Through the camera lens

It was a few weeks ago that we had a phone call from the BBC asking whether researchers could come to look at some of the Hewlett Johnson papers in preparation for a documentary on the Cold War. It’s always nice to hear that people are interested in exposing our collections to a wider public than we can reach, although we’re aware how a huge amount of research is often distilled down into two or three minutes on screen. So we booked in an appointment, gave some advice on how to search the catalogue and were delighted when an email came through detailing specific incidents and periods which the researcher was interested in.

Johnson's manuscript notes

Johnson’s manuscript notes

When it came to it, the director of the programme came to do the research and found herself confronted with half a dozen large archival boxes, albums of photographs, a diploma for a prize and two boxes of newspaper cuttings! With staff on hand to answer specific enquiries about Johnson, his work and the archive, the director managed to wade through this material in slightly less than a day, recording all of the materials which she thought would be of use to the programme. These spanned from Johnson’s sermon notes (at present a sadly underused resource) to sections of the Dean’s autobiography in which he recorded his meetings with (in)famous individuals like Stalin and President Truman.

The filming itself took place on Monday (12 November) in the picturesque surroundings of the Deanery and the Cathedral Library, in the Precincts. A member of staff was needed to transfer the materials and to monitor their use – to step in if any damage was likely to be caused. The programme is presented by historian Dominic Sandbrook who, along with the director, was enthusiastic about the Dean, discussing his beliefs and his reasons for supporting the Communist cause so much longer than many of the other fellow travellers did.

Hewlett Johnson in the DeaneryIt was a privelege to film in the Deanery, with a protrait of Johnson on one wall and his bust on another, bringing his radical sermon notes back to the room in which they were probably written. This series, unlike Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip or Restoration Man, two other programmes which have featured Special Collections and Archives, was scripted, with room for improvisation and improvement during the day. This meant several rehearsals to get the shot right and the word flow working, then a few takes and some close ups. What never ceases to amaze me is the amount of time it takes to film sequences which often turn out to be only a small section of the programme. Stiff Upper Lip spent most of the day filming the Special Collections reading room for a section of the programme which lasted about 3 minutes. Monday’s BBC crew spent all day in and around the Cathedral, filming sources in the Deanery and the beautifully restored Cathedral Library, for what will probably amount to no more than 3 or 4 minutes of screen time.

So is it worth it? Even once the filming is complete, there are copies to be sent, references to clarify, copyright procedures to double check and often queries right up to the final edit. It’s an ongoing process which can run over several months for us (although much longer for the production company!) Yet despite this, I think it’s always worthwhile for our materials to be involved in television productions or articles. There’s the obvious bonus for us of publicity, but the broadcasting of materials we hold means much more than this. It enables the collections to be analysed and used alongside other, perhaps dispersed materials, and illuminate a far wider debate – whether it’s the British character or attitudes towards Communism during the mid twentieth century. It’s a pleasure to meet such enthusiasm about how apparently inert materials, perhaps insignificant on their own, are part of a much wider tapestry of national and international heritage.

'Searching for Light' manuscript

‘Searching for Light’ manuscript

In a few months time, I hope that Dominic and the team will be ready to share this and their wider research on the Cold War with all of us – I’ll let you know as soon as I hear any more.

Coming soon…

There’s never a dull moment in Special Collections and Archives; just as our new student inductions are coming to and end, we start looking ahead to an exciting range of events for the next academic year.

This evening, Tuesday 16 at 9pm, materials from the British Cartoon Archive will be appearing on Ian Hislop’s BBC2 series ‘The Stiff Upper Lip‘. This episode, partly filmed in the Special Collections reading room, examines the rise and fall of this apparently quintessential British trait since the First World War. Using cartoons by ‘Pont’ (Graham Laidler), one of the earliest Punch cartoonists, Ian traces the humorous side of an increasingly disconnected set of attitudes. There’s more information about the BCA’s Pont holdings on the website.

Dickens posterAs you may be aware, the Templeman Exhibition Gallery (on level 1, by the cafe) is currently hosting our final Dickens exhibition of the year, entitled “What the Dickens! Beyond the Books“. Do pop in to have a look at this cornucopia of Dickens materials which show how Dickens’ much loved characters have endured beyond his lifetime. This exhibition will be running until 5th November.

To round off our Dickens extravaganza, our very own Nick Hiley (curator of the British Cartoon Archive) will be presenting a nineteenth century magic lantern show of A Christmas Carol next Thursday, 25 October. This show will include what was apparently the most popular of all Victorian lantern slides: ‘Man eating Rat’! Do come along to be enthralled and entertained; there will be refreshments from 5pm and the show will start at 6pm in TR201 (on the second floor of the Templeman Library). We look forward to seeing you there.

As a final note for today’s update, the first in our series of Special Collections & Cathedral Library Lectures will take place on Friday 30 November, at 6.30pm. This will coincide with the launch of the British Cartoon Archive’s latest exhibition, on William Combe’s literary creation Dr Syntax and will be given by Dr James Baker, associate lecturer in the School of History, University of Kent. We’re delighted at the range of topics and speakers who have agreed to present these lectures this year: more news on the series to follow soon!

In the meantime, if you would like to arrange an event at Special Collections or would like to know anything more about our collections, please do contact us at

Going on a summer holiday? 3: Turbulent times

This summer, we’re following young architect William Harris’ trip around Europe, which began in 1821. He left Dover in the company of two friends and travelled to Calais, where he witnessed the celebrations for Corpus Christi. From there, he and Mr Brooks took a leisurely route to Paris. Although William arrived in the city early in July, he only had time to send a quick note to his father to assure him that they were well. We catch up with him on 23 July, when he’d found time in his busy schedule to write a longer letter home.

After the note he sent home on 2 July, William Harris began to feel ‘no little anxiety’ that he had not heard from his father for a full 15 days, nor from his sister for 14 days. The long awaited missive arrived on 15 July, delayed, apparently, by his father’s equally busy schedule! ‘Really, my dear Father, you must endeavour to spare time to let me hear from you a little more frequently’ William admonished, eager to hear ‘any news from Old England’. Sadly, we don’t have any of William Harris Senr.’s replies to his son in the deed box, but this letter is only the third of twelve, so there’s still a long way for William (and for us) to go!

Once he had settled into his lodgings in Paris, William began his errands in the city which, he said, possessed ‘so many points of attraction’. One interesting ‘commission’ he was sent with was to locate a mysterious ‘Madame Crowe’ on behalf of one Mr Jackson. The information relating to this woman in the letter is sparse, except that she was a married woman and probably ‘not residing in furnished lodgings’. In any case, William reported with some disappointment that he had been unable to locate her, concluding

“In all probability therefore, Madame Crowe does not wish her whereabouts to be discovered as she had given no number in a street a full half a mile long.”

Considering the upheaval in France from the fall and two exiles of Napoleon, with the involvement of the European Coalition to restore the Bourbon monarchy, Paris was perhaps one of the easiest places in Europe to stay hidden at this time.


Le Temple de ‘Amour, Malmaison (HJ PC:301)

Aside from commissions from friends and acquaintances, William’s main reason for travelling through Europe appears to have been to take in objects of art and architecture, for which the small group visited Malmaison on 19 July. This chateau was ‘a favourite retreat of the late Emperor’s and the Empress Josephine’; Josephine had bought the estate while Napoleon was in Egypt, with the expected proceeds of that campaign. She spent years and a small fortune restoring the chateau and its gardens as well as creating a menagerie which roamed free through the grounds. After her divorce from Napoleon in 1810, Josephine kept the chateau until her death in 1814. William recalled his father often telling him:

“the frowning of Paris on the very mentioned of which [Malmaison] is infamous…”

Of course, it wasn’t just France which was going through difficult times politically; there was a good reason why William wanted all of the news from old England. He noted his whereabouts on 19 July 1821 for a good reason: it was the date of King George IV’s coronation, after the death of the mad King George III in 1820. George IV had been Prince Regent during periods of his father’s incapacitating illnesses, although he had largely left the role of governance of the country to his politicians. While the coronation of the new King appeared didn’t appear to threaten any crisis, there was drama on the day due to George IV’s difficult relationship with his wife.


Coronation banquet of George IV by an unknown artist, c.1821

Having been married in 1795, reluctantly, to Princess Caroline of Brunswick, the Prince Regent’s marriage quickly ran into difficulty. After the birth of their only child, Princess Charlotte, the royal couple separated in 1796. Queen Caroline went to live on the continent in 1814, but at her husband’s coronation in 1821 she decided to return to London to assert her rights. William noted:

We hear that everything went off quietly in London with the exception of a few broken windows and that the Queen applied for admission at the doors of the [Westminster] Abbey and was refused”

George refused to recognise Caroline as Queen, and made efforts to ensure that European monarchs did likewise. Although he tried to divorce her and later to annul the marriage, these efforts proved unpopular with the public. In the end, the marriage ended quietly: Caroline became ill on the day of the coronation and died on 7 August, with some rumours that she had been poisoned. William’s brief note of the incidents on coronation day suggest that he, at least, had little interest in the quarrels of the royal family. In any case, his excitement about his trip around Europe was far more important.

News of the coronation reaches William in Paris

William was not the only architect who had left Britain to experience the culture and art of the rest of Europe; as well as his friend Mr. Brooks, with whom he had travelled from Dover, a Mr Angell joined them on their onward journey from Paris to Rome. William wrote:

“He is a young man of good sense and possesses a zeal for his profession without which something is a mere dead letter.”

The band of architects sound more like serious professional scholars than a gap year party, but then it’s likely that William would have wanted to impress the seriousness of his enterprise onto his father who was paying his bills.’Living at Paris and travelling expenses are so much higher than I had at all imagined’ he complained in his letter;

“and with every endeavour to keep [expenses] as low as possible, I find that they have exceeded my proposed expenditure a full third”

Even so, he assured his father that the costs would drop once they left the capital, although ‘the French are always on the alert to overcharge an Englishman’. It was not, he insisted, the pursuit of luxury which had cause this spending;

“nor do I imagine I could spend a single franc less consistent with any thing like comfort or respectability were I to recommence my journey tomorrow’

William’s letter from Paris

William evidently thought of his family at home frequently during his time away; his father, mother, sister, Mr Evans and ‘Jane’ are mentioned in every letter. This letter also mentions another member of the family;

“I am sorry to hear poor Dick has been obliged to undergo an operation.”

As I was transcribing the letter, I thought that sounded interesting; who was Dick? Probably not a member of the immediate family, but perhaps a servant or someone close enough to the Harris family that they had ensured he got the operation which he needed? Leaving aside the difficulties of nineteenth century surgery, I thought that this would give an intriguing insight into a gentleman’s relationship with his dependants. In some ways, it does, but not quite as I was expecting. William goes on:

“It would be perhaps be as well to avoid taking him over the stones as much as possible. He is an excellent little horse but tis a pity he has not a lighter vehicle to draw…”

So there you go, the Harris family were very close to their horses! William goes on to advise his father on how to deal with Dick’s lameness, with as much interest as if he was a long-term servant of the family.

“[I’m sorry to hear that] poor Dick has been obliged to undergo an operation”

The small band of architects intended to leave Paris on 31 July and continue their journey via Compiegne, Rheims, Dijon, Lyons, Nismes and then reach Geneva. The itinerary was not fixed;

“at the first mentioned places our stay will be uncertain and will be regulated by the interest they excite.”

And while he was racing around Europe, William was eager to stay in touch with his friends and family at home;

“If yourself or my sister could possibly find time to write to me immediately on the receipt of this by the very next bag…”

“…by the very next bag…”

Sending off his tightly packed, overwritten letter back home, William presumably went off to enjoy his last week in Paris, and to gather some more anecdotes to tell in his next letters. It’s just a lucky coincidence that these letters have survived nearly 200 years so that we can share his excitement today.

William’s letter from Paris and related archival materials will be on display in the Templeman foyer for a limited time only! Pop in to have a look and learn more, including why Lord Byron was causing a stir in Paris in 1821.


Going on a summer holiday? 2: I write in haste

It’s been a while since I updated you about William Harris Esq.’s continental exploits in 1821. As you may remember, he set out from Dover after having explored the castle and travelled to Calais in the company of two friends in June. I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know that he had arrived safely at Paris by the beginning of July.

William and his friend Mr Brooks were staying at a William Hunter’s residence on rue de Sevres, in the St Germain district of the city. William Harris wrote to his father on 2 July to ask that his father might ‘inform Mrs. Adams and Mrs. Brooks of the Strand’ of Mr. Brook’s safe arrival. William added

“[Mr Brooks] had been so much engaged this morning he has not had time to finish a letter he had begun but he will take care to write in a day or two”

It seems that William was the more likely of the two to write home; in any case, a swift letter was the speediest method of communication in 1821. William comments on the end of his note that he had just received his father’s “kind letter (no. 1)”: this leaves a gap of just 8 days between his sending from Calais and receiving his father’s reply. I have to say I thought this wasn’t bad by modern standards!

William's letter from St Germain

William’s letter from St Germain

Paris in 1821 was still gripped by the instability of the political swings from the Napoleonic, in 1815, to the accession of Louis-Phillippe as king in 1830. During this time, Britain had formed part of a European coalition which restored the Bourbon monarchy, by military force, to a constitutional role. The monarchy was not consistently popular and after the second fall of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815; although the government was elected to work alongside the Bourbons the two institutions did not always work together. Shifting political strengths throughout the decade of the 1820s must have made Paris an interesting place to be. The medieval city was still largely in existence, too; it was not demolished to make way for Haussmann’s vision of a modern city until the mid nineteenth century. It would have been a very different place to the modern tourist centre.

Of course, travel in the nineteenth century was never a straightforward or safe affair, as we’ll find out later in William’s journey. But for the time being, I will leave you with his brief note, in anticipation of the Parisian adventure to follow.

William's letter from St. Germain

William’s letter from St. Germain

 “I would have said more but the boy is just ready.”

Drop into the Templeman foyer to have a look at the original letter on display with a rare example of a nineteenth century passport.

Happy Birthday Boz!

Today is the day that so many people have been looking forward to in 2012: the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth.

Script for Oliver Twist, 1838

Script for Oliver Twist, 1838

I’d just like to take this opportunity to say Happy Birthday Boz, if not quite as popular now as in his heyday, still standing the test of time remarkably well. Who would have thought that, two hundred years after his birth in 1812, many of Dickens’ characters and stories would be part of popular culture today? With adaptations, spoofs and much-loved inspiration, Dickens’ work continues to be as powerful and timely to us as any number of twentieth century authors.

Few people could have failed to notice that 2012 was going to bring a rush of Dickensian fans to the fore; don’t worry, I’m not going to make a stand for the literary merit or try to explain the enduring popularity of Dickens’ works. Instead, I’d like to update you about what we will be doing, here in Special Collections, to mark this year.

As you may have guessed, our 2012 will be heavily focused upon Dickens. Our Dickens Theatre Collection draws together elements of our extensive Victorian and Edwardian Theatre Collections with a small collection of Dickens ephemera, and will be the mainstay of our bicentenary celebrations. In fact, those of you who are regular visitors to the Templeman Library may have noticed that our new Welcome Hall display is already celebrating all things Dickens in the library. Do have a look, and try to guess the characters from the Kyd sketches. We’re working on pages for the website which will allow a virtual exploration of our Dickens holdings and hope that this will be up and running by May.

Playbill for 'No Thoroughfare', 1868

Playbill for 'No Thoroughfare', 1868

Currently Chris, Hazel and myself are working hard to prepare for our first exhibition of the year. Dickens Dramatised will focus on nineteenth century adaptations of Boz’s works for the theatre and explore the writer’s immense popularity on the stage. From the start, with Sketches by Boz, Dickens’ work was being transformed for the stage. While many of the playwrights reworked the novels into theatrical forms without consulting the writer, Dickens himself tried try, and on some occasions succeeded in, writing for the stage. He also acted, appearing on his own stage at Tavistock House, in 1855, under the stage name Mr Crummles in Wilkie Collins’ The Lighthouse. Dickens collaborated with Collins on several occasions to produce plays, but was rebuffed when attempting to adapt his own most popular work of Oliver Twist. Dickens Dramatised will explore the relationship between Dickens’ novels and the theatre during the height of his popularity.

More news on this coming soon, I hope!

Scene from 'The Only Way', 1899

Scene from 'The Only Way', 1899

We hope to produce two more exhibitions this year, one in the summer term, examining Dickens’ impact on visual art in the twentieth century through cartoons held by the British Cartoon Archive, and one in the autumn, looking at the Dickens craze as it moved beyond the author’s lifetime. As soon as we have dates for these exhibitions, I will let you know.

Just in case you feel that there is such a thing as too much Dickens, don’t despair; we’re also hoping to work on the Dion Boucicault Collection throughout the year, digitising playbills and cataloguing materials. Theatre is one of our key areas for development, but I am sure there will be plenty of exciting developments to the Collections during this year.

So as you’re munching on your special Dickens birthday cake, I hope that you’ll join with us in wishing Boz a very happy two hundredth birthday!