The Ushaw Library

Today, Ushaw houses a wonderful and illustrious Library, dating as far back as the original foundations of Ushaw in the English College at Douai. This page will guide you through the great history of this amazing collection.

Douai, 1568 - 1794

In 1578 the political situation around Douai forced the English College to move to Rheims, and it was there that the first officially approved English translation of scripture for Catholics was published in 1582: ‘The New Testament of Jesus Christ, translated faithfully into English, out of the authentical Latin’; the Old Testament, in two volumes, followed in 1609-1610. This was the most famous of the many books and pamphlets published by staff and alumni of the English College Douai.

The translation of scripture, the refutation of learned Protestant publications, and theological study required access to a range of books. The first members of the college likely brought or acquired their own collections, and it is known that several Douai men bought books from John Ramridge’s library sale at Louvain in 1570. A donation of books in 1617 suggests that there was a library by that date, which continued to grow with donations, bequests, and occasional purchases. By the mid-seventeenth century, library books were being sold either because they were unwanted duplicates or because there was no room to house them. No more detailed information about the library is available until 1793, around the rime of the revolution in France.

On February 18th, 1793, French revolutionary troops entered the college, imprisoned staff and students, and sealed the two libraries on the site. The staff and students were free to depart two years later, but it would be another forty years before the fate of the library’s books was known; under the orders of magistrates, ‘waggon loads’ of books had been taken from the library to the arsenal to be made into military cartridges. Surviving volumes were incorporated into the library at Douai University, as The English College at Douai was slowly abandoned by English Catholics.

Crook Hall, 1794 - 1808

Around the same time as the unrest in France, some Douai staff and students began to return to England, where a relaxng of the laws around Catholicism made practicing their religion a much safer prospect. Northerners were directed by their bishop, William Gibson, to the small Catholic Tudhoe Academy, just outside Durham, to continue their training in the priesthood. From there, six students and their teacher, John Lingard, moved to Crook Hall.

Conditions at Crook Hall were poor compared to the wonder of Douai that the attendees were used to, but two libraries were created in the time that the students were there; The President’s and The Common Library, which only housed a hundred volumes within its walls in 1798. This number continued to grow thanks to the efforts of staff, and when the College moved from Crook Hall to the new buildings at Ushaw in 1808, they took around 4,000 books from their collections with them to establish a base of manuscripts at the new site. 

Ushaw College, 1808 - Present

When staff and students from Crook Hall first arrived at Ushaw, it was not the vast complex of buildings we have today, but merely three sides of the central quadrangle without the upper stories. Despite the clear lack of space, and with a plan to expand the buildings on the site, a prominent area was allocated to the library and by 1813 all of the books had been moved into their new home from Crook Hall. In 1827, Catholic Miscellany reported that there were ‘upwards of 7,000 volumes’, consisting of theological writers, classic literature, poetry, rare and ancient documents, and several illuminated manuscripts held at Ushaw, and some copies of books that existed nowhere else in the country. The Library was beginning to take shape.

Meanwhile, across the Pennines, Thomas Wilkinson had spent years collecting books, determined to recreate the library he had witnessed in his time at Douai. Over the next 15 years, he donated 12,000 books to Ushaw, covering topics such as science, literature, and art. At the same time, under the presidency of Charles Newsham, Ushaw itself also continued to expand and evolve, which included the building of a new library wing to complement Pugin’s illustrious chapel. Pugin had developed plans for a library, but it was too small and the plans were rejected in favour of the present design by Charles and Joseph Hansom. Wilkinson financed most of the building, and lived long enough to see the new library completed in 1851. In 1853, four years before his death, he was quoted as saying of the library that ‘under no pretext whatever, it be, at any time, scattered or divided’.

Although Wilkinson was the most significant single benefactor to Ushaw’s Library, there has been a steady succession of benefactors who have helped create the library we house today. Thomas Eyre, president of Crook Hall and the first president of Ushaw, acquired books from the monks of Durham, two priests, and had a substantial collection of his own, which he gladly donated to the library to bolster the books housed here. 

The second president of Ushaw, Dr. John Gillow, persuaded his friends to donate to the library; the large collections of two vice presidents and smaller collections from priests John Bradley and Thomas Sherburne were donated through his efforts.  The College later received the bequest of about 5,000 books on medieval history from Mgr Horace Mann, author of The Lives of the Popes, and the medieval historical collection of Gerard Culkin, who taught at Ushaw. In order to accommodate this vast collection, island bookcases were built in the Big Library, and the Lower Library was created in the former study-places and classrooms. The current collection numbers over 50,000 printed items.

Since the 1940s, books have been deposited at Ushaw for safe-keeping: cleaned and catalogued, they are cared for and made available to scholars. The difficulty with such deposits, as with bequests, is that the majority of books which need to be cleaned and checked against the library’s holdings turn out to be duplicate items. Others, however, turn out to be unrecorded copies or editions previously unknown to bibliographers, adding to the beautiful collection of Ushaw's Library.

Care of the Library

The library has never had a full-time librarian, with the early arrangement being for the vice-president to look after the collection, with later librarians being primarily teachers or college administrators who had other jobs within the seminary. The early lack of a catalogue made it difficult to know which books the college owned, and which it still needed, so managing the library was a challenge for any who took the role.

In 1840, George Errington put his students to work producing the first alphabetical catalogue of the library, but in 1841 he reported that the catalogue needed to be reorganized. In the following decades there were more efforts to catalogue the library, but it wasn’t until 1896 that the present card-catalogue system was established by Arthur Hinsley, which was completed in 1903 by Fr Edwin Bonney and his students. Despite its inadequacies it has provided the base from which others have worked, and paved the way for a major revision and improvement by Fr Bernard Payne, librarian from 1930 until 1977. At last, one of Ushaw’s major assets was made accessible to public users outside the realm of the College. 

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