While researching the rare book collections of two of Lancashire’s historic libraries Dr Cynthia Johnston, a lecturer in the history of the book at the Institute of English Studies, discovered an intriguing album of correspondence from members of Charles Dickens’ family and a sheet of notepaper with the outline of a plot.

Through generous funding from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, associated with Yale University, and the Society of Antiquaries, I have been researching three rare book collections held by the Harris Museum and Library in Preston and Blackburn Public Library in Lancashire.

The Harris holds a collection of more than 500 private press books, assembled with public funds for educational use in the town by Harris librarian, Joseph Pomfret (1878–1944), and the John Henry Spencer Collection of three parts: chap books, late Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature and the work of the Preston-born Victorian poet, the Catholic mystic, Francis Thompson. While Pomfret came from a middle-class background, Spencer (1875–1952) was born into poverty. The census finds him working as a child in various jobs in the Preston mills but rising through the virtues of the free public library and night schools to retire as a chief clerk in charge of foreign language accounts for one of the large mills.

The Blackburn Library contains the rare book collection of James Dunn (1857–1943), a draper and an autodidact, who left school at 14 to join the family business in the centre of the town. Although his means of self-education have not yet been discovered, Dunn developed a passion for collecting rare books, contemporary art and ceramics. He taught himself French so that he could better negotiate with Parisian booksellers (travel being one of his key interests). This also came in handy while ‘tramping’ through North Africa.


Courtesy of Blackburn Public Library, James Dunn Collection

Philip Crompton, a volunteer at the Blackburn Public Library who is assisting me with my research on Dunn, recently discovered that he and Robert Edward Hart, Blackburn’s best-known bibliophile, were acquainted. Differences in class, education and religion made their friendship unlikely. Dunn’s collection contains some 500 items with a book historical arc similar to the RE Hart Collection held by the Blackburn Museum. The collection has some medieval material, rare incunabula, an impressive collection of French 18th-century prints, private press material as well as historical documents and two autograph manuscripts from the immensely popular ‘pulp Methodist’ writer, Silas Hocking.

However, perhaps the most intriguing item in the James Dunn Collection is an album of correspondence between some members of Charles Dickens family and a contemporary writer, Percy Fitzgerald. Among the letters is a sheet of notepaper from Dickens’ home, Gad’s Hill Place. On it is written the outline of a plot. This undated draft begins, ‘A lonely man, goes down to cathedral town. Family there- girl (gentle) and ill-conditioned youth. Youth has a great lawsuit.’

Although this beginning reveals typical Dickensian tropes, Professor Michael Slater, a senior research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, has determined that the handwriting is not that of Dickens. The question is, just whose hand is it, and can anyone identify the plot? Professor Slater is currently working on an article destined for publication in The Dickensian, which may help identify both the hand, and the plot itself.

On 19 July, I participated in the Burlington Courtyard Lates event, where researchers sponsored by those resident in the Courtyard such as the Royal Academy, the Linnaean Society and the Royal Geographic Society, presented their research to the public.

For this event, I was extremely fortunate to have the support of the actor, Nikolas Grace who donated his fee to the IES’ Sambrook fund and agreed to read a transcription of the ‘Gad’s Hill plot’ for a short film produced by ‘imotion’ and arranged by Kris Tetens at the School of Advanced Study.

Stephanie Curran, Oliver Clegg and Helen Grubin, three IES History of the Book students, provided support during the showcase, which ran for 6 hours, by taking questions from the 600 members of the public who visited the event at the Society of Antiquaries.

The culmination of this research will be an exhibition sponsored by the Mellon Foundation at Blackburn Museum. ‘Holding the Vision: Collecting the Art of the Book in the Industrial North West’ opens on 31 January 2020.

Dr Cynthia Johnston is lecturer in the history of the book,  MA/MRes in the History of the Book course tutor, and associate research fellow at the Institute of English Studies (IES), School of Advanced Study, University of London.