Briggs and a little book

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Traveling in the online era

The first time I came to England, my mother made reservations by post to let a small flat in Kensington. There were letters, back and forth, on onion skin paper, sent in airmail envelopes with blue and red dashes at the edges and lots of postage. She also sent letters to people there she knew, letting them know we were coming and arranging visits and tea.

Today, I decided that since I was early for my train from Midhurst to London, I’d have time to go to the British Library this afternoon. I paid for my train ticket by sliding my credit card into a machine, a card that does not charge a foreign transaction fee and has a chip so British machines can read it (we don’t have Contactless yet in America, as I explained to a Bus 60 driver). I got on the train, took out my laptop. I prepared to tether my Pixel so I could get a connection, but it wasn’t necessary – free wifi took a minute to connect. I went to the British Library website, logged in with my credentials, discovered that the book I want could be ready in 70 minutes, and made a request to see it today in Humanities Room 1.

I then texted my wonderful friend Jane using my international phone pass. Jane is teaching in London, and we arranged for dinner and late museum tonight.

I interrupt this story for a 20 minute lecture by HG Wells on how communication patterns are bringing the world together in 1931:

And throughout history with the development of roads and more efficient writing, with money as a means of commerce, the development of shipping also, you find the signs of communities increasing. And in the last hundred and fifty years there has been an enormous development in the facilities with which men can get at man. We have passed from the semaphore to the electric telegraph and the wireless. We have passed from the stage coach on the muddy high road to the aeroplane and the swift steamer.

And now we have passed into a world where communication is so fast that I can type a blog post about communication while on a train, put HG Wells himself in it, and have it public in minutes. (I can also ask that readers not be surprised by his voice – contemporaries noted it as “squeaky”, and I have decided — with help from my colleague Simon in Midhurst — that Wells’ speaking voice was not the source of his extraordinary appeal.)

Why the census enumerator crossed the road

Although the location of the house of Horace Byatt has been a mystery to me for some time, I might have seen things a different way by looking at old maps. I think, I really think, I’ve got it!

My visit to the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester had a few goals: find any records of the Midhurst Grammar School that might indicate which house the governors were leasing for Byatt, and look at old maps to see whether the location my students had guessed was a likely house in 1880. (I also hoped to find out about Mrs. Allin, but that’s much harder — it’s not like anyone collected the letters or diary of an ironmonger’s wife.)

While still in Midhurst, I looked across the street (literally) at a pink house that from the road looks like it’s in South Pond — it has the name South Pond Cottage on it. I walked past it on my way to the bus (turns out the closer stop is behind me — I’m so good at that.) The house looks really old. And I wondered: how was that house counted in the Census of 1880? (this is the sort of thing, of course, that people often wonder when looking at houses…)

Then I took one of my very favorite bus rides, from Midhurst to Chichester on Bus 60, the blue and green two-decker (£8 return – this is a wealthy area).

Arriving at the Records Office, I engaged in the usual formalities: leave a deposit for a locker key, fill out forms, present identification that shows my address (so they can chase me back to California if I steal anything), promise not to use pens or bring in liquid, etc. But the Records Office is also a nice place: tea and coffee, nice bathrooms, chocolate bars for sale (yes, this last does prejudice me in their favor, I admit).

I filled out a request slip for each of three items, because they can only bring you three at a time. Unlike the big libraries, you don’t have to wait. You choose a table and note the number on your slips, putting the slips in a clear plastic box. A wonderful quiet gentlemen retrieves the items when you’re not looking and brings them to your table. Then when you’re done, you put your items back on the counter and put more slips in the box.

While waiting for my order of all issues of The Midhurst Magazine and Midhurst Heritage, I looked at the shelves on local studies, finding several books on Midhurst. One was a very old “The Official Guide to Midhurst and District” (1915) with the cover detached and tied with string. It noted the school was reopened in April 1880 under Horace Byatt, but it didn’t say where he stayed in the meantime. There were also some books with old photographs. The magazines having quietly arrived, I looked through them. Many articles were by Bridget Howard, historian for the Midhurst Society. (I did not have to grieve that I’d been too cowardly to contact Ms. Howard – my landlady Sarah had done so on my behalf that morning, and although Ms. Howard was out of town, she was able to tell Sarah that she didn’t know anything about my mystery.)

Midhurst Heritage had a piece on Wells by a Lawrence Price, with nothing I don’t already know. It also had a completely unrelated item about there having been a mill at South Pond. The pond, in fact, is artificially dammed (which actual makes the strenuous efforts to reclaim it for nature kind of interesting). I thought what I always think when someone says “mill”: could it possibly have been a fulling mill? This was the area of my graduate work: medieval fulling mills. I can’t resist one. The magazine said that it was originally a corn mill. Foot fulling had apparently taken place near the stream leading to the river from South Pond (cue the usual shocked remark about fullers using urine — the acid broke down the fabric fibers, just like in Roman times). Apparently fuller’s earth was brought from Cocking, which I’d passed on Bus 60.Then in 1634, the “Lord of the Manor allowed a master clothier from West Lavingham to convert the South (corn) Mill.” There was a fulling mill here! No wonder I love this place. I made a special effort this evening, risking my life standing at the side of the road, to peek over the bridge and see where the weir pours water into the stream from the pond.

You can’t see evidence of old fulling mills really (it’s not like there are giant waterwheels dotting the landscape), so I journeyed back to the 19th century. While waiting for the school’s account books to be brought out, I consulted the head archivist, laying my case before her. I had brought the pages from the census of 1880 (with Wells’ name circled), and a copy of the map I made with the likely houses. She suggested more maps, and introduced me to Katie, who then spent much time pulling out large maps of Midhurst from various times and laying them on a gigantic table.

At first, I looked at these maps to see if they matched mine from 1895, the closest I’d been able to get to 1880 using the digitized Ordnance maps at the National Library of Scotland website. I was looking to see whether the little cluster of buildings on that map, the possible location of census record #89 as determined by me and my students, had been torn down, and therefore could perhaps have been a larger house in 1880. So we looked at maps from 1972 and 1985. The buildings looked different, but that just meant they’d been renovated recently, not that it was a big house in 1880.

But then I started thinking while looking. What if, just what if, that old pink house I saw at the pond were thought of as being located on South Street, rather than Chichester Road? The maps from 1972 and 1985 had the words “Chichester Road” south of the pond. I knew from the fulling mill information that the stream had been there then, which, as Katie noted, is a natural boundary. Now street names in England do change as you go along. The question is where that change took place, or rather where the census enumerator thought it took place. If, just if, the old pink house were on South Street, then the census taker could have crossed the road at the pond/stream bridge, and counted the pink house as record #87.

To the south of the pond, landlady Sarah assured me that those houses on the right side not only weren’t built till 1892, but that they are technically in a different parish: West Lavingham. And indeed, the map Katie brought out from 1874 did not show any houses south of the pond. It would have made logical sense, given the boundary of the pond/stream and the change of parishes, for the census taker to have turned around at the end of the pond.

If the census enumerator did count the pink house on the pond as #87, then record #88 is the big house on the corner (called South Pond House now and then, except in 1985 where for some reason it’s the White House). And #89, house of Horace Byatt and family and servant and a lodger named H.G. Wells, would be the house next to it.

Unlike the bizarre collection of little buildings immediately northward, this house (now 6 South Street) is the perfect size for that many people, and it’s nice enough to have been appropriate for a house leased by the Midhurst Grammar School to shelter its new headmaster while the school and his family’s quarters were being completed. It makes far more sense than the little buildings around the courtyard, even if all the buildings are intact.

It makes the commercial signage visible in the 1906 photo of King Edward’s visit, which I’ve been peering at suspiciously, irrelevant — those little buildings could indeed have been shops.

So after lunch (no document retrieval between 12.30 and 1.30, please) Katie got all the maps out again, plus an older map from 1840, and I looked for the pink house. Was it there before 1880? If so, it was there in 1880, because it was still there in 1897. Yes! It was there.

By this point the record books of the school had magically appeared at Table 17. I looked through the huge tome, the Midhurst Grammar School Cash Book 1877-1902. (I wish I had pictures, but a photo license cost £11 and I’m cheap.) On 25 January 1880, £10 was spent “in aid of allowance for Rent for Masters Residence”. Similar entries noted Byatt’s quarterly stipend, and one very interesting entry noted £5 for “Mr Horice [sic] Byatt for Prizes” after two £2 2d entries for “examination expenses”. Was this the money Wells earned by taking his exams? The entry for February 1883 indicated the examination expenses were for the College of Preceptors, so likely yes. But that rabbit hole had to be set aside for the moment. There was nothing about the location of Byatt’s house, there or in any of the other financial records. But it was worth checking.

Even without such verification, I’m pretty sure that Byatt, family, and Wells stayed at what is now 6 South Street. Nowadays, South Pond Cottage is definitely on Chichester Road (and worth over a million pounds, according to Zoopla, somewhat more than 6 South Street). But if I’m right, 6 South Street deserves a blue plaque to go along with the three Wells plaques in town: on the grammar school (now the South Downs Authority), on where he lodged in 1883 over the sweet shop (now the Olive and Vine), and on the chemist’s shop where he apprenticed (now a dentist’s office). And here it is:



Midhurst 2018

I have arrived in England, specifically to Midhurst to see whether I can solve some mysteries and, of course, enjoy the West Sussex area. Downtown last evening:

This morning I will venture to Chichester to the West Sussex Records office, to take a look at old historical society magazines and fine the photograph of Horace Byatt.

As a reminder, the two Midhurst mysteries are:

  1. Where did Horace Byatt, new Midhurst Grammar School headmaster, live? This was where HG Wells would have lodged with his family while the school was being rebuilt in the first half of 1881. (see here)
  2. Did Mrs Allin, the ironmonger’s wife, know HG and recommend him for an assistant post at the school when he returned in the fall of 1883? (see here)

For the first, I have walked the street again with my old map, and will keep looking at the houses. One biography says it “overlooked South Pond”, though that seems to be possible from several of the two-storey houses on South Street. I am staying across the road, on what is now Chichester Road (but could be seen as further South Street) at Two Rose Cottages with landlady  Sarah, who is being most helpful. We’ve determined it can’t be any of these houses, as they were built after 1890.




The British book trade and what’s missing

P. Meijer Warnars’ bookshop in Amsterdam, painted 1820 by Johannes Jelgerhuis

Weedon, A., & Bott, M. (1996). British book trade archives 1830-1939: a location register. Bristol: Simon Eliot and Michael Turner.

I ordered this book through interlibrary loan (the service I could not do without). It was rather smaller than I imagined, basically a bound photocopied book that listed British book traders and publishers.

Then I realized why it was small – I think people are missing. I couldn’t find a single educational publishing house or book trader, and I know that there was at least one. William Briggs had a bookshop for his press, W.B. Clive, out of the University Correspondence College, at 13 Bookseller’s Row in the Strand.

I ordered the book hoping to find other educational booksellers, and there weren’t any. So it occurred to me that what I was seeing with book traders might be true in other areas. I started to notice that history journals had few articles on the history of education, and that Victorian Studies journals didn’t either. History of education journals (I found two) had little written by historians.

In the article “Victorian Education and the Periodical Press” (2017), Janice Schroeder also noticed this gap. I recently became a member of the Research Society of Victorian Periodicals, and, as she did, search the huge volume (a freebie for new member) of the Dictionary of Victorian Periodicals. There isn’t much at all.

I honestly didn’t expect this. Why wouldn’t the history of education be like the history of anything else? Time to examine further…

Last stop Oxford

I have no idea why I like Oxford so much. I avoid George Street like the plague, would walk miles to avoid the toilets at the rail station, and head for the Eagle and Child only to end up at Itsu. But I know my way around, could spend all day at Blackwell Books and the Natural History Museum, count walking Port Meadow as one of my all-time favourite activities, and I love the Bodleian.

It’s silly to love a library. And of course, I’ve been there before. But it’s centrally located, unlike the Cambridge University Library, and they are so kind.

My library card had expired on June 22, so I had to do the application for a card over again. But they updated my card, upgraded my status so I could view a special collection, and gave me a new card, all in minutes. Didn’t even make me do another photo. Because my card had expired, they had permitted me to order everything I needed by email instead, and it was all ready for me.

Now, the Bodleian isn’t perfect. The card costs quite a bit. There was no trolley to haul my books, like I’d had at the British Library — it took me three trips from service desk to table. There was no drinking fountain conveniently located – it was down three flights of stairs. And their computer system did erase my entire e-cart when my card expired, forcing me to reconstruct my list the week before I left. But love is blind.

In the Weston (new) Library is the John Johnson Collection of ephemera, with Box 43: Education. This was why I needed special clearance. I arrive and was given the precious box, and told there was another (Box 45, apparently) waiting for me too. I was seeking ads or items about correspondence colleges. Many of the items were fragile, and this condition was not helped by their being taped to pieces of heavy paper. I managed not to tear or soil anything, and found gems like this:

Note the date, though: many items were from the 1930s rather than earlier. But I did found some, and I was happy, and I went up to ask for the other box, but was told I had to return the first one before I could have it. So I handed it to the librarian, and he got me the other box. This had more things about lower schools, rather than colleges, but had some interesting tracts on eduction, such as Illustrations of the Interrogative System of Education (1823) by a Sir Richard Phillips that recommended what we today would call “active learning”.

That’s when I packed up Box 45, stood up to turn it in, and realised I couldn’t find my library card. I looked all round my desk, and in my bag (they make you put everything you can bring inside a clear plastic bag – nothing was hiding). No card. I thought, “oh no! it got mixed up with these papers!”  I took every item back out of Box 45 first and sorted through every single page, carefully turning each item individually, but it wasn’t in there.

I thought, “oh no! Box 43!”. The librarian had kindly advised that I not declare that I was finished with a box until I was quite sure, so he’d kept Box 43 for me. I told  him he was right (but not why) and exchanged boxes. I carefully went through every single item in Box 43. No card. And here fate intervened, as another scholar went up to the desk to check out an item, and handed over his card, and said, “you keep that, then?” and the librarian explained that yes, they keep your card as long as you have a box out. It is a sign of how tired I was on this trip that I had forgotten he had kept my card.

Over at the Old Bodleian, where your card is swiped instead of held, I discovered that Bodleian librarians are quick with a knife.

One of the journals I’d ordered had clearly never been read, not since it was printed in 1888. I know this because the pages weren’t cut yet. At first I thought it was just one page, but there were many. After the third time bringing it to the desk so the librarian could cut one with a letter knife, he asked if I would like the knife so I could cut them myself? I told him I’d be terrified. I was quite sure that I, clumsy at the best of times, had no business slicing open 130-year-old pages. Thanks, though.

I found many advertisements I was looking for, and a photo I needed.

So why do I love the Bodleian?

Among the many other reasons is this: the windows.

Not only do they allow light in, but the staff still permits me to take items to the window to photograph them in the light. At the British Library, as I’ve complained to many people, they request that you don’t even stand up. The National Archives has camera racks, but if  you don’t have an old-style camera the rack just blocks the light. Cambridge is better, but the light is artificial.

But at the Bodleian the sun shines on your work. Worth the whole thing.


The wonderful National Extension College and what I found there

One could easily miss the offices of the National Extension College – and I did, several times. It is on the first floor of a cool building off a driveway next to Cambridge’s Homerton College, where I was staying.

Side note: I recommend staying at university rooms while doing research trips. They invariably have a tea setup, a comfortable bed, a private bathroom, and helpful people.

I was at the NEC to find out more about William Briggs, since the NEC is the new version of the University Correspondence College. The chief executive (Ros Morpeth, OBE) had hinted when I emailed in April that she might have boxes in an archive in the basement that might have something interesting.

As a historian, I have some experience with cardboard boxes in basements, so I anticipated the possibility of a dark cellar with enthusiastic arachnids, the smell of mold, and lots of dust. Cleverly concealed in my handbag were a dust mask and gloves. Despite the high temperatures (yes, another heat wave) I wore closed-toe shoes.

Instead I was provided with a friendly welcome, the coolest room in the office (with my own air conditioning machine) and clean old boxes stacked in the corner. Ros had already gone through them and pulled out everything related to Briggs, and put them on a big table. I was provided with a pitcher of water, and the lovely staff made sure the a/c was working. Around noon Ros herself brought me a sandwich and a custard tart. There were no arachnids in evidence, just one fly who came in to cool off.

There were several minute books from the 1930s, when the UCC was in full operation as the William Briggs Trust following his death, and the 1950s and 60s as it headed toward its demise. There was a copy of Anna de Salvo’s indispensable (and the only) book on the UCC, a draft of that book, and an unpublished article from that book put together by the editor, Helen Imam. Although there was nothing earlier than the 1930s, the minute books supported what I’d seen in Briggs’ will at the National Archives, and made it clear that the UCC became a charity only upon his death.

So I sat and read minutes. At first, the meetings were dull, setting up the salaries of the trust members and featuring the vague sort of business notes I see at my college meetings. The trustees were at first Briggs’ children. There is no mention of how the classes are doing, or who’s running anything. Each meeting they voted to politely thank the staff. In 1935, they decided to they would fix up the main building at Queen Anne Terrace when the lease expired (20 years later). Then the war happened, and in 1946 they met in London instead of at Burlington House in Cambridge, but were clearly prospering as they considered buying a building as freehold rather than leasing it. By then there was only one trustee named Briggs. In 1947 they returned to Burlington House and there were three.

In 1955, the year the lease was up, there was no mention of fixing up the building (de Salvo’s book said they just renewed the lease), and in 1962 there is an ominous thanks to the staff during a “difficult year”. Membership starts to shift. The minute book for the 50s clearly shows profits slipping, and an increasing number of years reporting a loss: £549 10s 10d in 1956, a profit in 1959, but then ongoing losses, and finally a transfer (via board membership) to the National Extension College. (Ros explained to me that educational charities, which is what the William Briggs Trust was, cannot be sold.) That same year, 1964, they had a net loss of £4787 0s 3d. They were selling off their bonds. Pensions were distributed.

A few years later the name hadn’t yet been changed as legally required, and there are complaints in the minutes, but other than that the UCC died quietly.

It wasn’t that they didn’t try. The June 1959 minutes show RR Briggs raising the question of continual losses, and wanting to expand the enterprise to cover other kinds of examinations, not just University of London exams. This would happen when he took over as chair after the retirement of CB Briggs (who had wanted to shut the whole thing down) in 1962. The trustees agreed also to continue spending on advertising and to stay open. But by the following year, the college publication, the University Correspondent, was losing subscribers and was too expensive to produce. They shut it down after discussing whether they should keep the name for copyright purposes, pointing out that the Educational Review had shut down but its name was taken by Oliver & Boyd.

It’s funny that reading the minutes I felt sad, both for the UCC and for the publications. I use both the University Correspondent and the Educational Review in my research.

The first minutes under new management contained a Progress Report, which was written in a more narrative style and considered all the problems they were dealing with. So many of the considerations are the same as we have now with distance education and education in general: the annoyance at having to consider finances, the difficulty with students who stop and start their studies, the necessity of offering some courses that won’t pay their own way.

I confess that I am also disappointed now that it is confirmed that William Briggs’ operation was clearly for profit. I have railed for years against the Nationals, Ashfords, and Phoenixes of our time. But, as Ros told me, it’s not just the good public enterprises versus the bad private enterprises: there is a third way: private, but self-supporting and answering a need. It’s what the UCC did then, and the NEC does now.

At this point, I need to look more closely at the thesis. If I’m going to say Briggs was answering a need, I need to prove that need. HG Wells can probably help me there, even if he can’t bring me water and a sandwich.


The British Library and the competition

Some of my research posts are password protected. Students, colleagues, and friends are welcome to email me for the password at

The National Archives: ’tis charity to show

Tuesday’s outing was to the Kew Archives and the British Library.

The National Archives at Kew had a mysterious entry for a William “Biggs” Trust, clearly associated with the University Correspondence College. When I inquired about it, I received this response:

The record series ED 39 is mostly concerned with school governance and trust funding of schools. The series home page explains more about the content of these files.

The National Archives holds historical records sent to us by central government departments and law courts for permanent preservation. Therefore it is unlikely we would hold many records relating to a private institution like the University Correspondence College. However, I would suggest contacting Senate House Archives or the Institute of Education Archive.

While they only held two folders, the contents were interesting. I am trying to find out whether the University Correspondence College was a not-for-profit charity from its inception. These documents, dated during the 1930s and the war, did not tell me that exactly. But they did include interesting papers. Following William Briggs’ death in 1932, his son Cecil took over the venture. Many of the papers are efforts to make sure that the UCC was filed as a charity, which involved both the Charities Commission and the Board of Education. There were sections from Briggs’ will setting up the trust (with his children as trustees) and ensuring it was to not be for profit.

So obviously Briggs, and his family, felt strongly about this, but I still don’t know whether the UCC was founded as a charity (I suspect it was, and that there were tax implications for doing so, as there are today). I do know a little more, however, about the process. A woman who was there doing genealogical research suggested the Charity Commission might have an archive.  And Kew is a lovely town.


Before I left, I asked if they wanted to correct their records – it’s the William Briggs Trust, not the William Biggs Trust. They showed me an online form where I could submit a correction. Apparently this happens quite a bit!



Quick research and holiday

I begin today on a quick research trip to England, serendipitously possible due to a change in holiday plans. Although I have a sabbatical trip planned in September for more research, I am taking advantage of the holiday to find out a few things related to the paper I’m presenting in October about the University Correspondence College.

I will begin on Tuesday at the National Archives at Kew Gardens, where I am seeking the papers of William Briggs, founder of the University Correspondence College in 1887. I have never been to the archives, but found online the papers of a William Biggs, which, despite the misspelling, seem related to the UCC. A previous email inquiry netted the response that it was all post-war records, with nothing of interest. But I want to see for myself.

Next stop will be the British Library. I want to take another look at Wells’ biology textbook. I now own the second edition, which has the drawings by Wells’ wife. But in the first edition Wells drew the diagrams himself, and was so bad at it that a second edition was in order. They also have issues of the Educational Times (the journal of the College of Preceptors and a place where the UCC advertised), plus something called The Practical Teacher.

Then I journey to Cambridge for a day in the archives at the National Extension College. This is the modern day revival of the University Correspondence College, and their archives have yet to be catalogued. But I received a generous response from the head of the NEC, Ros Morpeth OBE, who received the honor for reviving and energizing the NEC as a place where students today can study for their exams through distance education.

Then northward for more of a holiday, seeing the sites of West Yorkshire and doing some writing and visiting.

Last stop planned is the Bodleian Library in Oxford, featuring an issue of a journal called Education, which was only around for a couple of years in the 1890s before it morphed into something else. The main reason for going is the University Correspondent, the journal of the UCC, where I want to look at Briggs’ advertisements, and Box 43 of the John Johnson Collection, where they say they have some ephemera related to correspondence colleges of the era.

All in a week and a few days, and all while teaching summer classes online. Look for lots of cups of tea ahead!