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Saturday, 22 March 2014


Thomas Woollgar was my great aunt Helen Verrall’s great great grandfather and a man after my own heart, so fascinated by so many things that he found it hard to settle on any one thing. His was a constantly enquiring mind. A draper to trade, he taught himself medicine and natural history in his time off and was a compulsive student of the past and present of his town, Lewes in Sussex.

Lewes, Sussex, painted by JWM Turner in c1796

He wrote everything down. His observations of local botany, his transcriptions of monumental inscriptions and ancient records, even the names and trades of everyone living in Lewes – the surviving notes in his neat handwriting, bound in huge leather-bound volumes, are now in the care of Sussex Archaeological Society. The books, known as Specilegia Lewensis (a Lewes Miscellany), form a priceless snapshot of the place in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Only a generation after the pioneering naturalist Gilbert White, Woollgar's botanical collections were the earliest studies of the area’s ecology and fossil-rich geology. A year after his death his friend and fellow naturalist Gideon Mantell named a locally occurring ammonite, Collignoniceras woollgari, in his honour.

Collignoniceras woollgari, discovered in lower chalk deposits around Lewes by Gideon Mantell in 1822

Thomas was a founder member of the Lewes Library Society, one of the thirteen people who on 1st January 1786 chipped in half a crown each (12.5 pence) and a monthly subscription of a shilling (5p) to set up nothing less than a temple to the arts and sciences built of printed words. Members could nominate books for the library to purchase with their subscription fees, and by 1824 the collection contained some 3400 volumes for a membership which now numbered 92. Gideon Mantell signed up in 1789.

From the start it had lofty aims. No type of publication was expressly excluded, but as Gideon noted in 1824,
A taste for light reading seems rather to have gained ground among the members, which is perhaps mainly to be attributed to the excessive popularity of the works of “the author of Waverley.” [The first of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels appeared in 1814.] It is to be hoped that the leading members of the establishment, will always exert themselves to prevent the character and importance of the collection from being lessened by too great an influx of works of mere imagination. That this institution should ever become assimilated to a common circulating library, would be a matter of sincere regret.

1839 Fisher edition of the Magnum Opus, the collected Waverley novels: pulp fiction to Gideon Mantell, but they did look good on the shelves

Thomas Woollgar served as the library’s second president from the early 1800s until his death in 1821. By then the joining fee had risen to six guineas (£6.30), and the monthly subscription to five crowns (£1.25). Thomas’s tenure was marred by unproven accusations of his financial impropriety. He was succeeded by a Lewes upholsterer, William Verrall, another founder member of the society and another ancestor of my great aunt Helen.

And lest you think that it was all dry-as-dust high literature and learned non-fiction for those early readers, I can tell you that romance blossomed among the shelves of their first-floor library in Lewes High Street. It was announced in 1794 that two founder members were to wed – Thomas Woollgar and Anne Webb, “a woman of most amiable character” according to Gideon. Thomas was made a partner by his employer as a wedding gift, but four years later resigned to pursue knowledge fulltime. Anne died in 1815, and "her removal [wrote Gideon] caused a blank in Thomas’s enjoyments that even time could not supply." They were reunited by Thomas’s death only six years later. The Society continued until 1897 when its books were donated to Lewes's new public library.

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