A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
For many years I have been a trustee of the oldest (probably) public lending library in England. Founded in 1701 as the Reigate Publick Library, it is now known (after its founder) as the Cranston Library. The library, containing around 2400 books, is located in the same room it has always occupied, a tiny space above the Vicar’s vestry in Reigate Parish Church. It is a miraculous survival in the history of libraries in Britain. (For our worldwide readers, Reigate is a small town about 20 miles south of the centre of London.) It is not the earliest public library in England (Lambeth Palace and Chetham’s Library slug that one out). It may not have been the earliest lending library – others may have informally allowed books to be lent – but it is the earliest lending library with rules and policies, and as such is an early forerunner of the public libraries we know today.
Our impromptu theme this week, and encouragement from Bookfox Kate, caused me to reflect on how far this library embodies the positive contribution of incomers to the community. This piece will contain some informal reflections; the full history of the Cranston Library is still emerging, especially now a team of volunteers is making a survey of all its content, taking note of the information it contains on book owners, donors to the library and the readers of its books.
The contribution of migrants starts with the library’s founder, the Reverend Andrew Cranston, Vicar of Reigate from 1697 until his death in 1708. We know very little of his early life. No firm records have been found of his birth or ancestry. We first know of him as a student of Edinburgh University in 1673, and an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, holding the parish of Greenock in 1681. He held on to it for less than a year, and left behind the religious tumults of Scotland for England in the mid-1680s. His brother James had preceded him, and was ordained in England in 1683. A number of Scottish Episcopal clergy, faced with the dilemma of the Test Act and their resistant congregations, came to England at that time, and there is a record of some of them in the list of donors to Cranston’s library. Scotland and England shared a monarch, but not much else at that time, so this was definitely a migration, these clergymen to be characterised possibly even as refugees as they removed themselves from religious turmoil to find a more tolerant environment for their views. (Although I do realise that from a Scottish perspective this situation would look very different, as they sought to establish their own religious standpoint). Cranston settled in Reigate (no-one really knows why), was parish clerk, and married the daughter of the Vicar. He gained his own living, Shepton Mallet in Somerset, though he was not a constant resident there. On the death of his father-in-law he took on the living of Reigate and relinquished Shepton Mallet. (Note that both Shepton Mallet and Reigate are prosperous country towns – the Revd Andrew Cranston in no way resembled the Perpetual Curate of Hogglestock, eking a precarious living in the back of beyond. He was valued and respected for his learning and talents). In Reigate he set about planning a library, gathering support and developing his ideas on its regulation, and on 14th March 1701 he founded it. He added a motto to the Tudor door of the room he had set aside for it: Animi Alimentum (Food for the Spirit).
The late 17th century was a time of great energy in the history of libraries in Britain. Parish and town libraries were being established in many places, supported by the dynamic innovators in the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (which would supply a ‘plug-in’ basic parish library, complete with book press, anywhere on request). Cranston must have brought down from Scotland the knowledge of local libraries, including earlier lending libraries. (An earlier, even more magnificent lending library dating from 1680 still exists in Scotland, at Innerpeffray, by Crieff.) Cranston’s library went further than the SPCK’s bare minimum. In his lifetime he collected around 1600 books in the Reigate Publick Library. He charmed and arm-twisted local inhabitants at all levels of society, visitors to the town and people in his wider circle to give books for his new library, or guineas, half-guineas and shillings that he spent himself. As well as the expected improving books of scripture, theology and devotion, approaching half the books he collected contained other branches of knowledge: history, law, classics in the original and translation, anatomy, astronomy and navigation, mathematics, natural history, and (most popular of all with readers) atlases, books of voyages and travellers’ tales.
Cranston’s Scottish colleagues in England also contributed to his library. He carefully noted the details of every donation, in a register and in the books itself, and in these cases he added the words ‘Scoto-Britannus’ to their names. All seemed to have fallen on their feet: Cranston’s brother was Rector of Hastings; the Revd. James Kirkwood, another renowned library pioneer, was Rector of Astwick in Bedfordshire; the Revd. Alex. Hay Rector of Heckingfield in Sussex; and the splendidly named Revd. Dr. Robert Bruce Vicar of that very pleasant and salubrious village just outside the City of London, Hackney.
Cranston’s library shows two great things: the breadth of his mind (the theological component of the library contains all church traditions and belief standpoints); and the measure of support he had in the community. He started off on a rather tactless note; his initial plan was to set up a library for his fellow-clergy in the Archdeaconry, because he was disappointed at their standard of learning. But he rapidly extended that vision into a library for the whole town, and his meticulous record keeping shows that he had enthusiastic support from all levels of local society, from the aristocracy to the tradespeople, and from men and women.
I will spend a much shorter time on another aspect of ‘316 years without us’. Print culture at that time was pan-European, if not wider. The English printing and book trade, centred on London and to a lesser extent Oxford, dominates the shelves of the library, naturally. However, the maps which fascinated readers so much were generally Dutch; anatomy books came from Antwerp. Explorers were international, and their accounts of their travels avidly anticipated and read. The 16th century theology that seems to have fascinated Cranston comes from Basle, Geneva, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Louvain. One donor, John Laker, shopkeeper and maltster of Betchworth, gave an enigmatic collection of 20 16th and 17th century books to the library, a mixture of science, medicine and Catholic theology published in Paris, Rouen, Toulouse, Leiden, Frankfurt, as well as London. This seems to have been an outward-looking and intellectually curious place, small provincial town though it was. It embraced an incomer as a leading member of local society, supported his endeavour to give them the means of learning about the world, and presumably broadened their own minds from his determination to engage with unorthodox thinking. Just two examples of this: the first two gifts he accepted for the library were a large Book of Common Prayer, and the collected tracts of the Quaker dissenter William Penn; and when the local Quaker community gained a powerful and articulate leader in Ambrose Rigge, Cranston corresponded with him about their doctrinal differences, accepted a gift of books from Rigge, then sent away for some anti-Quaker tracts to counterbalance them. He was determined that people should have the chance to read around a subject and make up their own mind.
So, I find myself constantly inspired by Andrew Cranston the migrant, his library and his vision for it, and the enquiring, intellectually curious little world he sought to create in a small English market town. One day without him = 316 years without the inspirational lessons of his library.
The ‘shelfie’ comes from The Cranston Library, Reigate