When we started in 2021, we rather had the place to ourselves – in fact, we started during the last lockdown because it was unexpectedly extended.  It has been wonderful to see the burgeoning activity around us, and the emergence of new strands of volunteering to go with the established ones is a good reason to find the connections between them and the library project. 

A look at the lives of the two main founders of the collection will perfectly illustrate these layers of history, personality and relationships, and reveal possible lines of enquiry. The Library, or Book Room, here at WHP looks as though it has been there forever, but of course was the creation of the Marquess of Crewe in the 1930s.  The timeless effect he was striving for was entirely deliberate, making it easy to forget that the collection it houses was formed elsewhere, and brought together from other family homes. 

The collection was begun by Richard Monckton Milnes (1809-1885).  We are finding only a handful of books from before his time, but they do exist. He was born into a Yorkshire gentry family, however the name Monckton indicates that his maternal relations were from the family of the Viscounts of Galway.  The two families intermarried in very complicated ways, and at one stage a cousin of Milnes was also his step-grandmother.  His country house was Fryston in Yorkshire, and he had a house in town in Brook Street, doubtless each with a legendary library of its own. 

Milnes was interested in Everything, and knew Everybody.  He was extremely active and influential both politically, and as a cultural force. He was a member of parliament until raised to the peerage as 1st Baron Houghton in 1865, and highly active in the House of Lords thereafter. Politically, though, he left no lasting legacy.  He embraced many progressive causes, maybe too many to make much impact on any of them.  He was best known as the ultimate networker – he was endlessly interested in everybody he met, and was famed for his breakfast parties that brought everyone in town together, new and old. His friend Thomas Carlyle was once asked what he thought about the Second Coming, and he replied that the one thing he could be certain of was that ‘Dicky Milnes would invite Jesus to breakfast to meet Pontius Pilate’.  I now have quite a soft spot for Carlyle because of that. And George Russell’s tribute to him is powerful: "As years advanced he became not (as the manner of most men is) less Liberal, but more so; keener in sympathy with all popular causes; livelier in his indignation against monopoly and injustice."

Milnes was a hugely influential friend and patron of writers.  In keeping with his political career, he dabbled in writing himself, but there is no large body of work in his own name. His legacy lies in the reputations of authors, living and dead, that he fostered and championed. He was a valued friend of Elizabeth Gaskell, acquainted with and interested in the Brontës, an acknowledged expert on Keats and on Boswell, and he boosted the career of many writers, including Swinburne, on whom he was supposed to have been a bad influence – as if he needed one.  He was renowned for forming the literary taste of his generation – a 19th century Influencer. 

One of the discoveries we’ve made is a whole series of volumes, labelled Self-Educated Poets, containing over one hundred shorter and longer publications by working-class and provincial poets, bound into about 30 volumes.  From annotations and letters bound into the volumes, it is evident that RMM was actively collecting these works, and had agents scouting for him. It would be interesting to compare his collection with the Piston, Pen and Press database, the outcome of an exciting AHRC funded universities consortium project which has now run its course, to document working class poets, but I rather suspect that that a number of their subjects were radical enough to reject the patronage of the nobility and gentry.

Monckton Milnes’s book collecting habit was voracious to the point of bibliomania.  He had a large library at his country house at Fryston, which was severely depleted by a fire in 1876. The books were rescued by human chain, but as there was no shelter for them outside, many of succumbed to water damage. Just occasionally we find a book with ‘Fryston’ written inside it, the meagre and sad remains. The existence of another library in his London home is the saving grace – the size of the surviving collection from his time that is still in the house, the bulk of which is in the Library, is evidence that he must have had a formidable collection in London. A number of the books we are finding are presentation copies from their authors, with inscriptions and autograph letters, evidently sent to his London address.  Letters either slipped in loose or bound into the books speak of literary friendships and the warmth of his encouragement to writers.  Even after portions of it were left to the British Museum (now the British Library) as we shall see, and to Trinity College Cambridge, lost to the Fryston fire, and sold to help save West Horsley Place, it is apparent that we are dealing here and now with the remnants of one of the most famous and substantial private libraries of the 19th century, which is quite a privilege.

Monckton Milnes was described however as ‘man of very fine tastes and a few coarse ones’, and is noted if not notorious for his collection of erotica, kept very private in his lifetime, which he bequeathed to the British Museum, where it continued to be kept private after his death, until the BM’s Private Case was made public in the 1960s after a vigorous campaign by the journalist Peter Fryer.  No traces left behind have emerged yet at West Horsley Place.

In terms of the evolution of publishing and book style, Milnes still lived in the era when a gentleman bookbuyer would send his new books to his preferred binder and have them bound in a harmonious style. His style was very attractive – half leather and book cloth, in muted colours and with just a little gilding, sometimes with lovely marbled endpapers.  His books were stamped with his heraldic crest of a wheatsheaf, and altogether, the effect is very pleasing.  His preferred binder was J. Leighton of Brewer Street, Soho.  He did not have a bookplate, unlike his son Lord Crewe.

Having got nowhere with Florence Nightingale, RMM married Annabel, daughter of 2nd Baron Crewe in 1851. His son and heir, Robert Crewe-Milnes, is the second of our founders.  Right now, in the Library, we are working very much in Richard Monckton Milnes’s era.  His son inherited this collection, and made it his own by putting his heraldic bookplate in many of his father’s books – first as Earl of Crewe, then as Marquess.  It is not clear to me yet when Lord Crewe’s own identity as a book collector is going to emerge fully.  We have some snapshots, enough to know that he carried on where his father left off as a kind and encouraging correspondent with writers.  Through working in the rooms upstairs, where more personal and less serious books are to be found, we have started to uncover his preferences, including his rather unexpected taste for popular novels written by women.  What we are not seeing yet is any large body of books he collected in his lifetime.  This is a story that will develop as we work through the collection, I am sure.  I have high hopes of the Old Library or the Garden Room as the places where he will emerge.  Even less is Lady Crewe’s personality emerging – only a handful of books so far are definitely hers – but these are early days, and work in her dressing room is yet to come.

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.