Why are these books so important to us in the here and now.
Jack Adams has a collection of antiquarian books
which are completely valueless.
I collect books , old books, torn and sometimes coverless books. You can pick these up for as little as £2 at antiquarian book fairs. At most I will not spend more than £5 and then it has to be something really interesting. If these books did not get sold they would simply be scrapped, thrown into a skip and burnt. You see the have no financial value really, collectors are not interested in “rubbish books” and a lot of these volumes have been discarded by public and private libraries, taken off the shelves, withdrawn and dispensed with. To those for whom money and appearance is everything these tatty tomes are completely valueless.
The situation is made worse by the culture of our times, the digital damnation which values a book in the hand as much less than a word from the net. My object here is to demonstrate that these old books are much more than valueless, they are priceless!
The images we are looking at here come from one such redundant and discarded source and in just considering its own history I am hoping to start to open the door to a magical and enchanting kingdom of imagination and thinking.
WARD OF ALDGATE
1500 – 1904
You can see above a scan of the cover of the little treasure from which all the images here are generated. As you can see this is a proper tatty book in poor condition. But what do you expect from a 114 year old ex-library book? The fact it is still here should speak to you about its quality and deserved need to be preserved and cherished. This is the original 1904 publication not the 1935 reprint.
So our first task as a book loving person and someone fascinated by content rather than marketing is to be a guardian of such works. This book is frail, we cannot roughly handle its aged skin, even the operation of scanning the images you see here has left a small part of the cover detatched on the surface of the scanner. Fret not, it is a very small fingernail clipping of this ancient body but, like most old men, the spine has gone, it has developed a peculiar smell, all of its glory is faded and it is having trouble keeping itself together. If you are not starting to fall in love with the responsibility these valueless books charge us with then either I have not been explaining well enough or you just need to pop out and get your new i-phone.
Once we gently open up the book we are presented with an immediate opportunity to recognise this volume’s deep and abiding charm. In order to do this we have to start engaging with our books through a depth of considered appreciation which ranges beyond the content itself but also into the life of this cultural artefact. Heavily foxed and marked this book is not of a quality for a ‘serious’ collector to consider. Perhaps if it had a price tag of £1000 then some would start to invent a mythology as to why it is a priceless treasure but we have to stand above the fiscal as we value life for its experience not its price tag.
This book immediately tells us a whole history of things not obvious from the outside. Brutally abused by heartless council administrators the book has had its history torn from it with great force. Who would not want to see the rubber stamped record of when this book was loaned out by Clerkenwell library? Who would not want to wonder who borrowed this book in January 1932? All we are left with is the stump of an amputated limb and a stamp confirming the nature of the villan who perpetrated the crime.
And yet this little work still speaks to us of history before we even get to the front plate! Clerkenwell Library is long gone and even Google cannot tell us where it went to. Instead we are guided to Finsbury Library, a new modern building, all glistening and carpeted, filled with fresh new books and obviously a community asset. But where did Clerkenwell library go? Was it just a local government re-organisation strategy to save money or was it lost to a Zepplin or a Doodlebug? The font on the lending department sticker certainly says early 20th century in style and it is tempting to suggest that this book went straight into the library in 1904.
The sticker also poses another question; what exactly does No 17568 mean? How were the Clerkenwell library organising their stock and who exactly was it that wrote that number down? On this simple page we have echoes of the history of London civic organisation, library practices, font styles and visible echoes of at least two human lives sitting above the invisible hands through which this book passed. Someone stuck the label in, someone who worked in the library, someone who lived in London prior to the Great War. Someone tore the lending labels out, someone who worked in the library, someone who lived in London after the Second World War.
These books have layers, many layers but if you cannot read them or even see them then they are just old rubbish books of no importance to anyone.
If you are truly sensitive then look away from the image above. The sheer barbaric brutality of the Finsbury Public Libraries ‘Withdrawn’ stamp is a shocking indictment of the bureaucratic mind. Not enough that they throw this essential history out but they then demand that it cannot be offered for re-sale. These are the actions of a patrician class when throwing out their ancient servant because she cannot climb the stairs and condemning her to the work house after a lifetime’s service. Such callous contempt for the book is made the more viscous by double stamping the page just to ensure it is suitably defaced.
We could ask ourselves if the Clerkenwell library would have acted in such a brutish manner or is this just what happened when Finsbury Public Library took over and saw an asset past its prime. We also have to wonder where this little book has been hiding in all the years before I picked it up in a Euston book fair in 2014. But the most important information here are the words ‘Second Edition’.
This means that this book made more than one run which means that to a certain extent it found an element of favour amongst the reading public. But we have to always be wary and this is what these words teach us more than anything for this book is a celebration of the creation of John Pound as Lord Mayor. The Lord Mayor of the City of London is always a rich and prominent man of power and politics in the United Kingdom. The Corporation of the City of London has charters and rights stretching back before the Normans arrived and they have it in their gift to defy the will of monarchs. Few, if any, in this land have anything like that right but the Corporation of London does and they have enforced their will over kings in the past. This is the establishment writ large and backed by a wealth of trade centuries old. Being Lord Mayor may appear to be a ceremonial role but it is anything but that. The rituals and pomp mask the politics as they are meant to.
This book is a vanity publishing and the first edition could have been in limited numbers to be given to friends and colleagues.
As this book is really a piece of vanity publishing; being a celebration of John Pound’s election to Lord Mayor, we are presented with a photograph of the man himself in full regalia. When we look at this picture what do we see? This may seem to be an obvious question but when looking at the old photographs and engravings it is the first of two key questions to ask. The second is always who created the image and why? This is always the starting point because otherwise we are just looking but not seeing.
In this case I will tell you what it is I see but first take a moment to study the image of Sir John, all Lord Mayors are made knights, and then we can share our insights.
On first viewing this is a very simple posed portrait, an official portrait of a civic dignitry. There is the substantial gold chain of office, the fur collar, the ornate buttons and the obvious quality, even though hardly seen, of the clothing. But this picture is all about the face and character of Sir John Pound, Lord Mayor of London. The obvious bowls straight off of the page at you; this is a man very proud of this moment in his life.
I would suggest though that this great pride is not one backed by arrogance, Sir John shows all the bearing of a good humoured man. His eyes, even in this dull scanned rendition, fairly sparkle and his puffed cheeks reveal there is a smile beneath all that beard. This pride appears to be expressed in happiness rather than arrogance.
Such happiness could be seen to be sourced from the knowledge that having taken over the family business on the death of his father, John transformed it into the biggest baggage retailer in Britain in its day. This was a man who saw a way in life to progress to wealth and position. He clearly applied himself to his task and must have worked hard to get to the position where he sat in the photographer’s studio as the new Lord Mayor. He had been born in Aldgate and lived and worked in Aldgate all his life. As Alderman of Aldgate he progressed to become Lord Mayor He is a local boy made good from a time when the City of London still had local boys.
This is most of what this photo tells us but there is one more thing. Easily overlooked, simple to miss but it is Sir John’s beard. This is 1904 and that manicured beard, well grown and full, is in identical style to that of King Edward VII’s. To copy a king takes a certain amount of self confidence. Looking through the images of people in these early Edwardian moments, not many commoners carry this King Edward beard! As much as all of the regalia this beard is a symbol of a deep seated self confidence and expression of being establishment to the core.
In these observations we can also start to see why these antique books hold another draw on our souls. There sits Sir John Pound, owner of John Pound & Co., his company had: three factories; eight distribution warehouses; and five shops in central London at Leadenhall Street, Regent Street, Oxford Street, Piccadilly and Tottenham Court Road. The Master of the Worshipful Company of Leathersellers and chairman of the London General Omnibus Company. Baronet Pound, Lord Mayor of London, a man of substance, a man of wealth and power.
In the early 1950’s John Lewis took over John Pound & Co., and in 2014 a business man bought from them the ‘brand’ John Pound. All that is left of a man’s life and achievements, outside of the Corporation of London archives, is a label stitched onto consumer products which says ‘John Pound’ and this little book. No matter how high we fly in the end only the very few get to be remembered as a label whilst most lives are little more than dust in quick decades after their demise. Who today knows who Darius the Great was? Even amongst those who recognise a name, who of them know anything about the man and his life? Darius, the man who ruled over one of the largest and most enlightened empires of human history, who remembers him now?
Maybe some can say when Darius lived or where he lived or something of what he achieved but who knows the name of his baker? Kings have the greater chance of historical durability but for the rest of us the chance of our great grandchildren knowing something meaningful about our lives is remote. Within a hundred years all that we think is important today will have been forgotten.
In my collection of valueless books are resting the lives and stories of hundreds of individuals. Their Victorian tombstones may have been rubbed clean by time, bald markers of a life ungendered, undated, unknown, but somewhere in these books they all have left echoes of their lives. When I look at my library shelves I often feel that I am the guardian of the memories of those lives, that here is the last repository of human experiences resting at peace and safe from the furnace of those who do not value the information inside.
Unregistered biographies, the diary of a man who met Napoleon on Elba complete with a transcript of what they spoke about, histories of business, cultural insights and sociological revelations. The whole society sits there on those shelves in a small representation of each class, many professions and many, many stories. Frail bodies which need care in the community of my library. Each one having been dutifully read and each one cared for and retired amongst a collegiate of similar literature.
In the book we have been looking at I have only showed you the surface. Beneath that mirror, beyond the quicksilver which can dazzle and distract there is a treasure house of history, maps and photographs about Aldwych. Buildings long gone can be seen, buildings which remain today can be matched on Google Maps! But most of all there are the images of the people, the everyday life of 1904 and we are looking above at a tight crop of the main image at the top of the page. If we perform the same exercise that we did with the photo of Sir John then we will see even more than you can ever see in a staged studio shot. Take some time to have a good look at the ghosts of Aldwych High Street in 1904 as they leave the feintest of imprints of their lives. Take what you can from this image and know that this is the gateway to a passion you can place no value on.
As an aside and to work as an analogy, recent news in astronomy showed that using the light from a star 8.5 million light years away it was possible to detect planets. This is all about analysing the chemical signatures in the spectrum of the light. In other words just looking closely at the detail. We are not that far away here, much closer at only 114 years, but if we look closely it is quite amazing what we can see and understand.
The photograph of people cropped from our main top of the page image, Aldgate High Street 1904, presents us with some very interesting images. The two wagons on the right show different types of transport. The smaller one is a covered wagon pulled by one horse. Why is it covered? What is in it that needed covering? The other is a heavy lifter pulled by two big heavy horses. This looks typically like a brewery dray moving heavy barrels of beer. There were several breweries in the area at the time but not every heavy wagon was moving beer. Bulky stock needed moving and in this area of the East End of London, just as one example, there were several foundaries each of which would be using wagons like this.
On the other side of the road we can see a couple of men pushing barrows, the familiar cockney barrow boys. These could be men earning piecemeal wages moving stock for small shop keepers on demand, a small scale courier service. They could also be moving other goods or they could be part of a family business and they are collecting or moving to market the business goods.
In these three images of transport we can see working people going about their lives and earning their living. The economy of the City of London, the London docks, the local business and markets provide regular work for many of the working class.
We can also see a woman walking amongst this group on the left of the photo. Her clothes mark her out as a working class woman.
All these people captured in one moment of their life, a moment when they were engaged and active, a moment when most did not know they were being photographed. They are naturally going about their lives. No-one knows who they were, no-one knows where they lived specifically and there is little we can say about their lives other than note their occupation.
But there in the centre of the image is an absolute peach of a picture. A rare treat which opens a whole other dialogue with the past and contextualises a sociological reading of the time.
On looking at the characters in the centre of this image the first impressions are confusing. What is that being driven down the street. Was it a glass hearse? Why are there two men on board? You have to look really deeply and try and seperate from the noise exactly what the image is.
First clue comes when you can see it is a two wheeled vehicle. Two wheels pulled by one horse. This is a personal transport. But why two people? If you start to make out the figure on the left then you can see that this man, and it is definitely a man, a man because he is standing and that position shatters the conundrum and allows the image to fall into place.
You see once you can see clearly that he is not sitting then you know he is a servant. Not just a servant but a flunkey. This is a specialised servant role which is as much about a statement of status by his employer as anything else. The flunkey stood on the side of a carriage or gig, as in this case, and when the gentleman got to where he was going, he would get off and leave the gig in the hands of his flunkey. The flunkey would stand there holding the horse and gig for as long as it took the gentleman to do his business or attend to his lunch.
Once you realise he is a flunkey standing on the edge and holding onto the box seat then the apparent absence of legs is no longer a problem. As status symbols, in addition that a gentleman was wealthy enough to employ a flunkey that status was enhanced by the uniform provided. Uniforms in Victorian times became quite flamboyant and light coloured trousers, lost in the black and white of the photo, were quite a fashion and status statement.
So there in the centre of our photograph we have a full blown gentleman whose location, Aldwych High Street, marks him as a man of business. He is driving his Bentley of the day, a one horse gig with a flunkey attached. Such a man would come from a house in which the full compliment of servants would be present. Whilst most households of the middle class had servants, the average was a cook and housekeeper. A substantial business family would have a larger house and this would mean the basic was added to with housemaids and footmen (flunkeys). We have to remember that the occupation of servant was a major employment source in these times. The expansion of middle class housing from the 1850’s in areas from Islington to Hackney provided substantial family homes with servant accomodation in the attic and kitchens in the basements.
Our photograph now yields us a sociological strata of the business location of the City of London. All these lives now gone but in our remembering we bring them alive once more and touch the meaning of their lives if only with a tender imagination.
Flunkelana – Ambition
Lady. “But I thought that you and the other servants were perfectly satisfied!”
Flunkey. “Well, mem, I ain’t in no ways discontented with my wages, nor with the vittels, for nothink of that – but the fact is, my friends say that a young man of my appearance ought to better himself, and get into a situation where there’s two men behind the carriage!” (poor fellow!)
Image from Pictures of Life and Character by John Leech published in 1865.
From the collection and library of Jack Adams
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