Vicar’s Library of St. Mary’s Marlborough

Ilse Nikolsky

The “Vicar’s Library of St. Mary’s Marlborough” was bequeathed in 1678 by William White for use by the Vicars of St. Mary’s; the Mayor and Corporation of Marlborough are the trustees.

The 600 volumes which include 237 items printed before 1641, with 8 the only known copies and 45 rare books, are these days on permanent loan to the Bodleian in Oxford where they can be accessed.

On his death on 31st May 1678 William White left his considerable collection of books to Cornelius Yeate, Vicar of St.Mary’s of Marlborough, and to his successors at St. Mary’s. His last Will and Testament of 1677 stated “that every one of the vicars would give one good Book to the study that is not there allready, to the end It may bee a convenient Library for any minister of whatsoever abilityes and Inclinations.”

William White also determined that his daughter Elizabeth Pusey  would give Yeate and his successors five pounds per Annum for prayers every evening…if these were not performed the £5 were to go to some good cause like “Placeing out some poor child”.

My research has not revealed how these £5 are annually spent these days, but the collection of books was rediscovered and rescued in 1942 by E.G.H. Kempson and is known as The Vicar’s Library of St.Mary’s Marlborough. It is known to some people in Marlborough, but not as widely as should be the case with a library for which the Trustees are the Mayor and Corporation of Marlborough.

Who were William White, Cornelius Yeate, and E.G.H. Kempson (fondly known as ‘G’ to his friends) and above all, where are the books now?

The last question is most easily answered. The books are at the Bodleian Library whose website says:

“The Vicar’s Library, St Mary’s, Marlborough, Wiltshire.

The bulk of the collection was put together by William White (1604-1678), Master of Magdalen College School 1632-1648 and later Rector of Pusey and of Appleton, who bequeathed it to the Mayor and Corporation of Marlborough in trust for the use of the Vicar of St. Mary’s. Deposited on permanent loan in the Bodleian in 1985. Over 600 volumes, containing c. 760 items, including 237 items printed in Britain before 1641, of which 8 are the only known copies and another 45 are rare. The majority of the volumes are theology, works of scholarship and school books (there are 13 specimens of the grammatical treatises of Robert Whittington and a volume of 5 tracts by John Stanbridge of which 4 are unique), while classics, literature, political tracts, history, law and medicine are also represented. Includes many books interesting for their associations and many annotated with date of purchase and price. The majority of the bindings are by Oxford binders of the 17th century, with some earlier blind-tooled examples.“

To introduce the ‘dramatis personae’ will take a bit longer…. G wrote comprehensively about the key people and in detail about the books. His article “E. G. H.Kempson, ‘The Vicar’s Library, St Mary’s, Marlborough’, Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 1i (December 1945) 194-215 and 344-345” is a pleasure to read. The following is taken from this and his other publications. Additional information has been provided by Simon Brett, John Byrom, Nick Fogg, and Sir John Sykes.

William White (1604 – 1678) was Master of Magdalen College School in Oxford.

As a Royalist he lost this position in 1648 and became Rector of Pusey previously in Berkshire- now in Oxfordshire, and after the Restoration also of Appleton. White is described as an educationalist and a considerable Latin stylist with broad interests; his library contains books on history, law, medicine and science. Some of the books are annotated by White in the margins. In one book he notes that he saw a very red glow in the sky. The date is 1666 ; the year of the Great Fire of London. With an approximate distance of 60 miles from Appleton to London as the crow flies, and at that time little or no light pollution, it is highly likely that he saw the glow of the fire.  What made him bequeath his books to Cornelius Yeate (1651 – 1720), who in 1677 had been appointed to St. Mary’s, Marlborough, is less clear. G proposed two possible connections between them. Yeate was presented to Marlborough by Thomas Pierce, Dean of Salisbury. Pierce was a former pupil of White and had become a close friend; he may have been the intermediary.  Yet another connection between White and Yeate could have come about through their being neighbours in 1672; Yeate lived at Charney, two miles from Pusey. As White had no son (but a daughter Elizabeth) he may have taken an interest in Yeate and maintained contact when Yeate moved to Marlborough.

After White’s death in 1678 his daughter Elizabeth Pusey (in 1674 she had married Richard, the Squire of Pusey) ensured that the books and the annual payment of five pounds came to Marlborough.

Initially the books appear to have been kept at Yeate’s house. The Marlborough Chamberlain’s Account of 1678 records “paid William Lester the sum of £2 15s for worke att the Library”. A catalogue of the books was kept in the chest of the Mayor and Magistrates.  With regard to the Merchant’s House it is of interest that in 1682 a “Tho Bayly” was one of the signatories of a petition by the Town of Marlborough to the King for “prebend or other  promotion“ of Cornelius Yeate.

After Yeate’s departure in 1707 to St. Mary’s Islington (perhaps the petition had not succeeded) the books were kept in the south west corner of the church in a wooden chamber, which had been built during various alterations at that time. For the remaining years of the 18th century the books appear to have been neglected and the catalogue was lost.

In 1812 during a “ruri-decanal visitation” an injunction was left for “the Parish library Ceiling to be mended, the Room and Books to be cleaned, the Books arranged and a Catalogue of them to be made by the Vicar”.

In 1898 the Rt. Rev Louis Mylne (retired Bishop of Bombay), who had become the Rector of Marlborough the previous year, applied to the Mayor and Corporation for permission to sell some of the books; the purpose appears to have been to gain shelf space for his own large library. The sale was not agreed to and the books were placed in the Old Market House. This building was pulled down in 1900 and the books were removed to the old Grammar School where the then rector Christopher Wordsworth catalogued them in 1903. We owe him thanks; G later used this catalogue to trace some missing books to Cambridge. Wordsworth, who  recognised the value of  the books,  had many repaired and informed the Bodlean, Cambridge University library and the British Museum of the most interesting items.

In 1905 the school was rebuilt and the books were transferred to the attic in the Town Hall where it was dry but dusty.

A couple of the books from the Vicar's Library collection

In 1914 the books were offered for valuation to Sotheby’s; nothing else is recorded and the books remained in the town. In 1928 Canon Hoste had them protected from dust with newspapers; copies of The Times were pinned up behind the grilles of the bookcases and the books were left there undisturbed until 1942 when during a salvage campaign it was proposed to use them for pulping. Fortunately before this action was taken G’s opinion was sought.

“G”,  E.G.H. Kempson (1902 – 1987), was a teacher  of Mathematics and a Housemaster at Marlborough College,  a mountaineer (he participated in two Everest expeditions), a natural historian, and in his later years a meticulous local historian ( his many publications attest to this).  He was Mayor of Marlborough in 1946, and he took good care of the books until the end of his life.

G sought expert advice on the library (I am not sure at what stage the books acquired the name The Vicar’s Library). He raised £250 for repairs, arranged for them to be on permanent loan and housed in a classroom in Marlborough College with the condition that the library was kept as one and that it was accessible. He followed up the whereabouts of some missing books once Wordsworth’s inventory of 1903 was found – they had not been returned from a loan to Cambridge. G researched, liaised, published articles and gave lectures – some of us were fortunate on these occasions to hold some of the books in our hands.

The Vicar's Library

Simon Brett, who contributed the engraving for G’s publication “Tercentenary of the foundation of the Vicar’s Library at St Mary’s, Marlborough, 1678-1978” Kennet Press 1978, remembers:

“For the little booklet he produced, I made an engraving of St. Mary’s Church as it might have looked in 1678, already venerable but without the subsequent additions. I also went with G and Margaret one sunny afternoon – Margaret drove –  to Pusey House Church, built in 1745 in classical style, on the edge of Pusey House and Gardens near Faringdon. Some accounts say it was built on the site of an earlier church, others that the earlier church was nearer the House. Anyway, here, behind the altar, G lifted the carpet to reveal the tombstone of William White. White had died in 1678, seventy years before the church was built, but his grave had presumably been left undisturbed, which suggests that the first version is true and this was the site of the earlier building. I took a rubbing of the inscription which was included in the booklet:


Not even the most literal believers today would relate the afterlife to our present life quite so bluntly, I think.”

The library was visited by scholars from Oxford, London, Edinburgh and enquiries from abroad were made and answered. In the last years of his life G’s aim was to ensure the library was in a permanent place and safe from dampness, dust, decimation and destruction. With the agreement of  the  Vicar and  the  Mayor and Corporation the College was asked to release the books and in 1985 the Vicar’s Library was deposited on permanent loan with the Bodleian library on the condition that the library be kept as a whole and not distributed around different sections.

A Museum of Marlborough was in G’s times not yet envisioned, but I am in no doubt that G would have agreed that while we are not equipped or expert enough in the town to look after the library (three books are incunabula of 1484, 1487, and 1498, others are rare or unique) we should inform visitors to the Museum of the story of the nearly lost library and of William White, Cornelius Yeate, Christopher Wordsworth,  and,  I would add, of  E. G. H.Kempson.

And just in case you wonder, many of the Vicars complied with White’s request by adding a book to the collection.