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.
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.’
Chris Lewis, IHR Fellow