Maldon’s Treasure – The Library of Thomas Plume

One of Essex’s greatest treasures is a landmark in the very centre of Maldon. Many who pass by it mistake it for a church. It does indeed have a squat, castellated, stone tower of great age but the two-storey brick building which abuts on to this tower has fenestration that looks very like that of a secular building. It is its upper floor with which we are concerned here, which is approached by a narrow, stone spiral staircase in this tower, something of an obstacle for those who are no longer in the first flush of youth. But the difficult ascent is well rewarded. As you push open the door, you enter a time capsule, a perfectly preserved seventeenth-century library, the walls clad with old oak panelling, the shelves lined with beautifully maintained leather-bound books. This is the little jewel which the Reverend Dr. Thomas Plume gave to the town of Maldon when he died in 1704.

Plume had worked long and hard to create the library. He had determined at least a decade before his death that he would convert the ground floor of the former church of St. Peter into a small grammar school for intelligent Maldon boys, and the upper floor into a library which local clergy and gentry could use to widen their knowledge, and that he would endow them both in order to ensure their indefinite continuity.

Plume was a man of wide-ranging interests, but initially the library he created was a working tool. He was born in Maldon in 1630, the son of a fairly wealthy local alderman. He went to the local grammar school in nearby Chelmsford and thence to Christ’s College in Cambridge. He took his BA and MA in 1649 at the age of nineteen, became a Batchelor of Divinity in 1661 and a Doctor of Divinity in 1663. In 1658 he became vicar of Greenwich, where he remained until his death in 1704, that is for forty-six years. In 1679 he also became Archdeacon of Rochester. It is important to remember that he lived during one of the most turbulent periods of English history, with constant strife, civil war and such major disasters as the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Although Plume appears to have been a convinced royalist and a committed Anglican, he never got into trouble over his beliefs. In fact, he was appointed to the living in Greenwich by none other than Richard Cromwell, the son and successor of Oliver Cromwell.

We know him to have been a confident and enthusiastic buyer of books, an activity which he seems to have carried out without a break for nearly half a century. It is interesting to consider where and when and how he learned to buy books so skilfully. We know that in the period between the completion of Plume’s studies and his installation in Greenwich, a period of nearly ten years, Plume had served as secretary and assistant to Dr. John Hacket, a particularly learned divine who had been deprived of his benefices in London during the Civil War on account of his expressed royalist opinions, and retired to a living in Cheam. He vowed never to enter London again after the execution of Charles I, because he felt that that city had been polluted by this sacrilegious act. But he needed books, and so Plume was constantly despatched to London to buy them for Hacket. In this way the younger man became extremely familiar with the many booksellers who had their premises in the neighbourhood of St Paul’s. Plume and Hacket remained firm friends during the whole of Hacket’s life. He was later restored to favour and became the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield and Plume’s one published work was an edition of Hacket’s principal sermons, which he edited with a long introduction.

Like his employer and patron, Plume became an excellent preacher after his appointment to Greenwich. Almost all seventeenth-century clergymen regarded the delivery of sermons as far and away their most important task. Both John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys made mention of Plume’s excellence as a preacher after recording their attendance at his church in Greenwich in their diaries. ‘A minister of religion,’ wrote James Thomas Oxley in 1609, preaching to his fellow clergy in Durham, ‘should be the eyes of the world for his congregation to disperse the clouds of ignorance and to give life.’ It is difficult for us today, with our multitude of methods of communication and leisure interests, to imagine the importance of that weekly message from the pulpit of a church to its adherents.

Clergymen worked endlessly on their sermons and to help their efforts there arose a whole industry of commentators and interpreters who published their ideas in books, mainly for the benefit of the clergy and for the laity too if they cared to read them – which indeed they did: 8,800 volumes of sermons alone were published between 1660 and 1750, and even present-day publishers would regard the size of the editions in which they were usually printed as quite satisfactory. We must also remember that the Authorised Version of the Bible had only been published in 1611. A simple reading of it was not enough: it had to be explained and expounded and made relevant to life around.

2-books-pg2-para4Plume bought and read books that covered every shade of religious, political, historical and, indeed, scientific and philosophical opinions. He had an amazingly enquiring mind into most aspects of the growing corpus of knowledge.

He had, for example, Harvey’s first work on the circulation of the blood of 1649. Among a host of books on travel and geography he owned Thomas Mun’s Discourse of Trade in the East Indies, 1621, and Thomas Neale’s exceedingly rare Treatise of Direction on how to travel profitably into Foreign Countries of 1643. He had Sir William Petty’s Concerning the Multiplication of Mankind, 1686, and Petty’s earlier celebrated Treatise on Taxes and Contributions, 1662. Among some 1600 tracts and pamphlets, Plume owned the infamous and thoroughly venomous Decree of the Starre Chamber concerning Printing of 1637, that ushered in what – because of its extremely repressive nature – has been called the darkest age in the history of the English book trade since Caxton set up his press at Westminster. Plume also possessed Milton’s Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, and the volumes by authors that came out in response to Milton’s challenging attitude, and he had Milton’s reply to those.

He had William Prynne’s notorious, and notoriously dull, Histrio-mastix, or the Players Scourge of 1633 and thirty-five of Prynne’s two hundred published pamphlets and books, and he owned at one time the great poetry and of the period – works by John Donne, Francis Beaumont, Charles Cotton, Abraham Cowley, William Greenwood, Thomas Heywood, John Milton, Francis Quarles, James Shirley, John Skelton, Edmund Spenser, Sir John Suckling and Edmund Waller.

We know that by the time of his death, Plume’s library numbered some 8,100 titles, an unusually large number for its day. It has been recently established that after his decision to gift the library to Maldon, Plume expanded its scope very considerably by purchasing books at the book auctions which, although they had been established in Holland for more than a century, were only introduced in London in 1676. Initially such auction sales consisted in the main of libraries of scholars and divines and they were usually held at the premises in which they were housed after the owners had died. Many of these scholars were authors of books which Plume already owned and had probably been known to him during their lifetime.

3-catalogue-pg-3-para3We have five major inventories of the Plume Library stock. The first was the briefest of lists which accompanied the books, all packed in barrels, when they were shipped from Greenwich to Maldon after Plume’s death, and they were checked by the Master of the Maldon Grammar School, one M. Scarrow, on 29 November 1704. The second was compiled by Robert Hay, who doubled up as Master of the Grammar School and Plume Librarian, in 1761. The third was the work of the Rev. Robert Crane, vicar of Heybridge, in 1843. He was at various times a Trustee of the Library as well as Librarian, and titled his inventory ‘Duplicate Catalogue of the Books in Archdeacon Plume’s Library’. The Rev. Dr. Andrew Clark, vicar of Great Leighs, produced a catalogue of the 1600 pamphlets in the Library in 1903. Finally, S. G. Deed, Headmaster of the Grammar School in Maldon, and Plume Librarian for many years, produced a valuable printed catalogue in 1959 with the assistance of Jane Francis.

3a-plume-building-c1900-pg3-end-of-para4As well as compiling the catalogue of the pamphlets, Clark described them in some detail in an article in the Essex Review, XII (1903), pp. 159-165. He wrote a further description of the Plume manuscripts which had survived in the Essex Review, XIII (1904) pp. 30-33, and a fascinating piece on Dr Plume’s Pocket Book in the Essex Review, XIV (1905) pp. 9-20.

Each year around the end of November, the time Plume’s death, the Trustees of the Library sponsor a lecture in his honour. One of these was given by Dr. Bill Petchey, entitled The Intentions of Thomas Plume. It was the fruit of many years of research and was subsequently reprinted with much additional material. It has become the most useful source of knowledge we have on Dr. Plume and what the Library contains. 4a-w-j-petchey-end-of-para-continued-from-pg3-top-pg-4Bill Petchey was a schoolmaster with a strong interest in history and became Plume Librarian on his retirement.

Before his sudden and unexpected death, he suggested to the Trustees that our 1959 printed catalogue (it is still in print, at £10 a copy) should be thoroughly revised and computerised so as to make knowledge of what we have available online, and thus within easy reach of the wider world of scholarship. The Trustees pursued this objective and raised £60,000 towards it – much of it generously provided by the Foyle Foundation. It was a mammoth task; that took more than four years, and was completed early in 2009.

Plume left a most elaborate will with many bequests beyond the Maldon Library. One was the founding of what has become the Plumean Professorship of Astronomy in Cambridge, which, like our Library, is still highly active to this day.

A point which has been much debated is to what extent we can deduce more of Plume’s personality from the nature of the books he assembled. The great bulk of them were, of course, acquired from book auctions in London, towards the end of his life, after Plume decided that he would construct the library and grammar school, but, as Dr. Petchey points out after his long studies in the Library, one becomes aware “of a curious impartiality in the choice of subject amounting to apparent deliberate pairing of alternative viewpoints. Disputation on a wide variety of controversial topics are, as it were, frozen and packed upon the shelves, their matters in controversy kept unresolved forever. It is as if the collector sought to make the collection uniformly impersonal.” It may, of course, have simply been a personal policy of deliberate impartiality in times of great political upheaval. Throughout his life, Plume avoided confrontation, even though he was known to hold strong royalist convictions. It is one of the factors that gives our Library added interest.

4b-places-of-printing-pg4-para4Another point is how diverse are the locations of where our sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books were printed and published. A map of these places shows that they came from every centre of printing and publishing in Europe: among them Frankfurt, Danzig, Antwerp, Venice and Basle. Texts in Latin and Greek dominate that part of the Library, and Plume must have been familiar with the languages after his scholastic career at Chelmsford Grammar School, where they were both taught. But there are also books in many other languages.

For many people it is of particular interest that the Library retains almost the complete archive of its administration papers since early in the nineteenth century, not only the invoices for the dinners the early Trustees attended at the local “Blue Boar” Inn (which is also still in existence), but also minutes of the Trustees’ meetings, insurance details, and invoices for repairs and accessions.

5-s-g-deed-1947-pg5The most important are probably two long reports of 1947 and 1948 by the then County Librarian and later the County Archivist, commenting on the very impoverished and neglected state of the Library after the Second World War. We owe it to Mr. S. G. Deed, a retired headmaster of the local grammar school and Plume Librarian for some twenty years, that matters were taken in hand and a catalogue produced under his aegis. But the principal concern of both reports was how little known the Library was beyond Maldon, and that its amazing diversity should be the subject of more study.

This website is a major step towards that end.