50 objects 42: William Belcher’s Navy service

One of the Burnett collection of working-class autobiographies held at Brunel is that of William Belcher (1884 – 1961).  He served in the Navy 1903 – 8 and 1914-19, and was an electrician from 1919 onwards. Much of the interest in his autobiography lies in the supporting documents that accompany the notebooks: his school certificates, shorthand qualifications, and his naval career record.

Here are a selection of the documents in question, giving insights not just into Mr Belcher’s history but into the history of education and into the record-keeping of the Royal Navy.

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50 objects 41: Letters of Mary Anning

Mary Anning: Letters ed. Bill Griffiths, 1973; Pirate Press.

Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847) was a fossil-hunter, searching along the cliffs at Lyme Regis for remains from the Jurassic period, which she sold to collectors. Arising from this work she is said to be the subject of the tongue-twister “She sells seashells by the sea shore“. She made many significant finds, including a number of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. She became acquainted with several recognized scientists and members of the Geological Society of London, which did not at that time allow female members. Anning’s work led to Dr William Buckland’s publication of the conclusion that certain Jurassic animals had used ink for defence, just as modern cephalopods do; and it was she who worked out that the stones known as “bezoar stones” were in fact coprolites, fossilized faeces.

Buckland credited her publicly for this work, but she was not always acknowledged. Her great contributions to palaeontology and related sciences were not properly recognized during her lifetime, since, as a rural working-class woman, she was outside the scientific community and the influential groups. Her letters fit in with many other items in Brunel’s Special Collections which can be grouped thematically as marginal voices or unheard stories.

In recent years there have been many publications on her life and work, including children’s books and fiction based on her story; you can find a range of these via our Library catalogue or via union catalogues such as COPAC.


This is a small and plain booklet, the only illustration being the simple but effective cover. There is a short preamble about Anning’s life, but no indication of why this subject was chosen for the Pirate Press, or why these particular letters, amongst the whole of Anning’s surviving correspondence, were chosen for publication. The introductory text reflects Bill Griffiths’ interests in local history, dialect, and language change, noting that in Lyme Regis in Anning’s time vertebrae were called “verteberries” and fossil fish “turbot”.

The text of the letters is given, with some corrections and clarifications in brackets, but as the original letters are not reproduced it is hard to gauge the accuracy of the transcription. There are some mistakes, such as “dof” for “dog” and “leyyer” for “letter”, which are clearly typing mistakes in the transcription, rather than faithful copies of mistakes in the original, but other unusual readings are less clear-cut.

The letters here are mainly to Mrs Murchison, wife of geologist Roderick Murchison, who became Anning’s lifelong friend. Perhaps the most vivid writing is this spirited description of being caught by the tide when digging out a plesiosaur, from February 1829:

“I [was] so intent in getting it out that I had like to have been drowned and the man I had employed to assist me, after we got home I asked the man why he had [not] cautioned me [about] the tide flowing so rapidly he said I was ashamed to say I was frightened when you didn’t regard it, I [wish] you could have seen us we looked like a couple of drowned rats”.

Select bibliography:

Cover imageMcGowan, Christopher. The dragon seekers. Persus Publishing, 2001.

Allaby, Michael, (ed.). A Dictionary of Geology and Earth Sciences (4 ed.), OUP, 2015 online edition.

Lyme Regis Museum: Mary Anning

University of Berkeley: Mary Anning

Bill Griffiths collection at Brunel




50 objects 40: the LibSmart Point

A post by Subject Liaison Librarian Joanne McPhie.

Some items in our blog series Brunel Library 50 Objects have long histories and fascinating pasts, but Brunel Library is also about looking forward as well as back. This week’s object, the LibSmart Point desk, is a relatively recent addition to the Library, but one that could play a part in many lives going forward.

LibSmart is a dedicated study skills package run by the Subject Liaison Librarians. It is designed to support students with academic practice, information literacy, and employability skills they need to get the best out of their time at university and beyond. The LibSmart Point plays a key role in the package.


This is the place where users can come to speak to a librarian to get help in finding and using resources, referencing or just to have a chat about their studies. It is located in what is another new area of the Library, the Learning Commons on the first floor. This is a flexible space where users can come to study in groups, use the floor space for projects or attend small workshops run by the Academic Services team. Nestling in the corner of the room, the desk is staffed from Monday –Thursday 1-6pm and Friday 1-5pm during term time.

If furniture could talk the LibSmart Point would already be able to tell many stories. Narratives beginning with moments of confusion, anxiety and panic in student lives resolving in flashes of epiphany and revelation as users understand the resources and their own capabilities. Having had the privilege of working on there this year I value it as a point of connection with our users, where we can take the time to sit down and have an actual conversation. Knowing that the work that is done there may impact on a current grade then a future career and life is powerful stuff.

So, although the plywood and metal contraption that is the LibSmart Point may not have inherent value and a rich history, it is nonetheless one of the unique items in housed in the Library.

For further information about the LibSmart programme, either drop by the desk in Learning Commons or see our LibGuide.libsmartpointbright


50 objects 39: International Labour Organization

ilo2The International Labour Organization describes its origins  like this: “The ILO was created in 1919, as part of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, to reflect the belief that universal and lasting peace can be accomplished only if it is based on social justice. […] The driving forces for ILO’s creation arose from security, humanitarian, political and economic considerations. Summarizing them, the ILO Constitution’s Preamble says the High Contracting Parties were ‘moved by sentiments of justice and humanity as well as by the desire to secure the permanent peace of the world…’ ”

When the ILO closed its London office and library in 2005, Brunel University Library inherited its collection. We are the only institution in the UK to house such material: it is a collection of international materials, including books, journals and treaties, relating to employment and labour law, and reflecting ILO’s emphasis on the need for social justice in contrast to the exploitation of workers that was common in the interests of economic gain. The books and journals can all be found in the Library catalogue.


Much of the material reflects enduring concerns and problems; for example, there are debates in the International Labour Review from 1966, fifty years ago, which are still relevant today: the index includes the introduction of the forty-hour work week in Finland; occupational disability insurance in the Netherlands; employment of women with family responsibilities in Japan; a new law on holidays and a weekly rest day in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).


The breadth of subjects the collection touches on is shown by this volume of conference papers, covering the employment aspects of three very different areas.

The collection as a whole is a valuable resource for the study of politics, international law, employment history, and trade.

50 objects 38: bindings

“Don’t judge a book by its cover”, the adage runs, but covers and bindings can be a rewarding topic of study. The type of binding used can also tell you about the age and status of a book, the intended audience, and the owner.

These four books from our Transport History collections show developments in bookbinding technology enabling covers to be printed in several colours and with complex designs, to attract readers. You can see a lot more detail about the history of this type of binding via this blog from St. Andrews’ university library rare books staff.


These periodicals were bound in a standard Brunel style, to keep the issues together and to protect the pages more than the original covers would have done. The binding includes a gold stamp of the old Brunel crest, as well as of the shelfmark.


The publishers of this series have sold space on the cover, as well as inside the book, to advertisers.


The condition the binding is in can tell you about the amount and type of use a book has had. Bradshaw’s Guide (a collection of railway timetables) was an ephemeral publication, re-issued frequently with up-to-date details. Once you had the new issue, the old one was not useful for planning journeys, and so the volumes were not intended to survive very long, and had only paper wrappers.

The surviving issues are kept for historical interest and for research into railway history, but the paper is now very fragile and gets damaged with handling. To keep the books safe and minimise further damage, we are making new wrappers of acid-free card to fit each fragile volume.


This book has a blue binding with gold tooling on the front and on the spine. A previous owner has tried to protect this cover by adding a homemade brown paper dustwrapper, and has meticulously drawn an image from the gold tooling onto the spine of the wrapper as well as noting the title.

Many modern books use cover art as a way to demonstrate the type of content, or to attract readers, or to show how relevant they are to a particular activity or type of study. Examining the cover art and styles can show who the target audience for the book is, and what aspect of the book’s contents the publishers are trying to emphasise.

50 objects 37: Reactions to Old Age

Fiction and the Cultural Mediation of Ageing”  was a project run  at the Brunel Centre for Contemporary Writing  between 2009 and 2012, as part of the cross council New Dynamics of Ageing programme.

One of the research methods used was to set up eight reading groups of University of the Third Age members across London in order to read, write about, and discuss postwar novels featuring different representations of ageing. The data generated by these reading groups now forms part of Brunel’s Special Collections, and is available for further research. Aspects of the participants’ writing complements the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, in reflecting the everyday ups and downs of the lives of ordinary people; they also give first-hand accounts of issues related to ageing and to the way society views the elderly.


Some of the books used in the reading groups

A flavour of the content is given by a brief study of the information given by one participant. Each reader was given a unique identification code in order to preserve anonymity; this one is known as SEL003, and she participated in a reading group in South-East London. From SEL003 we have a brief life history, and three diaries recording her reading of the set novels, her views of their representations of aspects of ageing, and her group’s discussions of them.SEL003 was born in Dublin in 1938 to a well-off family, reared by a nanny, and sent to a Quaker boarding school. Her favourite school subjects were maths and handwork, and since neither she nor her mother could think of a career formed of those two things, she became a teacher. She is now thoroughly enjoying her retirement, and her writing constantly reflects her joy and optimism about her current, fulfilling, lifestyle.


The end of SEL003’s “Life History” document

She writes in a lively, enthusiastic, style. The reading diaries cover her thoughts in general of the books, characters, and authors, but also her perspicacious comments on subjects arising, including how one’s writing style changes with age; whether it’s possible to predict which individuals will get Alzheimer’s; how society is geared towards younger people and how the young patronise the elderly; whether it’s appropriate for an agile old lady to run for a bus.


She is insightful about character attributes and how world-view and morals change over time, and she adds in anecdotes about her own experiences and those of her family and friends.


Reading through the diaries gives the impression of someone lively and thoughtful, who analyses the problems that ageing can bring but who enjoys life to the full.



50 objects 36: Channel Tunnel rock

The Channel Tunnel collection held at Brunel consists mainly of books and of papers such as correspondence, maps, plans, meeting minutes, and photographs. There are also eclectic artefacts such as this piece of rock, in a Eurotunnel branded protective case.

ctun1The packaging reports: “This piece of Chalk Marl has been excavated from the Channel Tunnel by the service tunnel boring machine near the breakthrough point. The Chalk Marl is the lower part of the lower chalk stratum, which stretches from near Folkestone to the coast at Calais and in which the majority of the Channel Tunnel is being excavated. Its grey colour shows that it is a mixture of clay and chalk. The Channel Tunnel is being constructed in this layer because it is more waterproof and consistent with the chalk layers above it.” The information is repeated in French, and so the packets of rock could be used as souvenirs at both ends of the tunnel.

The Chalk Marl is around 100 million years old, and will have had its origin at a time when dinosaurs were still roaming the lands that would become Europe. For more about the geology of the tunnel, see this page. The machines used to create the tunnel had to be made specially, and were each designed to work with the geology of a particular section of tunnel. For more information see The Robbins Company’s page.


Channel Tunnel Association plaque, from the same collection