Reading Readers: Lost in Translation in George Bell and Macmillan Publishers Archives

This month’s blog comes from one of our ‘Reading Readers’, Anna Strowe, who’s been looking at the archives of the publishing companies of George Bell & Sons and Macmillan. George Bell & Sons consists of A woman is sat in the Reading Room, surrounded by documents, and a laptop. correspondence, ledgers & miscellaneous records from 1813–1976. The Archive of Macmillan at the University of Reading is vast and mainly consists of around 60,000 incoming letters, covering the period 1875 to 1967 with material also held at the British Library. We asked Anna about her research and about some of her favourite things she had found within the collections.

I’m working on translation in the archives of George Bell & Sons, covering items from 1890-1900. I started out initially just wanting to know what kind of materials there might be that would address issues of translation, and narrowed down pretty quickly to looking mostly at correspondence in and out. This is part of a larger project, where I’m also looking at Macmillan records in the same period.

Within these materials, I’m particularly interested in a couple of things. First, I want to know very generally what kinds of conversations happen around the issue of publishing translations. Who is involved and what do they write about to each other? What do proposals look like? What do reviews look like? How do translators and texts get chosen? Unsurprisingly, a lot of conversation is about whether things will sell, and about pricing and payment, but there’s also a lot of conversation about other issues: why people think a particular book would do well in translation, how people know the translators they are recommending, what various readers think is good or bad about particular translations.

I’m also interested in particular stories that come out of the archival materials. I’ve started to focus on one that involves a Dutch-born professor of English literature in Germany, his three-volume history of English literature and another volume of essays on Shakespeare, three publishers, seven translators (some just hopeful for more work!), a particularly harsh book review, some miscommunication about what the actual problem is, the professor’s wife, and an infringement of international copyright law… That story plays out over the course of around 50 letters back and forth between these various people, and 21 letters that must have existed but that I haven’t found. I’m also interested in the stories of particular translators who come up in the documents repeatedly. I’m trying to find out more about these translators through both their letters and outside research; they can be a bit hard to track though!

A table showing a pile of letters. Two letters are brought to the front.

Just some of the letters Anna worked with. In the forefront – MS 1640/223/255 and MS 291/255.

I love working in archives because there’s so much that is interesting or surprising. Things that are relevant to the work that you’re in the archive for in the first place, and just wonderful things you come across. So a few of each:

One of the things I like the most about the material that I’m getting on my topic is the sense of personality and the intimacy that you get from working with these types of materials. You get to follow people in so many ways: their work, their family lives, their travels. There’s a little of everything in the documents. A lot of the time in translation studies, we work with the texts themselves and maybe with a little biographical information. But holding in your hands a letter that someone wrote over a century ago is just so much more personal. And you start to feel like you’re meeting people: the business-like, the chatty and friendly

And then there are the random little things that you find: a rant from an outraged author who believes his work to be revolutionary, in which he suggests that they probably didn’t even read the manuscript, and offers as evidence the fact that they had misspelled his name in their reply (his signature in the previous letter was almost illegible!); a hint that several of the translators whose names keep coming up in the archives actually knew each other, when one of them writes that she saw “Miss Whoever” at a dinner party the other evening.

Maybe my favourite find (not relevant to my research) so far is a little card from 1921, from

A table showing a letter with a painting of some scenery.

The letter from the Tompkins’ sisters. MS 1640/49/1

two sisters in New Jersey. They write to George Bell & Sons essentially just to thank them for having published so many lovely books that the sisters own, and include a tiny watercolour done by one sister. The picture is a little scene with a meadow and a river with a couple little houses and some birds, and hills in the background. It’s about 4 x 6.75 cm, and it’s been sewn to the card (which is also quite small- about 8 x 9 cm) with six little stitches in white embroidery floss, in the corners and top and bottom centre. It’s signed by the sister, Abigail Brown Tompkins, and titled “A Misty Summer Morning in New Jersey U.S.A.” I don’t really know anything about it or the sisters, and it’s not actually part of what I’m supposed to be working on, but it’s such a wonderful random gesture.


I still have a huge amount of work to do though; my time in the archive was really just collecting images of all of these documents, so I’m only just starting to read through them in more detail and get a better sense of what’s there. I’m sure I’ll find many more interesting and surprising things.

To find out more about the above collections get in touch via email at or visit our website  Follow us on twitter @UniRdg_SpecColl and @unirdg_collections on Instagram for updates on services, events and collections.

Reading Readers – Adam McKie

Adam McKie, MA Research Student at Royal Holloway, University of London, tells us about his research into employee sporting activities in the Huntley & Palmer papers.

Aerial view of the Huntley & Palmer factory in Reading with railway to the north and the River Kennett running right through the site (c. 1926)

Aerial view of the Huntley & Palmer factory in Reading with railway to the north and the River Kennett running right through the site (c. 1926)

My MA thesis explores the history of women’s cricket in interwar England; a project sponsored by The Association of Cricket Statisticians. Despite an abundance of research (both academic and trade) into the history of men’s cricket, the women’s game has largely been ignored by scholars and sports enthusiasts alike, and I hope to shine a light on the initial growth and organisation of the sport which occurred during this period. Women’s cricket can in turn be used as an effective cultural case study to explore issues surround women’s role in public life, gender construction, class and employment.
It is the relationship between women’s employment and sporting/recreational opportunities that led me to use the University of Reading’s Special Collections. The collection holds a large amount of records related to Huntley & Palmers and Peek Frean biscuit factories – including minute books, pamphlets, photograph albums, official works’ publications and other ephemera (the Reading Room supervisors were very patient with my continued requests for more and more bulky items…). Particularly interesting records for my research include interwar departmental cricket scorebooks [HP OS 610,6 607, 606, 676, 677] and a 1946 survey of 362 female employees’ social activities at the Huntley & Palmers’ Sports and Social Club [HP 768].

HP 768: 1946 survey of 362 female employees’ social activities at the Huntley & Palmers’ Sports and Social Club

HP 768: 1946 survey of 362 female employees’ social activities at the Huntley & Palmers’ Sports and Social Club

Called upon to fill the jobs left behind by men leaving for war, women joined these factories’ workforces in large numbers during WWI: the ‘munitionettes’ contributed to an estimated 60,000 shells produced at Huntley & Palmers between 1915 and 1918 [HP102 p. 14]. A number of companies, including Huntley & Palmers and Peak Frean, subsequently offered female employees opportunities to participate in company-funded sporting/recreational activities in what they claimed was a paternalistic and benevolent approach to workers’ welfare. By 1929 both companies had women’s cricket teams, and Huntley & Palmers even had 21 interdepartmental women’s cricket teams (far outnumbering the men on just 12!). In what must have been a competitive and entertaining company tournament, teams included the Invoice Office, Sugar Wafers, Cake Making, Cream Filling and ‘Sample Room’ (I wouldn’t mind working in that last one). [HP OS 610]

HP 610: The cover of one of the Cricket Scoring Books used by the firm

HP 610: The cover of one of the Cricket Scoring Books used by the firm

HP 610:  One of many score sheets contained with the Cricket Score Books

HP 610: One of many score sheets contained with the Cricket Score Books

By allowing women to play what was generally considered a ‘manly’ game unsuitable for females, these employers demonstrated their progressiveness on issues of sex; while simultaneously undermining this by providing women with less holiday and less pay than men. By 1946 the company also offered female workers badminton, darts, hockey, rifle shooting, and tennis, alongside courses in more traditional female pastimes including dressmaking and hairdressing [HP 768]. However by this time cricket seems to have lost its popularity – less than 3% of the 362 female employees reported to play the game, with netball becoming the chief sport for women with 14% participating [HP 768].


Martin Bishop, Bats, Balls and Biscuits: A Brief History of Cricket at the Reading Biscuit Factory (2008), p. 114.

You can find our more about the Huntley & Palmer archive here, as well as find out about visiting our reading room here.



Reading Readers – Jack Davies

Jack Davies, Assistant Lecturer of History and PhD student at the University of Kent, tells us about his research into stately home hospitals during the First World War, notably at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire – the home of the Astor family.

The Astor estate at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire (MS 1416/1/6/94)

The Astor estate at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire (MS 1416/1/6/94)

My research examines the social and cultural importance of the stately home hospital during the First World War. These personal residences were used to supplement the inadequate military medical infrastructure to provide care for wounded soldiers from all over the British Empire. The University of Reading’s Special Collections have been remarkably useful due to its Nancy Astor archive (MS 1416). The library contains a wide range of correspondence from Nancy herself, who is most famous for being the first female MP to take a seat in the House of Commons in Great Britain.

A lesser-known fact about Nancy Astor, however, was that her and her husband Waldorf converted their home into a hospital during the First World War. After having their initial offer rejected by the War Office, the Astors turned instead to the Canadian government. Though they rejected the use of the home, they agreed to build a hospital on the covered tennis courts; eventually a 600 bed military hospital was created within the house itself.

Though perhaps a strange place for me to come to do my research, the Nancy Astor archive contains hundreds of examples of personal correspondence between Lady Astor and the men who recovered within the walls of Cliveden. These letters allow an interesting insight to the use of this building as a hospital. Not only do they enable us to gain an understanding of the events that transpired within the hospital, such as:

Correspondence from Albut. L. Pope to Nancy Astor, (9 October, 1952) MS 1416/1/2/693

Correspondence from Albut. L. Pope to Nancy Astor, (9 October, 1952) MS 1416/1/2/693

‘when you [Nancy Astor] played the part of an old lady visiting the Canadian Hospital in which I was a patient at the time, to lecture a young Canadian soldier for paying too much attention to her daughter’.

They also provide the chance to examine the emotional significance that the hospital space held for wounded Canadians and Australians, many of whom were experiencing Britain for the first time:

Correspondence from Private Brook to Nancy Astor, (ND) in ‘First World War Soldiers B 2 1914 – 1921’, MS 1416/1/2/653

Correspondence from Private Brook to Nancy Astor, (ND) in ‘First World War Soldiers B 2 1914 – 1921’, MS 1416/1/2/653


‘I often wish I was wandering round your beautiful place again.’

In an attempt to discover the aristocracy’s attitudes towards the transition of their personal space, I also searched through Lady Astor’s correspondence with a number of her relatives, the most interesting of which were those sent by her brother-in-law J.J. Astor. In one, he bizarrely declared:

Correspondence from J.J. Astor to Nancy Astor, (21 June, 1916) in ‘Col. J.J. Astor (Lord Astor of Hever)’, MS 1416/1/3/4

Correspondence from J.J. Astor to Nancy Astor, (21 June, 1916) in ‘Col. J.J. Astor (Lord Astor of Hever)’, MS 1416/1/3/4

‘I trust you chose the lingerie with care and great taste, not that it would really matter very much, I expect!”

In another, written after he and fiancée Violet Kynynmound had decided upon a wedding date, he wrote:

‘I am so looking forward to seeing you again, please don’t abuse me for getting married, and you will forgive me for it wont you?’ (ND, MS 1416/1/3/4)

Unfortunately the collection does not contain Nancy’s responses to these peculiar letters, and while we may be unable to discover the truth surrounding their relationship, the discovery of this correspondence certainly piqued my attention, as well as the archivists’ after a long day of research.


Jack Davies is an Assistant Lecturer of History and PhD student at the University of Kent.

You can find out more about the Nancy Astor Archive here, and information about accessing our collections here.




Reading Readers – Jeremy

One of our volunteers, Jeremy, tells us about how an encounter with a book of remembrance in the archive has led him to trace the stories of those from the university involved in the First World War.

I started researching the Great War Dead of University College, Reading after being shown the Memorial album containing the names of 141 people who lost their lives, together with photographs of 119 of them. The collecting of photographs as a means of remembering those who died in the war was suggested by Dorothy Nölting at a meeting of the Student Representative Council on 4 November 1915. In October 1919, the Council decided that the photographs should be mounted in an album and displayed in the Union Common Room. That work was carried out by Clara Wilson, a former student of the College and member of staff in the Art Department, and was completed by 28 June 1920.

The inside cover of the Book of Remembrance of those Members of The University College Reading who fell in The War 1914-1918 (MS 5339). The volume contains black and white photographs of each person, with name, rank and regiment and a list of those fallen.

Four years later the College completed the building of a War Memorial in the form of a tower containing a bell and clock. The original intention had been to erect a tower alongside the College Hall at an estimated cost of £5,000-£10,000. It was not possible to raise this amount and the existing tower was built at a cost of £2,750. By the time of the tower’s dedication on 7 June 1924 the list of those who had died extended to 144 names. However, this list excluded two names included in the Memorial Album: those of Francis Edgar Pearse and Wilfred Owen. Was their omission deliberate or accidental? Was it at the request of their families? Were Owen and Pearse deemed in some way not to be members of the College? It would be nice to know why this happened, but so far I have failed to find any explanation.


The University Calendars, available to browse in the open access library at the reading room (378.4229).

In trying to find out more about those who died I looked at a number of sources held by the University of Reading Special Collections Service. The College Calendars contained lists of academic and administrative staff, together with the names of students who had passed examinations, won prizes, been awarded scholarships, and been made associates of the college. They also contained the names of students who held positions within the various student bodies, clubs and societies. The University College Review, which was last published in December 1916, contained the Roll of Honour, obituaries of those who died and details of those on Military Service. The Old Students News, published annually but not in 1918 and 1919, contained similar details to those in the Review. Tamesis, the Student magazine, also contained the names of those on service and those missing, wounded or killed. Additionally, I trawled through boxes of University Archives in the hope of finding something useful. I hoped that I might find details of those students who had been members of the College’s Officer Training Corps, but whilst record cards exist for those who were members of the Corps after the Great War, I have not found any such records for those who were members before 1914.


The Memorial Clock Tower during its construction at the heart of the London Road campus in 1924 (MS 5305/M162).

Starting, I assume, in 1924 and continuing until 1938, the bell in the Memorial Tower was tolled 144 times on 11 November starting at 10.45. At 11 o’clock the bell was struck just once to mark the start of the two minutes silence. Whilst the formal remembrance of the Great War dead continued until the outbreak of the Second World War, I found an item in Tamesis (Vol XXXI, No 1, 1932) that indicated that, with the passage of time, details of those who had died were being forgotten. The article noted that the list of names on the Memorial Tower contained that of one woman, Florence Mary Faithfull (a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse), and requested information about her. A contribution to Vol XXXI, No 3 provided some details, but we are now able to say so much more about her life and death. Florence was born in India in 1891, the second of five children, to William Conrad and Constance Mary Faithfull. William was an officer in the Indian Army. In 1905 Florence and her elder sister, Constance Ellen, entered the Edinburgh Ladies’ College (now the Mary Erskine School). Florence then studied Commerce at Reading 1909-12. I don’t know what she did after leaving the College, but during the war she nursed, initially, at Fir Grove Military Auxiliary Hospital, Eversley. Her Red Cross record only runs from June 1917 when she went to Salonika. She then went, as part of the 65th British General Hospital, to Basra, and it was here that she lost her life on 15 January 1918. This was not the result of enemy action, but of an accident. The launch, Smelt, in which she and thirteen other members of the hospital were travelling, was in collision with a steam tug. Florence and three other nurses were drowned, although Florence’s body was not recovered until 2 February 1918. The four nurses were buried in adjacent graves in Makina Cemetery (now part of Basra War Cemetery).

What I, and others, have found out about those from the College who died can be seen at There is still more to do as we have yet to properly identify H Turner, probably an evening student who may have served in the Royal Navy, and have yet to explain the omission of the names of Francis Pearse and Wilfred Owen from the Memorial Tower.

Find out more about accessing the archives here.


Reading Readers – Matt

PhD student Matt tells us about his time spent studying material within the world-renowned Samuel Beckett archive, and the archive of actor Billie Whitelaw.

A selection of Billie Whitelaw's copies of Beckett scripts (BW A/2/4, BW A/3/2 & BW A/4).

A selection of Billie Whitelaw’s copies of Beckett scripts (BW A/2/4, BW A/3/2 & BW A/4).

I am researching the production histories of Samuel Beckett’s drama in London as part of my PhD attached to the AHRC Staging Beckett project in the Department of Film, Theatre & Television. This research has involved a significant amount of archival explorations in a number of UK and international repositories including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Library, the National Theatre Archive and the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. Luckily for me, Reading has excellent resources relating to Beckett’s theatre in performance through the Beckett Collection and the James and Elizabeth Knowlson Collection and as a result I have spent numerous hours in the Reading Room at MERL viewing theatre ephemera ranging from programmes and reviews to photographs and interviews.

One collection that has made an interesting contribution to my research and interest in Beckettian performance is the recently acquired Billie Whitelaw Collection. Whitelaw and Beckett closely collaborated on significant performances of Play, Not I, Footfalls, Happy Days and Rockaby in notable London theatres and this collection contains Whitelaw’s working scripts for these productions. These colourful and heavily annotated typescripts epitomise the detail and diligence given to these texts by Whitelaw during the many arduous hours she and Beckett spent in rehearsals together. This collection also includes some handwritten notes by Beckett when he supervised or directed Whitelaw in her plays. On the page Not I, for example, may appear like a nonsensical monologue of words or phrases, though through Beckett’s notes it is possible to see how the narrative of this unnamed woman has more of a structure than meets the eye, as he has carefully organised the play into acts noting its repetitions, interruptions, memories of the past and stream of thoughts. They offer a snapshot of Beckett’s creative process and his meticulousness as a director, which continues to fascinate and intrigue scholars and practitioners of his work.

To learn more about the archive of Samuel Beckett click here, and you can find out more about the Billie Whitelaw archive here.

The Billie Whitelaw archive is a relatively recent acquisition and you can read more about its arrival at Reading in a previous blog post.

Reading Readers – Jenny

For the second in our Reading Readers series, Jenny tells us about the exciting discoveries she has made about the world of publishing in the Chatto & Windus letter books.

Jenny recording details from one of the many Chatto & Windus letter books.

Jenny recording details from one of the many Chatto & Windus letter books.

I started working as a volunteer in the Special Collections about two years ago, my task being to join the team transcribing the archive of letters from the Chatto and Windus publishing house. I began with letters from the 1860s. Time moves on, and I am now working on volumes of letters from the 1890s. The objective remains to record the names of the recipients, together with the page number on which the letter appears in each volume. The fragility of the tissue on which the letter copies were made means the pages need to be turned carefully, and quite often the use of a magnifying glass is required to assist in reading the elegant but indistinct copperplate writing.


The letters reveal that the daily business practices of a publishing house have not changed so much over time; potential authors are sent rejection letters, suppliers are sent orders, debts are pursued, remuneration cheques are issued to successful writers. Most of the correspondence is the routine stuff of office life. What fascinates, however, is that occasionally a letter appears addressed to a familiar name; an author or a member of nineteenth century society now recognised by posterity. I have come across letters concerning Mark Twain, Jerome K Jerome, the poet Algernon Swinburne and the composer Arthur Sullivan. There was delight in finding a note telling a Mr J E Millais that his illustrations were not of sufficient quality to be used. I wonder if the future Sir John Everett Millais kept that note. It was interesting to find a short letter to Victor Hugo, sending him a cheque for sales of the translation into English of the first parts of Les Miserables.


The letters are all out-going and very seldom have replies, but once in a while there is a response tucked between the pages. My most exciting find was just such a reply. The outgoing letter was addressed to a Mr A. Conan Doyle, and expressed concern that one of his tales had been used to advertise and market a book of short stories not published by Chatto and Windus. The publishers were asking his advice as to how they should react. And there, between the tissue, was a hand written reply from Conan Doyle himself, in crisp black ink, very clear and easy to read. It was not one of his best stories, he says, but since the book is out and for sale, he prefers to take no action. A wonderful find on a nineteenth century sales problem – one which still seems relevant to business today. And I had in my hand a letter from Arthur Conan Doyle!

You can find more details about the Chatto & Windus archive here.


Introducing Reading Readers

Our Reading Room Supervisor, Adam Lines, introduces a new feature for the University of Reading Special Collections blog.

On a daily basis, members of the public, students and academics from around the world use our extensive and varied collections. In the Reading Room at one time, researchers can be consulting manuscripts from the Samuel Beckett archive, looking at engineering drawings as part of an engine restoration project, or exploring our photographic collections as part of a local history study. They play such a key role in our understanding of the things under our care. They bring with them specialist subject knowledge and shed light on aspects of archives that enriches our understanding of them.

Researchers working in our reading room

The view of the Reading Room from the supervisor’s desk.

With this in mind, I decided it was time we shared some of the fascinating research carried out in our Reading Room. My colleagues and I hear about the research taking place on a daily basis, but a lot of it is too interesting not to share.

As part of ‘Explore Your Archives’ week, we will be sharing some examples. This will be the start of a regular feature on the Museum of English Rural Life and University of Reading Special Collections blogs, and through the eyes of our researchers we hope to share the potential for discovery in our collections.

Look out for more Reading Readers posts this week, and in the future.

To find out more about accessing the archives, click here.