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London’s Archives: home to Shackleton’s book, Darwin’s letters and the world’s first ornithology encyclopedia

April 15, 2012

What do the first book published in Antarctica, a bunch of letters written by Charles Darwin while on board HMS Beagle and a rare seventeenth century scientific guide to the world’s birds have in common? You can see – and in some cases touch – each of them in an archive somewhere in London.

Archives are the poor relations of museums. We all know you can see weird and wonderful objects in the many museums of London, from the over-stuffed walrus at the Horniman to half of Charles Babbage’s brain at the Hunterian and Winston Churchill’s red velvet romper suit at the Imperial War Museums’ Churchill War Rooms. Museums make us think of ‘things’, stories and – increasingly – interactivity. The word ‘archives’, on the other hand, is synonymous with ‘dusty’ and ‘boring’; it has an air of secrecy, protection and general inaccessibility. On three recent trips to London-based archives these stereotypes were well and truly debunked. They aren’t the poor relations of museums; they’re the wealthy maiden aunt you never knew you had, but who you really wished you’d met.

In Greenwich, the new Caird Library opened last year as part of the Samy Ofer Wing extension. To mark it’s return to full service after a major move, the Library hosted a special bloggers’ preview event a few months ago, which I was delighted to be invited to. In the same week, I went to a public open evening at Kew’s Herbarium, Library and Archives. A few weeks later I checked out the Royal Society’s exhibition of archive treasures*. Here are just some of the amazing things all three archives’ put out on display for their interested guests – a veritable cabinet of curiosities…

The first book published in Antarctica: Aurora Australis (1908)

The first book ever to be published in Antarctica, Aurora Australis. Image courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich.

This 225 page book was published on Ross Island, Antarctica in 1908 by members of the British Antarctic Expedition. Knowing the perils of boredom during the sunless winter, expedition leader Ernest Shackleton shipped “an entire printing and lithographic outfit including the necessary paper” from Southwark-based printing firm Sir Joseph Causton & Sons Ltd to Antarctica.  He even arranged for the company to spend three weeks training key members of the expedition team how to use it.

Despite their relative inexperience (the standard length of a printing apprenticeship at the time was seven years), the Antarctica adventurers did a great job. Rather than printing a newspaper as their earlier counterparts had done, they typeset, illustrated, printed and bound an entire book. They even ‘published’ it under their own imprint, the Sign of the Penguins.

There were, the Caird Library blog tells us, plenty of challenges involved with operating a printing press in a cramped and noisy hut shared by 15 men. On one occasion, the candle that was placed beneath the inking plate to keep the ink at the optimum temperature for printing, accidentally melted the only inking roller they had.

Inside the hut where Aurora Australis was published. Image courtesy Scott Polar Research Institute.

Shackleton’s publishing house today: the hut at Cape Royds where Aurora Australis was printed. The timber framed ‘portable house’ sits in the shadow of the world’s southernmost active volcano Mount Erebus. Image courtesy The Long View blog.

The end result, however, is stunning – attractively typeset text, striking etchings and lithographs, clear and consistent printed pages and a hand-coloured title page. Combined with the ‘sign of the Penguin’ colophon, the end product looks as professional as many commercially-printed books today – and yet it was created simply to provide “an interest and a relaxation”.

The Aurora Australis imprint page: Printed at the sign of ‘the Penguins’. Image courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich.

Illustration from Aurora Australis: At the edge of the crater (Mount Erebus). Image courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich.

Poem from Aurora Australis: In the midwinter night. The first verse is: “The acetylene splutters and flickers, the night comes in to its own. Outside Ambrose and Terror are snarling over a bone”. Image courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich.

Diary of a honeymoon on the way to Australia (1857)

A successful gold prospector who returned home to get married, Alfred Withers set sail for Australia with his new wife on January 5th, 1857. They spent the following three and a half months in their “floating home”, a cabin aboard the US-built timber clipper James Baines. During the journey, Withers kept a diary. His hand-painted illustrations give an idea of life aboard ship at the time.

Alfred Withers’ painting of the James Baines off Liverpool on launch day: 5th January 1857. Image courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich.

The dining room, leading to the ladies saloon on board the James Baines. Image courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich.

Fishing for albatross from the James Baines. Image courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich.

The funeral of a young boy who died after hitting his head on the deck of the James Baines. Image courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich.

According to the Caird Library blog, Withers and his wife ran the Great Iron Store on Cecil Street in Melbourne for thirty years before retiring back to England.

Letter from Charles Darwin to Reverend John Stevens Henslow (1835)

Charles Darwin’s letter to Rev. Henslow April 11th 1835. The Beagle had docked at Santiago, Chile the day before.

At Kew, I was rather taken by forty-four letters written by the young Charles Darwin before, during and after his time on HMS Beagle. They had been sent to  the Cambridge Professor of Botany Rev. John Stevens Henslow, a man Darwin worshipped so much that the young prodigy became known as “the man who walks with Henslow”. It was Henslow who recommended Darwin as a suitable “naturalist companion” for the Captain of the Beagle Robert FitzRoy. It was to Henslow that Darwin sent the specimens he collected during the six year voyage. And it was Henslow who promoted Darwin’s letters and specimens while he was away, helping him establish himself as an eminent scientist by the time of his return.

For a Darwin and Beagle freak like me, these letters are clearly important. But I was also impressed by the efforts Kew have taken to conserve and present them.

Kew’s conservators stabilise the deteriorating iron gall ink in Darwin’s letters by washing each sheet in a treatment bath. They also carry out a variety of repairs to the paper. Image courtesy Kew Herbarium.

The hand-marbled endpapers of the box containing Charles Darwin’s letters to Rev. Henslow. Image courtesy Lisa Taylor.

Kew also have the seals for each of the letters. I couldn’t get a good pic – but here’s me trying! Image courtesy Lisa Taylor.

Joseph Hooker’s invitation to Charles Darwin’s funeral (1882)

On a more gloomy Darwinian note, Kew also have the original invitation and accompanying letter that invited Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker to be a pall bearer at his funeral. Hooker was Darwin’s closest scientific colleague. Along with Charles Lyell, Hooker was responsible for jointly presenting Darwin and Alfred Wallace’s papers on natural selection to the Linnean Society in 1858. Hooker was also Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew for twenty years.

Invitation to Sir Joseph Hooker to be a pall bearer at the funeral of Charles Darwin.

The letter accompanying the invitation states:

“Sir Joseph,
You are invited to officiate as one of the Pall Bearers at the funeral of the late Mr Darwin which will take place at Westminster Abbey at 12 o’clock (noon) on Wednesday next the 26th inst.

The Pall Bearers will assemble in the Chapter House in the Cloisters at 11.15 and we will arrange for some one to be there to meet you on arrival.

We enclose a card of admission to the Chapter House, together with another card (which you will kindly also bring with you) indicating your position near the Remains.”

The first ornithology encyclopedia (1678)

Willughby’s Ornithology was published in 1678, after the keen naturalist had died aged 36.

I went to the Royal Society to attend a talk about the supposed world’s first ornithologist Francis Willughby. A staggering 334 years ago, his colleague John Ray posthumously published the young scientists’s encylopedia of birds, complete with incredible illustrations. There had been earlier illustrated bird guides in both Latin and German, but Willughby’s was the first to take a scientific approach, and was also published (after an initial Latin version) in English.

Like Darwin later, Willughby was “bitten by the snake of learning” at Cambridge – so much so that his tutor wrote him poems about overworking. After he left, he and fellow student Ray travelled around Britain and Europe collecting paintings of birds, observing wild birds and buying dead birds from mediterranean markets – which they later dissected.

The Great Eagle Owle, Horn Owle and Little Horn Owle, Willughby’s Ornithology. Image courtesy the Royal Society.

The Ornithology is one of many ‘treasures’ held by the Royal Society. Their current exhibition showcases many more – from familiar and not-so-familiar names. In particular, I was intrigued by two books by women (otherwise sorely under-represented in all three archives ).

The first photographically-illustrated book (1843)

Anna Atkins was a botanist who developed an interest in the ‘new’ field of photography. Her scientific reference book British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions was created using cyanotype printing; she placed her botanical specimens on to paper coated with light-sensitive chemicals, exposed it to light and created these striking white on blue images.  Not only did she produce what is claimed to be the first photographically-illustrated book, she’s also regarded as the first female photographer.

Anna Atkins took cyanotype ‘photographs’ of her algae collection and published them privately. Image courtesy the Royal Society.

Children’s history of science  book (1876)

Buckley’s first book A short history of natural science (1876) was designed to be the first book to tackle “the difficult subject of the history of science in a short and simple way”.

Arabella Buckley was secretary to the Professor of Geology at Kings College, London, Charles Lyell (mentioned above as one of Charles Darwin’s closest scientific allies) until his death in 1875. Having met both men of science and publishers through her work, she then embarked on a series of books popularising science. The first, A short history of natural science, was published in 1876 to positive reviews. Darwin himself wrote to the author saying that the idea “is a capital one, and as far as I can judge, very well carried out”.

Buckley’s motivation could be repeated today without much change. In A short history… she states that she often:

“felt very forcibly how many important facts and generalizations of science, which are of great value in the formation of character and in giving a true estimate of life and its conditions, are totally unknown to the majority of otherwise well-educated persons.”

In total Buckley wrote over ten books. I’m now on the hunt to track down some of these original edition beauties myself:

Winners in Life’s Race (1883) is about the evolution of vertebrates.

In The Fairy-land of Science (1879) Buckley equates fairies with forces, like magnetism and gravity.

If you want to track down your own archive treasures…

Caird Library

The Royal Museums Greenwich Caird Library and Archive is open Monday to Friday 10:00 to 16:45 (19:45 on Thursday) and Saturday 10:00 to 13:00 and 14:00 to 16:45. If you’re going during the Olympics, be sure to check before you visit (the Museum is an Olympic venue).

Kew Herbarium

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Herbarium Library, Art and Archives are open Monday to Friday 09:00 to 17:00, though a written application (which can be sent by email) is usually required in advance.

Royal Society

The Royal Society’s Library and Archives are open from Monday to Friday 10:00 to 17:00. The free Treasures exhibition is open on Tuesdays (14:00 to 16:oo) and Thursdays (10:00 to 12:00) until 21 June 2012.

Of course, these are just three of the many eccentric maiden aunt archives in the capital – I’ll certainly be seeking out more..

* I should admit that both the Royal Museums Greenwich and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew are recent clients of mine. However, my visits to their archives weren’t related to the projects I was working on – and any member of the public can follow in my footsteps to see their treasures for themselves. My visit to the Royal Society was solely as a punter, though I’m open to offers to add them to my client list…

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