May Day and Mrs Montagu

  • We couldn’t let today pass without a look at the holiday’s traditional association with chimney sweeps – the focus of our current ‘Sweepiana’ display at Central Library. Natascha Allen-Smith and Jonathan Wright investigate…

May Day is both a religious and secular occasion, celebrated as a devotion to the Virgin Mary but also a ceremony of dance and the crowning the Queen of May. It has been used as a fabled national day of aid for chimney sweeps – historically, their one day of holiday a year. Lots of stories from the books in Leeds Libraries’ Henry Collection relate to May Day.

‘The First of May’ poem and illustration (from London Town, 1883, by Ellen Houghton, part of the Henry Collection)

‘Jack in the Green’ was a character who would be recreated by people creating garlands of flowers and greenery to wear during the May Day celebrations. The rhyme above reads: Jack-in-the-Green from door to door, capers along with his followers four. As May Day mummers are seldom seen, let us all give a copper to Jack-in-the-Green.

Competition between different working guilds meant that, over the years, these wearable decorations became larger and more elaborate until they covered the entire man. Jack in the Green became associated with sweeps forever.

Portrait of Elizabeth Montagu (artist unknown)

In the eighteenth century, Mrs Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800) provided food, drink and support for chimney sweeps on May Day. She became a social reformer and represents a time of increasing interest in workers’ rights. With a focus on literature, she also led the push for female equality in education. For some years before her death, Montagu entertained sweeps every May Day in the courtyard of her house in London. ‘The Little Sons of the Brush’ would be bought sausages until they tired of eating. The Henry Collection frequently mentions her, as well as other reformers across more recent centuries.

To learn more about the history and traditions of chimney sweeps, as reflected in Leeds Libraries’ collections, visit Room 700 at Central Library, where the Sweepiana exhibition will be in place until Friday 5 May.

What the Moon Saw

  • by Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

We’ve been thinking a fair bit about chimney sweeps recently at Central Library… Not because the chimneys here need attention (it’s a long time since any of our various original fireplaces held an open fire) but because our student-curated Sweepiana exhibition is currently occupying Room 700 until 5 May 2017. Objects on display range from a real – and tiny – top hat worn by an unfortunate young sweep, to a life-size mock-up of a chimney for you to stick your head inside and shudder at the thought of having to climb. We also have, as you’d expect, a fine selection of books, mostly from the city’s Henry Collection, which focuses specifically on the subject of sweeps.

One of the most exciting things about this collection is the sheer variety it encompasses, whether it’s rare and beautifully illustrated editions of William Blake poetry (“A little black thing among the snow / Crying “’weep! ’weep!” in notes of woe!”) or medical studies of chimney sweep health in the Victorian era. For me, one surprise was the sixteen different books of stories by Hans Christian Andersen, an author I previously associated only with what I assumed to be children’s fairy tales involving little mermaids and ugly ducklings. A less familiar but fairly characteristic story of his, entitled The Shepherdess and the Chimney-Sweeper, explains why he’s so well represented in the Henry Collection, but there’s also another story included in some of the volumes that mentions a sweep – one that’s not as well-known, and which I think remains one of Andersen’s most unusual tales.

Fairy tale compendiums from 1905 and 1887, included in the Henry Collection

What the Moon Saw was published in 1839, making it the 21st fable from Andersen’s pen (a number that would eventually total 168). Uniquely, it is split into 33 short parts, each describing unrelated scenes witnessed by the Moon as it travels around the world, looking down at its inhabitants over the course of some fifty or so nights. Fittingly for a tale told entirely after sunset, the tone is dark, even occasionally bleak – something I didn’t immediately associate with this author, despite being mildly traumatized as a child by a story of his called The Daisy (no one, be they flora or fauna, survives that grim little piece).

In What the Moon Saw, we’re first introduced to a young artist who has moved to a garret in the city, only to find his creative passion outweighed by loneliness: “Instead of green woods and hills, I had only chimney pots on my horizon. I had not a single friend, and there was not even the face of an acquaintance to greet me.”

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Illustration by Rex Whistler, from Fairy Tales and Legends by Hans Andersen, published by Cobden-Sanderson Ltd (1935) and part of the Henry Collection

But one familiar face does eventually appear in the sky outside his window – that of the Moon, who decides to check in on the artist each night, describing a scene for him to paint and enabling the creation of ‘a very fine picture book’. (In fact, the story was originally published under the name A Picture Book without Pictures.) The rest of the tale is not really a tale at all, but a collection of abstract impressions, some dreamlike and haunting, some almost unbearably tragic, and many concerned with death. We don’t encounter the artist again until the ‘Eighth Evening’, when the Moon can’t appear due to some unfortunate cloud issues; and – after that – never again, as the vignettes take over from the original narrative completely and What the Moon Saw drifts into what it really wanted to be all along: a multifaceted and powerful prose poem about introspection, finding one’s place in the world, and recognizing that none of this ultimately amounts to very much after your star has twinkled out.

The moon itself, of course, has long been regarded as symbolic of inner emotions. The light it shines in this pictureless picture book is full of compassion – and yet a very real sense of distance, as it can only ‘kiss’ with its rays those who evoke its sympathy. Across the many scenes the Moon recounts, we hear about a suicidal actor, a little girl whose favourite doll is stuck in a tree, the deserted cityscapes of Pompeii and Venice, the birth of new life, and many bereaved and dying characters of all kinds. Here’s one of the lighter moments – the ‘Twenty-Sixth Evening’, and another reason why the works of Andersen sit alongside the others of the Henry Collection:

“It was yesterday, in the morning twilight … in the great city no chimney was yet smoking—and it was just at the chimneys that I was looking. Suddenly a little head emerged from one of them, and then half a body, the arms resting on the rim of the chimney-pot. ‘Hurrah!’ cried a voice. It was the little chimney-sweeper, who had for the first time in his life crept through a chimney, and stuck out his head at the top. ‘Hurrah!’ this was a very different thing to creeping about in the dark narrow chimneys! the air blew so fresh, and he could look over the whole city towards the green wood. The sun was just rising. It shone round and great, just in his face, that beamed with triumph, though it was very prettily blacked with soot. ‘The whole town can see me now,’ he exclaimed, ‘and the moon can see me now, and the sun too. Hurrah!’ And he flourished his broom in triumph.”

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Illustration by Thomas, Charles and William Robinson, from Fairy Tales from Hans Christian Andersen, published by Dent & Co. (1905) and included in the Henry Collection

To find out more about the Sweepiana exhibition and the books included, come to our free Meet the Curators event on Monday 24 April at Leeds Central Library. Book your place via Ticketsource.

Sweeping Through Time

  • Two weeks ago, we let you in on some of the secrets of the Henry Collection in Oliver Twist with a Twist. This week it’s over to our two experts on the subject, Jonathan and Natascha, to share a few of their favourite finds.

Did you know that Leeds Central Library holds extensive collections on the English Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement, and the lives of chimney sweeps? Among its treasure trove of old maps, newspapers and microfilms are several boxes containing material collected in the early 20th century by Dr Sydney Henry: part of his renowned ‘sweepiana’ collection concerning all things chimney-sweep-related. At this cold time of year, when the hearth becomes once again a central feature in our home life, we want to bring this collection further into the public light…

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Our names are Jonathan Wright and Natascha Allen-Smith; we are both history students at the University of Leeds. At the beginning of this academic year we were tasked with collating and analysing the Henry Collection in the Leeds Central Library. With the ambition of constructing an exhibition, we compared and contrasted the lives of chimney sweeps and their representations in literature. The 1,500-item collection is spread across Leeds Central Library and the Leeds Museum Discovery Centre, as well as the Leeds Art Gallery. The biggest work of the future is to digitise all of the collection to make it more accessible.

Over the next few weeks, Natascha and I want to take you through our favourite discoveries so far. First up is a famous author with a lesser-known work: Hans Christian Andersen’s The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep. It is a charming and romantic story about two dolls wanting to explore the wider world. Situated in books after The Ugly Duckling, the tale tells how the two lovers climb the chimney and witness a spectacular view of the world. However, this is all too much for the Shepherdess who has to return with the Chimney Sweep to their home. The significance of the work is that it shows how the idea of chimney sweeps could be bright. Also, the positive portrayal of the Chimney Sweep came at a time of generally negative portrayals in the Victorian era. 1845 was also 19 years before proper regulations for the use of chimney boys became law and it can be seen that progressive depictions such as this were helpful in changing the public and political mind-set.

One of the oldest items in the collection is a 17th century comedic play entitled The London Cuckolds. In this pre-industrial era, chimney sweeps were not yet the miserable, overworked, black-suited Victorian figures we most commonly associate with the title. This can be seen in the play’s depiction of them as rude, comical thieves and pranksters, making crude observations like “Oh I am damnably full of wind”.

In one scene, two sweeps trick a foolish gentleman into losing his wig and hat, blacking his face with soot in the process. Here, the play shares a theme with almost all the works in the collection, whether their portrayals of sweeps are positive or negative: ordinary people avoid going near them due to their filthy state, and when accidental contact is made, clean skin and clothing is instantly dirtied. Climbing boys were allowed to wash once a week at most, and consequently faced great alienation from their peers, particularly from richer children who could afford to attend school.

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A feature that runs through the entire collection is the handwritten notes, letters and bookmarks left by Dr Henry himself, which are scattered within the volumes. Henry scribbled page references in red ink on nearly all the books in the collection (for which we are extremely grateful, as most contain only one or two fleeting references to chimney sweeps). But working through the boxes in more detail means that you also stumble across folded-up sheets cut from 1950s newspapers, old pieces of paper on which Henry jotted down research notes, and even a typewritten card addressed to him by another well-known sweep enthusiast, Dr George Phillips.

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There are also occasional letters or inscriptions written by entirely different people, each giving another clue about how the book in question entered Henry’s possession and who may have owned it first.

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In our next piece, we’ll be taking a look at an item from the collection by a very famous writer, featuring some beautiful artwork that contrasts sharply with the often dark subject-matter described…

It’s Oliver Twist… with a Twist

  • by Rhian Isaac, Collections Manager, Leeds Central Library

Over the next couple of weeks we’ll be welcoming two new bloggers to the Secret Library. Natascha and Jonathan are students from the University of Leeds, who joined us on a Faculty of Arts Research Placement a few months ago to experience working with our collections and bringing them to a wider audience. They’ve been exploring and researching items from our Ernestine Henry Collection, all of which relate in some way to the subject of chimney sweeps (yes, you read that right!). In the Spring, we’ll be hosting an exhibition at Central Library curated by the students but, until then, look out for articles here on the blog showcasing some of their most interesting finds.

The Henry Collection itself is extremely varied, including such materials as ballad books, children’s literature, fairy tales, prints and sketches. A couple of really interesting and rare items, dating back to the 1830s, are plagiarised versions of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers.

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These were written by ‘Bos’ (a take-off of Dickens’ own pen name, Boz) who was believed to be Thomas Peckett Prest, a British hack writer, journalist and musician, and published by Edward Lloyd, who used these pirated editions to pioneer ‘penny issue’ fiction. Dickens’ early work fell victim to more plagiarism than any English literary work then or since. Cheap serialised editions based on his plots and characters were produced, and the language was adapted to suit the tastes of a rapidly expanding lower-class readership. This was an extremely lucrative venture, as the penny versions sold as many as 50,000 editions a week, probably outnumbering the sales of Dickens’ originals. The plagiarised versions came out at the height of The Pickwick Paper’s popularity, while Oliver Twist had not even finished running before the parody version, Oliver Twiss, began. They were sold weekly for a penny (as opposed to a shilling for a genuine Dickens) and came out on a Sunday, when working people weren’t at work, via small shops and tobacconists, meaning they could reach an untapped market of semi-literate readers not often accessed by middle-class booksellers.

The Pickwick Papers was a perfect target for plagiarists, as it was first conceived as an accompaniment to the comic sketchings of cockney life by Robert Seymour. There are lots of fantastic examples of Seymour’s work in this collection for anyone interested in illustration.

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Pickwick’s plump figure, green glasses and gaiters – no matter how crudely drawn – were instantly recognisable. The episodic plot offered few restrictions to plagiarists and they could adapt or reinvent for as long as they had the public’s interest. The Posthumourous Notes of the Pickwick Club, also called the Penny Pickwick, was the most successful of the plagiarised Pickwicks, and can be found in the Henry Collection.

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Oliver Twiss, the Workhouse Boy was the most celebrated piracy of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, exploiting the original’s links with popular traditions of Gothic melodrama, crime reporting and stage comedy, and running for 78 weeks.

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As you might imagine, Dickens was not pleased and, in 1837, he attempted to have Edward Lloyd’s publications terminated by legal means. But he failed in his suit when Lloyd argued that the unauthorised imitations were so bad no one could mistake them for the real thing – reputedly leading Dickens to comment: “I was made to feel like the robber instead of the robbed”. However, the famous author would get his own back on the ‘dishonest dullards’ (as he referred to Prest and Lloyd) by caricaturing them in his next novel, Nicholas Nickleby, which was serialised from 1838 to 1839. It is this and his many other classics that continue to attract hoards of enthusiastic readers almost two centuries later.

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