This guest post is from Dr Melanie Bigold, Reader in English Literature in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy, Cardiff University.
The Cardiff Rare Books collection holds many texts which provide both provenance details (that is, information about former owners), as well as various types of evidence of historical use (for example, marginal annotations). Indeed, Cardiff’s collection is notable for the marked-up state of many of the books. Our librarian, Lisa Tallis, recently published an article on some examples from the Salisbury Collection in the Welsh History Review, and I have also written about marginalia in the Restoration Drama Collection.
My current research is on female book ownership between 1660-1820, so I have been revisiting the provenance details of hundreds of books in the Cardiff collection. One of the truly interesting tangential discoveries of research on women owners is that it has led me to the libraries of even more marginalised figures in the history of book ownership: servants and labouring-class individuals. For example, at Alnwick Castle, I discovered that a list mislabelled as one of the Duchess of Northumberland’s libraries was actually that of her servants. In the 1750s, Elizabeth Percy, first Duchess of Northumberland (1716-1776), made a list of the 131 books that she made available to her large household. The article about this exciting source is currently available open access here. A list of the 131 titles is also available open access on the Bibliographical Society’s website here.
As a result of the excellent work of rare books cataloguer, Christine Megowan, Special Collections and Archives at Cardiff has recently yielded a similar piece of evidence from 1815. The female owner of the library in question was Frances Ann Grey (née Pryce) (1780-1837), the heiress of Dyffryn House in Glamorgan, Wales. Frances’s father, Thomas Pryce, was a coal merchant who bought the estate in 1759 and christened it Dyffryn, but records for the estate and its various owners go back to the seventh century. Unfortunately, the eighteenth-century house that Frances lived in no longer exists, but the Victorian house and Edwardian gardens still known as Dyffryn House are now managed by the National Trust.
Thomas Pryce had two daughters: Frances, the eldest, born in April 1780, and the younger, Elizabeth, must have been born just over a year later as she is recorded as dying, age 21, in September 1802. Their mother, also named Frances Ann, died in March 1782, age 32, perhaps due to complications in the birth of Elizabeth. Thomas Pryce died in 1789, leaving Frances as his heir. In 1802, Frances married William Booth-Grey (1773-1852) – the second son of George Harry Grey, 5th earl of Stamford, of Dunham Massey, Cheshire. Frances was likely the mechanism for this second son to acquire an estate, as William joined Frances at Dyffryn House and shortly became High Sherriff of Glamorgan. A watercolour portrait of the two is held in the National Trust collections at Dunham Massey and can be viewed here. The couple had no children and the estate passed back to a Pryce kinsman on Frances’s death in 1837.
Beyond these scraps of information, not much is known about Frances, so it was wonderful to find a trace of her impact on the pages of one of our rare books. Special Collections has a single book that hails from Dyffryn House: a copy of Dr. Goldsmith’s history of Greece: abridged, for the use of Schools (London, 1787). The ink inscription on the front pastedown tells us that the book was ‘Mrs Grey’s’, and that it was ‘For the use of the Servants At Duffryn 1815’. In addition, on the final pastedown is a list of ‘Books in the Housekeeper’s room’, followed by the titles of twenty books, including the Goldsmith tome. In other words, this is a list of the library assembled by Frances for the benefit and entertainment of her servants. The titles include an interesting mix of histories, literature, religion, and reference works.
- The Whole Duty of Man [Richard Allestree, first published 1658]
- The great importance of a religious life [William Melmoth, first published 1711]
- Y Psallwyr [Psalms of David]
- Cyngor Gweinidog [William Holmes, The Country Parson’s advice to his parishioners, first published in English in 1742, and translated into Welsh in 1769]
- 2 Vol’s of Sermons by Wilson [probably Thomas Wilson, Thirty-three sermons published in Bath in 1791, in 2 volumes]
- Answer to all excuses for not attending the Holy Communion [Edward Synge, An answer to all the excuses…, first published 1697]
- Select Psalms
- On the existence of God [unknown, several possible titles]
- One Volume of Blairs Sermons [Hugh Blair, Sermons,first published 1777]
- Enfields Speaker [William Enfield, The Speaker, first published 1774]
- Salmon’s Gazeeteer [sic] [Thomas Salmon, The Modern Gazetteer,first published 1746]
- History of Greece Robertson [William Robertson, The History of Ancient Greece, 1768]
- History of Greece Goldsmith [Oliver Goldsmith, The Grecian History, was first published 1774. The abridged version present in the Cardiff collection came out in 1787]
- History of England Goldsmith [first published 1764. Perhaps this was the abridgement in 12mo published in 1774]
- Barclay’s Dictionary [James Barclay, A Complete and Universal Dictionary, first published 1774]
- Guthrie’s Grammar [William Guthrie, A New Geographical, Historical, and Commercial Grammar, first published 1770]
- The practice of true devotion [Robert Nelson, first published 1715]
- Nicholl’s [sic] Paraphrase [William Nicholls, A paraphrase on the Psalter or Psalms of David, first published 1707]
- Thomson’s Seasons [James Thomson, The Seasons, first published together 1730]
- 2 Shenstones Works [William Shenstone, The works in verse and prose, first published 1764]
It is impossible to determine the edition date for many of the titles, but apart from the books of Psalms; The Whole Duty of Man (1658), Richard Allestree’s perennially popular book of practical devotion; and Edward Synge’s An Answer (1697), all of the titles first appeared in the eighteenth century, and many in the latter half of the century. While this suggests a relatively current library, the date of the Goldsmith edition – 1787 – tells us that the books were probably second-hand copies. The other factor to note about our Goldsmith book is that it is small – not much larger than a smartphone. Known as duodecimo (12mo) format, it is similar in size to those found in other servant libraries from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For example, at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk (a National Trust house) there is a servants’ library of twenty-five books in their own miniature, locked bookcase. These books are all duodecimo. This was a common size for chapbooks, the small and cheap little books sold by travelling pedlars or chapmen. Seen as ephemera, most early examples of these popular books have not survived. Margaret Spufford’s wonderful study, Small Books and Pleasant Histories: Popular Fiction and its Readers in Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1981), is still the definitive history on chapbooks. Sadly, our list does not contain any of the famous old chapbook titles.
Instead, in 1815, it is religious titles that dominate the list (11 of the 20 titles), but there is more variety here than other examples of nineteenth-century servants’ libraries. The Felbrigg servants’ library, for example, is entirely religious (all 25 texts were published by the Religious Tract Society). Frances’s selection, on the other hand, has more in common with the servants’ library at Alnwick Castle. Like the duchess, Frances provided her servants with books of a practical nature; that is, works that could help them learn about the world as well as advance their job prospects. For example, there is a book to help the servants learn to read. The long title of William Enfield’s The Speaker (item 10) explains that it contains ‘miscellaneous pieces, selected from the best English writers… with a view to facilitate the improvement of youth in reading and speaking.’ There are also general knowledge dictionaries and grammars. James Barclay’s ‘Dictionary’ (item 15) is not just a dictionary of words and definitions in the modern sense, but also contained a history of ‘the counties, cities, and market towns in England, Wales, and Scotland’, ‘a sketch of the constitution, government, and trade of England’, and ‘an outline of antient and modern history’. Likewise, Guthrie’s ‘Grammar’ (item 16) provided geographical knowledge about the ‘Land and Water, Continents and Islands’, ‘Climate, Air, Soil, vegetable Productions, Metals, Minerals’, among other things. The Modern Gazetteer (item 11) was another work of geographical and historical knowledge, written by a man who circumnavigated the world with George Anson in the 1740s. These works imparted general knowledge about the world beyond Wales, and as such provided both instruction and entertainment.
For those who had mastered their reading, there was also more ambitious fare in the form of James Thomson’s celebrated long poem, The Seasons (item 19), as well as William Shenstone’s collected works (item 20). Thomson’s paeon to the natural world was ubiquitous in eighteenth-century country house libraries; Shenstone, however, appears less frequently. Nevertheless, he wrote in the same vein as Thomson, with a focus on the countryside, rural life, and sensibility, and the appearance of these two authors suggest an interest (either from Frances or among the servants) for poetry with a connection to the land. They also hint at the preference in Welsh homes for poetry over novels. In my study of women’s libraries in Wales, poetry was almost always more prevalent.
There is also a focus on history which is one of the most popular genres in women’s libraries in the period. In addition to the Cardiff copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s abridged history of Greece (item 13), the list also mentions Goldsmith’s history of England (item 14), and another history of Greece from William Robertson (item 12). Goldsmith’s and Robertson’s Grecian histories were adaptations of the French classic Histoire Ancienne (1730-38) by Charles Rollin. This popular source was translated as well as abridged into many different languages over the course of the eighteenth century. Goldsmith, who was always short of funds and in search of publishing opportunities, produced a novelistic version that does not credit its source, while Robertson, Keeper of the Scottish Records, attempted a more traditional historiography that, in its second edition, credited his source as a French abridgement of Rollin. The appearance of these three histories show that eighteenth-century publishers were responding to and creating a popular history market for readers of all ages and abilities.
However, the most unique aspect of this list is that it contains Welsh-language texts. This is the earliest example I have found of Welsh texts in a country house servants’ library. These include, ‘Y Psallwyr’ (item 3), which is the Welsh translation of the Psalms of David, and ‘Cyngor Gweinidog’ (item 4), a translation of William Holmes’ work, The Country Parson’s Advice to his Parishioners. This tells us that there were Welsh speakers among Frances’ servants, and, perhaps more importantly, that she supported them with their own Welsh-language texts. It likewise reveals the expansion of Welsh-language publishing.
In her study of two English provincial booksellers, Jan Fergus notes that, among the working classes, servants often had the most leisure time and that they tended to be more literate. Frances Grey’s list confirms such literacy for both English and Welsh speaking servants. It also shows the extent to which women like Frances supported the members of her household in improving and extending their reading. Now if only I could find the list of her library.
 Archaeologica Cambrensis (1861), p.110.
 Giovanna Ceserani, ‘Narrative, Interpretation, and Plagiarism in Mr. Robertson’s 1778 “History of Ancient Greece”’, Journal of the History of Ideas 66, no. 3 (2005): 413–36.
 Jan Fergus, ‘Provincial Servants’ Reading in the Late Eighteenth Century’, in The Practice and Representation of Reading in England, ed. James Raven, Helen Small, and Naomi Tadmor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 202–25, 204.