Forthcoming pop-up exhibition: ‘Embellish’d with gold: treasures from the European Manuscripts Collection’

Written by Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian

To celebrate the arrival of the European Manuscripts Collection earlier this year, we are very pleased to announce that we will be holding a launch event as part of the November Extended Hours of The MERL and the Special Collections reading room.

The pop-up display, entitled Embellish’d with gold: treasures from the European Manuscripts Collection, will feature some of the highlights from the collection, giving University staff, students and visitors the opportunity to explore this exciting new resource.

 

Folio 42 verso, Hours of the Virgin (Prime), with a miniature of the Nativity. From a Book of Hours for the Use of Rome, French, c. 1480-1490. University of Reading Special Collections MS 5650/43.

 

The collection consists of 143 items, including some printed items, an exquisite seventeenth century Italian manuscript prayer book, and the centrepiece of the collection, a stunning fifteenth century Book of Hours. Most of the items are illuminated manuscript leaves, and come from a range of different types of manuscript, including Books of Hours, missals, breviaries, graduals, psalters and a papal bull from Perugia, dated 1265. The material dates from the twelfth to the seventeenth century; the items are predominately of French origin (about half of the collection), with about a quarter originating from Italy and others from England, Spain, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

In addition to this pop-up display, we are also planning an exhibition of items from the collection in the Special Collections staircase hall in 2019.

The European Manuscripts Collection has been generously presented to the University of Reading by a private collector with the support of the Art Fund.

The display will take place in the Learning Studio as part of The MERL’s extended hours opening from 5pm to 9pm on Thursday 29 November 2018. The event is free, with no booking required.

This month’s extended hours opening will also feature our annual Christmas shopping evening. Come and enjoy Christmas carols by the University Choir, and make a start on your Christmas shopping with 10% off in The MERL shop!

 

 

Not forgotten: University of Reading to add names to war memorial

On 9 November 2018, the University of Reading will formally announce that the names of nine members who fell in the First World War will be added to its war memorial. This will be the culmination of a long research process by community volunteers based in Special Collections.

A building of a tower being built, surrounded by scaffolding. A note next to the image is states that this is from 1924.

An image of the University of Reading London Road campus Clock Tower being built in 1924. (Image taken from the University of Reading Archives).

The genesis of the project dates back to 2013 and the Arts Council England-funded “Reading Connections” Project. One element of the project was to feed into the commemorations of the First World War. The University’s clock tower memorial, formally dedicated on 7th June 1924, lists those fallen servicemen with a connection to what was then called Reading University College. But this is not the only memorial.

In the University Archives lay a somewhat overlooked volume containing photographs of many of those who fell. As part of the project, this was digitised and made freely available via Flickr along with a brief service and personal history of the individuals listed, well as information on their connection to the College, if known. Information came largely from 1911 census records, WWI service records, War Graves Commission records and the University of Reading Archive. Many people responded to this and added details to the Flickr site.

The story did not stop there. One of the community volunteers, Jeremy Jones, continued delving into the histories of the men and women whose names appeared on the memorial and in the book. Jeremy presented a seminar in 2015 as part of a series looking at the First World War, in which he revealed many of the fascinating stories behind the names.

As the research work continued, it became clear that some names had been omitted from the clock tower, the book, or both. Although the College at the time was small, keeping track of every past student and staff member was not an easy task, and it is perhaps inevitable that there were some names that were missed, primarily through a lack of information, the “fog of war”. In one case, that of “laboratory boy” Charles Flint, the omission had in fact been noted by the first Vice-Chancellor, William Childs, as far back as 1927. A decision was made to wait until “perhaps three or four names come to knowledge”: it has taken a very long time.

These discoveries were a call to action: the University quickly determined that some additional names should be added. Nine have been identified so far. On 9 November 2018 the Acting Vice-Chancellor, hopefully joined by representatives of some of the services and units in which the men served, will announce the names. Also present will be staff and students of the University, who are also the successors of these nine men. The research work continues and more names may be uncovered and added. Some will forever remain unknown, but their sacrifice, made a century or more ago, is not diminished by that.

If the first casualty of war is truth, then by adding these names we hope to make some recompense by painting a more truthful picture of the extent of the sacrifice made by our forebears.

 

The following names will be added:

 

Frederick Wallis Aubrey

Born c. 1884 in Bradfield, Berkshire. Employed at Wantage Hall, described as a “waiter” or “servant”. Served in 4th Btn Royal Berkshire Regiment. Died 16th August 1917. Buried in New Irish Farm Cemetery, Belgium.

 

Richard Herbert Howell Biddulph

Born 1889 in London, Ontario, Canada. One of twelve local men who joined the Officer Training Corps at Reading University College on the outbreak of war, although not a student at the college (he had a degree from McGill University, Montreal and is on their honour roll). Served in the Royal Berkshire Regiment and the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (Eastern Ontario Regiment). Died 5th July 1917 at Avion. Buried in La Targette British Cemetery, Neuville-St. Vaast, France.

 

Charles Henry Thomas Flint  

A man dressed in military uniform.

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC. Image taken from the University of Reading Magazine Tamesis (Vol XXXII No 2), which noted that the image was provided by his mother.

Born 1900 in Reading. Employed as a “laboratory boy” at Reading University College. Served as an apprentice in what was to become the Merchant Navy.  Died 11th April 1916 at the Royal Hospital, Melcombe Regis. Buried in London Road Cemetery, Reading.

 

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC 

Born 1893 in Shropshire. Famous as one of the leading poets of the Great War, Wilfred Owen attended Reading University College briefly in 1912. Served with the Artists’ Rifles and the Manchester Regiment, earning the Military Cross. Died 4th November 1918. Buried in Ors Communal Cemetery, France. Named in the Reading University College memorial book.

 

John Wilmot Mackenzie Palk  

Born c. 1874. Attended a course in the Faculty of Agriculture in 1905. In 1914 he was living in New Zealand but served in the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders). Died 16th November 1916. Buried in Contay British Cemetery, France.

 

Francis Edgar Pearse 

Born 1891 in Tottenham. Awarded a Borough of Reading Minor Scholarship in Arts for the 1909-10 and 1910-11 sessions to study at Reading University College. Served in the Royal Berkshire

An image of a man in army uniform.

Francis Edgar Pearse. Image taken from Book of Remembrance of those Members of The University College Reading who fell in The War 1914-1918 (MS 5339)

Regiment. Died 3rd October 1916. Buried in Euston Road Cemetery, Colincamps, France. Named in the Reading University College memorial book.

 

Percy Leigh Pemberton 

Born 1886. Studied in the Faculty of Agriculture during the 1905-06 session. Served in the Middlesex Regiment. Died 27th February 1916. Buried in St. Sever Cemetery, Rouen, France.

 

Thomas Albany Troward  

Born 1881 in India. Studied Fine Arts, 1902-06. By 1915 he was living in New Zealand where he enlisted and served in the Auckland Regiment, New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Died 21st May 1918. Buried in the Wellington (Karori) Cemetery, New Zealand.

 

Frederick Charles Wenham

Born 1889 in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire.  Studied in the Faculty of Letters, passing the Final Examination for the Diploma in Letters in 1912 and being made an Associate of the College in May 1913. A member of the Officer Training Corps. Served in the King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment). Died 20th November 1917. Commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, France and in the National Union of Teachers War Record.

 

Post written by Guy Baxter, Associate Director of Archives Services. For more information on our archival material on World War 1, or if you have any further information on the names listed here, please contact us at specialcollections@reading.ac.uk. 

Buried Treasure on Campus? A closer look at the Overstone Library

Currently working at the University of Reading as Staff Engagement and Communications Officer, Jeremy Lelean previously worked as a dealer in antiquarian and collectable books. In today’s blog, Jeremy takes a closer look at the Overstone Library, the foundation collection of the University Library. 

I work in science communication, most recently with research into soil, and when looking at the Overstone Library I was struck by a certain similarity. Both are somewhat ignored but just as there is treasure in soil there is treasure in the Overstone Library. This is clearly seen in this stunning (and surely longest ever) illustration of Trojan’s Column from Colonna di Trajano e di Antonio Pio (1770). Or more obviously valuable items like Jules Goury’s Alhambra (1842-1845) or David Roberts’ The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt, & Nubia. But, there is also a less obvious significance to the Overstone Library. I love books but when I say this, people often confuse this with liking literature. It is the books themselves that interest me: every library or collection is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered.

How the Overstone library was created can be clearly followed in the two bookplates seen in many of the volumes. Though fallen out of fashion now, bookplates were commonly used from the days of early printing into the mid twentieth century. We know, therefore that this library was collected by two people: that is John Ramsay McCulloch and, subsequent to his death, Samuel Jones Loyd, Baron Overstone. Using bookplates as a sign of ownership was important to the sort of collecting that led to the creation of these libraries in the nineteenth century. Having a library was a great sign of being solidly middle class, a notoriously important thing in Victorian England. Once one had made a fortune, showing one’s wealth was important but also one’s knowledge and culture. The books in the Overstone Library demonstrate this well but the significance is that it is still intact and all together.

Many of the books the library contains are not that remarkable and certainly none are very rare. There are many eighteenth and nineteenth century editions of books and poetry we could recognise today, as well as standards of the time that might have been forgotten like The Fables of Aesop or the Decameron (The Ten Days) by Giovanni Boccaccio. In my previous work as a dealer in antiquarian and collectible books I would often see odd volumes from such collections but never saw an intact library like this. Most of these libraries had been broken up post-First or Second World War (this library came to the University in 1920). So, to see such a collection as a whole tells us a lot about the aspirations of Overstone and the wider Victorian middle class.

More social history can be unearthed by looking at the books as objects rather than for what they contain. Until paper tax was abolished in 1846, books were the preserve of the wealthy and were sold as paper text blocks, without covers, so the owner would have them bound, if not uniformly, then sympathetically. This can be seen in these two French reference books (see above) showing Overstone’s choice in binding and decoration. As well as this we can see the Victorians’ love of decoration, for example, in the Decameron (see below). The gilt decoration on the cover is perhaps enough but, if it wasn’t, open the book to see how it continues inside and the beautiful marbled endpapers. You may not agree with the Victorians’ idea of taste but have to admire their commitment to it in all things, even their books.

So the next time you hear the word library, think less of a building or even a collection of books, but of treasure waiting to be discovered!

 

Click here for more information on the Overstone Library. If you have any further queries, or wish to view items from the Library, email specialcollections@reading.ac.uk. 

Important new acquisition: the European Manuscripts Collection

Written by Fiona Melhuish (UMASCS Librarian)

I am delighted to announce a very important recent acquisition, in fact, one of the most significant additions to our collections in recent years.

The collection, which will be known as the European Manuscripts Collection, consists of 143 items, including some printed items, an exquisite seventeenth century Italian manuscript prayer book, and the centrepiece of the collection, a stunning fifteenth century Book of Hours.

 

MS 45: Italy (probably Naples), circa 1460. From a breviary showing Vespers from the Hours of the Virgin. An example of gold tooling.

 

Most of the items are illuminated manuscript leaves, and come from a range of different types of manuscript, including Books of Hours, missals, breviaries, graduals, psalters and a papal bull from Perugia, dated 1265. The material dates from the twelfth to the seventeenth century; the items are predominately of French origin (about half of the collection), with about a quarter originating from Italy and others from England, Spain, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

 

MS 85: France (Valenciennes), circa 1480. From a Book of Hours showing parts of Psalms 115, 116 and 117. It is thought that the border is the work of the illuminator Simon Marmion or one of his circle. Marmion was described as “the prince of illuminators” by a near contemporary.

 

The Book of Hours [see image below] was produced in the latter part of the fifteenth century, and was written in Latin and French in two stages in Southern Burgundy (or near Lyons) in France. The manuscript has several interesting features which may hint at the identity of the original owner, including the unusual prominence of St Humbert (there is a full page miniature of the saint), suggesting that the original owner had the name ‘Humbert’.

 

MS 43 (Book of Hours): Folio 25 recto – Hours of the Holy Spirit – Matins. A miniature showing the Virgin Mary and Apostles and the Holy Spirit (Pentecost).

 

The collection has been very generously donated to us through The Art Fund. The donors, who wish to remain anonymous, chose the University as a home for their collection as one of them is a Reading graduate. They knew that we already held a Book of Hours in our collections, and thought that it would be good to develop and expand Reading’s medieval holdings, particularly for the benefit of the Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies (GCMS).

We are fortunate to have a few early manuscripts in our collections, notably a fifteenth century Book of Hours, but this new acquisition will completely transform our holdings in this area and open up a wealth of teaching, research and other opportunities for the University, and provide an extensive resource for academics and students, especially in the GCMS, and in the History and Typography departments.

We are planning a number of events and other initiatives to publicise the collection, including an exhibition in the Special Collections Service staircase hall in 2019. As a launch event for the collection, we are planning a pop-up display as part of the MERL’s extended hours late opening night on the last Thursday of November this year. We were very pleased to give delegates from this year’s Fifteenth Century Conference, which was held in Reading, a sneak preview of the collection last week, and hope that they will also help us to spread the word about this new acquisition.

 

Detail of MS 89: France (Picardy, possibly Amiens), circa 1300. From a Book of Hours and is partly from Psalm 144, and partly from Luke. This detail shows a drollery with curly hair, holding a red bell.

 

We will be starting to catalogue the items onto our online catalogue soon. In the meantime, a handlist and a series of CDs produced by the donors, with a catalogue and images of the manuscripts, are available to help readers access the items. Please contact Caroline Gould (Principal Archivist) or Fiona Melhuish (UMASCS Librarian) via the Special Collections Service for advice on accessing the collection.

 

Detail of MS 90: France (Paris), circa 1330. From the St. Albans Abbey Bible showing 1-Chronicles 12:40 to 16:5.

 

New exhibition: ‘Hi-tiddley-hi-ti’ : echoes of the Victorian music hall

Written by Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian

The Spellman Collection of Victorian music covers is one of my favourite collections, and looking through the many boxes of covers never fails to fascinate. The cover designs can be beautiful, imaginative, funny, the height of Victorian kitsch and sometimes just very strange, so it was a difficult, but enjoyable, task to choose 26 covers from a collection of around 2,500 to include in our new exhibition.

‘There’s more to follow : the great topical song’ SPELLMAN COLLECTION – 10057 – one of the many highlights of the Spellman Collection

One of the greatest strengths of the collection is its range and variety which make it a very rich source of images covering a wide range of subjects. Around 800 of the 2,500 or so covers have been digitised, and are available to view online via the Visual Arts Data Service (VADS) website. The extensive use of keywords in the cataloguing of the VADS images make it easy to search for images of specific subjects.

Victorian sheet music covers offer a colourful and fascinating insight into the popular songs and performers of the day, and also into the art and printing, politics and social history of the Victorian era. Pictorial sheet music covers first appeared in the early 1800s, and reached the height of their popularity in the second half of the nineteenth century. One of the most important developments in the history of sheet music covers was the introduction of lithographic printing in England in about 1800. This invention made the mass production of coloured illustrations far cheaper than ever before.

The exhibition on display in the Special Collections staircase hall

The reasons for the great demand for sheet music include the introduction of the upright piano, which became popular in middle class homes from the early nineteenth century, and the popularity of the music halls and their performers from the 1850s onwards. The covers feature illustrations of virtually every aspect of Victorian life, including historical events, royalty, eccentric society ‘types’, and love and marriage.

Some of the most memorable covers feature the vivacious and eccentric stars of the music halls, from the risque Marie Lloyd to the extraordinary performer James Henry Stead, who could leap up and down with both feet at once over 400 times in succession!

 

The exhibition will be on display in the staircase hall outside the Special Collections Service reading room until 31 October 2018, and is open Monday – Friday 9am to 5pm, Last Thursday of the month – 9am to 9pm and Saturday & Sunday – 10am to 5pm. Please ask a member of the MERL reception team for directions.

Cat sketches and cataloguing: Final thoughts of our Archive Graduate Trainee

Special Collections offer year long graduate trainee schemes in both the Archive and Library. In this month’s blog, our departing Archives Graduate Trainee Timothy Jerrome looks back on his year with us. 

 

Now that I am coming to the end of my year’s archive traineeship at Special Collections and the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), I feel it is a good time to reflect on the range of invaluable experience I have gained. Call me biased, but I honestly believe that this role has provided me with the best possible platform from which to dive into my MA in Archives and Records Management!

On top of the challenges of starting any new job, this was also my first period of full-time employment, so I am most grateful to the researchers and colleagues who tolerated my constantly exhausted expression over the first couple of weeks! However, I soon fell into the rhythm of working at the MERL, and my excellent prior work experience at the University of Surrey archives gave me a good idea of what to expect.

As any researchers who have visited frequently over the past months will know, the majority of my time here has been spent supervising the MERL Reading Room. I have interacted with a vast range of researchers with varying interests, from students interested in the materiality of archives to steam engine enthusiasts poring over engineering drawings. My experience in the reading room has taught me that access is the most important aspect of maintaining archives. Whether this is through creating a clear catalogue, knowing the location of every item in storage, or helping researchers handle material in a safe and sustainable way, I now believe that access to collections should be a high priority of any good archivist – and the archivists at the MERL are very good!

As well as Reading Room duty, I have helped catalogue parts of the Cole, Scrivener and Landscape Institute collections, and contributed to the digitisation of the John Fowler & Co. engine registers. Additionally, I have participated in a locations survey, and updated several of our website’s ‘A-Z’ pages for the MERL archive collections.

I would fully encourage anybody with a desire to become an archivist to apply for the traineeship at MERL and Special Collections. Furthermore I would encourage anyone with even a passing interest in our collections to pay us a visit and explore the archives. I have lost track of the number of researchers who came for a very specific purpose and then discovered a treasure chest of fascinating material which they did not know existed.

The best example I can give is that of my own personal experience. I never would have expected that the Landscape Institute archive, along with the associated collections of the Landscape architects, would become my favourite material both to look at myself, and produce for researchers. In particular, I love the sketchbooks of the Landscape Architect Peter Shepheard, who saw himself as an artist as much as a garden designer, and his sketches (including one pictured here – AR SHE DO1/4/1/14) really demonstrate this.

An unfinished sketch of a cat.

One of Peter Shepheard’s cat sketches, drawn possibly between 1940-80. Taken from the Peter Shepheard Collection (AR SHE DO1/4/1/14)

I wish all the best to my colleagues at MERL, and all researchers past, present and future. I am now looking forward to beginning my further studies at University College London.

Timothy Jerrome, Archives Graduate Trainee

For more information on graduate trainee roles in archives, check the ARA’s webpages on traineeships. 

The Future of Literary Archives: New Publication Announced

Book cover of Future of Literary Archives.

The long-awaited collection of essays reflecting the work of the Diasporic Literary Archives Network has now been published. Entitled The Future of Literary Archives(edited by David C. Sutton and Ann Livingstone), the book is published jointly by ARC Humanities Press and Amsterdam University Press.

The contents reflect many of the themes and challenges which were pursued and developed by the Diasporic Literary Archives Network, and it is indicative that the book’s Index, in addition to referencing the many literary authors cited, has multiple entries for concepts such as “the politics of location”, “archival ethics”, “archival return” and “appropriateness of location”. Other major themes of the book include the market in literary archives, archives at risk, publishers’ archives, the particular case of Caribbean archives, digitisation and digital archives, the collecting of emails, translators’ papers, appraisal and selection, and cataloguing challenges.

The full list of contents is as follows:
* David C. Sutton: ‘Introduction: Literary Papers as the Most “Diasporic” of All Archives’
* Alison Donnell: ‘Caribbean Literary Archives and the Politics of Location: Challenging the Norms of Belonging’
* Maureen Roberts: ‘The Huntley Archives at London Metropolitan Archives’
* André Derval: ‘Conserving Private Literary and Editorial Archives: the Story of the IMEC’
* Jennifer Toews: ‘Migration, Freedom of Expression, and the Importance of Diasporic Literary Archives’
* Jens Boel: ‘The Universal Dimension of Diasporic Literary Archives’
* Veno V. Kauaria and David C. Sutton: ‘Namibian Literary Archives: New Beginnings and a Possible African Model’
* Sophie Heywood: ‘Francophone Archives at Risk’
* Daniela La Penna: ‘Italian Literary Archives: Legacies and Challenges’
* Trudy Huskamp Peterson: ‘Unknown/Unknowns and Known/Unknowns’
* Andrew Nash: ‘Publishers’ Archives, Authors’ Papers, and Literary Scholarship’
* Serenella Zanotti: ‘Diasporic Archives in Translation Research: A Case Study of Anthony Burgess’s Archives’
* David C. Sutton: ‘Conclusion: The Future of Literary Manuscripts – An International Perspective’

For more information about this title, and how to purchase it, click here.

 

 

 

Celebrating 50 Years of Bringing Children and Books Together

The Federation of Children’s Book Groups is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Founded in 1968 by parent, teacher and television producer Anne Wood CBE, the organisation is passionate about bringing children and books together, working at both national and local levels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This exhibition traces the history of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups including the Children’s Book Award, which is the only national book award voted for entirely by children. It has been co-curated by the University of Reading Special Collections and Getting Reading Reading, which is one of the Federation’s local children’s book groups. They are one of the twelve Testing Groups for the award.

The exhibition features some of the past winners of the award displayed alongside books and objects from The Museum of English Rural Life and the University of Reading’s Special Collections. There is a particular focus on the theme of animals in children’s literature. The associated trail will lead you around the exhibition and beyond into The MERL, where you will also find the Ladybird Gallery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can find out more about the work of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups by clicking here. The FCBG have also posted a blog about the exhibition on their own website.

The exhibition will be on display at the Special Collections Service until Tuesday 31 July 2018.

Born on this day? The strange case of Nancy Astor’s birthday

This weekend we celebrate Nancy Astor’s birthday, said to be on the 19th May. But is there more to this birth date than meets the eye? Head of Archive Services Guy Baxter takes a closer look at the mystery surrounding Nancy Astor’s birth. 

The first female MP to take her seat in the British House of Commons, Nancy Astor was born (as Nancy Langhorne) in Danville, Virginia. But when exactly?

It is not unknown for celebrities to be coy about their age, but there was no such vanity from Nancy Astor. The mystery in this case surrounds not the year (1879) but the date of her birth. Stranger still, it was not until the publication of Adrian Fort’s extensively researched biography in 2012 that the mystery came to the attention of the public – or even specialists in the field.

Fort sums up the mystery thus: “It was at street level in the newly built house at Danville, in a room with dull green walls and a bare wooden floor, that Nancy was born on 30 January 1979 – although subsequently, and throughout her adult life, her birthday was, for no clearly stated reason, given as 19 May.” The biography is aimed at the general reader so, understandably, there is no footnote; I therefore approached the author and asked his source. What came back to me was a scan of Nancy Astor’s birth certificate extracted (with some difficulty, I gather) from the State authorities in Virginia.

The plot then thickens somewhat. Waldorf Astor (Nancy’s second husband) was born on 19 May 1879. So Nancy Astor, for much or her adult life and to the extent it confounded biographers and academics for years, seems to have adopted the birth date of her second husband.

Apart from scratching our heads, what should we do with such information? I suggest three things: we can speculate on the reasons; we can do more research, or at least bear this my

A photo of two people on an ice rink. The man is kneeling on the floor.

Nancy and Waldorf Astor. Was their shared birthday an elaborate in-joke? (MS 1416/1/6/94/10)

stery in mind while researching in the archives; and finally we might use this as a starting point to explore some wider implications and issues.

The speculation first. Is the Virginia record incorrect? There would seem to be no good reason to back-date a birth record, and it seems like an odd error to make. Having said that, the strange case of Ulysses Simpson Grant springs immediately to mind.

Born and raised as Hiram Ulysses Grant, he was the victim of an assumption made by the Congressman, Thomas Hamer, who nominated him to enrol as a student at West Point. A family friend, Hamer only knew him as Ulysses and inserted Grant’s mother’s maiden name (Simpson) into the register. The United States Army bureaucracy proved immovable and Grant, once he realised the error, was unable to change it. By the time he became the head of the U.S. military and 18th President of the United States, it may well have ceased to bother him, and it gave him the patriotic initials “U.S.” which proved a boon as his military career took off. So mistakes in an official record can be hard to change.

If the record is correct, then we must ask whether Nancy was aware that this was her birth date. Could her family have deceived her? Apart from the fact that no obvious reason springs to mind, neither this idea, nor that of an administrative mistake, explains the co-incidence with Waldorf’s birth date. Though it should be noted that the odds of two randomly selected people sharing a birth date are not outrageously long.

Perhaps Nancy and Waldorf decided to align their birthdays: possibly for convenience, possibly as an in-joke or an intimate secret. Given their wealth, sharing a birthday party can surely not have been a money-saving measure. Or is it possible that Nancy concealed her real birth date from Waldorf? Could the shared birthday have been a ploy in her courtship? As the son of one of the richest men in the world, he was quite a catch – was it worth a small lie to grab his attention?

This must all remain as speculation until more evidence emerges. Neither Fort nor any previous biographers found any mention of it in Nancy or Waldorf’s personal correspondence, though this is very extensive. Nancy’s correspondence with her American relatives is more recently available and has been less used by researchers. Deceit, mistake or shared joke, it may well have been referred to in a deliberately obscure manner. Seekers of the truth will find the Special Collections Reading Room a pleasant and friendly environment in which to seek out needles from haystacks. As far as I know, Waldorf Astor’s birth certificate has not been checked: could there be a further twist in the tale?

So to the final, and more serious word about this. Just as his mistaken identity probably mattered little to Grant, especially as he rose to prominence, so Nancy Astor’s birthday must have been of little real

Photograph of a large house, set in gardens.

Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire, family home of Waldorf and Nancy Astor (MS 1616/2/6/94/3)

significance in her life or livelihood. The official record is of minimal practical benefit for the rich and famous. But as the Windrush scandal has brought into sharp focus, for many citizens the possession of verifiable identity documents can be a critical matter. It is not for nothing that patients are identified not just by their name but also by their date of birth: even then, horrific mistakes can occur.

Windrush is not the first time that the quality of the data recorded by the state to identify individuals has been questioned: Dame Janet Smith’s third report as part of the Shipman Inquiry – that looking at Death Certification – noted: “The information received by registrars forms the basis of an important public record that is widely used for statistical and research purposes. It is vital that it is recorded meticulously and accurately.” It was not until 50 years after her death that the search for documentary evidence of Nancy Astor’s birth began. Most citizens rely on the integrity of such systems in their lifetimes: for the most vulnerable, this can be crucial.

So let us toast Nancy Astor, whether it’s her birthday or not, for reminding us of the value of the written record. Or as the Universal Declaration on Archives puts it, “the vital necessity of archives for supporting business efficiency, accountability and transparency, for protecting citizens rights, for establishing individual and collective memory, for understanding the past, and for documenting the present to guide future actions”.

Are you intrigued to do your own research on this mystery? Or just interested to know more about Nancy Astor? Find out more about the Papers of Nancy Astor held at Special Collections here. For further enquiries, or to request access, email specialcollections@reading.ac.uk.

 

 

A selection of Royal Wedding Cakes from Huntley & Palmers

Inspired by the “Royal Wedding Fever” surrounding the upcoming nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Librarian Bethan Davies takes a closer look at the archive of Reading biscuit manufacturers Huntley & Palmers, and their bakes for previous Royal Weddings! 

Primarily known for producing biscuits, Huntley and Palmers resisted selling everyday cakes until after World War II, when it started selling simple slab cakes. From the beginning, however, Huntley and Palmers would create wedding cakes to order, and by the 1930s, had begun to produce elaborate wedding cake catalogues to sell their products, similar to this 1970 example. 

Three of their most memorable wedding cakes were created for the Royal Family, and our Huntley & Palmers Archive provides a fascinating snapshot into each of these spectacular creations!

Princess Marina of Greece and Prince George, Duke of Kent 

The first royal wedding cake from our archive was created in celebration of the wedding of Prince George, Duke of Kent and Princess Marina of Greece, on November 29th, 1934. Huntley & Palmers produced a wonderful four tiered hexagonal cake, measuring 8 feet high and 33 inches across the base.

The cake design was influenced by the bride’s background, as Princess Marina was the daughter of the exiled Prince Nicholas of Greece and Denmark. The official cake description states the design is inspired by “the symmetry and balance which was the underlying principle of Greek architecture”. It goes on to state that all the scrolls, images and patterns found on the cake could be found either in the famous “Greek Temples”, or, more closer to home, in the British Museum.

The glamorous Princess Marina inspired a growing public fascination with the Royal Family. To capture this, the department store Selfridges sold souvenir samples of the Huntley & Palmers wedding cake (or at least, “made from the same batch” as the royal wedding cake), distributing 100,000 pieces throughout the store. Our archive includes one of these cake samples, kindly provided by a Mrs. M H Smith from Newark, alongside the original letter of distribution from Selfridges.

 

Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Prince Albert, Duke of York

Prior to the 1934 wedding, Huntley & Palmers had created a previous Royal wedding cake, for the then-Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Prince Albert, Duke of York in 1923. Like the Princess Marina cake, this cake is 8 feet high with four tiers, but was cylindrical, and was inspired by Lady Elizabeth’s Scottish heritage. The cake was decorated with York roses, lions, thistles, roses, doves and the crests of the Strathmore family, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. Three of the tiers included sugar work reproductions of Windsor Castle, Glamis Castle (the Bowes-Lyon ancestral home), and the famous Glasmis Castle garden and sundial. The top tier was decorated with a scroll which lists Lady Elizabeth’s ancestors through marriage.

Before the cake was sent to the palace, the cake was famously displayed at Huntley & Palmer’s in Reading. The factory estimated that over 600 people came to view the wedding cake. You can see a video of this event through on the British Pathe website.  Many years later, Elizabeth, then the Queen Mother, viewed a replica of her wedding cake on a tour of Huntley & Palmers.

 

Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten

Twenty-four years after creating a wedding cake for her parents, Huntley & Palmers created a wedding cake for the wedding of the then Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, 20th November, 1947. The cake, which was one of 11 cakes presented to the couple, was specifically requested by Buckingham Palace to be reduced in size. This was because wartime rationing was still in effect, and so the cake was re-designed from its intended weight of 400 lb, to an “austerity” size of 195 lb. Even with this specification, the cake was a four tiered masterpiece with each tier’s 6 sides incorporating hand paintings or sugar reproductions of scenes and images which “reflected the Princess and Lieutenant’s interests” – including Balmoral Castle and the horse races at Ascot. No wonder the icing alone took around three weeks to complete!

 

These archival finds show the royal links to Huntley & Palmers, and Reading in general. It’s clear that our archive goes beyond biscuits!

These items are taken from our Huntley & Palmers Archive, which is open to view for researchers and the public. To request access, or for further enquiries, email specialcollections@reading.ac.uk.  

References

https://www.britishpathe.com/video/the-royal-wedding-cake-1/query/Elizabeth+Bowes-Lyon+wedding 

http://collections.readingmuseum.org.uk/index.asp?page=record&mwsquery=%7Btotopic%7D=%7BFour%20Bs%7D&filename=REDMG&hitsStart=32