about the Guildhall Library where I recently organised a visit by a group of Marketors.

The Guildhall Library is one of the oldest, possibly the oldest, public libraries in the world. It specialises in the history of London and holds the largest library collection in the world devoted to the history of a single city. The Library’s printed books collection comprises over 200,000 titles dating from the 15th to the 21st centuries and includes books, pamphlets, periodicals, trade and telephone directories and poll books.  The collection covers all aspects of life in London, past and present, its trade, people and buildings. In addition it holds extensive collections covering maritime history including Lloyd’s marine collection, business history, local and family history,  clocks and clockmakers, internationally renowned collections of books on wine and food, historic English law reports and British parliamentary papers and statutes.

Special collections include those devoted to Samuel Pepys, John Wilkes and Thomas More, plus the libraries of the Clockmakers’, Gardeners’ and Fletchers’ Companies, the Antiquarian Horological Society, Gresham College, and the Charles Lamb Society.

Guildhall Library runs an active and engaging programme of events, ranging from afternoon talks on aspects of London History, guided walks of the Square Mile and book launches to monthly evening wine receptions with current authors. Recent events have included Exploring Spitalfields; The Huguenot Silk Weavers; Law firms, Lawyers and London; The true story of C.S. Forrester’s The African Queen; The vanished medieval friaries of London;  Shakespeare’s First Folio; The Architecture of the City of London; the history and treasures of Guildhall Library; Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad Doctors in Victorian England; and many more.

Our own event was organised specially for us following some Outreach work some of our members did for the Library. The Library is happy to work in this way, particularly with the Livery Companies as it challenges them to find among their archives some works of special interest to a particular audience.

Peter Ross, Principal Librarian, told us that as with so much in the City the foundation of the Guildhall Library was financed out of the bequests of Richard Whittington who has lived on as Dick Whittington of Pantomime fame. The real Richard Whittington was born in Gloucestershire in around 1354. He was not the eldest son and so would not inherit his father’s estate. Instead he was sent to London to learn the trade of mercer. He thrived and went on to sell woollens as well as silks and then moved into money lending. He was Lord Mayor of London four times and also a Member of Parliament.  He bankrolled three successive kings Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V and when he died without heirs in 1423 left the colossal sum of £7000 to charity. Among others this went to
  • Rebuild Newgate Prison and Newgate with accommodation for the Recorder and Sheriffs, the forerunner of the Old Bailey
  • Repair St Bartholomew’s Hospital.
  • The creation of his ‘college’ i.e. almshouse and hospital originally at St Michael’s
  • Install some of the first public drinking fountains
  • Build the first library in Guildhall for a college of priests.
Only two books survive from the original library. The rest were seized by the Duke of Somerset, Protector of the young Edward VI. As a Protestant ruler he wanted a library for his new Somerset House on the Embankment and demanded that the Guildhall books be sent over in three carts he sent to the city for the purpose.  They were never returned and though Somerset was arrested for treason he was executed for overstepping his powers and so the family kept all his property including the books. If he had been executed for treason all would have been forfeit.

One of the oldest books in the collection is The Survey of London first printed in 1598 and never out of print since. It describes the London that pre-dated the Great Fire of 1666. But the Library did not survive the fire and it was not restored until 1820. From then on the Corporation made efforts to build up the collection and it was operated as a public reference library.  In the 1860s it commissioned Horace Jones, who designed Tower Bridge, to build a new library in the perpendicular Gothic style. The current building dates from 1974 and lacks the historic grandeur of its forbears but has far greater storage capacity with one vast basement floor for printed books and a second for manuscripts.

Though it holds 200,000 titles in fact this means 500,000 books as some titles have multiple volumes. There are 10,000 cookery books based on two donations from catering firms. 80 of the Livery Companies store their archives at the Library. Many annual reports of companies quoted on the London Stock Exchange are stored there and these can be a source of value as mining companies, for example, will seek details of mining finds that proved non-viable in the past but may be viable today with improved engineering.

There are some treasures almost beyond value including one of the few original copies of the Magna Carta, a copy of the first edition of Shakespeare’s First Folio and, separately, Shakespeare’s signature. These three alone are worth around £150 million. We were able to see the First Folio but not to touch it and not to see the others as it is a rule of the insurance company never to show the three together at any one time.

The collection is so vast that it uses its own classification system. As there are 60,000 titles just on the subject of the history of London with the standard Dewey Decimal Classification system you would never find what you were looking for.
Among the specialist works we saw were:
  • A yellow cover book on “Advertising- How, When and Where?” dating from the 1880s proving there is nothing new about business books.
  • A copy of The London Gazette, one of the official records of the British Government and the oldest newspaper to have been published continuously in the UK as it dates back to 1665.
  • A Bill of Mortality, which were published from the 16th to the 18th century and were designed to track mortality. From these we can see the particular devastation of the Great Plague although causes of death were often recorded in language which would not pass muster in a Coroner’s Court , as, for example, ‘of indolence’.
  • The Town, a penny dreadful published from 1837 – 1840 that described the scandals of the day. The example we saw featured ‘Another dreadful suicide at the Monument’ as it had become quite common for people to throw themselves off the 202 feet high Monument to the Great Fire of London. The top was later fenced in.
  • Early 20th century posters for election to the London County Council showing that there has been little movement in the dialogue between Right and Left as evidenced by cartoons that might have inspired the Saatchi Brothers or any of the other spin doctors of today.
  • Histories of Oxo, Schweppes and Twining’s which all date back to a much earlier period proving that brand management was not invented by the Americans in the middle of the 20th century. Indeed there is some evidence that Oxo was the first company to sponsor the Olympic Games in the 1908 first London Games despite Coca Cola’s claim to this particular distinction as its association only began in 1924.
  • A series of commercial directories one of which was particularly poignant for me. The Pottery Gazette Diary of 1920 listed hundreds of companies involved in producing pottery the vast majority of which were based in the five pottery towns of Stoke-on-Trent. Wedgwood and many others were based in one of the Pottery towns, Tunstall, where in the 1950s my uncle was Vicar. I remember staying with him in his vast vicarage looking out over the blackened smoke stacks of the kilns, few of which have survived.
Copyright David C Pearson 2013 All rights reserved



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