Books’ new life in academia

30 July 2009

by Pat Ashworth

St Mary’s, Nantwich

St Mary’s, Nantwich

A RARE copy of a 1502 hymnal is among 400 books that St Mary’s, Nantwich, has donated to the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester.

The church library had been housed above the south porch of St Mary’s since 1790, and existed before that. It includes other 16th-century books accumulated by incumbents, but the room is so inaccessible that there had been no public access in living memory.

The hymnal, Expositio Hymnor, was printed by Wynkyn de Worde, who was apprenticed to William Caxton, England’s first printer, and took over the business after Caxton’s death in 1492. Ed Potten, assistant librarian of printed books at John Rylands, describes him as “a pro­lific printer”, and credits him with the creation of the mass book market.

The hymnal had been kept in a bank vault. The rest of the books had been wrapped in brown paper and tied with ribbon, but acid in the brown paper and poor atmospheric con­ditions in the church tower had led to concerns about their deteriorating condition.

Rick Appleton, secretary of the church’s fabric committee, said on Tuesday: “We were investi­gating what we could do, and it seemed stupid to have a valuable book like Wynkyn de Worde sitting there and no one taking advan­tage of it. If we had put the collection on the public market, it would inevitably have been dis­persed and even left the country. The PCC decided that selling it would be the wrong thing to do, even though it would have realised a lot of money.”

The church has raised £1.5 million, but still needs £900,000 to complete restoration work.

The John Rylands Library has collections from other churches, though not many as intact as this. The books were brought down from the tower one by one via a human chain on the spiral staircase. They will now be conserved, boxed, and catalogued.

“Church libraries like this are increasingly rare, and Nantwich is a particularly important example,” Mr Potten said. “We all agreed that these important and beautiful books are kept together as a collection,” to maintain for ever the link with St Mary’s and Nantwich.

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