The Secrets of Bay XX

Ushaw College Library
Ushaw College Library

Four miles from Durham, hidden away within a wood, lies the gothic Ushaw College, a former Roman Catholic seminary. Within its vast library is Bay XX, featuring a collection of 3000 works by some of the greatest European novelists and playwrights. The library’s archive cataloguer, Dr Jonathan Bush, lets us into its secrets.

I work as an archivist for Durham University in the library of Ushaw College, a former Roman Catholic seminary which, until its closure in 2011, trained young men for the priesthood. Ushaw College is only four miles west of Durham but it is set back from the main road, hidden away within woodland, and poorly signposted. The location of the college is by no means accidental. The seminary has retained an air of secrecy since its foundation in 1808, a period in which Catholics were advised to keep a low profile in spite of the passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1791 giving them freedom to worship.  The population in the surrounding villages of Ushaw Moor, Bearpark and Langley Park were no doubt aware of the seminary’s existence but few ‘outsiders’ were allowed the privilege of entering its gothic walls.

The library’s reputation as a vast treasure trove of 30,000 early printed books and a huge collection of archives and manuscripts dating back to the medieval period is not widely known outside a small and select group of academic researchers. Understandably for a former seminary library, there is a strong emphasis on theology and church history. What is more unexpected are the huge numbers of books on more secular subjects, including art, architecture, medicine, natural history, mathematics, philosophy, archaeology and early travel. Many works are extremely rare and internationally significant; the science section alone includes first editions of Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei.


It is, however, the literature section in Bay XX which seems to generate the most interest. It is certainly a mystery as to how the college ended up with such a fascinating collection of 3,000 works by some of the greatest English and European novelists and playwrights of the last 300 years because the acquisition records from the nineteenth century no longer survive. We can only surmise that, owing to the evidence of a ‘U.C. Reading Room’ stamp on the verso of the first endpaper of a small number of books, certain titles would have been read by seminarians in their leisure time as part of the college’s ethos to educate the lay and ecclesiastical student with improving literature. Nevertheless, given the limited freedom available to those in seminary training and the possibility that such young minds may be corrupted by dangerous literary movements hostile to the Catholic Church – the modernist movement was a particular bugbear – it is likely that opportunities to read for pleasure were limited and strictly controlled. That seminarians were not given unfettered access to the literary holdings may be one explanation as to why so many important books have survived!

Ben Jonson_scribble out
Partly-erased inscription of Ben Jonson, on a copy of A discovery of the Dalmatian apostata

The library includes everything from first editions of Charles Dickens (Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby, Barnaby Rudge, Little Dorrit) to Icelandic sagas. The provenance of many of these books can be just as interesting as the books themselves. For example, Thomas Carlyle’s On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history (London, 1873) is signed by a ‘C. J. Gibb’, i.e. Dr Charles Gibb, who was immortalised in a line in the famous nineteenth-century music hall song written by Geordie Ridley, The Blaydon Races. In spite of attempts to remove it, the inscription of the seventeenth-century playwright, Ben Jonson, is also apparent on Monsig[neu]r fate voi. Or A discovery of the Dalmatian apostata, M. Antonius de Dominis, and his books (Saint-Omer, 1617).

It seems quite clear that whoever donated the literature books to the library had a strong interest in English and European Romanticism, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats and, in particular, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, featuring prominently. A book on the seventeenth century natural scientist, Sir Thomas Browne, also has Robert Southey’s inscription and a letter addressed to him by W. A. MacKinnon was found inside volume 1.

Undoubtedly one of the most important discoveries of this cataloguing project so far has been the discovery of a facsimile manuscript with alterations of a Lord Byron poem, glued inside a volume of his printed works Hours of Idleness (London, 1820). The poem is a variant of ‘On the Death of the Duke of Dorset’ and is signed ‘Byron’. Professor Michael O’Neill of Durham University’s English Department is currently attempting to authenticate the document. It is likely to be an engraved facsimile rather than an original manuscript but the variations in the stanzas are potentially significant as they are not recorded in any current standard editions of Byron’s poems.

Writing by Francis Thompson, Ushaw's most famous alumni
‘To the English Martyrs’ by Francis Thompson, one of Ushaw’s most famous alumni

Ushaw College’s closest connection to the great poets of English literature is the collection of the papers of one of the college’s most famous alumni, Francis Thompson. Thompson’s life was very much that of the troubled poet. Attending Ushaw College as a lay student, he moved to London and his addiction to opium left him homeless. After attempting suicide, his talent for poetry was finally discovered by Wilfrid and Alice Meynell, the editors of Merrie England, who took Thompson under their wing and helped him to publish his first book, Poems. The rest of his life was spent as an invalid and he died at the relatively young age of 47. The Thompson Papers are not a large collection but they do contain a draft of his last published poem ‘To the English Martyrs’ which contains a prelude of 46 lines not subsequently published (Meynell thought it too apocalyptic for publication). Professor Stephen Regan has written on this poem in the Treasures of Ushaw College (Scala, 2015).

This barely scratches the surface; the literature holdings in the Ushaw College Library would certainly merit a more detailed examination than this rather brief summary by a non-specialist.

The catalogue of the literature library section is available here.

Queries can be directed to I would be happy to provide a private tour for anyone who is interested!

Some highlights from the collection


2 thoughts on “The Secrets of Bay XX

Add yours

What do you think? Share your thoughts below.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: