The University Library uncovered: the truth about the Tower

The University Library uncovered: the truth about the Tower

  • Old books

Image adapted from photography by Sam Armstrong

This year, the University Library is 600 years old. Time, we felt, to break the final taboo.

It is late into Michaelmas Term. The revelries of freshers’ week are forgotten and the reality of nine o’clock lectures and the round of weekly essays have begun to sink in. In College, Hall has just finished. And in the bar, a third year is holding forth on the secrets of the University Library.

The freshers know the basics. That the building was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, also the creator of Battersea Power Station. That it opened in 1934. That its tower extends more than 157ft into the air, 10ft higher than King’s Chapel.

And, of course, they know that Neville Chamberlain is said to have described the tower as a “magnificent erection”. But do they know that students are not permitted to borrow books from the tower? Do they know what is contained in the tower?

Gentle readers, I hope you are sitting down. Because CAM has been to the Tower. We have carefully inspected its contents. And we feel duty bound to inform you that…it turns out that there is no pornography in the Tower’s shelves. None whatsoever.

Which is not to say that what is in the Tower is not highly stimulating – far from it. More than 200,000 items are held over 17 floors. Most are late Victorian or Edwardian. Many have never been opened.

Together, they give a unique insight into the glorious miscellany of a world that has otherwise disappeared: of dress patterns, courtship board games, picture books, cookery pamphlets, instructions for gas cookers, women’s magazines – in other words, anything and everything that ordinary Victorians and Edwardians spent their time actually reading.

So how did all this stuff get here? “As a legal deposit library, in the 19th century, as now, we receive a printed copy of every book published in the UK,” explains Vanessa Lacey, Head of English Cataloguing, “so we have huge amounts of printed material that nobody ‘collected’ – it was all just sent here.”

In 2007 a group of six librarians, funded by the Mellon Foundation and the University, began cataloguing. “It’s all the ephemeral things,” says Lacey. “You get a very different view based around women and children, rather than the men who organised the military, political and educational life.” Which means, as Lacey points out, the tower contains everybody’s history – a truly titillating prospect.

The forbidden fruit: how to eat a grapefruit (1905)

One rainy day, Mrs John Lane went to see her greengrocer, who lamented that nobody was buying his exotic new shaddocks, or, as we know them today, grapefruits. But when she picked one up, she was transported. “As I looked at the splendid fruit, it seemed to bring back to me the glory of summer skies, the blessed warmth of the sun, the dreamy peace of a tropical day and the languorous perfume of snow-white blossoms against darkgreen leaves… instead, I was in London, and miscellaneous citizens were hurrying through the February slush.”

With commendable zeal for the new and exciting, Mrs Lane sets out to bring the grapefruit to the staid English masses. (They could be forgiven for their reluctance. Grapefruits available in 1905 were likely to have been smaller and much less sweet than today’s varieties.) To compensate, Mrs Lane recommends loosening the pulp and allowing sugar to soak into it, festooning it with glacé cherries, filling it with oysters sprinkled with cayenne pepper and horseradish, crystallising it, making marmalade from it… and, if all else fails, she says, you can dump a load of liqueur into it.

In the same series are The Book of Rarer Vegetables, The Book of the Apple and The Book of Asparagus, providing a service to greengrocers everywhere.

The object of this volume is to try and lessen the number of dreadful pauses which so many hostesses have experienced with their guests

Ruth Blakely - Indoor games for awkward moments (1900)

Indoor games for awkward moments (1900)

“The object of this volume is to try and lessen the number of dreadful pauses which so many hostesses have experienced with their guests,” writes Ruth Blakely. One certainly gets the feeling that the author is familiar with such pauses, as both guest and host: the book’s slightly waspish, world-weary tone marks it out from the relentless positivity of other how-to books of the period.

It’s tempting to wonder how disparate groups of dinner party guests today would react when asked if they’d like a jolly round of Balancing a Bottle On The Head, in which the player must find a large, empty bottle, balance it on the back of his head while standing, get down on his hands and knees, pick up a cork with his mouth, and stand up again. Or how about Miew, in which a blindfolded guest (the Cat) has to kneel at the foot of a guest, ‘miewing’ pathetically, while the guest must then say ‘poor pussy’ three times with a straight face? Images of a certain politician come to mind, and are quickly pushed away.

But beyond marveling at the quaintness of those days in which you really did have to make your own fun with bottles and suchlike, there’s a sense of something rather rare: those staid, severe-mouthed Victorians, both young and old, being completely and utterly silly.

The first way to look slim is to look taller…vertical lines give this effect.

Peggy Morris - What to wear magazine (1934)

What to wear magazine (1934)

At a bargain ninepence, here we find both the latest Paris fashions and bathing suits made, mysteriously, out of wool. How? Why? Did they not sag? Was the itching not unbearable? Continuing the theme of how, when it comes to women’s magazines, there is nothing new under the sun, Peggy Morris asks: “Why not be slim?” “It’s folly to be fat,” she advises, “when ways of looking slim are many and so various. The first way to look slim is to look taller…vertical lines give this effect. Concentrate interest on the bodice, shoulder and sleeves.” She points to clothes that would suit “the woman little in flesh, as well as her slimmer sister”.

Moving swiftly on, the celebrity designer is already very much in evidence, as we meet “Jeff, the manmilliner” who “hats all the best people”. And if you were labouring under the delusion that our forebears were somehow more intellectual than today’s Kim Kardashian-obsessed hordes, think again: the lament for a lost age of seriousness was alive and well in 1934. “Brows are worn lower, and the age of culture is past,” wails a writer. “Frankly, we own to interest in a flick. Solemnly, with pen, ink and tenacity, we settle down to that enticing occupation: spotting the stars.”

Article by Lucy Jolin.

To find out more about the weird and wonderful books hidden in the UL tower read the complete article which first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 78. Find out how to receive CAM.