The late 17th Century Upper Library at The Queen’s College, Oxford University, is one of the finest rooms in Oxford. It houses the largest and most diverse collections of rare books in any of the University Colleges. We are delighted to have acquired a quantity of oak bookcases that, for the past 160 years, have had a supporting role there.
This series of bookcases were inserted into the 17th Century library as interval cases in order to house a massive influx of books in the mid 19th Century. Queen’s had received a very large bequest in the 1841 from Robert Mason, an Old Member, who stipulated in his will that £30,000 should be spent on the library, and the library only, and be spent within three years. Having shoe-horned the books into the Upper library the Fellows then commissioned C.R.Cockerell (architect of The Ashmolean and Taylor’s Institute) to adapt the arcaded undercroft of the 17th century building – glazing the arcades – in order to double the available space.
The above photograph of The Upper Library must date to between 1850, by which time the smaller, interval bookcases were in place, and the mid 1880’s when they would have been removed to the newly completed Lower Library. We have discovered a graffito on one of the bookcase carcasses: “altered by Smyint(?) Co. Clarendon St. Oxford Sep 1884” which ties-in with the Upper library at that time being restored to its original density of shelving.
By the end of 20th Century, shunted aside for a different shelving scheme, the peripatetic bookcases were part of an increasingly congested Lower Library.
Having restored the Upper and Lower libraries in 2013/14, the College finally went underground with a new library extension this year (2017) extending beneath the Provost’s garden. With miles of new shelving, they have opted, finally, to dispose of the 1840’s interval bookcases. LASSCO were very happy to acquire them.
The format is double sided. With paneled show-timber ends. The four that ended up in the Law Library had to be deconstructed in order to extract them; they are flat packed and we will move towards converting them to single-sided wall-mounted bookcases if required by a customer. The rest came out of the Lower Library complete.
The removal project was hard work. Not only did we have a very narrow time frame, getting in as soon as each bookcase was emptied by the book-moving team and immediately getting the cases off-site to enable the building work to be completed, but the narrow medieval streets that thread behind Queen’s College, New College and their various low bridges, prevented us getting any suitable vehicle anywhere near a Library exit big enough to squeeze a bookcase through! Each bookcase had to be loaded on piano wheels, wheeled out of the library and taken on a long trip through the lanes to our waiting lorry out near the High Street.
Examples of each type can be viewed at LASSCO Three Pigeons. A search for “Queens” on our website will reveal all of the items salvaged from the library including some library tables.
A footnote: A display panel at the College about the Eglefield the 14th Century founder reads as follows:
“Queen’s was not only a centre of learning but also a centre of charity… Thick pea soup was distributed daily to the poor at the front entrance and those with disabilities were entertained in the Hall. This generosity of spirit has continued through the years…”.
Three weary and hungry LASSCO workers should not then have been surprised when on a final trip through the Quad after a week of heaving oak bookcases from the library we found ourselves ushered into the grand dining hall and treated to a first rate Fish and Chips lunch. No pea soup was proffered but there was a generous helping of mushy peas. We would like to thank the College for their wonderful hospitality on that day and attest to the generosity of spirit referred to.