Guest post: Deciphering the indecipherable in the Janet Powney Collection

This guest post comes from Dr Lauren O’Hagan, sociolinguistic researcher of Edwardian material culture and class conflict.


As a scholar of book inscriptions, what really frustrates me is when a mark of ownership has been thoughtlessly removed from a book. Often, all that is left is a jagged tear line acting as evidence of the bookplate or prize sticker that once was affixed to the endpapers. This careless act of erasure silences voices of past generations and with them, a wide range of social networks, thoughts and feelings that offer new perspectives on life in a particular time period and sociocultural context.

Yet what angers me even more is when an inscription is left in the book but has been scribbled through, almost taunting the reader with its partially obscured information. This is often the work of a later owner who deliberately seeks to stake their own claim to the book, giving no thought for people like me who spend their days researching them! Nonetheless, with a little time and patience, the indecipherable can become decipherable, as I found out last week when working on the Janet Powney Collection.

Towards the end of the day, I picked up a beautiful 1873 edition of Aesop’s Fables. It was custom-bound in dark green full calf leather boards with raised bands on its spine and embossed with a gilt armorial typical of non-state school prize books in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. The armorial on the book’s cover was framed by the abbreviation ‘SCHOL: DIG: SOC: BRAS’ and ‘JACOBO HICKSON FUND’ with the date ‘A.D. MDCLXXXVII’ underneath.

Unlike the working-class prize books of board schools, which were bound and decorated in-house by publishers, prize books for middle- and upper-class children typically arrived at a local bindery unbound and were subsequently custom-bound according to each school’s requirements. In contrast to working-class prize books, far greater attention was also paid to their internal properties. As can be seen in this copy of Aesop’s Fables, the paper is of a higher quality and endpapers are marbled. As grammar and boarding schools considered it important to uphold tradition, it was no coincidence that books such as this one were made to resemble the fine bindings of the eighteenth century.

 

 

Turning to the front endpapers to consult the prize sticker and discover which school awarded the book, I was horrified to find that it had been completely defaced. An attempt had been made to remove the sticker and when the resistant glue had put up a fight, the previous owner had resorted to scribbling through all the information in black ink, totally obscuring the writing below. I had a challenge on my hands that I was determined to overcome!

Using my rudimentary Latin knowledge, I was able to make an educated guess that the abbreviated ‘SCHOL’ was school (schola), while the ‘SOC’ was society or association (societatus). The other two abbreviations posed more of a problem. Although the full name of the awarding institution was printed on the prize sticker, the act of vandalism had made the words almost indistinguishable. Using a magnifying glass, I was able to identify ‘DIG’ as ‘dignif[?]’, which was enough information to help me roughly translate the word as ‘dignified’ or ‘worshipful’. The last word was more difficult. It looked like it read ‘Brasiatorium’. However, the only translation of this word that could be found in Latin dictionaries was ‘brewery’ or ‘malthouse’.  Curioser and curioser…

After feeding various combinations of words into Google, I came across the Worshipful Company of Brewers (WCB). The WCB is one of the oldest Livery Companies of the City of London and received its first charter from King Henry VI in 1438. Could this be our ‘societatus’ and if so, what did the school part mean?

The next clue I decided to chase was the ‘Jacobo Hickson’ behind the fund that was presumably used to purchase the book and award it to its recipient. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was not uncommon for rich entrepreneurs to leave money in their will to fund books for children. Could Jacobo Hickson be one of them?

After a number of unsuccessful searches for Jacob Hickson, rare books cataloguer Christine Megowan had the clever idea of translating ‘Jacobo’ into its English equivalent: ‘James’. Immediately, this brought up a wide range of results, all of which confirmed that James Hickson was indeed a brewer. Born in 1607 in Melton Mowbray, Hickson moved to London as a young man, became a brewer and was later elected an alderman of the City of London. He was one of the three main benefactors of the WCB, along with Richard Platt and Dame Alice Owen.

Hickson used his fortune to carry out philanthropic work. He built and endowed almhouses in South Mymms and bequeathed money in his will to Dame Alice Owen’s School in Potters Bar and Aldenham School in Elstree. Both schools still exist and to this day, they receive Beer Money, in the form of a commemorative coin, from the Master of the WCB. Was it possible then that the ‘schola’ mentioned in the prize sticker was either Dame Alice Owen’s or Aldenham?

Before investigating this thread further, I wanted to get to the bottom of the coat of arms. It clearly did not match that of the WCB (three kilderkins between three pairs of barley garbs). Could it belong to Hickson? Avidly flicking through an online version of an old heraldic dictionary for the surname Hickson, I was thrilled to find that the Hickson coat of arms was described as “two eagles’ legs, erased à la quize, sa., in saltire sable, the dexter surmounted of the sinister, or and sable” or in plain English, two eagles’ legs, upper-part shown only, crossed over, right on top of left, gold and black. Bingo!

As if all of this information was not enough to prove that the book was given by the WCB using money allocated in the bequest of James Hickson, a name at the bottom of the prize sticker confirmed this. Underneath the scribble, the name E.N. Buxton could be roughly made out with the title ‘Soc Bras [?]’ next to it. Consulting the records of the WCB, I found that an Edward North Buxton was the Master at the time that this book was awarded. Edward North Buxton (1840-1924) was a conservationist and Liberal Party politician. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge and became a partner in the London brewing firm of Truman, Hanbury, & Co. It was through his work with this brewery that he obtained the position of Master of the WCB in 1875.

To determine once and for all the school with which the WCB was linked, I turned to the other name underneath the scribble at the bottom of the prize sticker: Herbert Williams, schola magister (school master). Scanning through census records, I found that Herbert Williams (1826-1903) was a Church of England clergyman who went on to become the “headmaster of a brewer’s company school” in 1871. Aldenham School being for boys and Dame Alice Owen’s School being for girls, I was able to state with confidence that Aesop’s Fables was awarded to a pupil of Aldenham School by its headteacher, Herbert Williams. Aldenham School was founded in 1597 by Richard Platt, Master of the WBC. The WBC were its appointed governors and remain its trustees today.

The final piece in the puzzle was the pupil himself: R.W. Russell. This inscription was the perfect example of yet another pet peeve of mine – inscribers who only use initials for first names! This can make it incredibly challenging to track down the person. After several hours of trawling through census forms and consulting school records, I found a Robert William Russell who was born in St Alban’s, Hertfordshire and attended Aldenham School from 1871-1877. He then went on to study at Oxford University. Unfortunately, no census records have been found for Russell after this date, which may suggest that he moved abroad.

—–

Despite the numerous challenges posed by inscriptions such as these, with a bit of perseverance, it is possible to decipher them. Thanks to a combination of digital and traditional methods, I have been able to unlock the history of the WCB, one of its benefactors (Jacob Hickson), masters (E.N. Buxton), brewer’s school (Aldenham School) and pupils (Robert William Russell).

How, after Russell’s death in 1934, the book passed to a female grocer’s assistant in Penarth, Wales – Dorothy Davies of 16 Hastings Avenue (according to the defaced inscription at the top of the prize sticker) – is perhaps a mystery worth unravelling some other day…

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