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Special Collections Spotlight

Some of the most interesting finds in our Special Collections are featured below!

12 June 2017

Alexander John Scott - Nelson's secret agent

Bust of Alexander John ScottVisitors to the Upper Library might be forgiven for not noticing that on the windowsill in the bay furthest from the river on the south side sits a bust. Those who do see it may wonder ‘Who was A.J. Scott?’.

Alexander John Scott was born in 1768 and came up to St John’s as a sizar (one of the less well-off students who undertook some duties in return for their board and tuition) in 1786. His career  at the College was somewhat chequered. Whilst a proficient classicist, he applied himself far more to his social life than mathematics, and ran up debts. Fortunately his talent for languages was recognised by the Dean, and he escaped rustication. He left St John’s with a BA in 1790, and went on to ordination, taking up a position as Chaplain on a seventy-four gun ship of the line the Berwick, a post which gave him opportunity to develop his linguistic skills, learning Italian, Spanish, and German. These abilities were soon put to good use. Appointed chaplain to Admiral Sir Hyde Parker’s flagship the St George in 1795, he became the Admiral’s secretary, translating intercepted mail and newspapers. Voyages to the Baltic in 1801 allowed him to add Russian and Danish to his portfolio.


After a spell in the West Indies, in 1803 Scott became Nelson’s  chaplain and spent the next two years on the Victory in the Mediterranean. During his time in Nelson’s service, Scott was paid £100 a year in a private capacity, apparently serving as a spy. When enemy vessels were captured, officers interrogated, and mail intercepted, Scott would be called upon as an interpreter and translator. A collection of some 450 or so letters taken by the Victory, mostly written in Spanish and dating from 1804, remained in Scott’s possession, and were later deposited in the College Library by Scott’s grandson. They had been stored in the deep pockets of the armchairs which Scott had had in his cabin aboard ship. Some of the intercepted letters

The intercepted mail is mostly private correspondence concerned with family matters, though there are some official communications with Spanish government departments. The letters are described at collection level on the Janus catalogue, but have not yet been fully catalogued to item level.  If anyone with Spanish language skills would be interested in volunteering to help catalogue these letters more fully, please get in touch with the Special Collections Librarian.


Scott was present at the Battle of Trafalgar, spending most of the battle in the cockpit amongst the wounded, a scene he later described as ‘like a butcher’s shambles’. When Nelson was brought in, suffering from the musket shot that was to prove fatal, Scott remained with him, administering what comfort he could. He accompanied the Admiral’s body back to England and sat with it while it lay in state at Greenwich.

Nelson's funeral carriage 

After Nelson’s funeral, Scott did not return to naval life. He served the remainder of his career as a clergyman on dry land, first at Southminster and then at Catterick.

The bust was given to the College in 1935 by Scott’s grandson, R.A.A. Gatty.

This article was contributed by the Special Collections Librarian. 

24 April 2017

Going to the polls

Those casting votes in the general election on 8 June this year will have a reasonable expectation that their vote is confidential, but this has not always been the case. It was not until the Ballot Act of 1872 that parliamentary and local government elections were conducted by secret ballot. Until that date, votes were cast openly, with potential for intimidation and bribery of voters. Public polls made it possible for poll books to be published, listing the electors within a constituency by name and indicating which way they cast their vote. Several such poll books survive in the Library’s collections, and they provide a fascinating insight into the politics of the day.

Poll book for Cambridge University 1807

From 1603 until 1950 Cambridge University had its own parliamentary constituency, whose electorate consisted of the graduates of the University. Before 1918, only male graduates with a PhD or MA could vote. The University was entitled to return two Members of Parliament.

The poll book featured here is from the collections of James Wood, who was Master of the College 1815-1839. Wood had a particular interest in this election, not just because it was a constituency in which he had a vote himself, but his recent former pupil, Viscount Palmerston (later to become Prime Minister), was a candidate. Having already studied at Edinburgh for three years, Palmerston entered St John’s as an undergraduate in October 1803. He spent eighteen months at Cambridge, receiving his MA three years later without examination as was the privilege of noblemen. He first stood for the University seat unsuccessfully in the by-election of 1806 following Pitt’s death.  

Palmerston as a young man







In the general election of 8 May 1807 Palmerston and Sir Vicary Gibbs were the Tory candidates, while the Earl of Euston and Lord Henry Petty stood for the Whigs. The poll book for the University constituency is organized by College, and gives a clear picture of the political preferences of each. It is no surprise to see Palmerston as the most popular candidate amongst members of his own College, particularly as St John’s tended to lean more towards a Tory position. Euston and Petty were both Trinity men, while Gibbs had been a Fellow of King’s until his marriage. 

Votes cast by St John's and Trinity

It was to be a very close contest. The electorate appears small by modern standards, though was by no means unusual for the time, members of the University Senate comprising 983 individuals, 631 of whom participated in the election, casting a total of 1211 votes in all. Euston received 324 votes, Gibbs 312, Palmerston 310 and Petty 265.

 Results of the election

The results of the election: the University returned one Whig and one Tory MP in 1807. 

Postscript:  Having so narrowly failed to secure one of the University seats, Palmerston was returned the following day for Newport on the Isle of Wight, a pocket borough whose electorate of 11 aldermen and 12 burgesses could readily be persuaded to support a recommended candidate as one of their two Members of Parliament. 

This article was contributed by the Special Collections Librarian.

10 February 2017

By the Windward Passage

Poly-Olbion title page.

Michael Drayton’s poem Poly-Olbion offers a descriptive journey through England and Wales; its first part was published in 1612, its second in 1622. The poem’s twenty-first ‘song’, one of that second edition's new pieces, makes reference to Cambridge, first in the summarising argument:

The Argument of the one and twentieth Song.'Now from New-market comes the Muse,

Whose spacious Heath, shee wistly views,

Those Ancient Ditches and surveyes,

Which our first Saxons here did raise:

To Gogmagog then turns her tale,

And shewes you Ring-tailes pleasant vale.

And to doe Cambridge all her Rites,

The Muses to her Towne invites.

And lastly, Elies praise shee sings,

An end which to this Canto brings.'


It might be missed through the large amount of syntactic inversion that the female figure throughout this argument is ‘the Muse’: Cambridge is ‘her Towne’, and she invites ‘the [other] Muses’ to join her there. While Oxford is described in the fifteenth song as also welcoming ‘all the Muses’, it is not taken as being home to any of them; and it is notable that in William Hole’s illustrations to the poem, the two are depicted rather differently.


If a value judgement is implicit in this difference, it is difficult to know which location is being favoured; it is notable that the nakedness of the lactating Cambridge figure positions her as emphatically female, as prompted by the text: ‘In womans perfect shape, still be thy Embleme right, | Whose one hand holds a Cup, the other beares a Light.’ Positive as this superficially is, one would be justified in finding something reductive here: as in the representation of Great Britain (sadly not ‘Polly Olbion’) on the title page, the ‘perfect shape’ of the woman-city or the woman-country is objectified through being mapped.

That said, Drayton and Hole’s conflation of the female body and the geographical location is inoffensive in comparison to a rather seedier item in the Library’s collections: a 1741 printing of Thomas Stretzer’s pamphlet A New Description of Merryland.

A bound collection of pamphlets.Merryland title page.

Bound with eight other items (including a verse description of Bristol and a guide to women’s ailments) in a volume bequeathed to St John's by Fellow and physician Thomas Gisborne, A New Description of Merryland is something of a sleazy cousin to Poly-Olbion or to More’s Utopia: part of an eighteenth-century pornographic niche, it is a description of the female human body as if it were a geographical and cultural landscape, with particular reference to a specific region.

A basic summary of the pamphlet might be: human beings have genitalia, and that’s hilarious. There are some decorative flourishes, as Strezter considers Merryland’s name, geology, climate, population and so forth, but the joke is what it is. If the basic premise sounds amusing, the entire text is worth a read if only as an endurance test; in all seriousness, any reader who finds the idea fundamentally distasteful might wish to stop reading this Spotlight now, before the liberal quotation begins.

This is from the introductory stages:

'Know then, courteous Reader, soon after my first Entrance into this wonderful and delightful Country (having as prying a Curiosity as most Men) I endeavoured to get the best Insight that was possible into every Thing relating to the State of Merryland […] Among other things I made very accurate Observations both of the Latitude and Longitude, and may venture to say, there could be no considerable Mistake in my Observations, as they were made with a proper Instrument, of a large Radius, and in perfect good Order; nay, I have been assured, when I was in Merryland, that my Instrument was inferior to none: but some Years later, happening to be there again, and repeating the Experiment I found both Latitude and Longitude increased many Degrees, tho’ I tried in the same Spot, and with the same Instrument as before.'

That Stretzer, about whom not much is known, published the book initially under the name Roger Pheuquewell should confirm suspicions that he was familiar with the notion and value of subtlety but unwilling to let it govern his life. Once a reader has noticed the pamphlet's conceit, the entendre barely qualifies as double:

'The Climate is generally warm, and sometimes so very hot, that Strangers inconsiderately coming into it, have suffered exceedingly; many have lost their Lives by it, some break out into Sores and Ulcers difficult to be cured; and others, if they escape with their Lives, have lost a Member. [...] There is a spacious Canal runs through the midst of this Country, from one End almost to the other; ’tis so deep that Authors affirm it has no Bottom. I have often founded it in many Parts, and tho’ I don’t doubt but it has a Bottom, I must own I never could reach it; perhaps, had my Sounding-line been a few Fathoms longer, it might have reached the Bottom.'

Tedious as this is on one level, on another one might bring oneself to admire Stretzer’s tenacity or temerity as he plays variations on his obvious theme. In discussing different facets of Merryland (whose associated place names include 'Lba', 'Cltrs' and other such scrutable inventions), he manages to acknowledge various biological and social roles performed by women's bodies by and men's relationship with same, altering his approach as his chapter headings permit or demand.

Merryland contents.

Here he is, for example, on pregnancy:

'Among the Rarities, may likewise justly be reckoned that wonderful Mountain on the Confines of Merryland, which at some Seasons begins to extend its Dimensions both in Height and Bigness, and increases its Bulk so considerably, that it is esteemed one of the most admirable Works of Nature […] There are two other pleasant little mountains, called Bby […] on the Top of each is a fine Fountain, that yields a very wholesome Liquor much esteemed […] they seldom fail to run plentifully after the Swelling of the other Mountain aforementioned, and they have in some Degree the same Faculty of rising and falling[.]’ (28-29)

On contraception and abortion:

''Tis a lamentable Thing for a Man to have a large Crop, when his Circumstances can't afford Houses to keep it in, or Thatch to cover it; to let it perish would be infamous, and what can a poor Man do? for he can't dispose of it immediately, it must be kept several Years at great Expence to him, before 'tis fit for the Market, or capable of making the least Return for his Labour and Expence. [...] This Peculiarity has put some People on inventing Means to prevent the Seed taking Root, or to destroy it before it comes to Maturity; but such Practices are only used by Stealth, and not openly approved of; it is looked on as a bad Practice, and we are told it was formerly punished with Death.'

On prostitution:

‘And for Merchandizing, the great Wealth arising from Trade in some Provinces is a plain Proof and Demonstration that Traffick is carried on in Merryland with great Success.'

On incest:

‘One remarkable Custom of the Natives is, that the moment they come into the World, they leave the particular Spot they were born in, and never after return to it, but wander about till they are 14 or 15 Years old, at which Age they generally look out for some other Spot of Merryland, and take possession of it the first Opportunity; but to enter again in that Part they were born in, is looked on as an infamous Crime, and severely punishable by Law; yet some have been hardy enough to do it.'

There is satire of sorts, just about audible over the sound of Strezter slapping himself on, one trusts, the back:

'We have had Ministers, who preferred its welfare to that of their own Country, and Bishops who would not be displeased to have a small Bishoprick in Merryland.'

Indeed, for all the supposed focus on the female anatomy, matters pertaining to the Instrument remain of predictable importance to the author, who, in this extract discussing a particular creature fond of the Merryland canal, also implies some autobiographical detail:

'They are of different sizes, from six to seven or eight Inches in Height, when full grown, and from four to six in Circumference; there are some indeed of much larger Dimensions, but very rarely to be met with; and there are others much less, but they are of little or no Value; those of a middling Size are observed to be more lively and vigorous than the larger Sort, who like the Grenadiers in a Regiment, are not able to make so long and frequent Marches as the Battallion Men, the latter being for the most part better set and nimbler, as being furnished with a greater Plenty of Spirits.'

As the pamphlet continues, the author - or 'the author', if this is Stretzer writing as Pheuquewell and building up a comic persona - becomes more opinionated:

‘Merryland may be said to be entirely under Female Government, there being an absolute Queen over each particular Province, whose Power is unlimited; no Tyrants ever having required a more servile and blind Submission than the Queens of Merryland. [...] There are numberless Instances of the vast Power of these Queens, the Conquests they have made, and the many cunning and crafty Methods they have used to obtain their Ends […] Few of these Queens but have some Favourite or prime Minister, and when they are well satisfied with his Abilities and Behaviour, they will suffer themselves to be governed in a great measure by his Advice; but alas! there are some, who, tho’ they have abundance of able Ministers, will never be ruled by any of them, are always varying and changing, turning out their greatest Favourites, for no other Reason in the World, but to shew their Power, and gratify their inconstant Tempers, admitting a new Favourite every Day, as if Variety was their greatest Delight.’

Strezter/Pheuquewell is unimpressed with how unimpressed women have been with him. This means, happily, that he can speak from experience when giving relationship advice. He has found it important, when travelling to Merryland, to bide one's time and pick one's moment:

'But if you find rough and tempestuous Weather, as sometimes happens at touching at Bby, and the Tide strong against you, it is best to lie-by, till the Storm is appeased, and a fairer Prospect offers of a prosperous Voyage; nor should you be discouraged by every little Squall which you may meet with at this Place, for generally these Squalls, tho’ they seem violent at first, soon blow over without much Damage.’

 In his view, alternative travel arrangements have little to recommend them:

‘There are people who […] incline sometimes to go about by the Windward Passage, but this I do not so well approve; in some Circumstances indeed it may be convenient but I believe it is commonly done more for sake of Variety than Conveniency.’

 And he believes that, while one should aspire to anchor well upon arrival, one must also be realistic:

‘The chief thing is, to beware of anchoring in foul Ground; for here is some much gruffer than others, and a great deal so very bad, that it will soon spoil the best of Cables; the sandy or grey Ground are not good to anchor in, the brown is best, in my Opinion: But as People cannot always have their Choice, they must be contented with such as they can get.’

Perhaps they must.

In the Cambridge portion of Poly-Olbion, Drayton has the (female) River Cam speak up for poets, and against their detractors:

'My Invective, thus quoth she, I onely ayme at you,

(Of what degree soe’r) ye wretched worldly crue,

In all your brainlesse talke, that still direct your drifts

Against the Muses sonnes, and their most sacred gifts,

That hate a Poets name, your vilenesse to advance,

For ever be you damn’d in your dull ignorance.

Slave, he whom thou dost thinke, so meane and poore to be,

Is more then halfe divine, when he is set by thee.

Nay more, I will avow, and justifie him then,

He is a god, compar’d with ordinary men.'

Drayton and the Cam hardly have in mind Strezter's brand of prose, or even such versified bawdiness as (Johnian) Thomas Nashe's The Choise of Valentines. And yet Drayton's feminising of geography arguably has the disadvantage of being less self-aware than Stretzer's version of same. Cognizance of one's failings does not excuse them. Knowing that one is writing degrading material does not eliminate the degradation. But does it lessen it? If a writer is knowingly reductive, objectifying, pornographic, is the resulting work defensible insofar as it is direct about the realities of its enterprise and of its audience's demands?

'Give me those Lines (whose touch the skilfull eare to please)

That gliding flow in state, like swelling Euphrates,

In which things naturall be, and not in falsely wrong:

The Sounds are fine and smooth, the Sense is full and strong,

Not bumbasted with words, vaine ticklish eares to feed;

But such as may content the perfect man to read.'

One might feel far from perfect when reading Stretzer's pamphlet. That the sense is 'full and strong', however, is hard to deny.

An excerpt from Merryland.

This article was contributed by Adam Crothers, Library Assistant, who would like to point out that this is only the second of his Spotlights to talk about pornography in any detail.

3 January 2017

Drinking on the job (an exercise in palaeography)

January: for many, a time to look back on the indulgences of the festive period with fondness and regret, and commit (verbally at least) to a punishing regime of exercise and abstinence. Thankfully (or unfortunately?) these days we answer only to ourselves; though our closest acquaintances might encourage us in our health-seeking endeavours, they are unlikely to stand over us and crack the whip, and we can revert to bad habits without fear of admonishment or physical interference. For Dorothy Alington’s employees life was not so easy. Consider this letter from the College Archive (D94/40), penned by Dorothy to the College physician, Pierce Brackenbury, sometime in the latter half of the seventeenth century:

As with any document, before we can appreciate its (in this case somewhat surprising) content, we first have to decipher the text. For documents produced by hand, this is an exercise in palaeography – the study of old handwriting. The following transcription of the text follows the standard convention of transcribing exactly what is written – retaining the original’s spellings and punctuation, indicating where text has been inserted or positioned above the line, placing square brackets around any text that has been added at the transcription stage (for the sake of readability, as in ‘d[r]inke’), and italicising letters that were omitted through the author’s use of standard abbreviations.


For Dr. Brackenberry

at St Johns Colledge

in Cambridge. this present


Good Dr. I would beg the favour

of you to order me a Dyat-d[r]inke,

for me to make for all my servants

to drink a draft of in the

morning. in Ale. wch may purge them

3 or 4 times in the day & not

hinder them from there imploy-

ments. I suppose you will putt

Seney & Rubard in it. but I leave

it to you to order as you thinke

fitt. but let it not be a charga-ble

one. if you pleas to order Mr Raper

to send ye Ingrediance & likewise

how it must be orderd you will

oblidge her that is most really

                Sir Your humble servant

                                Do. Alington

If it be not to[o] great a trouble to you I

should be glad to know what you have don[e]

with father Frances.


Until the latter half of the sixteenth century most documents were created by scribes, who were trained in the use of standard ‘scripts’ (styles of writing). ‘Set’ scripts, in which the individual letters are formed from separate strokes or elements and therefore appear not joined up, are generally easier to read than ‘cursive’ scripts, in which letters are formed with continuous strokes and attached in natural (improvised) ways to their neighbours. Compare, for example, the set hand known as ‘Textura quadrata’ in this late-twelfth-century psalter from the Library (MS K.30) with the ‘Secretary’ hand in this fifteenth-century receipt from the Archive (D56/179):


By the seventeenth century the use of standard scripts for fixed purposes had dropped off, and more people were writing for themselves than relying on scribes. Although handwriting starts to look more ‘modern’ or familiar in this period, it can be more difficult to decipher than older hands because there is no standard or archetype to use as a guide.

Dorothy Alington’s freestyle hand isn’t the easiest to decipher; some of her letter shapes are poorly or inconsistently formed, and she deploys a variety of abbreviations and contractions. For example, in the address panel we find this curious formulation:

When deciphering unfamiliar hands, from any period, it helps to make comparisons within the document. So, though we might not be able to tell immediately from the context what these words are, we can deduce that the first letter is a ‘t’ because it has the same form as other initial ‘t’s in the document, such as ‘them’ and ‘there’ in line 7:

and ‘to’ and ‘thinke’ in line 10:

and ‘that’ in line 15:

So the first word is ‘this’. What about the second word? An undated, typed transcript filed alongside the original document transcribes the word as ‘please’ – but, following the strokes made by the pen, it is clear that the letter forms on the page do not correspond with the letter shapes required to make ‘please’. You can see what looks like a looped ‘l’ in the second position, but if this was an ‘l’ then the letter before it could not also be a ‘p’. Here, a bit of palaeographic knowledge can help. In medieval documents, a range of special symbols were used for the letter ‘p’ to create shorthand for the frequently occurring Latin prefixes pre, par, per and pro. A loop back through the descending part of the letter indicated the omission of ‘ar’ or ‘er’, so that a word such as persons could be written ‘psons’. Likewise, a loop extending backwards from the lobe (the round part) of the letter denoted the omission of ‘ro’, and a loop extending upwards from the lobe indicated the omission of ‘re’ or ‘ri’. These examples are taken from the Bodleian Library’s online palaeography guide:


       particulers                                        persons                                  proportion                                presume

In the word we need to decipher, Dorothy seems to have created a cursive (joined up) version of example four, looping back through the lobe of the ‘p’ to indicate an abbreviation, then continuing straight on to the next letter. So the ‘p’ in our second mystery word stands for ‘pre’.

The next letter is presumably an ‘s’, similarly formed to those in ‘suppose’ (line 8), ‘Seney’ (line 9) and ‘most’ (line 15):


‘Most’ also helpfully demonstrates that the final letter of the mystery word above is another ‘t’ – similar to the one at the end of ‘servant’, which appears in the polite formula before the signature:

This example points nicely to the penultimate letter of our mystery word: ‘n’. It is more cramped than it is in ‘servant’, but the movement of the pen is essentially the same, making the second mystery word ‘present’. Either she is referring to the letter as a present (noun) ‘For Dr Brackenberry’, or she is instructing the courier to present (verb) the letter to the addressee. There’s no way of knowing!

Another common abbreviation Dorothy uses is ‘Yo’ for ‘Your’ in the line before the signature:

This dates back to medieval times, when a supralineal (i.e. written above the line) squiggle was used to indicate a missing ‘ur’ – as in these examples from the Bodleian:


       our                          discourse,

A further hangover from the medieval period is Dorothy’s use of ‘ye’ for ‘the’ in line 13:

Contrary to popular belief (and an array of charming shop signs around the country), archaic forms of English did not use ‘ye’ for ‘the'. This confusion originates with ‘thorn’ (Þ, þ), a character in the Old English, Gothic, Old Norse and modern Icelandic alphabets that indicates ‘th’ and that when handwritten loosely resembles the letter ‘y’. When printed type was introduced to England from the continent in the late-15th century, typesetters did not have access to the thorn character, as it wasn’t used in Europe, so they deployed the closest character – the ‘y’ – in its place.

Dorothy’s spelling and capitalisation are idiosyncratic (‘Brackenberry’, ‘Colledge’, ‘Dyat’, ‘imployments’, ‘Ingrediance’), though this is no indication of her intellect or ability; standardised spelling didn’t take hold in English until the nineteenth century, when dictionaries became widely available, and prior to that words were spelled phonetically and spellings varied in line with regional accents. She also deploys some specialised, or perhaps local, vocabulary to anticipate the ingredients of the wondrous diet drink. ‘Seney’ could derive from the French senevé, denoting ‘mustard seed, or Senvy seed, whereof mustard is made; also, the herb that bears it’, as defined in Johnian Randle Cotgrave’s A French and English Dictionary (London, 1673; first published 1611). Alternatively it could indicate senna, now widely known as a herbal laxative. ‘Rubard’ is presumably rhubarb. [Shakespeare fans may here recall Macbeth (V.iii.55-56): 'What Rubarb, Cyme, or what Purgative drugge/ Would scowre these English hence?' - where 'cyme' is assumed to be an error for 'cynne', denoting senna.]

We might take a moment to appreciate the evidence that this 17th-century doctor provided a personalised service to the community, answering individuals’ wacky requests at least occasionally on a pro bono basis. Brackenbury was licensed to practise medicine in 1662 and received the degree of M.D. in 1665; he was a Fellow of St John’s from 1656 until his death in 1692. The College Archive holds no further information on Dorothy Alington, nor on the fate of her unsuspecting servants. Perhaps they were revivified by their employer’s thoughtful intervention and went on to live long, industrious lives. As for Father Frances – we can only wonder at what the ‘Good Dr.’ did with him.

This article was contributed by Rebecca Watts, Library Projects Assistant.

10 October 2016

Commonplace books

Commonplace books were used from early modern times as a useful way to record information. Essentially hand-written scrapbooks, they could be filled with items of every kind: quotations, poetry, letters, summaries of sermons heard or books read, prayers and proverbs, tables of weights and measures, legal formulas, mathematical calculations, anything, in fact, that the writer wished to have recorded for future reference. In 1706, the English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke wrote a manual on how to arrange material in a commonplace book, suggesting topics by which items could be categorised, such as love, politics, and religion.

The Library has quite a few examples of commonplace books dating from the early seventeenth century onwards. Descriptions of them can be found here on the listing of post-medieval manuscripts on the Library's website. Some volumes are thematic, dealing largely with theological questions, or legal matters, or university affairs. Others are more wide-ranging and give an extraordinarily personal insight into the preoccupations of their authors. We feature a selection in this spotlight.

Extract from Alexander Bolde's commonplace book (MS S.34)

Alexander Bolde, a Fellow of Pembroke College, kept a commonplace (MS S.34) in around 1620. He recorded a selection of themes in it, Latin and English verses, Latin letters, speeches, medicinal recipes, epigrams, and anecdotes, largely on religious topics. His commonplace book was given to the Library in the eighteenth century by the Johnian antiquarian and ejected Fellow, Thomas Baker.

John Allsop was born in 1668. He originally entered St John's as a sizar, continuing at the College as a Fellow. His commonplace book (MS S.17) dates from around 1688. Many of the headings in it have no entries, and around half the book is blank. However, in blithe disregard of the headings, he made a series of notes on Cicero's De Natura Deorum and kept a history of key events since the Creation. These are followed by highly abbreviated lists of books bought, drafts of letters, short themes, and fuller accounts of laboratory experiments, together with abstracts of Descartes' principles. There is also a composition 'The Maids Deniall'. The volume ends with an incomplete index.De natura deorum, the Tantony Pigg, and Cartesian principles from MS S.17.

An anonymous commonplace (MS K.38) of a similar date contains a typically wide variety of items in Latin and English. An incomplete account of the trial of the Earl of Strafford sits alongside some Latin exercises and a burlesque speech, evidentally copied from a source that was not wholly legible, as gaps have been left. An address delivered by Bishop Corbett to the clergy of Norwich in 1634 is followed by a list of suitable books for a young scholar's library and directions for theological students. Notes on civil law for clerics, a bibliography of socinian literature and some theological questions in Latin complete the volume. Guidelines for establishing a library, from MS K.38

Thomas Holdway began his commonplace book (MS O.71) in 1734. In it he kept a record of memorial inscriptions, largely from graveyards in Hampshire. Manuscript exercises in arithmetic with examples of mercantile calculations occupy about 50 pages. Other content includes music for psalms, poetry, and recipes for medicinal cures. 

 Calculations, monumental inscriptions, music and recipes, from MS O.71

George Whittington kept his commonplace book (MS O.73) from around 1796 through to 1805, covering his final years as a pupil at Eton, through his time at St John's, where he matriculated as a Fellow Commoner in 1799, until 1805, the year he gained his LLB. His commonplace gathers together epigrams and witticisms, poems and speeches, a list of books to get, and a record of books 'read for instruction & amusement at Leisure times accompanied with other Memoranda interesting only to the Owner' which gradually develops into a brief journal of sorts. The volume also includes the minutes of a College debating society, and a travelogue of a continental tour taken in 1802-3.

 A parody and a reading list, from Whittington's commonplace (MS O.73)


A commercially produced commonplace book (MS W.25)

In 1800, commercially produced commonplace books, complete with a printed six-page introduction on their utility and use, were available. William Whytehead used one of these (MS W.25) to record personal entries on many different subjects. Notes on architecture, law, politics, death, freedom, travelling and wit are all included. He records literary quotations in both Latin and English, a list of paintings and pictures, dog Latin phrases, a list of recommended English and European historians, Greek memoranda, epigrams, riddles, Yorkshire dialect words, etymology, and hymns. William Whytehead was admitted to St John's in 1788. He gained his bachelor's degree in law in 1794, and entered Gray's Inn the following year.

 Paintings, useful phrases, and hymns noted by Whytehead (MS W.25)

This article was contributed by the Special Collections Librarian. 

19 August 2016


It is three hundred and fifty years ago this September since fire broke out in a bakery in Pudding Lane and swept through the City of London. Contemporary publications in the Library’s collections reveal the extent and impact of the Great Fire. One which shows the sheer scale of the fire most graphically is a map of the city Platte grondt der stadt London produced by Marcus Willemsz Doornick in 1666.

Doornick's 'Platte grondt der stadt London'

Doornick was a Dutch mapmaker, based in Amsterdam, known for his well-illustrated surveys of the history and topography of his home city. The speed with which his map appeared, and the fact that the explanatory text accompanying the map was provided in Dutch, French, and English, suggests that there was a wide popular market for  Great-Fire-related documents. His map is detailed, listing the individual streets and public buildings affected. Buildings left standing around the outskirts of the city are drawn in the three-dimensional  bird’s-eye view typical of maps of the day. The area destroyed by fire stands out in stark contrast; a mere outline of the streets being all that remains following the devastation, presaging the two-dimensional overhead view familiar from the modern streetmap.

Part of Doornick's map, showing the area destroyed by fire.

Accounts of the fire rapidly appeared in print, including some in poetic form. John Dryden’s Annus mirabilis, The Year of Wonders 1666 was published in 1667. He describes each stage of the conflagration: the streets crowded with people running with buckets of water and using fire engines, Extract from Dryden's poem 'Now streets grow throng'd...'

the ease with which the fire leapt across the narrow streets, Extract from Dryden's poem 'The fire, mean time, walks in a broader gross...'

and the deliberate destruction of buildings to create a fire break: a strategy which finally brought the blaze under control.

 Extract from Dryden's poem 'He sees the dire contagion spread so fast...'

Doornick’s map is on display in the Archives Centre from 24 August to 28 September (open to visitors on Wednesdays and Thursdays), along with fascinating documents from the Archives revealing the impact of the Great Fire on the College’s seventeenth-century London properties. 

This article was contributed by the Special Collections Librarian.

7 June 2016

A direct, immediate, and obvious purpose


In the Gatty collection in the Lower Library is a copy of Donald Walker’s 1834 volume British Manly Exercises. Claiming to be the first book to describe the procedures of rowing and sailing as exercise, and the first of its kind to encompass the riding and driving of horses, the book is notable both for its delicate illustrations and for the charm of its prose.

First title page.Second title page.

Walker is plainly of the belief that nothing is worth doing unless it is done well, and he applies this principle to his writing as much as he expects people to apply it to their exercise. It is no great surprise that the book advertises a forthcoming treatise by the same author on the matter of literary composition: if writing a letter, for instance, is as common an occurence as going for a walk, there is no justification for either of them being done sloppily.


At points, the style seems as efficient as the workouts should be. Some activities are described with the dry precision of a (dry) dictionary: running 'is precisely intermediate to walking and leaping’, balancing is ‘the art of preserving the stability of the body upon a narrow or a moving surface’, and climbing is ‘the art of transporting the body in any direction, by the aid, in general, both of the hands and feet’. ‘Art’, however, is a key word in the latter two definitions: these things are not to be done artlessly, and are not being described as such either, as the author’s voice opens up to allow for tangents, observations, complaints, exaggerations, humour. True, Walker claims to value ‘useful exercises’ over ‘mere pastimes’, and to be divulging entirely sober and practical information:

‘All exhibitionary and quackish preparatory exercises , as they are termed, are here excluded; and nothing is introduced which has not a direct, immediate, and obvious purpose – no tick-tack, cross-touch, kissing the ground, goat’s jump, spectre’s march &c.’

So much, a reader might think, for goat's jump. But one need not spend much time with the book to understand that at least as a stylist, and probably also as a sportsman, Walker is actually all for the flourish and the personal touch, as long as it is in service of an effective piece of work and provides no obstruction.

‘No exertion should be carried to excess, as that only exhausts and enfeebles the body. Therefore, whenever the gymnast feels tired, or falls behind his usual mark, he should resume his clothes, and walk home.’

This warning against excess could be tidily recast as advice to writers, who probably shouldn't have had their clothes off in the first place.

Balancing.The mariner's compass & plan of the deck.Swimming - attitude.

And the information goes beyond mere technical direction. The reader is steered away from swimming in ponds, for example, as the sea is far preferable, while the skating chapter gives information on how to save the lives of those who have fallen through the ice. In the section on horses, meanwhile, Walker digresses on the role of the coachman, noting that improvements in roads have reduced the necessity for, and as such the number of, people skilled in this matter.

The parts of the horse.

‘When in town, says a writer in the “Sporting Magazine”, I sometimes take a peep at the mails coming up to the Gloucester Coffee-house; and such a set of spoons are, I should hope, difficult to be found: they are all legs and wings; not one of them has his horses in hand; and they sit on their boxes – as if they were sitting on something else.’

The rein-hold.

In the discussions of wrestling and boxing, the notions of the ‘British’ and the ‘manly’ are most enthusiastically explored, and Walker is as opinionated as he gets (which is to say, quite). He says of wrestling:

‘In England, its rules have been rather restricted. On the continent, they have admitted not only what has here been deemed more or less unfair, but what is positively so, as well as what is unseemly and disgusting.’

The heave.

And, in praise of the civilised nature of British (especially, predictably, southern English) boxing conventions,  he refers by way of contrast to the ‘inhuman fights’ that take place in the United States, and to Ireland, where,

‘owing to ignorance of the generous rules of boxing and the spirit it inspires, a man who conceives himself aggrieved by another does not scruple to waylay him, and murder him with a bludgeon or a pitchfork, or to set fire to his cabin, and burn him or his family in their sleep.’

Quite. Boxing (which he includes 'as the most valuable exercise in relation to the chest and lungs, and, in case of emergency, for self-defence, but by no means in approval of prize-fighting') is 'really useful to society as a refinement in natural combat’. Jonathan Gottschall has written more recently, in his 2015 book The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch, that bouts of refereed violence allow people to 'work out conflicts and thrash out hierarchies while minimizing carnage and social chaos'. Dated as Walker's title is, the concepts explored in its more philosophical portions remain relevant. 'Manly' isn't an unqualified reference to swaggering machismo: Walker is thinking about the ways in which properly physically exercising one’s manliness – or, let’s say, one’s humanity – can involve keeping elements of it at bay.

By the same author.

This article was contributed by Adam Crothers, Library Assistant, who’s generally a bit hotter on literary style than on wrestling holds.

19 May 2016

College Baths

Once situated behind New Court, the St. John’s College Baths were a welcome addition to the College when they first opened in Michaelmas Term 1922 – though they were by no means appreciated by all. For some Fellows, such as physicist and mathematician Sir Joseph Larmor (1857-1942), a bathhouse seemed an unnecessary expense and luxury for students when the shortness of the eight-week university terms was considered. Initial resistance to the idea of a bathhouse certainly appears to have been strong enough to cause some delay in obtaining the approval for them. In his memoirs, G. G. Coulton remembers how, at a College dinner one evening shortly before the Baths were completed, the Master remarked how well the Honorary Fellow, George Downing Liveing (1827-1924), had done in having lived long enough to have “witnessed the introduction of railways, electric telegraph, motors, aeroplanes”, adding that it was now hoped that he also would “‘live to see the baths at St. John’s’”.[1] Liveing did indeed live long enough to witness the construction of the bathhouse on the site of his old Chemical Laboratory (originally constructed in 1853), though history does not record whether he had any opportunity to visit the Baths himself!

The circular shown here, issued by the Junior Bursar and dated October 1922, indicates the rules and regulations which must be observed by visitors to the Baths. Crucially, the bathhouse should be used members of the College only. Members of other colleges were not permitted, though occasional visiting guests from outside of Cambridge could be introduced by special application to the Bath Attendant for a charge of 6d. (including towel). The exception to this restriction was in the case of a visiting sports team from Oxford or elsewhere, who could enter the baths without charge. Opening hours during Full Term were from seven o’clock to ten o’clock in the morning and from four o’clock to half past seven in the evening, with the exception of Sundays, when only morning opening hours applied.

Once inside the Baths, guests would receive complimentary soap and bath brushes. While men living in College were expected to bring their own towels, those living in lodgings could obtain a towel from the Attendant for a charge of 2d. Perhaps anticipating some level of untidiness, the circular stresses that soiled towels should not be left in the bath-rooms or in the dressing-boxes of the spray-baths (showers), but placed in the appropriate basket. Bath-rooms 4 and 8 were reserved for Fellows’ use only. A changing-room for members to keep their sports clothes was also available and open daily from 1.45pm. Each member would receive an allocated peg and shoe rack on application to the Attendant, and any clothes left overnight would be “dried and brushed ready for the following day”. Use of this changing-room cost 8/- a term.

In his memoirs, the theologian and Master of St. John’s College, 1959-1969, John Sandwith Boys Smith (1901-1991) recollects that the new bathhouse was “a well-designed building”,  accessed via B Staircase, New Court, with “both baths in cubicles (two reserved for Fellows) and showers with dressing cubicles”. An undergraduate at St. John’s from 1919 to 1922, Boys Smith himself narrowly pre-dated the bathhouse, and yet struggles to recall what most students did in its absence. For his own part, Boys Smith “regularly had a cold bath in a flat circular bath in my bedroom”, since he had

[…] grown accustomed to cold showers at school at Sherbourne, and had grown up in a country vicarage where there was no hot water system and hot water had to be carried upstairs. But the [College] Kitchen would, at a cost of 6d., send up a large can of hot water to rooms.[2]

Sadly, very few images of the College Baths remain. Following the increase in student numbers post-1945, the bathhouse was demolished in the early 1960s along with the collection of workshops, storerooms and squash courts which formerly stood at the back of New Court to accommodate the construction of the Cripps Building (1966-1967). Nevertheless, the above circular helps us to imagine what a trip to the College Baths might have been like and offers an insight into a small but significant part of mid-twentieth century College life.

                                                                            Back of New Court, with the College bathhouse on the far left-hand side.

This article was contributed by Eleanor Swire, Information Services Graduate Trainee, 2015-2016.

[1] Coulton, G.G. (1943), Fourscore Years: An Autobiography. Cambridge University Press. P.p. 97-98.

[2] Boys Smith, J.S. (1983) Memories of St. John’s College, Cambridge: 1919-1969. Oxford University Press. p.17

26 April 2016

This year we’re off to sunny Spain.

Early in the Easter Term, with the prospect of examinations approaching, and a tough few weeks ahead for those studying hard, it’s good to be able to think of more relaxing things. The summer holidays are really not so very far away, and the thought of enjoying oneself in warmer climes is very appealing. Thanks to a new acquisition for the Library – a photograph album commemorating St John’s College Choir School’s holiday to Vigo in Spain in June and July 1925 – we can share the delights of such a trip. This small, leather-bound ring binder contains 74 black and white photographs, each measuring just 55 x 79 mm, carefully labelled with locations and descriptions.

Back in 1925, a holiday to Spain meant a train journey to Liverpool to catch a boat. In the case of the Choir School, the boat in question was the steamship ‘Darro’. When there weren’t other vessels to watch, the voyage could be enlivened with games of deck quoits or deck tennis, until views of the Spanish shore came into view.

 The Outward Journey  Pastimes on board  Views of Vigo

The boys enjoyed typical holiday activities, exploring many local sites around Vigo and Santiago, and bathing in the sea.

 Exploring Vigo  Seabathing

They crossed the international bridge from Spain into Portugal, and went sightseeing there too, visiting Tuy Cathedral, before embarking on the “Aroya” for the voyage home.

Crossing from Spain to Portugal  Sightseeing in Tuy  The homeward journey

While the locations and activities on the photographs are beautifully labelled, the individuals concerned are not identified. If anyone has a relative associated with the College Choir School in 1925 and recognises any of the people featured in these photographs, the Library would love to hear from you.

Do you recognise any of these people?

A full description of the contents of the photograph album (together with the other albums in the Library’s collections) may be found on the Janus catalogue.

This article was contributed by the Special Collections Librarian. 

5 April 2016

F(l)inders Keepers

Title page of Matthew Flinders' 'A Voyage to Terra Australis'

One of the larger items in our Special Collections, the “super-oversize” atlas accompanying Matthew Flinders’ epic Voyage to Terra Australis, is not taken out regularly for exhibitions. For one thing, it is rather too large to fit in any of the display cases, and for another, the acidic ink used to print the large scale charts prepared by Flinders from measurements made by himself and others is starting to degrade the paper.

However, it played an important part in the history of Australia, as Flinders in this work consolidated all recorded  discoveries along the Australian coast line and produced charts which went on to be used by the Admiralty for much of the nineteenth century. In fact, it could be argued that Voyage is one of the most important works on early colonial Australia prepared, as it not only gives us the first accurate shape of the Australian mainland and surrounding islands, but also provides important historical and social details about life in Australia for both settlers and indigenous people at a period when the colony of New South Wales was beginning to expand.

The Johnian connection to this important document comes from the passages referring to Captain William Bligh. Flinders served with Bligh on the Providence on a voyage to Tahiti, two years after the infamous mutiny on the Bounty which left Bligh alone in the Pacific Ocean in a 7 metre long boat. Despite this situation, Bligh was able to navigate to Timor and along the way made observations of the coast of Australia. Flinders relates these observations in his introduction covering prior discoveries along the coast, which can be seen below. Bligh’s cousin, Reginald Bligh, a clergyman, was admitted to St John’s in 1797 and was a Fellow from 1802 to 1833, having more success in holding office than Captain Bligh did with his ill-fated governorship of New South Wales for a year and a half between 1806 and 1808.

Account of Captain Bligh's journey in the Bounty's launch

As previously mentioned, Flinders’ charts were drawn up using some of these earlier measurements of the coastline, all recalculated by Flinders to conform to his own compass and latitude and longitude. This results in some accurate, highly useful, as well as really quite attractive charts, which contain not only measurements but also occasional notes on the maritime history of Australia.

This chart of part of the coast of Queensland is an excellent example of this. On first inspection, it appears to be a relatively ordinary chart displaying the latitude and longitude of the different points on the coast including sandbanks and reefs.

Chart of the coast of Queensland

However, a closer look reveals that these are not just any reefs, but part of the Great Barrier Reef on which the HMS Endeavour under Captain Cook struck in 1770, requiring extensive repairs. Flinders’ understated commentary does not quite do justice to the drama of the situation, which required all members of the crew to man the pumps and ensure that the ship was not sunk.

Detail of chart showing the place where HMS Endeavour struck a reef

The same chart also records Bligh’s path in his seven metre boat towards Timor, a remarkable piece of maritime and naval history.

Detail of chart showing Bligh's route in the Bounty's launch

Flinders’ expeditions made him one of the first people to circumnavigate Australia, and he and his friend George Bass, with the discovery of the Bass Strait, proved that Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land, was not connected to the Australian mainland. Flinders himself was not only an accomplished commander, but also took all the measurements for his personal charts himself, and attempted to popularise the use of the term Australia over the more clunky Terra Australis. He was also a noted lover of animals, having a particular fondness for a ship’s cat named Trim who accompanied him on his expeditions in the Investigator, Porpoise and Cumberland, as well as for the first part of his six-year imprisonment by the French at Mauritius, also detailed in this account. His importance to the history of Australia is commemorated with several towns, capes and other important landmarks named after him. Despite this, he is often less well known than other explorers such as Cook and Tasman, and deserves to be recognised for his incredible achievements.

This article was contributed by Felicity French, Library Graduate Trainee 2015-2016.