Friday, June 27, 2014

The Wonders of the Cheshire Library Stack

There are some very helpful librarians in Chester Central Library.  Since I am researching the history of my home town there is a lot of material on the local shelves, but sometimes I come across a book on the library catalogue that doesn't seem to be there.  The answer, apparently, is that they are retained in 'the stack' - some of this is accessible, and some of it not.  I like the idea of this stack.  I imagine it in the basement of the building nestling amongst Roman pillars and forgotten Medieval paraphernalia.  I think it must be in order though because the librarians come back surprisingly quickly with the book in hand.  Once, a particularly obliging librarian came back with a trolly full.  Literary treasure!

My latest request from the stacks yielded these:

They looked old and they hadn't been out of years, and hadn't held out much hope that they would be particularly entertaining, but they are.  In fact, they are quite fascinating.  Two of them are by Gervas Huxley, cousin to the more famous Aldous and Julian.  They concern a local family called the Grosvenors, and Gervas obviously knew two members of the family well because he has dedicated one of his books to them.  He had access to the diary and letters of Lady Elizabeth Grosvenor - a 19th century member of the family - and through them even dry events like the Great Reform Act become exciting. Lady Elizabeth adored her husband and because he was a member of parliament she became interested in politics too.  She was so interested she even made frequent visits to the 'Ventilator' a small uncomfortable viewing platform above the blazing chandeliers that had been consigned to the ladies (after they had been banished after refusing, with stamps and howls, to be turned out during an important debate of 1878).

The Grosvenors were fabulously wealthy - and still are.  At this time they were also in the centre of power, and so they were involved in the great events of the day - e.g.  the emancipation of slaves, the abolishment of child labour, the suffrage and acceptance of the Catholic church in England and Ireland.  The book also explains how they came by their wealth: the lucrative combination of land acquisition, the canny use of acts of parliament to allow their great swathes of land in central London to be leased out (rather than sold) to ambitious developers and further acquisition with the profits.

But it is their involvement in Chester that I'm interested in - and they were involved a lot.  For two hundred years they represented Chester in parliament with no one able to realistically contest them because the Grosvenors could always upstage any contenders with their generous hospitality during the canvassing and Hustings.  It was a situation that had to change: Lady Elizabeth's husband could see that.  There were signs of unrest and he wisely voted for the Great Reform Act even though it meant that he would lose out.  Interesting times - brought alive by Mr. Huxley's books - and thanks to the Cheshire Library Stack and the helpful librarians I get to read about them.


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