Books and their owners: a tiny link with the past

Books and their owners: a tiny link with the past
20 September 2010

Have you seen the film Creation, about Charles Darwin? Writer John Collee was interviewed on the ABC Science Show a couple of weeks ago, and was very amusing about the ‘beetle-collecting vicars’ who were Darwin’s contemporaries. The first owner of the NLA’s Origin of Species (featured in our March posting), was almost certainly a beetle-collecting vicar, the Reverend William Woolls of Parramatta. Joseph Dalton Hooker (who features in Creation) was most certainly not a beetle-collecting vicar, but a distinguished scientist in his own right. A tiny link with him surfaced in the NLA collections recently. Hooker was Darwin’s lifelong friend and confidant, and encouraged him to publish his Origin of Species. Hooker himself had a fascinating life, travelling on scientific expeditions to the Antarctic, the Himalayas, India, the Middle East and the US western states. He became director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, writing and publishing until well into his 90s. He died in 1911 at the age 0f 94. It turns out that Hooker was a copious letter writer, as well. His letters were published in Life and Letters of Sir J.D Hooker (London: John Murray, 1918, 2 volumes). The later letters, written when Hooker was in his 90s, attest to an extraordinary intellectual vitality, for example as Hooker  earnestly discusses ‘… the Oscillations of the Glaciers …’ with Mr La Touche at 92 years old. Someone must have thought to make the volumes even more complete. Tucked loosely into the flyleaf of theNLA’s copy is another Hooker letter – an original one, written by Hooker in May 1908 (when he was 94), thanking a friend for sending him a shawl for his birthday (which he calls a ‘wrapper’). Somehow this charmingly inconsequential note, written in spidery but regular writing, brings Hooker to life. You can see where he refreshed his nib with more ink as he wrote.  Maybe a family member put the letter there – the name written on the book’s flyleaf is ‘Richard Hannay Hooker, from his Grandmother, Christmas  1918’. If so, the note has stayed in the volume undisturbed for nearly 100 years - despite the books having been used within the NLA and even sent out on inter-library loan twice! For now, the volumes have been rescued from the NLA’s main stack and rehoused in the quieter Rare Books collection. We have enclosed Hooker’s handwritten note in a transparent Mylar (acid-free) pocket and tipped it into the volume it came with, so the association stays as its original owner intended.  It tells a story all of its own.