Guy Harrison

In March 1936 the IHR announced one of the biggest gifts of books that it has ever received, a collection of over 2,500 works chiefly on the histories of London, Kent, and Normandy, and more generally covering English genealogy and local history. The donor was H. Guy Harrison, Esq., FSA (1886–1963), a name and style familiar down the decades to many readers, at least subliminally, since bookplates recording his donation appear in hundreds of volumes scattered widely across the shelves.

Guy Harrison is an elusive figure. He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and in the 1920s had been Honorary Treasurer of the British Record Society, but he published little and is hard to find in the obvious sources for antiquarianism and local history in the period. It is still not known where he was educated or quite how he spent his early adult life, except that as a young man he lived in Bloomsbury in 1907–8, near Charing Cross in 1914, and at Ruislip in 1924–6. Despite owning a fine collection of books on the history of Kent, for example, he was never a member of the Kent Archaeological Society. Typical of his reticence is the fact that he insisted on corresponding with the IHR through the Mail Department of the American Express Company in London. Before the Second World War, his letters are formal and rather stilted, the only personal touch an occasional remark about the weather; later he opened up a little, going so far as to address the war-time Acting Librarian Esmond de Beer as ‘Dear de Beer’, but retaining the formality of ‘Dear Director’ when he wrote to Goronwy Edwards in the 1950s. For all that, anyone who has made use of his books and knows something about him cannot help but warm to the man; and the more one looks into his life, the more intriguing he becomes.

Guy Harrison’s father Thomas, remarkably enough, was from a working-class family in rural Northumberland, in a family of four brought up by a widowed father; he escaped the life available to his older brother, labourer in a coke works, by somehow winning a place as a student at the Wesleyan Methodist divinity college at Didsbury near Manchester, and was posted as a minister on the Wesleyan circuits before becoming an Anglican clergyman when Guy was little. Even more astonishingly, given Thomas’s background, he married a daughter of the wealthy industrialist Heber Mardon, of the Bristol company Mardon, Son & Hall, printers to the tobacco industry and from 1901 part of the Imperial Tobacco conglomerate. Old Mr Mardon, Guy’s grandfather, died in 1925, leaving the immense fortune of £400,000 (by one measure equivalent to £140 million in current terms). By then Guy’s father had retired to Sevenoaks, having served parishes in rural Kent until Guy was about thirteen, industrial Yorkshire and Lancashire throughout his adolescence and early manhood, and at Margate from 1912.

Guy’s mother’s money offered him the possibility of pursuing interests in books and bibliography even before the Great War, producing in 1914 a most unexpected publication, a bibliography of the ‘decadent’ poet Ernest Dowson (d. 1900), member of the Rhymers’ Club at the Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street. It looks as if Guy Harrison went on a long journey in the decade that followed. In 1914 he was living in chambers in Villiers Street and associated in some as-yet unfathomable way with the outer ripples of a long-dispersed circle of writers and artists that had included Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. By the mid 1920s he was resident in suburban Middlesex and nominated for the Society of Antiquaries by the most solidly respectable of gentlemen scholars, headed by Sir Henry Burke, Garter King of Arms. Was there some transformative experience during the Great War? As things stand the question cannot be answered.

Part of the reason why Guy has been so hard to pin down is that after 1926 there is no home address for him. By the later 1930s he was living in hotels, another change of life from Ruislip, moving regularly between Brussels, Rouen, and London over the course of each year, worrying about the weather and carefully packing books ahead of each journey. His father’s death at the end of 1935 may have made the accumulation of books at Sevenoaks a pressing matter for a man who had set his face against any conventionally rooted domestic life; at any rate Guy was in touch with the IHR at precisely that moment.

Both the manner of his generous benefaction and his correspondence with the Secretary and Librarian, Guy Parsloe, were self-effacing. He gave the IHR thousands of books without fanfare, allowing him to exchange a modest joke with Parsloe a year later about the contrast with a different donation to the library made in March 1937. By number of volumes, the German government’s gift was on much the same scale as Harrison’s, but it was effected with a high-profile reception attended by the Vice-Chancellor and the German ambassador von Ribbentrop, while a noisy student demonstration went on outside. Harrison: ‘Not a drum was heard or an anti-Nazi cry when my little lot of vols were received!’ Parsloe: ‘I wish you also had asked for a ceremony: the undergraduates would have been hard put to it to think of any reason for demonstrating.’

Guy Harrison’s original idea was that his books on Kent and one or two other specialist areas, some 640 titles, would be on deposit rather than a gift, and that he would have the right to consult them during his lifetime and leave them to the IHR when he died; but he had a change of mind within a matter of months and made an outright gift of them instead. In recognition the IHR agreed to name that section of the library the Harrison Kent Collection.

Harrison also agreed that copies which duplicated books already in the library could be sold and the proceeds used to buy books to round out the holdings on Kent, Normandy, and the rest. Once the duplicates were sold the IHR had almost £100 extra to spend between 1936 and 1940, a significant sum when the annual purchase budget for all books and periodicals was only about £300.

Harrison’s support for the library did not stop with his initial gift in 1936. Almost immediately he began looking out for titles that the IHR might want to acquire and buying them for the library. In the first place he concentrated on published archive lists and other reference materials for Belgium, Picardy, and Normandy, as well as British parliamentary poll-books and county directories. He was still in Brussels, buying books to give to the IHR, at the end of July 1939, but early in August, as international tensions ratcheted ever tighter, he returned to London and eventually settled permanently in the Stanhope Court Hotel just off Cromwell Road, where he lived for the remainder of his life. He continued giving books to the IHR even during the war and for some years afterwards, eventually adding well over 800 volumes to his original gift. The strengths of the library’s holdings on Normandy, Belgium, London, and Kent owe a great deal to Harrison’s continuing gifts; the superb collection of British parliamentary poll-books in particular is due to his determined pursuit of judicious purchases during and after the war as well as before.

Guy Harrison’s last gift to the library, accessioned on 15 October 1954, was a newly issued sale catalogue of manorial lordships annotated with historical accounts of the manors concerned, G. F. Beaumont, Beaumont Collection of Lordships of Manors in . . . Essex, Suffolk, and Norfolk (1954). By 1952 he had been recruited to the IHR Committee. At the end of June 1955, when an operation had kept Harrison from a meeting, Goronwy Edwards wrote to him to express thanks ‘both for your long and valued service as a member of the Committee, and also for your great interest in and many benefactions of the library. The Committee resolved unanimously that you be admitted to the Institute without fee under Regulation iia, which (as you will remember) authorises the granting this privilege to “Persons who have assisted in the development of the Institute.” I very much hope that you will avail yourself of it, and that you will give us the pleasure of seeing you at the Institute whenever you may wish to come.’ Harrison’s reply, dated 5 July 1955, is the last of his letters that has been traced, and signs off ‘With every good wish for the welfare of the Institute.’

By Chris Lewis (IHR/KCL)