The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 4
Dec 2001

Disaster Recovery in 1731

Report from the Committee Appointed to View the Cottonian Library...[signed by] W. Whiston. Printed for R. Williamson and W. Bowyer, 1732


A Narrative of the Fire which happened at Ashburnham-House, Oct. 23, 1731, and of the Methods used for preserving and recovering the Manuscripts of the Royal and Cottonian Libraries.

On Saturday Morning October 23, 1731, about two o' Clock, a great Smoak was perceived by Dr. Bentley, and the rest of the Family at Ashburnham-House, which soon after broke out into a Flame: It began from a wooden Mantle-Tree's taking Fire, which lay across a Stove-Chimney, that was under the Room, where the MSS. of the Royal and Cottonian Libraries were lodged, and was communicated to that Room by the Wainscot, and by Pieces of Timber, that stood perpendicularly upon each end of the Mantle-Tree. They were in hopes at first to have put a Stop to the Fire by throwing Water upon the Pieces of Timber and Wainscot, where it first broke out, and therefore did not begin to remove the Books so soon as they otherwise would have done. But the Fire prevailing, notwithstanding the Means used to extinguish it, Mr. Casley the Deputy-Librarian took Care in the first Place to remove the famous Alexandrian MS. and the Books under the Head of Augustus in the Cottonian Library, as being esteemed the most valuable amongst the Collection. Several entire Presses with the Books in them were also removed; but the Fire increasing still, and the Engines sent for not coming so soon as could be wished, and several of the Backs of the Presses being already on Fire, they were obliged to be broke open, and the Books, as many as could be, were thrown out of the Windows. Some were carried into the Apartment of the Captain of Westminster School; others into the little Cloisters; whence, after the Fire was extinguished, they were convey'd into the great Boarding House opposite to Ashburnham-House, and upon Monday following, October 25, Leave being ob tained, they were removed into the new Building designed for the Dormitory of the West-minster Scholars.

The Right Honorable the Speaker of the House of Commons came down to Ashburnham-House, as soon as he heard of the Fire, to see that due Precaution was taken, that what had escaped the Flames should not be destroyed or purloined; and on Monday following the Right Honourable the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Raymond, Lord Chief Justice of the King's-Bench, and Mr. Speaker, being Trustees for the Cottonian Library, were all three at the Dormitory; and as great Numbers of the Manuscripts that remained had suffered exceedingly from the Engine-Water, as well as from the Fire, and were in danger of being quite destroyed, if some cure was not speedily provided; the Right Honorable the Speaker of the House of Commons appointed several Persons, some of whom are concerned in Offices, where Records as well of Paper as Parchment are lodged, to meet him October 28, at the said Dormitory, to consider what was proper to be done for preserving and recovering, as much as possible, the Manuscripts, which had so suffered; and they attended accordingly, and having viewed the Manuscripts, they went together, and drew up the following Paper, viz.

We, whose names are hereunto subscribed, having met at the Desire of the Right Honorable Arthur Onslow Esq; Speaker of the Honourable House of Commons, to consider of proper Methods for preserving the Manuscripts of the Royal and Cottonian Libraries, that have suffered by the late Fire at Ashburnham-House, have agreed upon the following Proposals, viz. I. That the Paper Books, that are stained, be immediately unbound, and put into the softest and clearest cold Water, that can be procured, till the Stains disappear, and then shifted into Water, in which Allum has been dissolved, in order to strengthen and fortify them; afterwards to be hung upon Lines till dry, and then bound again.

II. With regard to the Vellum Manuscripts, it is thought proper, that great Care be taken to separate those, that are damaged, from those that are not damaged; and that a farther Separation be also made of those that are damaged by Water, from those, that are damaged by Fire only; and that Care in the first Place be taken of those, that have suffered by Water, preferring, if possible, the most valuable, and most intire.

III. That the wet Vellum Manuscripts be very carefully turned over Leaf by Leaf; that they be

laid as strait and smooth with the Hand as may be, gently pressing each Leaf with a clean Flannel; and where the Wet has penetrated to the Backs of those, that are bound, that they be taken out of the Binding, and turned over in like manner; afterwards to be hung upon Lines, three or four Leaves together, frequently separating each Leaf, as well as those that are bound, as unbound, that they may not stick together.

IV. That the Vellum Manuscripts, which are closed together by the Fire, be separated with an Ivory Folder; that they be turned over Leaf by Leaf, and the glewy Substance which has been fried out upon the Edges, be taken off by the Fingers carefully, in order to prevent its infecting and corroding the rest, as we apprehend it will otherwise do; and that such as are so hardened, and shriveled up, as not to be legible in their present Condition, be softned by cold Water, in case no other Method more proper shall be found.

V. That the Fragments be also carefully cleaned and preserved.

Lastly, That a sufficient Number of proper Hands be imployed to proceed in the Work with all possible Diligence and Dispatch.

October 28, 1731.

ROB. SANDERSON, Usher of the Rolls.
JOHN LAWTON, Keeper of the Records inthe Exchequer.
GEO. HOLMES, Deputy-Keeper of the Records in the Tower.
JAMES STEWART, Clerk to the said Mr. Lawton.
W. WHISTON, Clerk to Mr. Lawton.
RICHARD BENTLEY, Library-Keeper to his Majesty.
DAVID CASLEY, Deputy-Librarian.

This Paper, which was delivered the Day following to Mr. Speaker, was shown to the Lord Chancellor, and Lord Chief Justice of the King's-Bench; and all three approving of the Method therein proposed, the three Clerks of the Record Office belonging to his Majesty's Court of Receipt of the Exchequer were directed by Mr. Speaker to assist Mr. Bentley and Mr. Casley in the Work, according to the Method proposed. A Book-binder also was imployed to wash and re-bind the Paper Books; and others were imployed in turning over the Manuscripts for the first

Week; the Number of Books damaged requiring many Hands at the first, that each Book might as soon, as was possible, be turned over, at least once, to prevent their mildewing and corrupting.

November I. The said Persons entered upon their Work. They made a Separation of the Paper Manuscripts from those of Vellum and Parchment, beginning with the wet Paper Manuscripts, that were intire, in the first Place; which were immediately taken out of the Binding, and put into Tubs of cold Water, then shifted into Allum Water, and afterwards hung upon Lines, and, when dry, were taken down, and with great Care and Pains collated; and the Leaves, that had been misplaced and transposed by the Operation, were restored to their proper Places again, and were then delivered to the Book-binder to be bound again. The Vellum Manuscripts were in like manner separated, the wet from those that had suffered by Fire only; and the wet were turned over Leaf by Leaf, and placed open upon the Floor for a few Days, and then taken up, and turned over again, and placed, as before; and this Method was in like manner repeated, till they were dry, and they were then put up into their respective Presses. Some that had suffered much by the Water, when they had been turned over once, or twice, and were found more likely to mildew and corrupt, than to be dried by such Process, were turned over and dried Leaf by Leaf before a Fire; and a very few were obliged to be taken quite out of the Binding, and hung upon Lines, two or three Leaves together, to be dried, the Water having so thoroughly insinuated it self into every Part of them, that they would have rotted sooner than become dry by any other Method.

Those that had suffered by Fire only were next taken in hand, and turned over Leaf by Leaf, as the wet Manuscript had before been; and the glutinous Matter, that had been forced out upon the Edges of the Vellum and Parchment by the Heat of the Fire, was carefully taken off by the Fingers, a few only excepted, and those of little or no Value; the glewy Matter having so cemented and incorporated their Leaves together, that they can hardly be separated without being torn and pulled in Pieces. The Paper Fragments were also separated from those of Vellum or Parchment. The former of these were washed, and hung upon Lines to be dried, as the Paper Books had been before; and the latter were turned over, and laid, as thin as might be, to expose them to the Air to be dryed, and, when dry, were several Times looked over; and the Pieces, that were Parts of the same Book, were laid together, as much as could be found; and the remaining single Leaves, or Pieces of Leaves, when it could not be found to what Book or Books they belonged, were put into Drawers to be kept safe.

All the Time this Affair has been in hand, the Right Honorable the Speaker of the House of Commons has been pleased, not only to order one or other of the Persons employed to attend him several Times a Week, to acquaint him with the daily Progress made in it, and to receive his Directions upon any Emergency, but has also visited the Dormitory in Person frequently, that he might see, that nothing was neglected or omitted, that could any way conduce to the Recovery and Preservation of what the Fire has left. And whereas there are two Originals of the MAGNA CHARTA granted by King John in the Cottonian Library, from one of which the Seal has long since been lost, or plucked off; and that, which has the Seal still remaining affixed to it, was greatly shrivel'd up, the Letters being contracted, Part of the Wax of the Seal melted, and one or two Words quite destroyed, and was so much damaged by the Fire, that there is Reason to fear, that some Parts of it will not much longer continue legible; Mr. Speaker was pleased to direct, that a Copy should be exactly taken from it upon Parchment, in a fair and durable Hand, and that the Words or Parts of Words which were eaten out by the Fire, should be supplied in red Letters from the other Original, and then procured it to be compared with both Originals by several Keepers of Records, and others versed in such Writings, to see that the Copy agreed exactly with the said Originals, i.e. Each Part of the Copy with its respective Original, and to testify such Agreement and Correspondence of the Originals and Transcript upon the Back of the Transcript; which was done accordingly December 18: and an Inscription was then also wrote upon the Back of the said Transcript, mentioning the Fire, and the State the two Originals of the Magna Charta were in at the Time of making the said Transcript; which is to remain in the Library ad perpetuam Rei Memoriam.

There having no way hitherto been found out to extend Vellum or Parchment, that has been shrivel'd up and contracted by Fire, to its former Dimensions, Part of several of the Vellum Manuscripts must remain not legible, unless this Desideratum can be supplied by any Person, which is therefore much to be wished; but it is hoped, that the Care, that has already been taken about them, will prevent their receiving farther Damage from what has happened to them.

A few of the Paper Fragments still remain to be examined; and such, as belong to the same Book, placed together; the main Part of them having been gone thro' in this Manner already, and thereby several large Portions of Books, and some entire Books have been made up out of them; and when this is done, it seems expedient, that each Book, or Portion of Book, so collected together, should be carefully collated, and the Leaves placed, as near as possible, in the same Order, that they were in before the Fire; and then such, as are thought worth being bound again, may be so served, and the Remainder put either into Covers or Drawers, according to the respective Subjects they treat of, that so the least Fragment may not be lost.

January 20, 1731/2

The Number of Manuscript Volumes, which the Cottonian Library consisted of before the late Fire, was 958: of which are lost, burnt, or intirely spoiled, 114, and damaged, so as to be defective, 98. So that the said Library at present consists of 746 intire Volumes, and 98 defective ones; of which a third Part has been preserved by the aforesaid Method; one hundred and upwards of them being Volumes of letters and State Papers, that have been quite taken to Pieces, washed and bound again.

Losses incurred in the fire are described in the following section. Only four of the descriptions of damage to books are included here.

B I.

An Account of such Manuscripts and other Curiosities of the Cottonian Library, as were destroy'd or injured by the late Fire at Ashburnham-House, taken by Order of the Committee of the Honourable House of Commons, appointed to view the said Library, &c. By David Casley Deputy Librarian, 23 February 1731.

VIII. Wants the four first Leaves.

IX.I. The three first Leaves of this are wanting.

I.2. But the last Leaf only of this Tract is wanting; and the four next preceding burnt at the Edges, and a Hole burnt through them.

XI. This before the Fire contained one hundred and four Leaves; but now has lost four of the last; and the rest are shrivelled up.

This text was offered for publication in the Abbey Newsletter by Chela Metzger and Olivia Primanis. The original book from which this was taken is at the Huntington Library (EPV-F 143453-58).

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