Monthly Archives: January 2016

50 objects 4: Railway anecdotes and fiction

Tales of the Rail

Tales of the Rail

Brunel’s extensive Transport History collection includes books covering British railway history from the earliest times to the 1980s, written for a variety of audiences and ranging from the very technical to the introductory on various topics. Within this collection, there are some surprising finds: books whose purpose is simply to entertain, not to instruct or persuade.

Tales of the Rail, by railwaymen was published in 1904 to raise funds for the Irish branch of the Railway Benevolent Institution. The content ranges from tiny anecdotes to short stories, with a number of writing styles, and the unifying theme is simply that they each have some, however tenuous, connection to railways.

The Railway Anecdote Book

The Railway Anecdote Book

By contrast, The Railway Anecdote Book was published simply for the entertainment of passengers on train journeys: the content is bite-sized, humorous or thought-provoking episodes on a wide range of general topics.

Probably more entertaining to today’s readers is 1905 detective novel The Tunnel Mystery and its solution by Arthur W. A Beckett. This purports to be written by a journalist with a history of solving mysteries in the course of his work, and describes his investigation into the murder of a woman found dead in a railway tunnel.

The Tunnel Mystery and its Solution

The Tunnel Mystery and its Solution

50 objects 3: Military aspects of the Channel Tunnel

The Channel Tunnel: military aspect of the question. Important address by Rt. Hon Lord Sydenham of Combe.

The idea for the Channel Tunnel was first mooted in 1802, and a brief history of it is set out here and here. Feelings ran high on both sides of the debate, and the Channel Tunnel Association Archive gives an insight into not just the scientific, political, and financial processes involved, but also the personalities and emotions.

The Channel Tunnel: Military Aspect of the Question

The Channel Tunnel: Military Aspect of the Question

“Military aspect of the question” is a case in point. Lord Sydenham of Combe – the first and last bearer of that title – was a military strategist. He served with the Royal Engineers and later became Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence, and published widely. This is the transcript of his address and the discussion afterwards by Members of Parliament, in the summer of 1914. While facts and theories involving national defence are discussed, the transcript also shows the pride those present took in the Royal Navy, and their belief that the Navy could rise to any occasion; and there are poignant mentions of England’s friendship with France, and their anticipated future of peace.

Objections to the tunnel on security and defence grounds had been made a number of times. The chairman of the meeting reported here, in introducing the speaker and the Channel Tunnel background, noted “it is the military question alone which has for upwards of thirty years prevented the carrying out of this great scheme.”

Pamphlets addressing military aspects of Channel Tunnel

Pamphlets addressing military aspects of Channel Tunnel

Lord Sydenham dismisses the tunnel as a cause for anxiety as a breach of security, showing various ways in which the tunnel could be rendered unusable if taken over by an enemy force, mentioning the advantages it could provide for troop movement during warfare, and ending triumphantly “I hope I have been able to show that there are no valid military objections”.

50 objects 2: Firsts

There are several thousand physical books and journals in the Library, but that’s just scratching the surface of the available resources as the collections are always growing with electronic resources, e-books and online journals.

There are many different ways to organise these resources, and to show the range of them. Here we start looking at a few ways to see what’s “first” and “last”.

One way of sorting the books A-Z is to list them in order by title. If we do this, the first title is A.O.H.N. Journal, the journal of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses, but since numbers are usually sorted before letters, the first title in the library is 0: for piano quartet, a score by Irish composer Gerald Barry.

The first personal name listed among the authors, editors, and so forth in the catalogue is A-k’uan, who worked on the 1986 Cantonese film A better tomorrow, directed by John Woo: the 2005 DVD of this is held by the Library.

Most of the Library’s holdings are arranged in subject order using Library of Congress classification, which assigns shelfmarks running from A to Z. You can find out more about this classification scheme at and see guides to finding books by classmark on the ends of bookshelves. Within this scheme, A is for “general works” including collected works but also encyclopaedias, yearbooks, and general reference. Here are some of the books from the first shelf of the A class.

Books from the first shelf

Books from the first shelf


Using Special Collections for your dissertation

During Undergraduate Dissertation Week, we’re holding a drop in for anyone interested in using Special Collections in their dissertation. Come in to Special Collections (BANN 317a, Level 3 of the Bannerman Centre, accessed via the green staircase) between 12 and 2 on Wednesday 20 January to find out more.

Why use Special Collections?

Your dissertation topic is something you’re really interested in investigating in more detail. Delving into the sources in Special Collections can take your dissertation to the next level by making it more original. Using primary sources means you might discover something no-one has written about before, or find a new angle on your subject.

Develop your research skills

Using primary sources, such as manuscripts and archives, helps you to develop your research skills. Even if you’ve never used this sort of material before, we have resources available to help you. We hold a large number of collections available for research and study by all students and covering a wide range of subject areas. Why not take a look at our history or women’s history pages to get a flavour of what we have? Or try our complete list of collections on our webpages? Some highlights of our collections have also been featured on this blog.


Topics that people have researched using Special Collections include:

  • London during the First World War
  • Communists in the 1920s and 1930s
  • Clothing of the poor
  • Historical perceptions of fathers
  • Perceptions of fascism in the inter-war period
  • Issues surrounding crossing political borders
  • Presentation of women in the media
  • Feminism in the US in the 1950s
  • Equality in the 1968 Olympics

Several of our collections have already been used for dissertation research. The Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, in particular, has proven to be popular for its detailed life stories and the people behind the history.

50 objects 1: the oldest book

The oldest book held in Brunel Library was printed in 1679 and contains various works by Francis Bacon, collected and edited by Thomas Tenison, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1694 until his death in 1715.

Archbishop Tenison was known for his interest in, and support of, education and libraries. He gave some of his own books to found a library at St Martin in the Fields, and various books and manuscripts of his were given or bequeathed to Lambeth Palace Library. Lambeth Palace Library’s manuscript 2086 is a commonplace book written by William Rawley, who was chaplain to Francis Bacon, and whose executor passed on to Tenison books and papers relating to Bacon. Some of the anecdotes in that manuscript are printed in this book.

Baconiana title-page

Baconiana title-page

Bacon (1561-1626) was a statesman, scientist, philosopher, and essayist, whose works continued to be popular and influential after his death. A theory arose that Bacon was the author of various works attributed to Shakespeare, and this copy of Bacon’s works is at Brunel as part of a collection surrounding Shakespearean authorship, but the book has wider appeal in terms of its content and history.

Baconiana. Or certain genuine remains of Sr. Francis Bacon, Baron of Verulam, and Viscount of St. Albans; in arguments civil and moral, natural, medical, theological, and bibliographical; now the first time faithfully published contains several different works, including theological treatises, recipes for medicines, reports on the chemical properties of metals, and copies of correspondence in English and Latin. A transcription of the whole text has been made available here by the University of Michigan.

Recipes from Bacon's works

Recipes from Bacon’s works

Copies of this edition of this work survive in many libraries but every copy has its own distinct history and can give unique information. Brunel’s copy has clearly been heavily used: there is damage to the binding and the front cover is missing. Previous users have written notes in the margins, which gives us some insight into who the readers were and how the book was used. One previous owner seems to have been interested in the book’s value over time: cuttings from sales catalogues featuring other copies of this book have been glued to the back board.


Brunel Library in 50 Objects

In 2016 Brunel University London marks its 50 year anniversary. The University is showcasing its celebrations via one of the features is an exhibition of 50 objects that have helped to shape the university.

We in the Library are building on this with a separate virtual trail of 50 library objects that tell us about the Library and its holdings and services. We aim to produce one post on the Special Collections blog every Friday for fifty weeks during 2016.

If you have an idea for a submission, please tell us!