Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Huguenot Library, UCL

One thing I like about London is that there seem to be hundreds of specialist little library collections dotted around the place, and the one I went to yesterday is an excellent example. It was the Huguenot Collection, which is part of the Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland - a society established in 1885.

There seems to be little written about the Huguenots which is surprising because about 50,000 took refuge the UK after the revocation of the 'irrevocable' edict of Nantes in 1685, and so there are many people in the UK with Huguenot ancestry. One of my forebears - a Huguenot - was called 'de Wild' (subsequently changed to 'Wilde' by future generations to sound 'less foreign' - which is part of the reason I'm interested in them.

The Huguenots were, indirectly, persecuted because of the invention of the printing press. Cheaper access to the bible meant that it was read by the general population; and the contrast between the philosophy there and the corruption of the Catholic church became apparent. For instance, as a fund raiser, the Pope had instigated a system of 'Indulgences'. These were pardons sold by the clergy for anything from incest to lying.

Some of these readers protested and formed their own religious group: the protestants. After that, printing, distributing and even reading the bible were offences all over Catholic Europe punishable sometimes by the confiscation of property and sometimes by death. England was more liberal (well, most of the time) and so some of the most persecuted felt encouraged to come and settle here. Favoured places included Norwich (which was the country's second biggest town), Canterbury, and Soho and Spitalfields in London.

In Spitalfields they produced silk and some became wealthy merchants, and so it was to Spitalfields I was intending to go yesterday...before I became distracted by the library. I'd discovered it only that morning on a lucky little search on the internet, and rang them from the train to see if I could visit. The librarian was very welcoming and gave me instructions on how to get there.

Although part of UCL, the library is housed in one of the outlying buildings of the UCL hospital. It is an inauspicious-looking place next to a petrol station. There are no signs and the foyer was crammed with crates of flattened empty cardboard boxes. I looked at the instruction I'd hastily written down on the train: 'Take the lift to the first floor.'

It moved slowly, as though someone somewhere was heaving it up by rope. The thought occurred to me that it might be like this someone could disappear. Eventually the lift doors opened into another foyer. There were several unmarked doors, partly glazed so I could see that they led to offices, and a phone with a notice to ring a number for entrance (and another number to dial in case of a heart attack) .

By now I was convinced I had come to the wrong place, but I picked up the phone anyway.
'No, you're right,' said a voice. 'Now go down two flights of steps.'

I tried a door, and miraculously, it seemed, it led to stairs. So, even though it felt a little strange to go back down when I'd just come up, I carefully counted myself down two flights and came to another foyer ...and another phone. I lifted it up feeling more encouraged - at least here was a temporary-looking sign 'special collections'.

'Ah yes,' said a voice, 'come in. I'll let them know you're here...'

After all that it was almost a disappointment to find a room full of books. It is a wonderful little library, though.


Blogger Paul Halpern said...

What a mysterious library! I'm surprised that the lift didn't have a ancient (human) operator running it to whom you had to supply a secret password in French. Perhaps if you had removed the right book from the library shelf, the bookcase would have spun around and who know what you would have found.

Fri Feb 26, 10:30:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Ha, that would have been good, Paul - and I really like the idea of the secret password! It was definitely the most weird entrance to a library and I felt, once I was there, that I was party to a rather excellent little secret.

Sat Feb 27, 11:30:00 am  

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