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from More queer things about London (1924)

by Charles G. Harper

THE story of the way in which some of the most cherished books, charters, records, and regalia of the City of London were secured against possible destruction in the Great War of 1914-18 is a romance well worth placing upon record. It was in the autumn of 1917 that the Corporation began to be disturbed about the possibilities arising from the increasing activities of enemy aircraft; especially, looking back upon the bygone centuries and on the Great Fire of London in 1666, when so many of the City's treasures were destroyed. It was thus, in no panic fears, but with the ordinary precaution of business men, that most of the City's valuables were packed up and sent to places of safety: some to a remote spot, and others to a secure cache close at hand. It came to the knowledge of the City authorities at this juncture of affairs that the British Museum was sending the choicest of the contents of its departments of manuscripts, prints and drawings and printed books to Aberystwyth, there to be stored in a rock-hewn modern chamber belonging to the Library of the National Council of Wales. Four van-loads were packed at the British Museum; and an offer was made to the Guildhall to take one van-load from the City's store. This was accepted, and the principal Librarian of the British Museum and the City Librarian travelled down together by special train from Camden, in charge of these treasures, on May 7th, 1918. The vans were duly sealed, and on arrival their contents were stored. Among the City's choicest things were the charter of William the Conqueror, the Caxton and other unique, rare and irreplaceable books and archives from the Guildhall library: including the signature of Shakespeare on the conveyance of a house in Playhouse Yard, Blackfriars, purchased by the City in 1863 for LI45: five pounds more than the price that had been paid for the property. His Majesty's Office of Works undertook the packing and dispatching alike of the British Museum vans, and that of the City. The City's van-load was returned on January 18th, 1919. The cost of dispatching was £135, and of returning £145. Aberystwyth was selected as being not only remote from London, but on advice from the Admiralty, which regarded Cardigan Bay, on which Aberystwyth is situated, as safe from enemy submarines operating off that coast: the sea there being shallow and full of sandbanks. A further large selection of the City's treasures, muniments and records, including the City's Purse and the Lord Mayor's Sceptre, was stored in the Post Office tube station, seventy feet down in the earth, beneath the King Edward Post Office in Newgate Street. That is the Post Office pneumatic tube which runs to Paddington. Although the tube itself is of small diameter, the station is as large as the usual London tube station. Two attendants slept there, nightly, through this period: for not only were many of the City's treasures here, but those also of the Heralds' College and of certain among the Livery Companies, as well as many priceless heirlooms of private persons.