A large new collection of writings, containing works by such authors as Wordsworth, Tennyson and Dickens, has been bequeathed to Trinity College in one of the largest ever donations to the college.
The collection, containing over 7,500 items, was left to Trinity’s Wren Library by the Duchess of Roxburghe, who passed away in 2014.
At the heart of the donation is a number of especially prized works and other items which the Duchess called ‘the holy of holies’, many of them first editions, and including books annotated by Oscar Wilde and William Beckford, a biography of George Washington containing a letter by the man himself, and a piece of Voltaire’s dressing gown.
The Duchess had numerous familial connections to Trinity: her father, Robert Crewe-Milnes, and grandfather, Richard Monckton Milnes, both attended the college.
She was also the great aunt of television icon Bamber Gascoigne, who presented University Challenge for 25 years and is another Cantabrigian, having attended Magdalene College.
The books were previously kept at West Horsley Place, a stately home in Surrey with roots stretching back 900 years, purchased by Robert Crewe-Milnes. The house and all other contents apart from the books were bequeathed to Gascoigne on the Duchess’ death.
Dr Nicholas Bell, the Librarian at Trinity, described the donation as “an extraordinary library – one of the most important private collections in Britain.”
He said that on visiting the house alongside Trinity’s Sub-Librarian Sandy Paul, the pair were amazed by the find: “there were books everywhere, shelved to the ceiling in most rooms and in piles on the floor”.
He described the moving of the books to Trinity from Surrey as “quite a complicated logistical exercise” requiring a “huge effort by staff sorting, classifying, cleaning and conserving the books.”
Much of the collection dates from the nineteenth century, but many books originate from the eighteenth and seventeenth. Some of the items, Dr Bell said, are “so obscure that no other copy has been tracked down in any library catalogue in the world.”
He added: “More than 200 manuscript volumes were completely unknown to modern scholars, ranging from 17th-century poetry volumes to messianic prophecies.”
Gascoigne said of the donation: “It is a delight for me, and would be for my aunt who left her library to Trinity, that the books from now on have a secure and lasting home as the Crewe collection”. He also said that it was “thrilling" that the collection was now available for everyone.
The books found in the collection are available by appointment for researchers to explore, and a few selected items are on display in the Wren Library. Additionally, some works have been added to the Wren Digital library, where they can be browsed in full, as well the Library’s online catalogue.
So far, according to its website, the library has digitised from the Crewe Collection: a volume of cuttings and illustrations named 'Aeronautica'; a book of prose written for Florence Nightingale called 'Athena, an Owlet from the Parthenon'; a collection of woodcuts from Greenland; and 'Wilton Garden', a set of engravings by Isaac de Caus.
A video explaining the find has been posted to Trinity’s YouTube channel.
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