I am very pleased to tell you about the project to care for the library here at West Horsley Place.  This collection is one of the features that makes West Horsley Place the beautiful and unique place that it is, and the house without its books is unthinkable.  But as we all know, the books so very nearly did not stay here after the Duchess’s death.  Through the genius of the late Bamber Gascoigne who found the right words at the right time for Trinity College Cambridge, enabling them to agree that the college library would take the books that best matched their needs, the larger part of the collection stays in the house to continue giving it the sense of life that we all feel from the presence of the books.

The books, of course, needed attention, and what to do about that was on the agenda of the Trust from the start.  As other places have found, it is a huge undertaking to revive a library, but help was at hand. To take care of the collection, the WHP Trust has formed a partnership with The Arts Society East Surrey Area.  The Arts Society is made up of local societies, but nationally it has wider charitable aims, to provide volunteers to charities without their own in-house resources to work on practical conservation tasks and projects. One for which TAS is renowned is to provide a team of volunteers trained in book handling and care to deliver a readymade scheme for libraries at risk. The team is drawn from local societies along the A24 and A246, from Cheam to Lovelace here in Horsley.

Their task is to stabilise the collection, a term that embraces cleaning, recording, assessing and repairing the books where we find them. The volunteers treat each book where it is found – it is not our task to ask if there is a right place for it, and whether it is in it. With just one exception – if we find multi-volume works out of order, we do correct that, and ultimately the records will enable us to reunite some split up sets. 

With our training, volunteers can clean, make a basic record of each book and give it a shelf mark, so that it can be found in future, then we add to the record an assessment of its condition, and note any remedial work needed. There is a range of simple repairs that the volunteers can then do, but anything that requires expert restoration is recorded for later decision. Here we are at work, cleaning, recording and repairing. The records are then added to a database, which has already been put to use to create subsets of the collection to assist other groups of volunteers. I am rather thrilled that the database has already proved its worth, and of course the more we add to it, the more valuable it will become.

The collection is estimated to contain 10 to 11,000 books.  The team has been working since July 2021, apart from winter closures, and has so far completed just over 2,000 individual records – so, do the math, as the saying goes! 

We have processed all the books in two of the bedrooms, the Mulberry and Buff rooms, and we have worked our way through about one third of the shelves in the Library itself.  We can’t work in there during the opera season, and increasingly the room is in use for events, so we are more than happy to work elsewhere in the house, where we encounter a completely fresh set of books to work on, that tell a different set of stories – I’ll come on to books and their stories. One of our opera season projects last year was to clean and record the books on the eye-catching Napoleon Stand. These books are on the move more than any others in the collection, as the library is cleared for events. Our work means that the books are all identified with a shelfmark, and so each has a home when it returns to the stand. 

As we work, the books give up their secrets.  I remember a conversation in the early days of planning. I said how much I was looking forward to finding out what the books would contain, and was told that Sotheby’s had done a sweep for the proposed sale, so there shouldn’t be much of value left.  I kept to myself what I was really thinking, that if so much as a tram ticket fell out of one of the books, I, for one, would be terribly excited.

Why give all this attention to a collection of books, many of which would be considered unreadable by most people today?  Why not just dust them and leave them as décor? There is a bit of a cult of reading these days – lots of memes floating around where people say ‘Just leave me alone in my corner and let me read’ or similar. I think if told that the only reading matter in the corner was a multi-volume biography of Cardinal Wiseman, they might decide to go out and socialise after all.  But all these books have meaning, even if hardly anyone wants to read them today. There are so many layers to peel back in a library (by which I mean a collection of books in the place where it belongs). The books are an intimate record of the tastes of the times, of the people in each generation who purchased them, and the friends, family and connected people who gave them, of the books they wanted to put on display, and the books they wanted to keep to themselves. 

In a collection like this, it is possible to get closer to the lives of people who lived across a span of at least 150 years, from before Queen Victoria came to the throne, to the post-war period. As the books come down from the shelves, we are reminded by them what a time of enormous social and cultural change this was – and that is even before they reveal their personal secrets – inscriptions and annotations, letters used as bookmarks - all telling of relationships and friendships and networks and connections. In a wider context, the progress of writing and publishing over that timespan is revealed, and the evolution of the art and style of the books themselves.  Every day spent working with these books brings some revelation or fresh insight into the life and times of the family, and the wider world.

Hilary Ely

Our thanks to Lottery Players and Heritage Fund UK for making this project possible. 

Look out for Hilary's next instalment in the story of our Library project in the coming weeks.