When thinking of literary heritage manuscripts and objects, it’s too easy to focus purely on those items that were created or once owned by notable authors. The holdings of Blackburn Museum go some way to redress the balance, showing the importance of the collector in preserving our literary heritage.
Blackburn is not a town that is renowned for its cultural impact. In the 18th century, it became known as a key town in the burgeoning textile industry, one of many North West towns that was to benefit from the expanding cotton industry over the course of almost two centuries. Today, all that is left of this boom in Blackburn are the grand buildings, such as the town hall or the refurbished Waterloo Pavilions. The famous Thwaites Brewery, a feature of the town since 1807, is the last remaining business from Blackburn’s industrial past. The collection of R.E. Hart at the Blackburn Museum is another sign of the town’s affluent history.
R.E. Hart (1878-1946) was a local industrialist and philanthropist, the chairman of his family business, the rope-maker Thomas Hart Ltd. This company made its fortune by selling rope to the cotton mills of Manchester and surrounding towns, a fortune that R.E. Hart used to build his own personal collection of books, manuscripts, paintings, coins and other artefacts. On his death, Hart’s collection was bequeathed to the Blackburn Public Library, later to be moved to the Blackburn Museum where it currently resides in the Hart Gallery.
Hart’s collection is extraordinary, particularly from a literary heritage point of view. As the museum says, it is Hart’s ‘attempt at documenting the history of the written word’. The collection of 800 early books includes several folios of Shakespeare’s plays, first editions of Gulliver’s Travels and Paradise Lost, William Morris’s edition of the Canterbury Tales, important psalters and other illuminated manuscripts and several examples of early printing, including a page of the Gutenberg Bible. What the manuscripts and books in the collection reveal about the development of writing and the history of the printed book is not only essential to literary studies, but their situation in Blackburn is a benefit to a community that would otherwise have to travel hundreds of miles to see anything of their like.
The contents of the Hart Collection are valuable for both the preservation and continued research into cultural history, and the fact that the collection exists reveals much about a legacy of cotton magnates and business leaders and their connections to their hometowns. Outside of the Hart Collection, there are collections bequeathed to various institutions throughout the North West. Thomas Boys Lewis (1869-1942), the owner of Springfield cotton mill in Blackburn, was renowned for his philanthropy in the town, establishing the Lewis Textile Museum among other community-minded endeavours. He was also a collector, most notably of traditional Japanese prints which now join Hart’s artefacts in the Blackburn Museum. Edward Stocks Massey (1849-1909), a brewer from Burnley, donated £125,000 to the town and helped establish the collections at Towneley Hall, including works by J.M.W. Turner. Items from all of these collections were recently on show at Two Temple Place in London, part of the ‘Cotton to Gold’ exhibition.
Through the collaboration between Dr Cynthia Johnson, of the University of London’s Institute of English Studies, and the staff at Blackburn Museum, Hart’s Collections have stimulated the public imagination, the project continuing Hart’s idea that education should be accessible to all who want it. Not only has this collaboration yielded the ‘Cotton to Gold’ exhibition at Two Temple Place, but also has a programme of free lectures about the collections taking place on site at Blackburn Museum, the most recent being a lecture on Hart’s psalters by Professor Nigel Morgan.
The English Literary Heritage Project is, at its core, about discovering ways in which to engage a public audience. The activities at Blackburn Museum, by both the museum staff, volunteers and academics show the importance of that engagement. Their work is continuing, as they strive to find new ways to bring the Hart Collection to the wider public, reaffirming the necessity of regional museums in the preservation of cultural heritage, and giving the opportunity for all people to experience the excitement of engaging with rare manuscripts and other heritage artefacts. Which is, after all, the reason Hart left his collection to the community of Blackburn in the first place.
For more information, visit the Blackburn Museum’s Website.