In 1970 Ethel Mary Wood bequeathed her collection of about 400 English and American Bibles and books on biblical studies to Senate House Library. Wood’s father is well documented: he was the merchant and philanthropist Quintin Hogg (1845-1903), and is the subject of a biography by his daughter Ethel, a Times obituary (19 Jan. 1903), and an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Wood herself (1876-1970) is a more enigmatic figure, of whom we know little beyond her donation and her published work. It was a joy to welcome her great-nephew and his wife when they came to look at some of the items in the collection in early October, exploring an aspect of Wood’s life about which she had not spoken.
The visitors saw a selection of items demonstrating the breadth of the collection. The earliest book shown, and the one that the Library had most coveted, was Ihesus. The Floure of the Commaundements of God (Andrew Chertsey’s translation of a French work explaining and illustrating the Ten Commandments), printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1521. Senate House Library had previously held nothing by any of the three giants of early English printing – William Caxton, Richard Pynson, and Wynkyn de Worde – and was delighted to acquire its first sample in the form of this book. The Library had purchased this item from Wood separately from the rest of the collection, but had done so under auspicious conditions: Wood allowed the Library to buy the book on its terms after the Librarian had confessed that the Library could not afford to pay as much as Wood would receive if she sold the book by Sotheby’s.
The book which attracted most fascination was Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate’s New Version of the Psalms of David (1771). As a publication, it is unassuming – a late copy of a common work – although the Senate House Library copy does have the personal interest of inscriptions, from John Parr to his daughter Sarah (1779) and from her to her nephew James Wareing thirty-nine years later. But the volume is spectacular for a fore-edge painting of sailing boats at sea against the background of a very English white cliff. This complements works of which the attraction of the binding is immediately obvious and which were also brought out for the visitors: a fine binding on a Bible and Book of Common Prayer after the style of Samuel Mearne, bookbinder to Charles II; a copy of The Miracles of our Lord (1848), illuminated by Henry Noel Humphreys, in a papier-mâché binding with medallions representing some of the miracles. The latter also stands out for its bright chromolithographic illustrations.
The Bibles examined included two landmarks of Bible printing, the first editions of the Matthew Bible (1537; text largely by William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale) and the full Geneva Bible (1560). There was also the Murderer’s Bible, rendered attractive by numerous full-page engraved illustrations and distinctive by the misprint which gives it its sobriquet, the letter “k” for the letter “f” in the verb of Jesus’s instruction: “Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast [it] unto the dogs” (Mark 7:27). A slim “souldiers pocket Bible” reproduced short passages printed in pamphlet form for the use of Parliamentary forces during the Civil War and stood out for being printed on vellum. William Clouston’s Hieroglyphic Bibles, their Origin and History (1894) is a standard monograph. But its inclusion of the text of a hieroglyphic Bible (simplified narrative with pictures replacing some words) provided charm.
A cheap undated nineteenth-century Bible in the collection is annotated, and records family births and deaths. To a disinterested bystander, this would be unremarkable. But when the Bible was given by one’s great-great-uncle to one’s great-great-aunt on their marriage, when it is one’s great-great-aunt who wrote copious notes in it, and when it later passed to one’s great-aunt, matters change. The book revived family history for Ethel M. Wood’s relatives, and came alive for library staff as Wood’s great-nephew recognised and could flesh out the people whose births were recorded, with recollections of their later lives in law, politics and elsewhere.
Did you think a collection based around a single book would be boring? Think again!