From the very first day I started doing research in the Cathedral Library Canon Wilson has been a hero of mine. He was a medievalist at heart, but his research interests didn’t stop there, in fact, the breadth, variety and sheer volume of his research work is truly phenomenal. The Additional Manuscripts class is peppered with hundreds of pieces of his research and to start any piece of research usually means looking to see what Canon Wilson has written first and inevitably there will be something there!
Exploring a box of Canon Wilson’s papers a scruffy notebook caught my eye, it was one which I couldn’t put down – on the first page was written:
[This book] served as a sort of visitors’ book in my house while I was canon here from 1905 to 1926 when I resigned. It illustrates the variety of visitors; missionaries, civil servants, officers and foreigners who came to see our library. The inscription is Persian in origin.
James M. Wilson
“The highest ornaments of a home are the friends who frequent it”
How many of you reading an introduction like the following could resist not having a look inside the covers?
Although my first thought had been ‘a visitors’ book, not that interesting’ it was closely followed by ‘but were any of them intriguing or famous?’ On turning the pages I realised it was not a simple visitors’ book with signatures, it was so much more than that. What Canon Wilson had done was taken the above phrase and asked every visitor to write it out in a different language, many times not their own language.
There are thirty-four different disparate languages represented in the book. They range from the familiar European languages such as French and German through the more unusual for the period, Hindustani, Icelandic, Japanese to the plainly esoteric, featuring among others Lettish, Ojibway and Sanscrit.
Some of the visitors are not unexpected such as Alice Ottley, who founded the Alice Ottley School, now joined with the Royal Grammar School, Worcester. She lived locally and was a friend of the Canon.
Also that many churchmen visited is not perhaps surprising, but the distances they travelled are. Bishop Arthur Lea, a Canadian who was Bishop of Kyushu in Japan,
Bishop Mylne, Bishop of Bombay and Bishop Lofthouse of Keewatin in North Ontario, Canada. Though the latter does explain the entries in Native Canadian languages.
There are some unusual and famous [in their time] signatures in the book but the curiosity is, why or how did Canon Wilson know them. There is Charles Geoffroy-Dechaume, a French artist whose paintings can be found in galleries in both Britain and France
and Chandra Dey, an important personality of his time, who by the age of 18 had his drawings and paintings exhibited in India, Paris and London and was the first Indian artist to go abroad to study art. He studied at the Slade and the Royal College of Art in London.
Then there are the more obscure people such as Juhan Kukk. Why would an Estonian Head of State in the 1920s, later imprisoned by Stalin’s secret police the NKVD and died in prison, be visiting?
Many entries though are, quite frankly, indecipherable scrawls or just initials and these are the ones one wants to know so much more about. ‘A.S.’ is most likely Arthur Smith a Master of Balliol with a national reputation, but who was ‘R.S.’ of Rangoon
or the intriguingly named A. Dungworth of Clackabad?
I have to finish though with my favourite; on one of the pages with no signature attached is a 250,000 Polish Marek note, when issued worth £11,000 though in 1924 when it was stuck in this book it was worth about 1½d.