The books of the Brewster bequest

In 1475 the hospital of Saint Anthony in the City of London, together with its lands and properties throughout England, which had earlier come into the possession of the Crown by virtue of the Alien Priories Act 1414, became vested in the Dean and Canons of Windsor. Among the properties of the hospital was the advowson, or right of presentation of an incumbent to the living, of the parish church of All Saints in Hereford. It was as patrons of the living of this church that the Dean and Canons were to become involved, nearly four centuries later, in a dispute concerning certain of the church’s assets.

In 1715 the church of All Saints became the beneficiary, under the will of a physician and bibliophile, Doctor William Brewster, of a library of books on ‘divinity, morality and history,’ which were to be ‘sett up in the Vestry or other convenient place in the said Church for the use of the Rector or Vicar and his Successors for the time being for ever,’ with a condition that the books were not ‘to be removed out of the said Church upon any pretext whatsoever.’ Furthermore, the usage and keeping of the books were to be subject to the visitation and direction of the bishop of Hereford. Presses, shelves or cupboards were to be built for the books at the expense of the testator’s estate.

By the mid-nineteenth century, some hundred and forty years after the bequest, while the population of the parish had grown, its income had not kept pace. It was also a time when church rates, a principal source of income, had become a highly contentious political issue, although they were not actually abolished until 1868. The churchwardens of this cash-strapped parish were hard put to it to make ends meet. In 1859 they hit upon the idea of selling the books of the Brewster bequest — which, according to one of the churchwardens, were ‘only regarded as lumber and never used.’ So the parishioners ‘in Vestry assembled’ resolved on their sale for the sum of a hundred pounds, either ignorant of or ignoring the terms of the bequest.

The Dean and Canons, as patrons of the living, having become apprised of the sale, Dean Wellesley took steps to inquire into the circumstances and to find out whether the sale had been justified. A somewhat caustic correspondence with the former curate, and effectually locum tenens of the vicar, of the parish at the time of the sale, Revd John Penleaze, disclosed that the meeting at which the sale had been agreed had taken place in his absence [SGC XVI.2.82]. Once in possession of the facts, and after corresponding on the matter with the bishop of Hereford, the Dean decided that the books must be returned to the church and one of the churchwardens, Joseph Head, was prevailed upon to arrange for their return. Whether he was able to re-acquire them at the sale price or at some additional cost is not apparent from the extant correspondence in the Chapel Archives. To what extent the books were consulted after their return to the church must remain a matter of conjecture.

The final chapter in the story took place after the lapse of another hundred and forty years or so, when in 1995 the books of the Brewster bequest were again sold — permanently this time — to the Mappa Mundi Trust and they are now kept under appropriate environmental conditions in a purpose-built library at Hereford Cathedral.

Jeremy Sims, Archives Volunteer

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.