At the beginning of August I took on the role of New College Collections Curator looking after the archives held at New College Library and in the Centre for Studies in World Christianity (CSWC). As the CSWC archives rooms were essentially out of action during the festival, the Rainy Hall being a Festival Fringe venue, I spent my first month concentrating on acquainting myself with the archives in New College Library (NCL).
As inevitably happens with archives, almost as soon as you are trying to establish the facts around your collections you find yourself with questions. So it was in my third week of work.
The Rev Thomas Chalmers (1780 – 1847) is a mighty figure in Presbyterian Church history and his collection of papers is no less substantial than the man himself. The first Principal of New College, his papers (ref GB238 CHA) contain correspondence with many individuals, including notable figures of the era; family papers dating back to the 18th century; sermons and lectures. There are also several boxes marked as an Appendix to the collection. Within one of these boxes are photocopies noted as having been taken from records belonging to a descendant of Thomas Chalmers. Intent on finding out who this descendant was and where the originals of these documents might be now, I set about searching the records of New College Library itself (ref. GB238 AA2) to see if there was any mention in minute books or correspondence about making and receiving these photocopies.
This proved to be a useful exercise in itself as I was able to get a sense of how the Library operated, key points in the history of the collections, and the sort of cataloguing work that had been done on the manuscripts during the twentieth century. Gleaning the names of different members of staff over the years – Mrs Margot Butt seems to have become the expert on Thomas Chalmers – I was quickly able to start scanning documents for them, which was why I gave a start when my own grandfather’s signature, as bold as the man himself, jumped out at me from some correspondence. The second surprise came when I realised that he had written to the Library on behalf of my father (ref. GB238 AA.2.1.108).
As the images above show, it transpired that in the late 1960s when my father was a missionary in Kenya, he had a colleague, called Simon, who used a particular book to help him while evangelising. He had noticed that the book was falling apart, pages were missing and the covers torn and so he wanted to get him a new copy but all he had to go on was part of the title page. He sent this fragment to my grandfather (incidentally a New College graduate) to see if he could find out what the full title was and if a new copy could be purchased. My grandfather duly wrote to the New College Librarian and the enquiry resulted in success with contacts in London being able to identify the book: The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, by Samuel Bagster. From a note on the first letter it seems that the Librarian actually visited my grandfather but whether they were friends or he just happened to be in the vicinity I’ll never know. My father has no recollection of the matter although he does remember Simon. For me it was quite touching to encounter my late grandfather and be reminded of my own father’s characteristic thoughtfulness amidst a completely different quest altogether.
As for the Thomas Chalmers photocopies and originals, I eventually discovered records of the Thomas Chalmers Bicentenary Exhibition, which Margot Butt had prepared in 1980, along with the name of not one but twenty-one descendants and discussion on the disputed inheritance of his papers (ref. GB238 CHA Appendix 5). A blog for another day.
Kirsty M Stewart, New College Collections Curator