What really lies in Cambridge University Library’s tower (Hint: it’s not Victorian pornography)

Photography: Sam Armstrong

It is late into Michaelmas Term and the nights are drawing in. The revelries of freshers’ week are forgotten and the reality of nine o’clock lectures and the round of weekly essays have begun to sink in. In College, dinner has just finished. And in the bar, a third year is holding forth on the secrets of the University Library.

The freshers know the basics. That the building was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, also the creator of Battersea Power Station. That it opened in 1934. That its tower extends more than 157ft into the air, 10ft higher than King’s Chapel.

And, of course, they know that Neville Chamberlain is said to have described the tower as a “magnificent erection”. But do they know that students are not permitted to borrow books from the tower? Is this because, as every fresher knows, it contains a collection of Victorian pornography?

Photography: Sam Armstrong

Gentle readers, I hope you are sitting down. Because I have been to the Tower. I have carefully inspected its contents. And I feel duty bound to inform you that… it turns out that there is no pornography in the Tower’s shelves. None whatsoever.

Which is not to say that what is in the Tower is not highly stimulating — far from it. More than 200,000 items are held over 17 floors. Most are late Victorian or Edwardian. Many have never been opened.

Together, they give a unique insight into the glorious miscellany of a world that has otherwise disappeared: of dress patterns, courtship board games, picture books, cookery pamphlets, instructions for gas cookers, women’s magazines — in other words, anything and everything that ordinary Victorians and Edwardians spent their time actually reading.

So how did all this stuff get here? “As a legal deposit library, in the 19th century, as now, we receive a printed copy of every book published in the UK,” explains Vanessa Lacey, Head of English Cataloguing, “so we have huge amounts of printed material that nobody ‘collected’ — it was all just sent here.”

In 2007 a group of six librarians, funded by the Mellon Foundation and the University, began cataloguing. “It’s all the ephemeral things,” says Lacey. “You get a very different view based around women and children, rather than the men who organised the military, political and educational life.” Which means, as Lacey points out, the tower contains everybody’s history — a truly titillating prospect.

How to manage a home (1907)

This has all — and more — that you would expect from a domestic management manual for married women from the turn of the 20th century. From admonitions to the “unsatisfactory wife… always craving amusement, never satisfied”, to the sage advice to allow your husband at least an hour of relaxation and tranquility before bothering him with the pressing issues of the day, like bills. “A hungry man,” advises Mrs Stevens, “should never be worried. If anything unpleasant has to be told him, it is best to wait until he has had a good meal.” (Those bills, incidentally, should never be put on the mantelpiece, lest the furious angry bear of a husband should see them before he’s eaten and result in him going into a frenzy.)

Photography: Sam Armstrong

Yet there are surprises: Mrs Stevens points out in her preface that: “It is now quite possible for a woman of ordinary intelligence to earn a comfortable livelihood for herself,” making efficient household management more important than ever. And sometimes it is these small details, mentioned in passing in an introduction rather than the main body of the book itself, that can throw the gap between the generations into stark relief. In between puffs for Bird’s Custard, Artistic House Furnishers and Fry’s Cocoa, the back page of How to Manage a Home sports an advertisement for the author’s previous bestseller, How to Manage a Baby, warning the reader that “more than 120,000 babies died in England and Wales last year.”

The Forbidden Fruit: How to eat a grapefruit (1905)

One rainy day, Mrs John Lane went to see her greengrocer, who lamented that nobody was buying his exotic new shaddocks, or, as we know them today, grapefruits. But when she picked one up, she was transported. “As I looked at the splendid fruit, it seemed to bring back to me the glory of summer skies, the blessed warmth of the sun, the dreamy peace of a tropical day and the languorous perfume of snow-white blossoms against dark-green leaves… instead, I was in London, and miscellaneous citizens were hurrying through the February slush.”

With commendable zeal for the new and exciting, Mrs Lane sets out to bring the grapefruit to the staid English masses.

(They could be forgiven for their reluctance. Grapefruits available in 1905 were likely to have been smaller and much less sweet than today’s varieties.) To compensate, Mrs Lane recommends loosening the pulp and allowing sugar to soak into it, festooning it with glacé cherries, filling it with oysters sprinkled with cayenne pepper and horseradish, crystallising it, making marmalade from it… and, if all else fails, she says, you can dump a load of liqueur into it. In the same series are The Book of Rarer Vegetables, The Book of the Apple and The Book of Asparagus, providing a service to greengrocers everywhere.

Indoor games for awkward moments (1900)

“The object of this volume is to try and lessen the number of dreadful pauses which so many hostesses have experienced with their guests,” writes Ruth Blakely. One certainly gets the feeling that the author is familiar with such pauses, as both guest and host: the book’s slightly waspish, world-weary tone marks it out from the relentless positivity of other how-to books of the period.

Photography: Sam Armstrong

It’s tempting to wonder how disparate groups of dinner party guests today would react when asked if they’d like a jolly round of Balancing a Bottle On The Head, in which the player must find a large, empty bottle, balance it on the back of his head while standing, get down on his hands and knees, pick up a cork with his mouth, and stand up again. Or how about Miew, in which a blindfolded guest (the Cat) has to kneel at the foot of a guest, ‘miewing’ pathetically, while the guest must then say ‘poor pussy’ three times with a straight face? Images of a certain politician come to mind, and are quickly pushed away.

But beyond marvelling at the quaintness of those days in which you really did have to make your own fun with bottles and suchlike, there’s a sense of something rather rare: those staid, severe-mouthed Victorians, both young and old, being completely and utterly silly.

What is this? What is that? (1901)

These will be familiar to any parent: brightly coloured, squishy cotton books that babies can grab and throw and stuff into their mouths, featuring familiar animals and objects. As the cover promises: “A child can suck one and do itself no harm” — reassuring in an age where toys were covered in lead paint and clothing was routinely soaked in arsenic. No child has ever sucked these copies: they are absolutely pristine, and while their preservation is valuable, it’s hard not to feel a little melancholy that they’ve been shut away all these years.

Today’s children might be a little mystified by the inclusion of a blackboard, an axe and a Heath Robinson-style telephone, and modern parents would probably raise an eyebrow at the box of safety matches (plus a smouldering match as a handy guide to what happens after you play with them). But essentially this is the same familiar, comforting landscape of childhood: a shuttlecock, a sheep, a cow, a key, a horse, a duck. No words are needed: the parents provide those.

Incidentally, the publisher, Dean’s Rag Books, is still in existence, producing not books but highly prized teddy bears — the company was also the first to produce a Mickey Mouse toy, in 1930.

Queen Magazine (1939)

Queen Magazine readers are exhorted to think about the contribution they could make to the impending war effort — with inspiration provided by a series of upper-class ladies. “Lady Reading’s interests are serious and somewhat highbrow. She impresses one most as a very balanced personality, with one of those clear, calm brains not given to under- or over-statement or to rash decisions.” Then there’s Mrs Laughton, who has “memories of pre-war days as a suffragette,” or Lady Iris Cappell, “one of the few women in Britain directly engaged in engineering.” But life for upper-class British women at the outbreak of hostilities isn’t all home and duty.

Photography: Sam Armstrong

A travel piece extolls the glories of Ireland and the Irish — “a gay, informal, sporting sort of place where life romps along with a merry inconsequence.” We find a “glorified peasant gown with the new heavy-seeming jewellery” in the fashion pages. And we learn a refreshingly simple method of getting a good night’s sleep: if an apple before bed to combat “excess acid” doesn’t work, simply take a mild sedative.

It’s all bright, positive, lively stuff and not so different from the women’s magazines of today. Apart from the recipe for “Cornish Heavy Cake,” perhaps, and the advert for Soddington Hall School: “Half fees to child with fluent French or good horsemanship.”

What to wear magazine (1934)

At a bargain ninepence, here we find both the latest Paris fashions and bathing suits made, mysteriously, out of wool. How? Why? Did they not sag? Was the itching not unbearable?

Continuing the theme of how, when it comes to women’s magazines, there is nothing new under the sun, Peggy Morris asks: “Why not be slim?” “It’s folly to be fat,” she advises, “when ways of looking slim are many and so various. The first way to look slim is to look taller…vertical lines give this effect. Concentrate interest on the bodice, shoulder and sleeves.” She points to clothes that would suit “the woman little in flesh, as well as her slimmer sister”.

Photography: Sam Armstrong

Moving swiftly on, the celebrity designer is already very much in evidence, as we meet “Jeff, the man-milliner” who “hats all the best people”. And if you were labouring under the delusion that our forebears were somehow more intellectual than today’s Kim Kardashian-obsessed hordes, think again: the lament for a lost age of seriousness was alive and well in 1934. “Brows are worn lower, and the age of culture is past,” wails a writer. “Frankly, we own to interest in a flick. Solemnly, with pen, ink and tenacity, we settle down to that enticing occupation: spotting the stars.”

You can discover the Library’s collections at cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk and exhibitions at exhibitions.lib.cam.ac.uk.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in CAM, the magazine for University of Cambridge alumni.

Research from the University of Cambridge

Research from the University of Cambridge