A pioneering seventeenth-century English language book written by a Southwark schoolteacher has found a new home at the British Library.
The library, in Euston Road, recently received the only known copy of the early schoolbook entitled ‘The grounds of learning’ or, ‘The readiest way of al others, to the true spelling, true reading, and true writing of English’.
The book was written by Richard Hodges, a schoolteacher who lived and worked in Southwark, and printed in 1650 by William Dugard, who was also a schoolteacher and a friend of renowned Paradise Lost author John Milton.
Hodges wrote The Grounds of Learning primarily for children as early learners of literacy – but by today’s standards it would be considered uninspiring for a young audience.
It covers the alphabet, punctuation, spelling and pronunciation, and includes a section on Biblical teachings.
The market for children’s books, educational or otherwise, was still in its infancy in the 1650s and consisted mainly of dry primers (early textbooks), catechisms (religious books) and grammars.
It was only in the second half of the century that awareness of child development grew and educational works became more creative, incorporating pictures and stories into their lessons.
Maddy Smith, curator of printed heritage collections 1601-1900 at the British Library, said Hodges was a pioneer for the standardisation of the English language, particularly of spelling and pronunciation.
“He was a schoolmaster but he also wrote a lot about the English language which in the seventeenth century wasn’t standardised as it is today,” she said.
“The first schoolbooks were in Latin and Greek grammar but as time went on English grew in importance so those functional English language books were quite pioneering for their time.
“He also produced works for apprentices and tradesmen; he used to write books about simple arithmetic so he was also writing for the working class.”
The team at the library had known this particular book existed, as they possess ten different books written by the author and it had been advertised in another publication. The book itself is small and was originally bound in cheap leather, probably calf or sheep, but since been re-covered with utilitarian reverse leather to prolong its lifespan.
“Most books of those sort of schoolbooks and cheap instructional works were bound with really cheap material, and sheep leather was much cheaper than calf,” said Maddy.
“However, it wore very easily because the book was used a lot so the fact it was re-backed over time suggests it was used over generations. It had to be cheap because of the market it was produced for.”
Inside, the endpapers of the book are splattered with the ink blots, doodles and signatures of the book’s earliest young owners.
These include someone named Hannah Barrow who appears to have been given the book as a Christmas present.
She scrawled her name on as many blank pages as she could find, even writing directly to “all you that look within this book” on the front endpaper.
“We like the fact that there was a female ownership of the book,” said Maddy. “It’s quite interesting because female education wasn’t widespread in the early seventeenth and eighteenth century.
“It’s nice to see she was educated, whether or not she was educated at home or at a parish.”
Not much is known about Hodges’ early life, though the British Library does know he lived in Southwark and his burial was registered at St Saviour’s parish.
“We know he lived in Southwark and that he married in 1638 about 20 years before he died so possibly a second marriage but we only really know him by the works he published,” said Maddy.
“His burial was registered in St Saviour’s parish and his gravestone said he was a schoolmaster for the parish.”
The British Library is currently processing the book, but it is hoped it will be on display to the public in the future.