Ghosts in the library; meeting the past owners of books.


Book owners are sometimes better than picture owners at recording their ownership. Research would be easier if more owners wrote their names on the back of picture frames. With books, it’s exciting and strange, the pleasantest version of seeing a ghost, to read a name in the front of a book and know who has read it before you. Recently – for an article in the forthcoming, imminent Jordaens Van Dyck Journal – I had to consult an original edition in a library of Sir William Dugdale’s Antiquities of Warwickshire printed in 1656 with illustrations by Wenceslaus Hollar.

This is what I was looking for, evidence that ‘o’ was still pronounced as ‘a’ in the mid-seventeenth century. The village called Morton today was called Marton in 1656, and Dugdale explains why. I wasn’t certain that he would mention it, but I knew that if anyone would, Dugdale would. Bardon Hill above Stratford was called Bardon Hill around 1900, and the pronunciation survives in Jamaican English. Bob Marley’s family were originally Morleys. Good old Dugdale:  ‘the O by antient use in pronuntiation being changed into A, as in the North parts of this Kingdom, where the Vestigia of our old English are yet most plain to be found, is yet very usuall.’

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This bookplate on the front was quite eye-grabbing.

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The first thing I noticed was the wingless griffin, a rare beast in heraldry known as a ‘male griffin’. Then I saw the ducal coronet and Order of the Garter round the shield. A previous owner had spotted this too, and he must also have recognised the coat of arms, because he’d written this inscription in the front.

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This book, as appears by the Bookplate once belong’d to that great, brave, virtuous, and loyal, Nobleman, James, Earl Marquiss and Duke of Ormond, on which account I set a particular value on it, Leicester 1793

It’s strange to read a book knowing it has been owned and read by such a colossus as James Butler 1st Duke of Ormond KG PC (1610–1688), a successful general who learnt Irish when he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland under King Charles I and again under King Charles II for whom he’d done undercover work in England during the King’s exile.

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Willem Wissing, James Butler 1st Duke of Ormond, National Portrait Gallery, London.

‘Leicester’ is George Townshend 1st Earl of Leicester 2nd Marquess Townshend PC FRS (1753–1811), a soldier and archaeologist who was President of the Society of Antiquaries, a Fellow of the Royal Society and Trustee of the British Museum. Leicester would have known the Duke’s biography well, but Ormond’s popular reputation had slipped by the early eighteenth century, in common with other great servants of the Stuarts. He was introduced to a new generation by Thomas Carte’s two volume biography, printed in the 1730s. When Mrs Delany read it in 1751 she considered the Duke ‘the completest fine gentleman and loyalist subject I ever read of.’ (Dictionary of National Biography)

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Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Townshend 1st Earl of Leicester, collection unknown.

William Hamper (1776–1831) who has signed his name under Leicester’s and dated it 1814 was a Birmingham brassfounder who was appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1811, three years before he acquired the book. By 1817 he was a correspondent of the Society of Antiquaries, and he was made a Fellow in 1821. He wrote a number of poems, including an account of the legend of Devil’s Dyke included in contemporary Brighton guidebooks, and a life of Sir William Dugdale. This information is from his obituary which like all obituaries is worth looking at. Strange to read that his ‘handwriting was a model for neatness and elegance’ with an example of it in front of you. Hamper’s magnum opus, a revised edition of Dugdale’s Warwickshire was sadly never completed, though he devoted years to the work and assembled vast collections of manuscripts. The British Museum has his annotated copy of Dugdale, so clearly he had two. Perhaps he didn’t want to write in the Duke of Ormond’s copy.

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Bust of William Hamper, Birmingham University (photo Andy Mabbett)

There are two library plates on the following pages, one for William Harper, lege sed elige, ‘read but be discerning.’

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And one for John William Ryland (1853–?1922), a Warwickshire antiquary who published the parish registers of Rowington in 1899 and for Wroxall in 1903.

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This is eminent and rather intimidating company, like being in the reading room at London Library. I share their reverence for this book by the greatest of early archival scholars. But many books have well-mannered ghosts like this. At home we’ve got a leather-bound copy of Hume and Smollett’s History of England that Zak gave me as a present. Like a family Bible, it has the birthdates of early owners written in the front, George and Hannah Mulcaster.

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On the oppose page are the names and birthdates of the Mulcasters’ children, beginning with Edward Henderson Mulcaster born in 1850, then Thomas born 1852, James born in 1853 and Hannah born 1855.

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The only further clue to their identity is the bookbinder’s label inside the cover,

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Thomas McMechan, booksellers, stationers and advertisers were still trading in 1915, according to an old bill of sale available on eBay. The Mulcasters’ book is undated but looks early Victorian and was probably printed before Edward Henderson Mulcaster’s name was written in it in 1850.

With these facts I was able to look the Mulcasters up online, and found a record of them on the Mulcaster family site and on ancestry.com. George Mulcaster lived at Gill Farm, Bromfield, six miles south west of Wigton in Cumbria. He married Hannah Henderson, whose surname is used as their eldest son’s middle name – a very useful habit in families where female line descent should be preserved. Of their children only Edward Henderson Mulcaster leaves a trace online. He sailed to Canada in 1885, where he married twice, to Alice Dixon and then to Gertrude Bensley, and died in 1905 at a racetrack, Union Coursing Park, San Francisco, leaving descendants, in the same year according to ancestry that his father died in England. Interesting that the Mulcasters recorded their family in a history book rather than a Bible. Perhaps they believed in one and not the other. Or, like annotating the Duke of Ormond’s Dugdale, was writing in a Bible sacrilegious?

All these lives and unexpected voices. When people write in books they’re aware they’re speaking to eternity. It’s always good to hear them.

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