Valete fratres - Librarians and the First World War
On Remembrance Sunday, we are sharing a story about librarians who lost their lives serving in the First World War.
In 1923 The Library Association commissioned the calligraphers Edward Johnston and H Lawrence Christie to design a roll of honour commemorating the British librarians who fell in the Great War. Johnston, a renowned calligrapher best-known for designing an alphabet used on London Underground signs until 1980, was familiar with the British Museum Library having studied its manuscript collections as a young man. Christie was one of the co-founders of the Society of Scribes & Illuminators and had already designed other memorials to the 1914-1918 war, including the bronze panel in the House of Commons commemorating the five Committee Clerks who were killed in action.
Letter from H Lawrence Christie to W R B Prideaux, Secretary of the Library Association, showing the 1923 design for the roll of honour.
The original design was for a roll of honour on a series of vellum panels behind glass and framed in oak, to be written and gilded by Edward Johnston and H Lawrence Christie, and framed at the Hampshire House Workshops in English Oak. The Library Association contacted libraries across the United Kingdom asking for information about staff killed during the First World War. When the replies came in it soon became clear that there were too many names to be easily accommodated by the original design. Following the advice of Christie, it was decided that the entire memorial would be made of a series of wood panels incised in gilt. English oak was chosen because, in the words of Christie “the wood seems to be thoroughly British and to symbolise Britain”. The memorial was made by the workshops of Harry Hems and Sons of Exeter, ecclesiastical sculptor and wood carver.
The memorial, which was erected in the corridor leading to the Round Reading Room of the British Museum, was officially unveiled at a ceremony in Museum on the evening of Friday 24th October 1924. The memorial remained at the British Museum until 1998 when it was moved to its current site in the British Library.
What is less well-known is that the Library Association also collected service details for each of the librarians named on the memorial. Many of the forms returned included photographs, which are now held in the British Library Corporate Archive. A selection of these has been made available on the BL Facebook pages. More will be added during the coming week.
Unfortunately, we have very little information about the memorial or the librarians mentioned on it, and only have images for 30 of the 142 people named. Please help us to tell the stories behind these ‘untold lives’ by using this blog or our Facebook gallery pages to share any information you have about the memorial or the librarians named on it.
British Library Corporate Archivist