A 200 Year-Old Bibliography

Over the weekend I acquired a book that is exactly 200 years old this year. I’m always shocked at how cheaply it’s possible to buy literary antiques if you keep an eye peeled – I mean I have been known to send my credit card into a spin in an antiquarian book shop, but some of my favourite purchases have been less than a tenner – I mean – what other 200 year-old objects would fetch such low prices?

It baffles me why these beautiful artifacts are so little prized – so little so that if you go to ebay, there are pages and pages of ‘original prints’ – which are where people have wantonly vandalised books to strip them of the illustrations – the only parts that seem to command any kind of cash these days. In the process, huge amounts of knowledge are lost.

I never buy loose prints.

My particular find was cheap because it was a single volume from a long-lost set – the London part from the Middlesex Survey, 1810. Presumably it’s survived intact because it has no line drawings. It’s beautifully bound, in immaculate condition and every page is filled with charming facts – did you know, for instance, that “the richest grassland in the whole county is that of the Isle of Dogs, which has been lately reduced to 500 acres by the West India Docks”? The book spends three pages on haymaking in London, describing the embankments that were built up around the Isle to prevent the tide overflowing the grass – “it is kept sufficiently dry by sluices, which empty themselves into the Thames at low water.”

But the bit that has fascinated my most so far (I’m not very far into the book-proper yet) is the bibliography at the end. I have no idea if these volumes still exist – but some of the titles alone are precious.

Some are still widely used today – Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, for example. But whatever happened to Certaine Rules, Directions or Advertisements for this time of Pesitlential Contagion (which, apparently, contained a very useful caveat warning “those that weare about their neckes impoisoned Amulets”)? Or, indeed, Certain necessary Directions as well for the Cure of the Plague, as for preventing the Infection, with many easie Medicines of small charge, very profitable to His Majesty’s Subjects?

The Fire of London is a large subject. The History of the Damnable Popish Plot, in its various Branches and Progress, published for the Satisfaction of the present and future ages,” by the author of the Weekly Pacquet of Advice from Rome, for example, is, I am sure, a very balanced account. Or how about Jesuites Fire-Works; The Burning of London? And don’t you just love the irony of a book titled A narrative and Impartial Discovery of the Horrid Popish Plot? You could have also read Trap ad Crucem; or The Papists’ Watch-Word.

Natural disasters are well-covered. An Account of a Strange and Prodigious Storm of Thunder, Lightning and Hail, which happened in and about London on Friday, May 18, 1680, perhaps? Or A Short and pithie Discours concerning the engendering, tokens and effects of Earthquakes in general, (by Stukely, for all you Druids out there…) or another, rather more eclectically titled book about the London earthquake of 6th April, 1580, A Warning for the Wise, A Feare to the Fond, a Bridle to the Lewde, and a Glasse to the Good.

I find it hard to work out what else might be left to include in a book with a title as all-encompassing as A Full and True revelation of a dreadful Hurricane that happened on Saturday last, giving a true Revelation of several Houses that were blown down in and about the City of London, and Persons killed, besides several Trees blown up by the roots, and off in the middle; like wise of several Ships that were cast away at Seas&c. and of much Riches found near Deptford, with an Account of the Arches of London Bridge being Dry. (1701)

Ahem. Moving on, another book I would have loved to read is A Catalogue of most of the memorable Tombs and Gravestones, Plates, Escucheons or Achievements in the Demolished or yet extant Churches in London.

All London life is represented. Another candidate for the bestseller lists is Wonderful and strange Sights in the Element over the Citie of London and other places on Monday, being the seconde day of September, beginning betweene eight and nine of the clocke at night: increasing and continuing till after midnight, most straunge and fearfull to the beholders, and though I’m less sure about A Protestant Monument Erected to the immortal Glory of the Whiggs and the Dutch, if nothing else, I bet it’s a curious read.

Good Lord, I could go on for ages about those pages at the back of the Middlesex Survey. Perhaps a little investigative journalism – A Short and True Relation concerning the Soap Business? Or a whodunnit – Murder will out; or a clear and full Discovery that the Earl of Essex did not feloniously murder himself; but was barbarously Murthered by others, both by undeiable Circumstances and positive Proofs. Some reportage, maybe – An Account of the great Mischiefs done by the Mob on Tuesday 28th and Wednesday the 29th of May 1717, with a list of the killed and wounded.

Of course the chances of me actually tracking down many of these volumes is slim – not least because the bibliography doesn’t often mention who wrote them, or, indeed, when – but happily the titles are enough to make me thrill to the visceral nature of life 400-200 years ago.

Things weren’t so different then either. Another, undated, but at least 200 year-old book in the list bemoans the way everything’s changed for the worse round these parts – London, what it is, not what it was, or the Citizens’ Complaint against Public Measures, including A Remonstrance against the great Numbers of Shops &c. that sell Geneva and other drams to the Poor and the evil Consequences thereof.

Plus ca change.

8 Comments to “A 200 Year-Old Bibliography”

  1. Old China says:

    Great, I love old books and have myself often marvelled at how inexpensive they are. I can only assume collectors will soon catch on the market for these antiques will send prices rocketing and we'll all be kicking ourselves for not buying them when they were cheap.

    Often the biggest casualties of modern book vandals are old Atlas's. The pages of these old tomes are scalpelled out and sold seperately as they can make more money that way. Of course the original books are destroyed in the process.

    Anyway, where are the best second hand book shops in the area now? I used to like the shop that was in one of the alleys to the covered market but where another art gallery now resides. Also the fella who had a shop in the open air market. Both now sadly gone.

  2. The Greenwich Phantom says:

    I confess I usually find the immediate area a washout – hardly any secondhand bookshops and the local stuff is very poor or expensive or both (though I got a gem from the eldrery chap in greenwich market about six months ago.)

    No – the best thing is to look further afield whenever you go to other towns – for them, somewhere else is 'local' and the London/Greenwich books are the stuff they sell off cheap.

    One guy in Shropshire in a shop called Autolycus (can't remember the name of the town) told me he has a whole bunch of London area books he can't sell so he just keeps them in his warehouse. He told me to call next time I was coming that way so he could arrange for me to see them. Of course I don't go that way often, but it occurs to me that if you know of a secondhand shop somewhere it might be worth a call first…

    Seaside towns are often good places – I guess ex-Greenwichians retire there or something.

  3. ebspig says:

    Shropshire is well endowed with proper old bookshops – but please don't tell everyone, or the books will be snapped up before we get there. Autolycus, which is indeed amazing, is in Bishop's Castle, and there is another good one in Cleobury Mortimer.

    The chap who ran the bookshop by the market went on to operate on the internet (fine if you know what you are looking for, but not so good for serendipitous browsing), and of course Halcyon (beginning of Gr. South Street) is always worth checking out – just in case…

  4. Old China says:

    There's a large second hand bookshop in Rochester that had a few Greenwich/ Blackheath books in it last year so your theory holds true GP.

    I'd forgotten about Halcyon, will have to pop in soon. There's the Bookshop On The Heath too, on the corner of Montpeller Vale but it tends to be very expenisve so I rarely go there (although I did notice they have a sale on atm).

  5. Donovan says:

    Ah, finally a topic on which I feel I can usefully contribute, and tut-tut Phantom for not consulting with your friendly local rare book dealer (albeit resident here rather then commercially-based here) ;-)

    Yes, antiquarian books are still cheap: even at the expensive end of the market, they're remarkably good value compared with art or photography (presumably because books are less 'obvious' and harder to display, and therefore boast about). If you want to find out a bit more about the titles you list, Phantom, plug them into ESTC, which will often name authors for anonymous works and will tell you which institutional libraries have copies.

    It's surprising how often we have intriguing items to do with London's history, and as you rightly point out, they sure knew how to write titles in the way-back-when. The Defoe for example – see here – which is particularly lovely because it's surrounded by similar, contemporary but non-fictional items about the plague.

  6. Donovan says:

    damn, the first link should be ESTC

  7. The Greenwich Phantom says:

    Oooh – what a fab site, Donovan. You're right. I should have asked you. Soz.

  8. Marie says:

    What a wonderful find for you. I love antiques myself and I have found that a lot of people view them as junk because they are used to having them around.