Chained Libraries in Chelsea

5 black chains for 5 improbably valuable books. In a world of second-hand bookstores and Amazon, it’s difficult to imagine just how costly books once were. Before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the mid-15th century texts were, of course, copied by hand. Various cultures experimented with material like wax, clay, bamboo, and even bone to record written material. Papermaking appears to have come out of China, traditionally the invention of a Han Dynasty eunuch named Cai Lun. Paper made text cheaper, and thanks to the contributions from Gutenberg and Cai, books became more affordable. However, the early printing press was still labour-intensive and, in a largely illiterate society, books were a privilege for the rich. Opening libraries to the public meant exposing valuable books to theft. A chained library was a logical response to the problem posed by light-fingered readers.

The larger and more expensive a book was, the more likely it was to be chained. The books were positioned so that their spines faced away from visitors, making the text easier to read. However odd it might seem today, chaining books was a practical way to make information accessible. For several hundred years chained libraries were common all across the continent. The practice of chaining came to an end in the 18th century as books dropped in price. The few remaining chained libraries are scattered across Europe. Today, England’s largest collections of chained books are in Hereford Cathedral and Wimborn Minster. London also has its own little known library, tucked away in an ancient Chelsea church.

The first thing you should know about the chained library in Chelsea Old Church is that it’s tiny. There’s no point in pretending otherwise. “Library” seems an overgenerous term to describe the 5, slightly battered, grey tomes housed in the church. That being said, the church is worth visiting as much for the building as the books. Chelsea Old Church is one of those characteristically London buildings that seem to exist outside of time. There’s no discernible decade or even century to the interior. Instead, it has an atmosphere that’s unique to very old, and slightly bonkers bits of architecture. It feels like a time jumble, jammed full of plaques, grave-markers, statues, and other assorted oddities.

Despite being surrounded by the posh houses of Chelsea, the church itself is built of simple red brick. There’s a single rectangular tower overlooking the Thames and a very pretty garden full of flowers. Overlooking the water is a black and gold statue of Thomas Moore. If Sir Thomas, a committed enemy of Protestantism, looks mildly disgruntled it may be because the church is Anglican. This was not always the case, if only because the church pre-dates Protestantism altogether. There was first a church built on these grounds in 1157. Over the centuries, buildings have been added, removed, and occasionally blown up. Thomas Moore once had a private chapel on the grounds, which explains his unexpected presence here today.

If the exterior of Chelsea Old Church is sedate, the inside is the liturgical equivalent of a comfortably overstuffed cottage. There are pew cushions embroidered with aristocratic titles and lines of bad poetry (“Out of thy thoughts/God shall not pass/His image stamped/on every grass”). For some reason the side alter has a cloth decorated with chickens. The walls are crowded with plaques, from the new to the very, very old: the remaining evidence of dead soldiers, loyal wives, and public-spirited businessmen. I read a plaque erected to 4 sailors “who were drowned opposite this church through the swamping of their boat in a squall of wind, June 20th 1839.” At the front of the church, there’s a cluster of engraved metal markers. One, the size a cigarette package, reads; “Henry Gorges Esq., Onely childe of Richard Lord Horges, who dyed YE 27th of Aprill 1674 in YE Nyneteenth Yeare of his age.”

Among all of this chaotic history, the chained library is locked safely away in a wooden cabinet. While it’s true that there are only 5 books, each of them is several hundred years old. They were a gift from Lord of the Manor, Sir Hans Sloan (1661-1753), who succeeded Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society. Sir Hans appears to have had a taste for books of immense size. The largest of the 5 is the 1717 Vinegar Bible, so-called because “The Parable of the Vineyard” in the Gospel of Luke was unfortunately misprinted as “The Parable of Vinegar.” There are the 1st and 3rd volumes of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs from 1684, a Book of Common Prayers from 1723, and a 1683 volume of the Homilies, which is “to be read in Churches by Ministers, diligently and distinctly, that they then may be understood by the people.” All of the volumes are foreboding and grey, kept under lock and key with fat chains gathered at the side. The plaque helpfully notes that, “Scholars who wish to view the books should apply in writing to the Vicar.”

There are now only a handful of chained libraries left across Europe, a vanishing reminder that for most of human history the written word was expensive. Chelsea Old Church is a small, strange window into what that world might have looked like. Go, and if you happen to be a scholar, don’t forget to contact the Vicar before your visit.

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