Library collections have a life of their own

on Monday, 19 April 2021. Posted in History Centre, Wiltshire People, Wiltshire Places

Local Studies Library – the elderly volumes that might surprise you!

I can’t believe it’s been 5 years this month since I was lucky enough to become the County Local Studies Librarian here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre. In this time, I’ve had the exciting opportunity to learn a lot more about Wiltshire’s fantastic Wiltshire Studies collection, both at the History Centre and in the county’s many local libraries. You could spend a lifetime delving into the items we hold; there is never enough time in the day to enjoy looking at the collection and the many and varied topics, people and places that span hundreds of years.

The items in our collection have found their way to us through many different means. Some have been purchased, others gifted or donated by kind individuals, many local residents who share our belief that Wiltshire’s treasures should stay in the county for everyone to access and enjoy. Others have been in the ‘library’ system much longer, from reading rooms at places such as the Mechanics Institute in Swindon, historically part of the Wiltshire local authority before Swindon became unitary in 1997.

Local Studies libraries are classed as a ‘special collection’, and within Wiltshire’s are items dating from the 17th century to today. You would be surprised to learn how robust the most elderly items in our collection are; the acid in modern paper makes modern books more troublesome to keep safe. Even so, we like to keep an eye on our oldest items to ensure they are well looked after. I am currently conducting a condition survey to check on their wellbeing and the process has been very informative, opening my eyes to the rich variety of items we hold.

Our journey begins with some of our oldest items; Civil War and Commonwealth pamphlets from 1647-1658 (ref. AAA.946). These include the impeachment of members of the House of Commons by Sir Thomas Fairfax in 1647, an account of the speech of King Charles I on the scaffold in 1649 and a copy of the Commonwealth Mercury dated 25 November 1658, describing the removal of the body of the late Oliver Cromwell from Whitehall.

Title page with a decorative border for King Charles His Speech Made Upon the Scaffold 1648
AAA.946 King Charles Speech

Religion has an impact on lives, and this theme is understandably strongly represented in our collection, starting with a sermon from Salisbury Pastor John Strickland in 1643, preached before the House of Commons and published in 1644 (ref. SAL.251). Edward Stokes published his now famous ‘rant’ in 1652 about the “most unparallel'd prophane actings, counterfeit repentings, and evil speakings of Thomas Webbe, late pretended Minister of Langley Buriall” (ref. LAG.263).

Title page for The Wiltshire Rant by Edward Stokes wherein the most unparalleled profane actings, counterfeit repentings and evil speakings of Thomas Webbe
LAG.263 Stokes

Samuel Masters was extolling the virtues of friendship on the day of the Wiltshire Feast in 1685 (ref. AAA.251), and almost a century later in 1770 Edward Goldney is giving us his “Scriptural Counsel” (ref. AAA.250).

A discourse of a friendship preached at the Wiltshire-feast in St Mary Le-Bow-Church December 1st 1684
AAA.251 Masters
Patterned blue cover design with damage to bottom right corner
AAA.250 Goldney
Portrait of Goldney writing at his desk with coat of arms and title page for Scriptural Counsel
AAA.250 Goldney

A ‘Citizen of New Salisbury’ was ending the ‘Salisbury Quarrel’ with Mr Hoadly in 1770, explaining “the true notions of passive obediance and hereditary right” [sic] (ref. SAL.250). The copy even includes the original letter of donation from 1908!

Title page for The Salisbury Quarrel Ended or The Last Letter of the Citizen of New Sarum to Mr Hoadly
SAL.250 Citizen of Salisbury

In 1775 J. M. Coombs was writing in Chippenham about “Divine amusement for the use of churches, chapels, schools and private families : consisting of hymns, psalms, anthems and other sacred pieces, selected from the works of Marcello, Handel, Haydn, Luther, Mason, Boyce and etc., forming a most complete collection of devotional music : composed and arranged with peculiar care for the voice, organ or pianoforte” (ref. CHP.784). By 1792 the residents of Devizes were being warned of using treasonable words or circulating seditious writings with a reward being offered for a hand bill which had done exactly that (ref. DEV.343). J Johnson (also in Devizes) in the same year was writing about “The spirit of the constitution and that of the Church of England. Remarks on two letters, addressed to the delegates from the several congregations of Protestant dissenters, who met at Devizes, on September 14, 1789” (ref. DEV.280). We are again back in Devizes in 1812 when the British and Foreign Bible Society were holding a public meeting at Devizes Town Hall (ref. AAA.255). By 1816 William Lisle Bowles, vicar of Bremhill was writing about the ‘tendings’ of a non-conformist preacher at the beside of a dying parishioner which caused great upset (ref. BRE.922). We conclude the topic with John Legg’s 1789 “Meditations and reflections on the most important subjects; or, serious soliloquies on life, death, judgment, and immortality” (ref. XLE.100). Apparently, Legg was also the author of The Emigration of British Birds!

Of course, Stonehenge and Avebury now form part of an internationally important World Heritage Site, but they were also of interest in the 17th century to the new breed of antiquarians like Wiltshire’s very own John Aubrey. By the 18th century the sites were gaining wider interest but there was still uncertainty as to their origins. In 1720 Johann Georgio Keysler was writing about Celtic Antiquities (ref. STN.930).

Decorative spine with embossed gold title reading Keysler Antiquitates Celticae
STN.930 Keysler
Engraved frontispiece and title page Antiquitates Selectae Septentrionales et Celticae
STN.930 Keysler

Three years later Thomas Twining’s essay was exploring “Avebury in Wiltshire, the remains of a roman work, erected by Vespasian and Julius Agricola during their several commands” (ref. AVE.937). The notable architect Inigo Jones had compiled his “The most notable antiquity of Great Britain, vulgarly called Stone-heng, on Salisbury Plain”, published in 1725 (ref. STN.930) with William Stukeley publishing his findings “Stonehenge : a temple restor'd to the British Druids” in 1740 (ref. STN.921).

Title page for Inigo Jones The Most Notable Antiquity of Great Britain Vulgarly Called Stone-heng
Printed text from Inigo Jones facing engraving of a more complete Stonehenge
STN.930 Inigo Jones
Engraved frontispiece depicting Chyndonax and title page Stonehenge a Temple Restored to the British Druid by William Stukeley
STN.921 Stukeley

Dr John Smith had published his ‘grand orrery’ of Stonehenge by 1771 (ref. STN.291), also proclaiming his abilities as an inoculator of the small pox and by 1795 Avebury was the subject of poetry, Charles Lucas writing “The old serpentine temple of the Druids, at Avebury, in North Wiltshire : a poem” which spans pages 7-29 (ref. AVE.821).

Page 7 First Page of poem "The Old Serpentine Temple of the Druids at Avebury a poem"
AVE.821 Lucas

I hope that you have found travelling through some of our elderly treasures interesting, and unexpected!

You are more than welcome to view any of the items in this article at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre; just make a booking via our website. You can search the Local Studies collection via the Wiltshire Library catalogue (select Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre as a branch).

Julie Davis
County Local Studies Librarian
Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre

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