A Brentford Treasure House

This is an account given by Fred Turner, Brentford’s Librarian, of the work he had to do to ensure the Layton Collection was successfully moved into Brentford Library. It is taken from The Chiswick Times of 5 September 1915. It was unearthed by a Trustee, Janet McNamara, while researching in the local history collection at Chiswick Library.

A Brentford Treasure House: How the Layton Collection was found – Anecdotes of a Collection

To whatever extent Brentford suffers from the state of its High Street and the want of attention of the authorities to the demands of the local councillors, it is favoured in that it has a splendid store house at the Free Library building, which, as is well known, has been enriched by the receipt of the extensive and elaborate collection of books, prints, coins, armour and arms, antiquities, stone implements and pottery, collected by the late Mr Thomas Layton FSA of Layton House, Kew Bridge.

To glean something of the extent and nature of the treasures and the characteristics of the benefactor, I spent an afternoon recently with Mr F A Turner, FRHistSoc, the librarian, who as one of its trustees has spent months amongst the collection. Mr Turner was on terms of personal friendship with Mr Layton for nearly a quarter of a century. I had heard in past days that the antiquary of Kew Bridge was an omnivorous collector, and how people who found a treasure were wont “to take it to old Tommy Layton” to use their own words. I related the fact to Mr Turner.

“It is quite probable” he replied. “He was a remarkable man, and I don’t suppose he knew what he possessed, or half what he possessed. I found valuable things, books, prints, swords, armour, pushed away in all out-of-the-way corners. I thought when I first saw the rooms at Layton House and how the books and other things were stored away, that I should never get any order out of them.
In one room, so small that a big man would hardly be able to get into it, I found books stacked right up to the ceiling, the bottom ones in each pile resting on little stools. A corridor between two rooms was so choked up with books and various articles that I could not get through, and some of the bookshelves had volumes placed four deep. When I looked at them first I thought ‘This won’t take me long’ but when I removed one volume I found another behind, and another behind that, and yet another, till the wall was reached. In an outhouse I found a lot of books simply spoiling with damp, and the cover of one – a valuable work on ornithology – could not be seen for mildew.

One room full of books had not been opened, I was told, for seven years. There were no means of letting light or air into it, and I had to work in a narrow space in the bitter cold of the winter by candle light, and with a row of grinning skulls looking at me from a shelf where they had been put. They were skulls that had been brought him from time to time and he bought them and threw them on one side.”

“Was there anything to identify them?”

“Nothing. Just as he bought them he pushed them away. Who they are and where they were found no one can tell. And so it was with all the antiquities. His store of swords, worth perhaps four figures, were mostly tied up in bundles; there were his coins – Roman mostly – in a bag, though he had coin cabinets: he had some pottery amongst it, some Mortlake ware, bronze implements, flints, both of the paleolithic and neolithic periods, pistols, shields, armour, spears, yet nothing to tell where they came from. A lot I know came from Old England and the bed of the Thames, but which I cannot identify. These I found in all sorts of odd corners. They will come here, of course, but it will take a long time to classify them and put them into order, and I daresay four years will pass before the collection is in full order for public use.”

I mentioned that I had heard Mr Layton would spend a day in London amongst print and book sellers and send a van up the next day to bring home his purchases.

“Very probable. I found parcels of books wrapped up in paper and tied with string that had never been opened, and must have been there for many years. Seven years ago I persuaded him to have a valuable copy of a work on Windsor rebound. I found it wrapped up, and the binders’ account inside. There were duplicated parcels all unopened. I found a pile of the catalogues of the Selborne Society’s May Day Exhibition at Richmond, which Mr Edward King, of the Richmond and Twickenham Times, organised. What he could have been doing with the pile I can’t conceive, but it shows the extraordinary man he was. I even found books put away in fireplaces and piled up the chimneys. A valuable copy of Boydell’s Thames I found under a couch, where it had been shoved to stop up a mouse hole.

Singular man! With all the characteristics of a collector! I came across little rolls of paper, and opening them I found each consisted of a piece of blotting paper, a piece of foolscap, and the District Council agenda he used when he was chairman, each tied up with a bit of tape, and it was his custom to take them home from each meeting. He had a servant once who started to ‘clear up’, as he called it, and to put things a bit into order, but Mr Layton promptly stopped him with the remark ‘leave that to those who come after us’.”

The prevailing idea was that the collection was, by Mr Layton’s will, to be housed in Layton House, but Mr Turner explained that that would have been impossible. The house was unsuited for a museum, and under the very best of circumstances the costs of supervision would have been too great. The Court of Chancery took the view that the collection must either be stored or placed in some publicly controlled place. To store it till the death of the tenant for life would mean keeping the public away from the valuable treasures for an indefinite period, and the judge took the public-spirited view that they should be handed to the custody of the Free Library. As the executors and trustees would thus be saved the storage fees, he ordered that they should pay £250 to the Library Committee for preparing the library for the receptions of the books, prints and so forth. Thus the cost to Brentford will be nothing. Without this grant it would have been otherwise: 25,000 to 30,000 books, 25,000 to 20,000 prints, coins to a huge number, to say nothing of the arms, armour, pottery, bronzes and flints, could not be disposed of without a big dip into the exchequer.

Mr Turner has his plans laid down for storing the collection to the best advantage. Every one of the prints he has gone through and has classified them into London and home counties, and subdivided them into counties, towns, and special buildings in towns. He has quite a thousand relating to London, its buildings, scenes and plans. There is a fine set dealing with old Kew Gardens, another of Hampton Court Palace and a few of Richmond. Of Brentford there are but few, but the library is already rich in this particular class. Specimens of Bartolozzi and Bunbury are there, and there is a fine collection of Hogarths.

“The old gentleman was very annoyed once. When the Middlesex County Council was fitting up Hogarth House at Chiswick as a Hogarth museum, Mr Layton was asked if would give some of his original Hogarths. He refused promptly, and was afterwards heard to say, ‘Fancy wanting me to give them some of my pictures’.”

Turning to the collection of books, Mr Turner said that they were especially rich in topographical and antiquarian works; natural history was also well represented, for the deceased was well up in that class of study. Many of them were autographed copies presented by the authors, and many of them too, had scarce bookplates fixed to the covers. Amongst the rarer, Mr Turner showed me Ackerman’s Histories of Oxford and Cambridge, Boydell’s Rivers of Great Britain, Pyne’s History of Royal Residences, Lysons’ Environs of London extra illustrated, the Greville memoirs, Planche’s unrivalled work on costume, Stowe’s London and Westminster, Dugdale’s Monasticon, a first edition (1676) of Speed’s Great Britain, a quarto edition of Horace Walpole, the Harleian Miscellany, Cox’s Magna Britannica, and Lysons’ work of the same title, Greig upon Rowlandson’s Satires and a fine copy of Rocque’s map. A singular thing about the map is that it shows the first Kew Bridge, although it was published about fourteen years before the bridge was built. It contains rather peculiar marks on each side of the bridge, “and it may be they indicate that a bridge is proposed at that spot”, observed my guide.

“You can imagine what it means to go through such a collection, select which of the duplicates are best to keep, to label and index them and to catalogue them. I have done the prints, and they are in two cabinets. When I found them they were all jumbled up, tiny ones and big ones (five feet square) being mixed together in terrible confusion. He absolutely could not have known what he really had got there and I daresay there are some he did not see for twenty or thirty years. Some I have had framed and hung on the walls of the library and lecture room.”

Reverting to the books, Mr Turner pointed out that there was a fine set of the European Magazine of the nineteenth century, the Annual Register, and the famous Gentleman’s Magazine, giving such valuable pictures and stories of the times through from the middle of the eighteenth century.

I left convinced that not only Brentford but a large district around own Mr Turner a big vote of thanks for having secured such a collection. To antiquarians, and especially all engaged in research, he has brought a rich store, which will make the library one of the best for reference purposes this side of the British Museum.