A partnership project

Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund

Hilary Ely explains: 

I am the co-ordinator on behalf of The Arts Society and lead volunteer for the West Horsley Place Trust on a project to record, assess and care for the 10-11,000 books that currently fill the house. The project is a partnership between the West Horsley Place Trust and The Arts Society East Surrey Area. I can tell you about the work that our team of volunteers do, ably trained and guided by renowned book conservation consultant Caroline Bendix.

A Legacy

The story of the West Horsley Place Library is well-known and often-told. Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe in her will left an enormous collection of books, approaching 20,000, brought together by her grandfather Richard Monckton Milnes, Lord Houghton, and her father the Marquess of Crewe, to Trinity College Cambridge where both had studied.  If the college had taken them all, the house would have been emptied of one of its uniquely wonderful features, and lost part of its soul.

It is typical of the late and hugely missed Bamber Gascoigne’s imagination and sureness of touch that he managed to have the right conversation with Trinity – the College could not really accommodate such a huge collection and did not require a lot of what it contained, and the house would have been very much less alive without its books. So, to great satisfaction all round, the College had first choice of the books that best complemented their library collection - taking around 7,500 - and the remainder were left in the house. More books from the collection were sold at auction, very advantageously in some cases, to support the restoration of the house.

Find out about the Crewe Collection at Trinity College

Making sense of the collection

What is left is a substantial country house library by any standards, spread over many rooms, centred on the iconic Library which looks as though it has been there forever but was in fact the creation of Lord Crewe after he acquired the house in 1931. The large collection of books you see now was mostly accumulated in other family homes belonging to Lord Houghton, and to the Crewe family, added to during their life here and in their homes in London. It is the creation of three generations of book-lovers, reflecting their deep and wide knowledge, taste and literary connections.

Find out about the rooms forming the Library

Caring for the collection

Right now, no-one knows exactly how many books there are, what they are, where they are, or how they are.  The project’s task is to stabilise the collection, that is, to locate the books, and record them where we find them. So shelf by shelf we take the books down, allocating each one a number as we do. We have to take care as the books have the dust of decades on them and a risk of mould spores too, so we wear FFP2 masks and gloves for this job. 

masked woman vacuuming book in library#

We clean the exterior of each book with a vacuum cleaner, and the inside covers with a brush, then we make a simple record and give it a shelfmark – once we have done that, the book has an identified location by room and shelf, so if it wanders it can always be returned home.

We make a record of inserted items - bookmarks, letters or other documents, even pressed ferns, and of bookplates, inscriptions and annotations. We describe the book’s cover and structure and assess its condition. Some conditions are for professional book conservators and beyond our scope, so we record these for future decision, but we are able to treat a range of simple problems such as making repairs to covers, and tying up books that might fall to pieces. Later on we will be able to make boxes, sleeves and shoes to support deteriorating books. The records are entered on a database that will help the Trust identify the books that need further care, and tell future researchers what the collection contains.

I feel, and I hope the team agree, that what we do is a privilege - to work in such wonderful spaces in the house, to be the first to pick a book off the shelf in years, to see its dusty dullness turn to a gentle glow, and to make sure its scuffs and bashes are put to rights - it feels as though we are healing its wounds, and when we bandage the book it looks like it as well.  Best of all is to discover a piece of personal history in a book – a letter, or an inscription, or an item used as a bookmark, or a special binding or collection of books.  I’ve given you one tale from the library – the story of our project and what we hope it will achieve.

There are further tales from the library to come from these discoveries, and we'll be bringing you another chapter soon. 

Hilary Ely

Made possible with National Lottery Heritage Fund logo

 Image credit: volunteers: Claire Saul