Meet the Stephensons

In the conservation studio of Westminster Archives Centre, our volunteers are embarking on a new preservation management project – cleaning thousands of records for St Margaret’s Parish.

Bundle of St. Margaret’s Parish records (E3339/1801) waiting to be cleaned.

Bundle of St. Margaret’s Parish records (E3339/1801) waiting to be cleaned. Particularly vulnerable items are enclosed in archival rag paper for protection.

At some point in their history, the records were stored in a smoky environment and the clear scent of wood smoke wafts from the boxes when they are opened.  The residue from the smoke and other environmental grime can cause the paper to weaken. To slow down the process of degradation, our volunteers are surface cleaning each piece of correspondence using a smoke sponge and a soft haired brush. In addition to cleaning, the volunteers prepare enclosures for the records that are physically delicate.

While cleaning the records the subjects, descriptions and people included have intrigued and fascinated our team. The correspondence includes requests for funds, complaints about a neighbour’s pigs affecting the price of real estate and requests for young people to be sent north to work in one of the first manufactories.  Mr Stephenson was the Parish Warden for approximately 50 years and kept together his personal and business correspondence. It is the interrelated letters from family and friends that have specifically captivated volunteers and staff alike. As we learn more about each family and friends, we are recording the information on an informal family tree.

Informal Stevenson family tree being written to help volunteers keep track of the various people discussed in the correspondence.

Informal Stephenson family tree being written to help volunteers keep track of the various people discussed in the correspondence.

Mr Stephenson’s brother seems to financially struggle and the correspondence is littered with requests for money as evidenced below:

Craigs Court
January 26 1802

Being in want of a Temporary Assistance and having on former occasion applied to some few friends who have always contributed with my request in the most dreadful manner as such in would be engrossing too much on their liberality to apply to them on the present occasion.  I have therefore to request the favour of you to accommodate me with the Loan of Thirty pounds which I shall hold myself responsible to return by instalments at a short date which if you shold think convenient to furnish me with my request I should consider myself infinitely obliged…

Letter - 26 January 1802

Letter – 26 January 1802

In addition to his brother, Mr Stephenson’s eldest son Edward is boarding with the Blomfields in Bury St Edmunds. The correspondence contains letters both from and about Edward, including many letters from the grammar school master, Charles Blomfield, at Bury St Edmunds:

January 27, 1802
Re: Son’s arrival

Dear Sir,

Your son arrived safe and well last night and delivered your letter for which I beg to thank you – the contents fully discharge the X Acct.
We are very happy to hear of Mrs Stephenson’s recovery, who I ? say, is beginning to wonder whether the next will be as large as Mrs. Jane Mildred.  Mrs B is quite well and George is now beginning to improve in his health – hitherto he has been rather ailing. Pray make our kindest remembrance to the Abingtons etc. I was in hopes of seeing you but was prevented going to Town this Xmas – my ? friend is going on as I could wish and I think in due time will answer all your wishes about him.  Mrs B. unites with me in best compl. To Yourself and Mrs. Stephenson & I am Dear Sir.

Your sincere friend and Servant

Letter, 27 January 1802

Letter, 27 January 1802

A few months later not all is well with the families as Charles Blomfield communicates about an illness that is affecting many around him:

April 16, 1802
Re: fever

My dear Sir,

I ought some time back to have acknowledged the rect. Of your valuable present of paper etc. but the prupose of ? and anxiety of mind must be my apology and I know your kindness too well to doubt your admitting it. When I say “anxiety of mind” I mean the hourly expectation of some of my family being taken with the fever which has (I may say) raged here for months past. Indeed, till this time, the town has never been free from it since last August – our fears are now nearly subsided as the Medical Gentleman assure me the danger is over.  My ? folks, thank God, have all escaped but the caution we have used has been extreme.

Our friend lost his 3 eldest children in a fortnight.  Your Son has enjoyed a perfect state of health and continues to have the good report of his Masters, he desires Duty etc.

Mrs. B will offer my best regards to Mrs. Stephenson and yourself and I am dear Sir your much obliged friend and Serv.

Letter - 16 April 1802

Letter – 16 April 1802

If you have enjoyed the three snippets of the lives of the Stephensons and Blomfields, we will be posting more of their correspondence on the Westminster Arhcives Facebook page in the coming weeks and months.


Any other duties as required…

French hornI’m sure we’re all familiar with that line at the end of a job description, but if you’re part of the team in Westminster Music Library, you play a musical instrument and have often wondered what it would be like to perform in front of a live audience it can take on a whole new meaning.

Once I discovered that Jon – our Saturday Assistant – was an excellent French horn player, and not only that, had a group of friends who were similarly blessed, it was only a matter of time before he found himself “volunteering” to perform for the good folks of Westminster with his quartet. For anyone unfamiliar with the French horn, it’s a brass instrument with a mellow tone, consisting of a long, spiral tube ending in a flaring bell, three valves, and a funnel-shaped mouthpiece, and if you unwound it, that spiral tube would be more than 20 feet long.

Our four musicians clearly share a passion for this complicated and versatile instrument. It’s considered to be one of the most difficult instruments to play, and for good reason. It can play practically every note without pressing a single key, lends itself to many different styles of music and can fill so many parts. In an orchestra this beautiful instrument can be heard playing along with anything from a clarinet to a tuba.

The Jon Frank Horn Quartet  at Westminster Music Library, March 2015

Although the catalogue of original works for horn quartet is not extensive, there are a fair number of arrangements of well known works, and it was from a selection of this repertoire that Jon and his quartet performed for our audience in Westminster Music Library. And isn’t it great that each and every piece of music he chose for their recital came from our very own Music Library shelves?

The Jon Frank Horn Quartet  at Westminster Music Library, March 2015

The concert covered arrangements of Mozart’s overture to his opera The magic flute, selections from Bizet’s Carmen, and some lively jazz in the shape of two songs by Gershwin – s’Wonderful and I got Rhythm. As the concert drew to a close, it was clear that our quartet were not going to be allowed to leave with any haste. Our appreciative audience not only demanded an encore, but also held them captive while they fired questions at them about the French horn, its history, their favourite works for this illustrious instrument, and just how difficult it was to play.

All four musicians demonstrated so clearly the art of successful ensemble playing, this was a thoroughly enjoyable concert given by a group of versatile and committed musicians. Have a listen to their encore in this clip:

If you don’t know what this piece is, you’ll just have to visit The Music Library on Saturday and ask Jon….


A Cinema Pioneer

Clapper board / reels of filmIn 1921, your school or university careers adviser would have been unlikely to recommend you the profession of ‘film critic’ for the simple reason that it didn’t yet exist as a full-time job. While film-going was already the most popular entertainment for the masses, the movies still weren’t taken seriously by the intelligentsia and were mostly reviewed in trade journals.

So when Caroline Lejeune from Withington, Manchester, fresh out of university,  announced her intention of becoming a film critic, there were probably a few dropped jaws in the family home. Luckily for her, CP Scott, editor of the Guardian, was a family friend and encouraged her to move to London, take a postgraduate degree and write a regular column in the Manchester Guardian which she kept up until 1928, transferring to the Observer until her retirement in 1960.

I was reminded of Lejeune by an excellent article in the Guardian which links to a few of her reviews. She loved Hitchcock (though abhorred Psycho), hated Errol Flynn’s Adventures of Robin Hood and admired Eisenstein. Sadly, she’s probably best remembered now for her scathing review of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, mentioned in this blog a few weeks ago, but she deserves far greater recognition.

You can find out more about her life in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (her biography is written Dilys Powell, another notable female film critic)  or from her autobiography Thank you for Having Me. But, most importantly, if you want to read her criticism, check out the Guardian and Observer Archive (log in with your Westminster Library  card). For more writing on cinema, check out the International Index to Performing Arts or why not pay a visit to Westminster Reference Library to explore the excellent Performing Arts Collection?


“Life is infinitely stranger…” – Irregular Observations

Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent”
That was what Sherlock Holmes said to Dr. Watson in “A Case of Identity”.  The line between fact and fiction can become a little blurred at times, a phenomenon that has been dubbed “faction”. It can leave you wondering where one ends and the other starts.

A good example is the novel Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, adapted for television with Martin Clunes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself.  Basing his novel on the true story of George Edalji, which was indeed investigated by Conan Doyle, Barnes produced a readable and very approachable account of the shameful treatment of an innocent man by police who were either incompetent, prejudiced or frankly corrupt.

Outrage, by Roger OldfieldTurning fact into fiction, especially for television, usually entails adding some extra excitement and drama – sinister outlines of cloaked figures, a good chase or two, that sort of thing.  If you want to read an account less tinged with romanticism, as Holmes would have said, try Outrage: The Edalji five and the shadow of Sherlock Holmes by Roger Oldfield.

Then there are other elements to the drama that might pique your interest. What about Conan Doyle’s own Watson figure – Woodie?  His secretary was indeed Major Alfred Wood, whose handwriting is thought to appear at one point in the manuscript of The Dying Detective.  Interestingly, he is played by Charles Edwards, who himself played the young Arthur Conan Doyle to Ian Richardson’s Joseph Bell in Murder Rooms, dramatizations and novels by David Pirie.

Conan Doyle by Andrew LycettThen there is the interesting Miss Jean Leckie, who did indeed become his second wife. Conan Doyle’s sister was married to E W Hornung, creator of Raffles, and they did fall out over Miss Leckie.

You can read all about this in the Conan Doyle biographies – try those by Andrew Lycett or Georgina Doyle.

George Edalji was not an isolated case.  The biographies will tell of other cases investigated by Conan Doyle, including that of another outsider falsely accused, this time of murder – Oscar Slater.  You can get a more detailed account of that from Oscar Slater: the great suspect by Peter Hunt or Thomas Toughill’s Oscar Slater. If true crime is your interest, Peter Costello’s The Real World of Sherlock Holmes gives an overview of many cases which interested Conan Doyle, including those of Jack the Ripper and Dr Crippen. Conan Doyle and the Crimes Club: the creator of Sherlock Holmes and his criminological friends by Stephen Wade discusses his involvement with The Crimes Club, a group of gentlemen who formed the club to share their interest in criminology.

Conan Doyle and the Crimes Club, by Stephen Wade  Oscar Wilde murder mysteries by Gyles Brandreth  Winter at Death's Hotel by Kenneth Cameron

So much for fact.  If you fancy something a little lighter, Sir Arthur appears as a character in a number of novels other than those of Pirie mentioned above. Gyles Brandreth makes Oscar Wilde his detective, with Conan Doyle appearing as a semi-Watson figure in his series of Victorian murder mysteries, while Winter at Death’s Hotel by Kenneth M Cameron has his first wife Louisa as the detective. Finally, there are a number of novelizations of real crimes where Sherlock Holmes investigates – try Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper by Ellery Queen.


Irregular Observations is an occasional series of musings from the Sherlock Holmes Collection in Westminster Libraries.  The Collection started life in 1951 and is now one of the most comprehensive in the world. If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes and want to learn more, have a look at our website or get in touch.

Music on the go

Which of our online resources do I love the best? It has to be Naxos Music Library.

Naxos Music Library from Westminster LibrariesApart from holding complete catalogues and selected recordings of over 640 record labels (such as Chandos, EMI Classics, Harmonia Mundi, RCA Records, Sony Classical, Teldec, Virgin Classics and Warner Classics), you can listen to classical music, jazz, world music, classic rock, and easy listening.

It covers a huge range of both standard and specialist repertoire, holds more than 108,359 CD-length recordings equivalent to 1,582, 955 tracks, with over 800 CD-length recordings added every month.

There are libretti and synopses for more than 700 operas, so no more sitting in a darkened theatre trying to figure out who is really a girl dressed as a boy or who stabbed who. There are over 40,000 composer and artist biographies and graded music exam playlists (ABRSM and Trinity/Guildhall), perfect for students of all ages and also for their addled parents.

For someone like me who is passionate about music this is truly a wonderful way to bring together so many of my favourite things, particularly when I know it’s all been professionally sourced. No more wondering if those Wikipedia entries are really that accurate…

But there’s something else about Naxos that you might not have realised. A few years ago Naxos launched an App, so you can set up a playlist account, install the App on both iOS and Android devices and use this to access Naxos. All our public library customers can access Naxos “on the go”, I have the Naxos app on my phone, it works brilliantly, and it couldn’t be simpler to get started.

You’ll need to be a member of our libraries as your email address and password will also act as your login credentials for the Naxos Music Library mobile App.

Go to the Naxos home page from our Westminster Libraries Online Resources page and click on the Mobile app link:

Naxos title bar with link to mobile app

Follow the instructions for Public Library Card Holders and hey presto! You’re now ready to save personal playlists, and enjoy Naxos Music Library anywhere. Log in to the Naxos Music Library App today and enjoy!



Celebrating World Book Day with Michael Jecks

Michael Jecks at St John's Wood Library for World Book Day 2015On World Book Day St John’s Wood Library had the pleasure of welcoming Michael Jecks to celebrate with us over lunch. Michael is the author of 32 medieval murder mystery books featuring Baldwin De Furnshill, Knight Templar and his sidekick Bailiff Simon Puttock. His latest book, Fields of Glory, is the first in a trilogy about the Hundred Years War and features King Edward lll and The Battle of Crecy.

Michael first introduced himself and talked about his books and writing. We broke for lunch (lovely sandwiches and tea, coffee and cake) and then had a Question & Answer session. We had 24 visitors and the event was praised by all – thanks Michael!


Presentation bookplates (or, The joy of being given a book)

World Book Day 2015World Book Day on 5 March is a day for celebrating the joy and value of books and reading, especially for children. I wonder how many of you reading this began your relationship with books at school?

I remember Prizegiving Day at my old Grammar School. Those pupils who had excelled academically or in sport, high attendance etc were allowed to choose a book or books up to a certain value. These would then be purchased by the school and presented to the lucky pupils in the presence of the whole school and invited parents. At the front of the book(s) would be inserted a printed bookplate inscribed with your name and the details of your achievement.

Presentation bookplate - East Ham Grammar School For Boys

By my time (the 1960s) the bookplates were fairly plain, but in the late 19th and early 20th century they might be highly elaborate, decorative pieces of artwork, typical of the style of the period, which would no doubt be proudly shown by recipients to their family and friends. Not just state schools, but also Sunday Schools and other religious organisations might make such presentations of books with bookplates as these examples show (click on the images to see larger versions):

All of these bookplates were found within children’s story books, many dating back to the 19th century, which form part of Westminster Libraries reserve stock collection. How these books, given to children at locations all over Britain, came to end up in Westminster Libraries might make a fascinating story in their own right, if only the details had been recorded!

Schools still give out books as prizes, though in this digital age it is perhaps as likely to be an e-reader or electronic book tokens. I bet they don’t come with a bookplate!

However since 1998, on World Book Day, every child in full-time education in the United Kingdom and Ireland is given a £1 book token. They can then take the book tokens to a bookshop and purchase either one of 10 children’s books specially priced at £1 or get £1 off any book with a full price of £2.99 or more. So every school child can have a book of their own.