Thursday, 17 January 2013

Edward Edwards - troubled library pioneer

Small world. Lily at The Topsham Bookshop asked if I could help with identifying the authorship of an anonymous 19th-century volume about the Exmouth area (Devonshire. Containing historical, biographical and descriptive notices of Exmouth & its neighbourhood. Pub: S Drayton & Sons, Exeter, 1868?). A bit of correlation of variant titles found it to be by the librarian and writer Edward Edwards (1812-1886) - a name I already knew vaguely for its Isle of Wight connections: Edwards died in poverty in Niton.

He's a morbidly interesting character. On the one hand, he was undoubtedly highly talented, energetic and diverse in his scope: his scholarly books on varied topics, his work for the British Museum and Manchester Free Library, and his efforts to establish the public library system (see the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, and Edward Edwards, the chief pioneer of municipal public libraries (Thomas Greenwood, 1902, Internet Archive ID edwardedwardschi00greeiala). But on the other, he had a real chip on his shoulder, irascible temperament, and a career blighted by inability to cooperate with others; his life was also a financial train wreck that ended up with him in poverty in old age in Niton, forced to sell his vast book collection, and living on the charity of the Harrisons, a Baptist clergyman and his wife. He died during convalescence a few months after being found here in a state of hypothermia after three days missing on the nearby downs. Here's a brief biography by Marie Andrews, reprinted from Wight Life: Edward Edwards.

It's not very clear why he chose to write about the Exmouth district, except that he came down to east Devon to research a biography of Sir Walter Raleigh (see Google Books) and, given his general penchant for writing up whatever was in sight, it seems he just chose to write about Exmouth while he was here.

I just found this rather strange commemorative piece that attempts to convey Edwards' mindset during his final months in Niton:
Edward Edwards - Perception

Niton was cool, clear. The sun blurbed the windows, dust rose from the floor. His landlady called him down to breakfast. He didn't want breakfast. Edward Edwards just wanted to lie for ever staring at the moted sunlight; at specks dancing and at coloured blankets and quilts. But the voice was insistent. With fury at being ordered, he stumbled down — grunted away the helping hand. Ate.

And then to the fields and the turfy grass. To cliffs and to thoughts. Openness and peace — no, no peace. No peace ever. His mind was half on the Raleigh history, half on the sea. He he found his mind could expand further. Expand back into past bitterness.

The closed stuffiness of the Museum on those long hot summer days. The pettiness of officials. The foolishness of his contemporaries. The genius of one. The genius that passioned into London, reorganising the stolidly, contentedly plodding museum. That would have no balking.

Oh. God, that emigre from a degenerate country. That professor of some obscure university. That man with a price on his head! He thought he owned London and with an italianate wave of his hand consigned Edwards to the regions of anonymity. Edward stood by his ideas mouldering: bitterness growing. "One of them must go." The Trustees, as a body had fallen in love with their Panizzi. So Edwards went to Manchester.

Authority in Manchester as well. Authority everywhere, besetting his ideas, reminding of his origins. Arguments by the score, and an ignoble dismissal. So Manchester had finished with him.

Vicissitudes later he ended up at Niton. Money just dribbled away. He had no money now to give to the couple who were sheltering him. He had nearly died once. Wandered for days, been attacked by pneumonia and nursed to recovery. Recovery of what? Today was his first day outside and as he walked on he wondered why he had come out. For small boys laughed at him. And the world was growing colder. And his brain was becoming numb, numb and cold with hopelessness. The will to carry on just left him. The walls stretched up around him, right up to infinity. Walls up, walls above; there was only below. The people were other-worldish. They were not part of him nor of Niton. Niton was peace but he hadn't found peace in Niton. He had found the walls which he had never been able to escape. Those whispering BM officials, those petty committee members in Manchester had all been walls. Younger then, he had hoped to be mistaken. When hope goes, then goes all.

Edwards died that night of a peaceful overdose of veronal.

They did not understand, the doctors and the world that was left. They said: "You died, Edward Edwards, of old age. And honoured is your name." Honoured indeed! As if we ever honoured genius. The angels smiled when Edward died. For his hell had been on earth.

- Susan Wynn-Jones, Ealing School of Librarianship. Last Exit Appeal Fund. The Assistant Librarian: official journal of the A.A.L. - Volumes 60-61 - Page 35, 1967
Sympathetic spin apart, the bit about suicide seems made-up. It's not corroborated by other accounts, and furthermore he couldn't have OD'd in 1886 on the barbiturate veronal, which wasn't synthesised until 1902.

There's a memorial to Edwards in Niton churchyard (see Flickr, Edward Edwards) and Niton Library was rebadged, appropriately, as the Edward Edwards Community Library in 2011 (see A new chapter at the Library, Isle of Wight County Press).  See also the following post, The "Salt Pot".

- Ray

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