What’s in a Noun?

Our weekend of Heritage Open Day tours is in full swing here at Leeds Central Library – and places are all now fully booked up (sorry!). This year, as well as enjoying a trip around the nooks and crannies of our grand Victorian building, our visitors are getting a peek at some little treasures from our collections. And, in the case of one of them, we really do mean little…


The Book of Nouns, or Things which may be seen is a miniature children’s book dating back to the very early 19th Century. As you can probably guess from the picture, it measures only 6cm by 4.5cm and is about 1cm thick. Our copy was printed in 1802 by Darton and Harvey of 55 Gracechurch Street, London, while a note later in the book suggests it was actually first published on 25 March 1801. Its tiny pages alternate between short lists of things (‘a Mace, a Nest, Oaks, a Pink, a Quill, a Rake’) and beautiful engravings – not always of the same items. So, for instance, you’ll find a turkey, a jackal, a well, a rook and an archer among the 64 images inside. Very occasionally, there’s also a brief fact, such as ‘The otter lives on fish, roots & plants’ but, for the most part, it’s up to you to surmise why each item was included.


It’s not a dictionary (although from page 56 onwards it does suddenly decide to start following the order of the alphabet) and not everything inside is named. In fact, it took another old book to explain for us the way in which it’s intended to be used. ‘The use of this little trifle is to connect reading with intelligence,’ explains A Catalogue of Books, for the Amusement and Instruction of Youth (1801); ‘When each name is read, the thing it signifies should be shewn’.


We wonder if the book’s original young owner benefitted from it in this manner. Her name, according to the handwritten inscription on the inside cover, was Sarah Mortlock, and ‘her Book given her by the Rev John Buddell’.

Whatever the case, it’s certainly a delightful little publication, as mysterious today as it is charmingly simple. If you’d like to have a look, bring a magnifying glass and some ID, and ask at the desk in our Information and Research department, giving the shelf mark SR 099 B644. Also, if you’re worried you’ve missed your chance to take one of our heritage tours, fear not – we’ll be announcing some more dates soon, including a special Haunted Heritage Tour just in time for Halloween, on Friday 30 October.

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