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Books and Bombs: how Senate House Library continued to expand in wartime

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On the 80th anniversary of D-Day, Curator of Rare Books and University Art Karen Attar explains how Senate House Library continued to expand during the War.

During the Second World War Senate House Library acquired fewer academic books than usual. Fewer were being produced, as academic publishers both at home and abroad were ploughing much of their output into the war effort. German academic publications – the most important foreign ones - soon became unobtainable. However antiquarian books flowed in as gifts and purchases - among them some of the Library’s oldest and rarest items.

England's Reformation by Thomas Ward 1747
Detail from England's Reformation (1747)

One of the most notable gifts came from the library of Frederick Stroud Read, a UCL graduate who served as the Warden of the University of London Union. He died on 11 June 1941, aged 48 – not many weeks after his flat in the Union building had been destroyed in an air raid. 

It is blissfully easy to see how Stroud Read’s book collecting developed, as he wrote his name and the place and date of acquisition in each book. He started young. He was still a teenager and a schoolboy when, in Staplehurst in 1910, he acquired a fat duodecimo edition of Petrarch’s popular De remedius utriusque fortunae (‘Remedies for fortunes’; Lyons, 1585). It is a collection of 254 Latin dialogues on moral philosophy: good and bad luck, the wheel of fortune, reason, joy, pain and how to behave in adversity and prosperity. Not that Stroud Read is likely to have thought too much about the subject matter; for him, the glory was presumably in owning an antiquarian volume.  

Petrarch was possibly the first book Stroud Read acquired, but it is not the earliest printed book in his collection. That honour goes to an edition of Virgil edited by Badius Ascensius (Lyons, 1517), a prominent French Renaissance scholar and printer who edited and printed numerous Latin classics. The three thousand books Stroud Read went on to amass extend to the twentieth century, ranging in format from pamphlets to multivolume works. Travel, especially pertaining to Greece and Turkey, is prominent amongst the subject matter. 

Other subjects include theology, ranging from a Methodist hymn book of 1782 to a French Koran of 1718; both common and the obscure literature of various countries – especially verse and drama – in the original languages and in translation; history from antiquity to the First World War; philosophy, like the Petrarch; biography; a little heraldry; topography; painting; politics (most notably contemporaneous documents about the Popish plot); and some emblem books. 

Most of the books were in English or French; others were in Latin, Italian, and German, with a few in Dutch. Stroud Read purchased most of his books in London, as his main adult place of residence. But he bought books wherever he happened to be, such that they mark events of his life. For example, Stroud Read was serving with the British Red Cross in Ypres in April 1915 when he acquired Vie de madame Louise de France, religieuse carmélite (Brussels, 1793) by Liévin Bonaventure Proyart. He provided some biographical information about the author in this volume: tangible evidence of his research into his books, their provenance, authorship and place in book history.

Some of Stroud Read’s books were rare. Fénelon’s Télémaque had first appeared in Italian translation in Leiden in 1704. Stroud Read owned the third Italian edition (Venice: Luigi Pavino), apparently the only recorded copy in any English-speaking country. Based on the 1701 French edition of Adriaen Moetjens, it is dedicated to the Venetian naval hero Andrea Cornaro, who had thwarted a Turkish attack on Corfu in July 1716. Stroud Read bought it in January 1939. Some books are sheer fun, such as Thomas Ward’s popular, if unfinished, poem England's Reformation (from the Time of K. Henry VIII to the End of Oates's Plot (London, 1747), written in burlesque:

When Old King Harry youthful grew, 

As Eagles do, or Hawks in Mew, 

And did, in spite of Pope and Fate

Behead, Rip, and Repudiate

Those too-too long liv’d Things, his Wives,

With Axes, Bills, and Midwives Knives:

When he the Papal Power rejected,

And from the Church the Realm dissected,

And in the Great St. PETER’s Stead,

Proclaim’d himself the Church’s Head.

When he his antient Queen forsook,

And buxom Anna Boleyn took,

Then in the Noddle of the Nation

He bred the Maggot, Reformation.

Had Stroud Read lived to old age and then donated or bequeathed his books, they would have been a welcome addition to the Library, but not a wartime connection. As it was, their link with the War is strong. When the University of London Union was bombed, some books were damaged and others burnt. The University Library mended those it could. Stroud Read’s widow Charlotte stored the rest in forty large tea-chests. Their bulk was an encumbrance. In June 1942 she asked the University Library to store temporarily books intended for University and King’s Colleges and to take the books intended for it, to keep, give away, or sell as it pleased:

“I feel that I must know that I can leave the books somewhere in a safe place because I cannot house them myself. When I say ‘safe’ I do not mean from bombs – But from damp and pilfering.”

Correspondence between Mrs Stroud Read and the Library illustrates wartime conditions. “I shall be coming to the Senate House, MoI [Ministry of Information] doorkeepers permitting, at lunchtime on Tuesday,” wrote Mrs Stroud Read on 27 June 1942 (my italics).

Frederick Stroud Read, over eighty years on, we are sorry that your life was cut short. And we thank you for your legacy.

Karen Attar

Curator of Rare Books and University Art, Senate House Library