The value of local history

I don’t usually think of anything I do as “local” history. I have little interest in the history of southern California, for example. So somewhere along the line, it didn’t occur to me that I’m doing quite a bit of local history here (Midhurst, Uppark, the West Sussex Records Office). And since I was having trouble finding much on William Briggs, I took a quick glance at the Cambridge Central Library catalog online.

This isn’t the university library – it’s the public library. Open to everyone, including me, and located in an air-conditioned modern shopping mall (which doesn’t sound like a big deal, until you realize the kind of weather I’ve been experiencing here). And sure enough, they have a Reference Department, and, it turns out, an entire room called the Cambridge Collection, with a librarian at a desk to help you.

I asked for a book I had discovered in the catalog, written by a man who had worked at the Burlington Press for many years. Now, the Burlington Press was not around during the era I’m researching, when H.G. Wells was working for the University Correspondence College. Rather, it was set up by William Briggs in 1908 in Foxton.

Foxton became “famous” (in the local history sense) when the book, A Common Stream by Rowland Parker came out in 1976. Parker had used Foxton like James Michener used…well, everywhere, to tell the history of the land by focusing on one place, in this case a stream in Foxton. I had taken a look at the book at the Cambridge University Library, but as I mentioned, it had little about the Victorian or Edwardian age.

foxtoncrossBut at the Cambridge Central Library they had Don Challis’ Printing in the Park: The Story of the Burlington Press (1996). And in that book was quite a lot about Briggs and his personality and work methods. I’m not sure why Briggs has been so hard to track down. I found his obituary in a Royal Astronomical Society publication, he was a prominent freemason, and he did a lot for Foxton, including putting up a memorial cross there for the fallen of the First World War. But it’s difficult to get a handle on him, so I was grateful for this book.

Apparently, in 1886, Briggs’ International Correspondence College was located in London, but by the next year his renamed University Correspondence College was set up in Cambridge. If you look at all the UCC publications, the publisher is “W. B. Clive”. I had no idea who that publisher was. The book explains that the W.B. is Briggs, and that Clive was his son, who died in infancy. It’s Briggs’ original press name.

The book also explains that the University Tutorial College, set up in London to do labs and classes, was originally on the Strand but then moved to Red Lion Square, where it was apparently until 1981. Its remnants, I know, are the National Extension College, where wonderful people kindly scanned Anna de Salvo’s book on the UCC for me before my trip.

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Briggs moved his Cambridge press to Foxton in 1908. The new printing works would change Foxton forever, employing its people and building new housing, the first in the area with running water and flush toilets. The weather vane on the factory had a bee instead of a rooster (for “busy as a bee”), and a sculpture over the portico proclaimed the motto “Fast bind, safe find”, the goal being books where the pages never fell out. Briggs also installed a belfry with a real bell instead of an obnoxious factory whistle. I looked it up and the Press building is still there, although there have been problems and buyouts and it’s now something else with a smaller print shop.

When I requested the other item, a picture of the old Burlington Press, the librarian brought out a huge book, called East Anglia in the Twentieth Century: Contemporary Biographies from 1912, which had two pages of the history of the press as well as a photo.

All this, and a photocopier too. There’s a lot to be said for local history.