J. H. Spencer’s Chapbook Collection By Dr Cynthia Johnston: An Introduction

An Introduction to The John Henry Spencer Chapbook Collection


The spectre of a betrayed lover haunts the graveyard where she is buried. From The Birth, Life and Death of Crazy Jane, (Seven Dials [London], c. 1820). Loaned by the Harris Museum, Art Gallery and Library. Image © Harris Library, Preston.

Tuesday 14 April 2020
By Dr Cynthia Johnston, Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London


John Henry Spencer gave his collections to the Harris Museum and Library as a series of gifts: in 1947, 238 children’s books and 75 juvenile chapbooks; in 1950, his collection of the works of Preston-born poet, Francis Thompson, including autograph manuscripts of over 70 items; in 1951, 320 further chapbooks and broadsheets and in 1952, his collection of history books.

Spencer has left no record of when he began to collect chapbooks, which were small format, cheaply produced books of popular stories and rhymes that were often sold from open stalls or small carts from ‘chapmen’. Chapbooks appeared in the sixteenth century and rose in popularity through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries until they were replaced by cheap newspapers in the nineteenth. The books were produced as ephemera using inexpensive materials. Survivals are rare. Spencer’s collection of over 300 books include typical examples of the genre including moral tales for children. His collection includes work such as The adventures of William Friendly and The Lily, a pretty book for good children, folk tales such as the story of the prophetess Mother Shipton as well as more lurid examples aimed at older readers such as The Birth, Life and Death of Crazy Jane and Remarkable Account of a horrid Murder Discovered! And another prevented, by a Dog! There are also scintillating information books like The Universal Vermin Killer and A General History of Apparitions.

Next time: The John Henry Spencer Chapbook Collection continued.


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