The Nottingham Essay: Edward Harley and the birth of the British Library

Robert Harley (1661-1724) was a proper toff and like proper toffs he spent most of his life buying up as much culture as possible. His particular penchant was books and manuscripts which were procured by Humphrey Wanley, an über bibliophile and Harley’s personal librarian and agent. By 1721 he had an incredible personal library that contained 6,000 volumes, 14,000 medieval and later charters, and 500 rolls. This meant he accumulated massive debts, all of which were passed down to his son Edward Harley (1689-1741).  

Robert Harley was a pretty important fella too, responsible for guiding the Act of Settlement through parliament in 1701, which is the main constitutional law governing the succession to the throne of the United Kingdom, as well as the other Commonwealth realms. This would be instrumental in paving the way for the Union with Scotland in 1707. But things went pear shaped in 1715 when he was impeached and accused of treason with the French, and banged up in the Tower of London for two years while awaiting trial. Although the charges were eventually dropped, the experience took its toll and he passed away a few years later in 1724.

Unlike his father, Edward wasn’t a particularly good scholar and was renowned only for skipping lectures. But he inherited the family gene for collecting books, and, naturally, building up debts. Clearly incensed by the state’s ingratitude towards his father, he commissioned Joseph Goupy to copy a painting of Belisarius, which featured a Roman general forced to beg at the gates of Rome. The painting was a blatant two fingers up at the establishment for not knowing when their bread was buttered.  

Although Edward dabbled with politics – doing a brief stint in the House of Lords and Commons – art and culture offered a more viable means to express and reflect his ideas. The problem was he didn’t have much money. Fortunately this could be resolved by marrying the right woman, which was anyone with multiple barrelled names. The lucky Lady in question was Henrietta Cavendish-Holles who, after a right ding dong in the courts surrounding her inherited fortune, had a purse of £500,000. Robert wasted no time in squandering £400,000 of this on his obsessive collecting. They would later have a daughter, Lady Margaret Cavendish Harley (1715–1785), who married William Bentink, 2nd Duke of Portland (1709 – 1762)

Edward was well liked but he was a pretty rubbish landowner, neglecting his duties in pursuit of his pleasures. He was warned on numerous times by close advisors to be more frugal with his money but he just couldn’t help himself, often paying well over the odds for some of his books. If alive today, he would definitely be one of those people caught in a bidding frenzy on eBay, paying silly money for tat because the desire to own something outweighed the material value. Matters would not have been helped by his wife’s family being illustrious collectors, thereby feeling the social pressure to emulate or usurp their collections. But let’s not over psychologise him. He was a bit of a greedy guts.

Edward was known for his Grand Tours of Britain, all caustically recorded in his diaries where we discover Stonehenge was ‘unpleasant’ and Salisbury ‘an exceedingly nasty town’. He had his own arty farty circle too, surrounded by painters and writers. These included Alexander Pope, satirist Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe (1719) which is widely recognised as the birth of the novel. But let’s be honest, they were all after a bit of patronage to fund their works.

He was a man of principle, though, and led a group of friends who helped publish the collected poems of Matthew Prior in 1718. This was done through a subscription of 1,445 people. But this wasn’t complete altruism. Prior had previously been accused of treason while under his father’s leadership (during the Treaty of Utrecht) and so bringing his work to the public domain was a means of sticking it to the Whigs and the establishment.

The Harley’s were responsible for creating an unprecedented collection of books that would see the library of Welbeck Abbey and manuscripts from the family home at Brampton Bryan converge during Edward’s life. There were even workshops set up in the family’s London home where books were lovingly bound and preserved. But unlike a lot of collectors of the period, Edward was keen to share his fetish, opening up his private collection to fellow bibliophiles and scholars. The problem was he simply didn’t have the money to maintain his passion.

In 1739 Lady Henrietta was forced to sell the Wimpole estate and Edward turned to the fizzy pop, drinking himself to death by 16 June 1741. After his death a vast majority of his collection was sold to pay debts, many of it going abroad. But there is a happy ending. A large chunk of his collection was sold to the nation for £10,000. This would become the foundation of what we now know as the British Library.

Source: The Great Collector: Edward Harley 2nd Earl of Oxford by Derek Adlam and The Harley Gallery, Welbeck, Worksop, Nottinghamshire S80 3LW

Other visual essays in the Nottingham Essay series

Everything you wanted to know about making a radio documentary but couldn’t be arsed to ask


A few years ago I wrote a 15 minute essay for a BBC Radio 3 series called In Praise of the Midlands. It was pretty straight forward. I banged out 2,000 words on the topic of The Defiant Individualism of Arthur Seaton, made a few tweaks over email with the series producer Robert Shore, booked a studio and read it out. Then I did some vox pops for a BBC Radio 4 series called Made in the Middle. Both were Made in Manchester productions and creative director and founder Ashley Byrne asked me to pitch other ideas. Although I was really interested, I didn’t have time. I was balancing two jobs and every other waking hour was spent cobbling together Dawn of the Unread or doing Notts propaganda for LeftLion.

After three years of hard slog Dawn of the Unread got a full stop of sorts when it was published as a physical book by Spokesman Books in 2017. In March last year I jacked in LeftLion after 13 years of blathering on about all things Notts. Ashley, forever patient, got in touch again and I pitched the idea of exploring pit poetry in the East Midlands. A year or so later and it’s going to be broadcast this Sunday on BBC Radio 4 in the three part series Tongue and Talk: The Dialect Poets.

The series kicked off on 13 May when Catherine Harvey returned to her roots in the North West of England to see if the dialect poetry of the cotton mills of the 19th century is alive today. In episode two, I explore a bit of the Notts accent and then have a natter with retired pitmen still reciting their dialect poetry in venues across Nottinghamshire. The final episode sees Kirsty McKay return home to Northumberland only to discover the erosion of dialect and culture by the encroachment of urbanisation and influx of people moving into the area.

I’ve blogged the arse out of the content of the episode for various websites (see related reading) so I thought it would be useful to share a few of my experiences of writing for radio. The most difficult thing about writing an episode that involves interviewing lots of people is that you’re blind to the process. On this page I can see my thoughts in words. I can delete things and go back to earlier drafts. But I can’t see audio. The editing down of the interviews was done by the internal producers at Made in Manchester. I produced a script with fillers and suggestions of where interviews should go, but ultimately I was working blind. Writers aren’t used to trusting other folk. We write because we’re greedy and we want control. So letting go is difficult, but not when you trust those around you.

Ashley explained that sometimes the writers get to listen to the audio and suggest the bits of gold they want included. But because this was my first time, and we had a bit of a tight deadline, they did the editing. I then received various We Transfer edits of the work in progress. Given that we easily recorded over 10 hour’s footage, how on earth were they going to get it down to 27 minutes and 36 seconds long? It was a headache I was pleased to avoid.

I think we did four recordings in the studio, gradually chipping away at fillers. Then as we neared completion it was a case of reading out multiple introductions of guests to ensure our verbs covered the three tenses: past, present, and future. This typically included rattle such as: Next up is…Later we will be talking to…We return to…Our next guest…etc. The last thing you want is to get a call when you’re on the lash asking you to get to studio pronto just to say ‘And now we have’.

It’s obvious but it’s worth stating: Recording on location means there are different noises, echoes and nuances in the recordings. So ensuring consistency for the fillers was vital. This also threw up some challenges as I sometimes had to think up things off the cuff rather than having the luxury of contemplating thoughts in Word. Different medium, different rules. Fortunately I was in the very capable hands (or rather voice) of Iain Macknes, Made in Manchester’s Head of Production. Iain also gave me some really good advice. He told me to try and sound friendlier. To remember the programme was going to be broadcast in front rooms and kitchens while couples washed up. I was barking a bit at the beginning, perhaps laying too much emphasis on the flat Radford vowels of Arthur Seaton, speaking as if I expected to be attacked. This is odd because my voice is naturally quite quiet. I think because the programme meant a lot to me, in that I had a responsibility to Nottingham to do a good job, I was drilling out words so that they left my mouth as concrete, something that no listener could break.

When we were recording on location I worked with three different people. This was simply a case of who was available at the time. Each person had their own technique and tips, although all of them were keen to record doors being opened, footsteps across paths, and live location introductions. I was advised by Ashley in one recording to repeat certain words as someone was talking as this reminded listeners I was there and conveys interest. But I didn’t like this as much because I tend to laugh a lot and so it sounds like I’m laughing at people when I repeat what they say. But this might be my own paranoia. Hearing your own voice is really weird. I’m a bit more used to it now after doing The Nottingham Essay series on YouTube, but I don’t like it. Feels like I’m in a David Lynch film.

Catherine Harvey was the series producer and so was tasked with ensuring consistency among the programmes. This meant ensuring we kept a good beat between poems – it is a poetry programme after all, and explaining dialect. Then of course there’s the BBC who have their own rules and regulations. Overall this meant we didn’t get the full force of Al Needham’s bawdy irreverence, and we also missed out on Lord Biro’s memories of the Strike. I had a really interesting chat with Norma Gregory about her research project Digging Deeper: Coal Miners of African Caribbean Heritage but we were unable to use it in the end as the emphasis of the programme was poetry and dialect. I’m hoping to make this available on soundcloud at some point.

I’m really pleased with what Made in Manchester have done and I’m really grateful that Ashley Byrne has shown faith and pestered me to do summat. There are a few things that I would like to change given a bit more time, but the story has to end at some point. Writers never learn this lesson. That’s why we keep telling the same story over and over again. I guess my story is Nottingham. Perhaps it’s time I moved somewhere else.

Talk and Tongue: The Dialect Poets is broadcast at 4.30pm on Sunday 20 May