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.


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.

A Tale of Two Museums, Two Bookshops and Two Cathedrals

Taking a break from H.G. (he’s so demanding), I took in two museums and two bookshops and a cathedral, and got a lesson in contrasts.


First, I went to the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is an art museum. It has a huge collection — I really had no idea. Cambridge seems pretty small.

Now, art museums are tricky for historians. Art, to us, is nothing without its historical context, its timeframe. I do art museums chronologically, starting with the oldest era I like (that’s medieval, not classical, because I prefer paintings to sculpture). At the Fitzwilliam, they make it tricky to do things in order (here’s the floor plan).

Spinello Aretino, The Angel of the Annunciation and The Virgin Annunciate, late 14th/early 15th c.

You’d have to start at Room 6 (Italian 14th-16th centuries) and then do 3, 7 and 8 at the same time (British, Italian, and Spanish 16th-18th centuries), for example. I tried this. But I kept coming back to Room 6 anyway because it has such cool things. Several Annunciations (I love Annunciations) and a picture that kept calling me over to it, and I couldn’t figure out why until I realized it was a Simone Martini. I love his Annunciation and had seen it in Italy in person.

This one was different, with the Archangel Michael staring intently out of it.

Detail, Simone Martini, St Geminianus, St Michael and St Augustine, each with an Angel above (c. 1319)

I also recently took a class in the pre-Raphaelites, and they were scattered around in the 19th century room. I think I would have put them together — you can’t even search the term on their website.

But the staff were wonderful. They tolerated the group of school children camping out in front of the Breughel painting (one showing someone vomiting at a carnival – I assume that sort of thing gets their attention), and me asking what a “pardella” is, since some of the signs in Room 6 said “Part of a pardella” (apparently it’s an altarpiece of some sort).

After being overwhelmed for awhile (I missed a Blake and a Rossetti, but did have lunch), I went to the Whipple Museum of the History of Science and tried really hard not to compare it to the Oxford Museum of the History of Science, which I visited a couple of years ago. The collection was amazing, with astrolabes and calculating machines and microscopes. Again I was struck with how many cool inventions are the result of trying to teach things to students: how the universe moves, how the body works, how small things are, how to show gravity. They’ve got orreries and wax models of the body and glass models of fungi.

The staff are moving objects into a teaching room gallery, but there were still some pull-out drawers for more exploration, even while they’re moving things around. So much of what I talk about in my History of Technology class was here.


In the Victorian Game Room, I was able to spin a zoetrope, but the stereoscope postcard I viewed was blurry (maybe it was me).


First, I must say it’s funny to be an American going book shopping. I was shopping for what in the U.S. we would call “classics”, meaning literature that abides over time – Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, anything written before you were born. In every bookshop I’ve been to in Britain, “classics” means “classics” – Homer, Aeschylus, Plato. All the books I want are just in Fiction or Literature, with George Orwell in the same section as George Eliot and Alan Bennett.

I think they’re mixed in because people here don’t distinguish old and new, or perhaps don’t consider 100 years ago as old. I see people reading these “classics” everywhere I go. The woman in front of me on the train was reading Oscar Wilde (as it happened, so was I). A lot of what we talk about with music — young people not distinguishing music by era but just enjoying it all — has always applied in this country when it comes to reading.

I had seen two bookshops in my first walk about Cambridge. I went to one, Sarah Key: The Haunted Bookshop not realizing it was haunted nor that it was “antiquarian” books only. They had some nice books, but I was shocked at the prices, especially since I had seen some of the editions for less elsewhere. But I confess I’m not a collector, so perhaps I didn’t know what I was looking at. Just around the corner was G. David Bookseller, who had new books (including the Collector’s Library books I am always looking for), second-hand books (found a book of poetry) and antiquarian books at fair prices. I bought there. I just noticed their website says they don’t send books overseas, but I did, right after a stop at the Oxfam bookshop (I always love finding things at Oxfam bookshops) for a few more little things (and I mean little – I am looking primarily for small hardbacks of “classic” literature that I want to read). Well, OK, the Wilkie Collins book was bigger, but still…


Heading out of town today before it got too hot (yes, really), I went to Ely to see the cathedral. I took the bus because I love buses – you get to see more, especially from the top level. Across East Anglia you can see for miles and miles.

I’m afraid that going to Ely, I carried the impression of other cathedrals in my mind, including York Minster and Chichester Cathedral. And always in my head is the cathedral to which no others compare: Durham. Durham Cathedral is free (though of course I always leave a donation) and Norman. Since it was only just touched by the beginnings of Gothic (it was mostly built in the 11th and 12th centuries), it is human-sized rather than overwhelming. The architecture is outstanding and although there were some false starts on things in the 12th century, it has no history of stupidity (unlike Chichester, where some Victorian idiot insisted that the screen could be removed, which brought down the whole tower). It is a place of community, the Evensong is 6 days a week and excellent, and it is continually being upgraded and repaired. Last year when I was there, a dun20cowhistorian told me everyone was happy because the “Dun Cow” carving had been under scaffolding and was now revealed. The story is that the body of St Cuthbert was being carried to his rest after Viking attacks on Lindisfarne, but no one knew where, and the dun cow stopped in Durham, so they buried him and built the cathedral there.

Plus it’s on a river with a fulling mill building near it, and to me it just doesn’t get any better than that (much of my graduate work focused on medieval fulling mills).


So on to Ely. Ely was stunning. Expansive. Gorgeous. Ornate.


It was also £8 to get in, plus more if you wanted to see the tower.

0705171112It had so much stuff in it that some of the cool carvings were behind chairs and tables and things.

And it was full of bishops. Every tomb with an effigy was a bishop. I’ve never seen so many bishops in one place.

0705171121 And there was a lot of connection to Cambridge — many of the dead had been professors there. It was all very grand and very impressive, but I confess it left me cold (but not literally – it had the most interesting Victorian-era ventilator stoves in it).

But allow me to recommend Topping & Company Booksellers, where I went afterwards. Oh, wait, that’s three bookshops…


Found it!

I suppose it’s silly to be excited about something as bizarre as answering an obscure question but hey, that’s why I like research.

After visiting museums and doing my usual scour-the-place-for-bookshops (yep, found some, and shipped ’em home), I returned to the library to check out College of Preceptors Annual Reports (turned out to be 1978 and 79), a book called The College of Preceptors (which turned out to be lost), and The Preceptors’ Trigonometry by William Briggs (nice but not much there except…trig).

But while waiting I asked for the 1880 College of Preceptors Calendar back (I had reserved it, so they hold it for 5 days). And this time I scoured it, for book-keeping certificates. I found book-keeping, under the “optional subjects” for the larger full licentiate exams. It didn’t appear to be a “commercial” subject, but was worth 200 points like anything else. I didn’t find Wells, but then I looked further and I found his exam: the exact exam in book-keeping examination he says he took, Xmas 1879.


I was pretty excited. Yes, it turned out there was a book-keeping exam, and he must have taken it. When I returned the book, I couldn’t resist telling the guy that it contained the exact book-keeping examination that H.G. Wells took when he was 12. First big smile I got out of any staff in the West Room (they’re a little dour – I’m not sure why).

In the book, it said that the names of all those who obtained a certificate would appear in the half-yearly Class List published in the Educational Times. Now, I know already that the Cambridge University Library doesn’t have the Educational Times (which is strange since they have so much College of Preceptor’s stuff). But the Bodleian does, so I planned to check.

Turned out I didn’t need to go to that trouble: it’s online. Take a look at page 47 – Wells, H. b (which must be book-keeping, although that’s supposed to be bk), Bromley Academy.

So only one mystery remains: Wells refers to “special certificates” in book-keeping, not just one, and I can’t see anything special about this one. He mentions Morley was apparently big on getting all the lads to take the test to get ready to be clerks in shops. Wells says he was

…bracketed with a fellow pupil first in all England for book-keeping, so far, that is to say, as England was covered by the College of Preceptors.

So maybe it’s in the missing 1881 Calendar, or elsewhere – at least I found the first one, and I can get many of the Educational Times online.

Next I seek more on William Briggs, and I remembered he set up his press in Foxton, and lived there. So after finding it missing in the open stacks, I returned to the Rare Book Room (they smile there) to request Rowland Parker’s The Common Stream (I have it at home, but I hadn’t finished it). It uses Foxton to do a fuller history of England. It took them only 10 minutes to get it for me (!) but no, no good – he really only goes up to industrialization, with a little bit on the world wars and after.

But even though it wasn’t there, looking for the book in the stacks sent me back down memory lane to graduate school, when I was an inveterate shelf-browser.


Shelf-browsing fires the imagination in a way that electronic search simply cannot — but that’s a post for another day.