Our library recording project - in partnership with with The Arts Society East Surrey, and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund - is to record, clean and begin to repair our huge book collection. As the project progresses, more interesting items come to light, as Hilary Ely, lead volunteer, explains. 

A friendship between literary men 

The next find comes from the Library and is a letter that reveals private friendships between public figures in two generations, bound together by love of books.  The Duchess’s father, Robert Crewe-Milnes, Earl and later Marquess of Crewe, had a long career as a statesman and diplomat. He was also a man of letters – a published and unpublished writer, book collector, reader, and an appreciative supporter of authors.  He and Augustine Birrell moved in the same public circles, and also shared a private friendship as writers and book-lovers.  Birrell too was active in Liberal politics – he was Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1907-1916, making some notable social reforms, but failing in his attempts to advance Home Rule. He repeatedly offered his resignation, which Asquith declined, but finally, having taken responsibility for the 1916 Easter Rising he withdrew from public life. The third character in this tale is Frederick Locker-Lampson, Birrell’s father-in-law.  He was a poet and a legendary book-collector. As you might expect, as a fellow-bibliophile he was a good friend of his contemporary Richard Monckton-Milnes, Lord Houghton.


Locker-Lampson acquired through marriage the Sussex estate of Rowfant.  His library there was not large, or not by West Horsley Place standards, but it was choice, many of its books carefully sought out for their rarity and importance as landmarks of early printing in England. It contained Caxton editions and successive Shakespeare folios among many treasures. He was renowned for hospitality and took great delight in inviting like-minded friends to share his library. Locker-Lampson’s catalogue of his rare books The Rowfant Library remains a classic of book collecting for his knowledgeable descriptions and notes of a rich collection. After his death, the library was sold intact in 1905 to the splendidly named Elihu Dwight Church, millionaire founder of the American chemical giant with the Arm & Hammer brand name, and later dispersed through the rare book trade. But its shadow lives on in The Rowfant Library catalogue. 


In 1920 Birrell compiled a memoir of his father-in-law, and invited friends to share their memories of him.  Lord Crewe’s contribution was a poem he wrote in 1900 (little knowing that the library would not be there for ever) in praise of its founder and his legacy, and of time spent in the library at Rowfant communing with the greatest of writers. In Lord Crewe’s copy we found a letter from Birrell asking his friend to let him know if the poem had been printed without errors.  It is a rather terse letter, but the easy relationship between the two men shines through. “Reassure me.” he commands.

manuscript letter inside bookThe pleasure of a library

The poem reveals Lord Crewe’s deep sympathy with the solace that Locker-Lampson sought in his library, which may well have inspired him as he created his own book-lovers’ haven in West Horsley Place:


The yellow autumn sunset falls

On copse and lane and shaven green,

And gilds the russet Rowfant walls

Their trees between.


Still glows the hearth, the genial face

Of all the ancient home remains,

And where he sat, a mastering grace

Of memory reigns; -


The tilted brow – the smile that made

All mirth, to pity yet akin –

The half-shut eyes, as merrier plays

The wit within;


And when did nature, doubly kind,

Since love was love, and art was art,

Enrich with so urbane a mind

So large a heart?


But chiefly near his presence seems

Within that cell, obscure, divine.

The Mecca of a bookman’s dreams,

A scholar’s shrine.


For there the Avon folios sleep

And Lovelace sings his knightly quest

There Isaak shrinks in modest sleep

That princely rest!


And Pocquelin, mirth-compelling sage,

Bedecked in crimson livery trim,

And gaunt Quichotte’s stately page,

All linked with him.


What hope but this his heart could ask,

As thick the shadows gathered round,

That hands he loved should take the task

He left uncrowned?


And thus as years are rolled apace

New comrades gather, these to those,

Alike the bluest-blooded race

That Bookland knows.


‘Tis well! We bid thee no goodnight,

Dear master of the lyric strain;

That life that made the hours so bright

Lives here again.


Feb 4. 1900 



I love the word Bookland. Lord Crewe and his circle moved in the world of politics and diplomacy, but in private they inhabited Bookland.  I’ve checked, and it looks as though Trinity College did not take a copy of The Rowfant Library – the library had one already.  So I’m hoping that a copy will be found here.