New Accession: John Sampson archive

John Sampson (1862-1931) was the first full-time librarian at University College (later the University of Liverpool) as well as an ardent Romani scholar. Thanks to various donations over the years, including some from the Sampson family, we have a large and fascinating John Sampson archive. Recently, we were delighted to receive some new additions – they have now been catalogued and should be a fantastic resource for researchers.

SP9/5/2 (153): Sampson caught in one of his more casual moments.

Sampson was also a prolific correspondent, and the new material contains a large amount of correspondence between Sampson and a host of well-known names.

One such name is Theodore Watts-Dunton, the critic and poet who shared Sampson’s passion for gypsy lore and literature; they corresponded enthusiastically on such matters. Watts-Dunton is also known for being the last carer of the great poet, Algernon Swinburne. Due to Swinburne’s poor physical and mental health he lived with Watts-Dunton at ‘The Pines’ in Putney from 1879; he died there in 1909, three days after Watts-Dunton wrote this letter to Sampson. 

SP9/5/1/6 (3): Watts-Dunton warns Sampson against coming to his home, a ‘plague stricken house of doom of the influenza fiend’.

Other correspondents include Joseph Conrad (author of Heart of Darkness), who wrote this letter to Sampson in 1922, respectfully refusing an honorary degree from Liverpool.

SP95/1/11 (1): Determined to remain a non-academic, Joseph Conrad also turned down degrees from the likes of Yale, Oxford and Cambridge.

The new material doesn’t only contain insights into the literati of the time, but to Sampson himself. Thanks to a large amount of material gathered by his family, including his daughter Mary Arnold, we have photographs, personal letters and even more unusual items.

SP9/5/2 (159): One of a few limericks by Sampson, likely sent to his daughter, Mary.
SP9/5/2 (160): The first page of a three-page poem by Sampson, sent to Mary on her 16th birthday, 1922.

The catalogue is now available online (SP9/5). The new material also perfectly complements our huge Gypsy Lore Society archive; Sampson was an active member of this society, serving as president in 1915-1916.

This Week’s War: 118


I saw Harvey Gilsan today, bragging and brash worse than ever. An unfortunate officer who lives in his terraces & met him one evening in a mackintosh was rash enough to demand why he hadn’t saluted. “I will salute you Sir, if you are of higher rank than myself. May I enquire what you rank in?” “I am a captain” “And I Sir am a Lieut. Col.!!!” You can imagine how visibly H.G swelled as he recounted this.

[SP8/1/2/11/79, November 2nd 1916, John Sampson Letters].

New Exhibition: Local Literary Landscapes

This year sees the exciting launch of the inaugural Liverpool Literary Festival, running 2830 October 2016. To celebrate, a new exhibition at Special Collections & Archives is highlighting the work of those literary figures who have sought inspiration from Liverpool and the surrounding area, particularly local poet Matt Simpson. His newly-acquired archive provides the bedrock for the exhibition and reveals just how much his work was influenced by Liverpool; his verses are full of the city and its people.

Matt Simpson returns to his childhood street

Matt Simpson returns to his childhood street

Simpson (1936-2009) grew up in Bulwer Street, Bootle, where he attended the local grammar school.  He went on to study English at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and returned to Liverpool in the 1960s after his marriage to German actress Monika Weydert. He taught in various schools and colleges, including Christ’s College (now Liverpool Hope University). He published many collections of poetry, including some for children, as well as critical essays and monographs. He also undertook a poetry residence in Tasmania, which inspired his collection, Cutting the Clouds Towards (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1998). But it was the city where he grew up and lived most of his life which would be his most enduring inspiration.

SPEC Merseyside Poets I.S615.M23 : Matt Simpson, Making Arrangements (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1982)

SPEC Merseyside Poets I.S615.M23 :
Matt Simpson, Making Arrangements (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1982)

The exhibition also includes impressions of the city recorded in the poems, autobiographies and travel diaries of a host of others, from novelist Daniel Defoe to physicist Oliver Lodge, social reformer Josephine Butler to poet Donald Davie.

The exhibition will run until the end of the year. In 2017 we’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Mersey Sound, the anthology of poems produced by the ‘Liverpool Poets’ Brian Patten, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri.

This week’s war: 111


What gorgeous news from the Western front. In case you hadn’t seen I sent you this morning the [Liverpool] D[aily] Post with Philip Gibbs’ Chronicle despatch, which is full of delightful fun about the ‘Tanks’. […] I like to think of the Tommies laughing.

18th September 1916. Letter from John Sampson, University Librarian, to his wife, Margaret Sampson [Sampson Archive SP8/1/2/11/68]. This week’s war: 111.

This week’s war: 104


There is no doubt that our move has begun. Everyone says so. Panes, who has just returned from the front, says that he left them straining in the leash just waiting the word to go. Dora says that the Adjutant in charge of the camp at Aintree announced yesterday (Sunday) at parade that our advance troops were in Lille, which would be splendid indeed, and I have heard the same, on less authority, from others – among them…a man of the Defence fort at Crosby.


I hope we may be in time to prevent the fall of Verdun, which seems imminent otherwise.

26 July 1916. Letter from John Sampson, University Librarian, to his wife [Sampson Archive SP8/1/2/11/64]. This week’s war: 104.


This week’s war: 100

This week marks the centenary of the one hundredth week of fighting in the First World War. At this point, hopes of an early curtailment might well have rescinded in the face of the on-going reality.

It seems appropriate at this point to break from the customary format of our This Week’s War asides with a closer look at the source materials.

We are fortunate to have a range of sources, both primary and secondary, to draw upon each week. This, we hope, enables us to capture poignant and pertinent images of the war as experienced by those both on the frontline and watching events unfold at a distance.

Of the former category is a letter from the Cunard Shipping Line archive. Captain W. Turner captained the Cunard vessel RMS Lusitania for what was to be its final voyage, during which it was torpedoed by a German submarine on 7 May 1915. In a letter to a Miss Brayton, dated 10 June 1915, Turner expresses his sorrow and regret over the loss of life:

I am thankful to say that I have not felt any bad effects from my terrible experience, but I grieve for all the poor innocent people that lost their lives and for those that are left to mourn their dear ones loss. Please excuse me saying more,  because I hate to think or speak of it.


His request that Miss Brayton pardon his brevity is an indication of the horror experienced by those who bore witness to the disaster first-hand.

Primary sources offering the home front perspective include the letters of former University of Liverpool Librarian John Sampson, whose letters to his wife, Margaret, detail the correspondence he receives from his son Michael, serving with the British military, along with Sampson’s own reflections on this familial connection to geographically distal events. In May 1916 Sampson writes to his wife:

It was a surprise and a little shock to get Mick’s line this morning saying that he is indeed “overseas”. I thought it would come. It is hard to realize exactly how one feels about it. If one says, “It is a happy thing and a relief that Mick’s ability and application which got him his ‘D’, should now, without his seeking for it or anything outside the immediate duty, carry its reward by setting him free from the chances of war that wait far less happy and gifted boys”, it is only putting one side of the case. And one’s mind, once made up, is made up to all. I hope that he will be spared. But whatever comes Mick will have done well.

[John Sampson Archive: SP8/1/2/11/39]



Letters from John Sampson to his wife, Margaret Sampson.

An alternative account of wartime Britain is recorded in the diaries of John Bruce Glasier, socialist and pacifist. This account offers no jingoism or appetite for the war. Rather, Glasier documents his and his associates’ political activities (Glasier and his wife, Katharine, were founder members of the Independent Labour Party in 1893) along with the struggles faced by conscientious objectors. From December 1915:

Mr Asquith has decided to bring in a bill to conscript the unmarried men who have not “attested” under Lord Derby’s scheme. This is a thunderbolt. We all believed that the Derby scheme had at any rate indefinitely postponed conscription. The thought of Britain having recourse to this worst of all tyrannies, makes me sick at heart.

[Glasier Papers GP2/1/22]

Though they cannot be mined for quotations, these diaries’ blank spaces are almost as poignant as the entries themselves. Glasier was in very poor health, and many of his entries reveal just how badly his health had declined and how much discomfort he was in by mid-1916. Often such entries are followed by prolonged periods where he does not write, and the present-day reader can only wonder whether he lacked the physical strength or motivation to record his experiences.

Diary accounts.

Diary accounts.

The collection of First World War pamphlets has augmented the series with excerpts of secondary narratives, reports of media commentary, and propagandising from both sides. Of especial interest is the series of Foreign Intelligence reports, which bear the express warning that their contents are top secret. One such report from December 1915 publishes an exhortation, printed in the German publication Zukunft, for German citizens to recognise the strength of the Allied Forces’ conviction, and the inevitability of a protracted and bloody war of attrition:

Not one of our enemies has laid down his arms. Not one is discouraged, no one doubts the final victory, and they are all determined to make every effort to obtain it. It will, therefore, be a war of exhaustion of which no human eye can see the end. All Germans must be made to understand this.

[POV X 44.11.6(1)]

The autograph diaries of Alfred Osten Walker, President of the Liverpool Biological Society from 1892-3, demonstrate the disjuncture between the daily routine and the interpositions of the war. Walker’s entries juxtapose the military and the mundane, reflecting the war as experienced by those whose frontline experience came vicariously through press and officialdom. An entry from October 1915 reads:

Mrs Bonasted called p.m. and had a game of G.C. Rather dull and foggy. Wind W.

Heard that a Zeppelin on Wednesday night dropped a bomb on a camp of Canadians at Sellindge and killed 12.

[Liverpool University Library Manuscripts LUL MS9 1915]

Manuscripts, of course, frequently present the additional challenge of deciphering the author’s handwriting. Such was the palaeographical challenge with the military service diary of former University of Liverpool professor, Charles Wells:

The frequently inscrutable handwriting of Professor Charles Wells…

Events which the intervening years have elevated to especial infamy – the sinking of the Lusitania, the Battle of Jutland, the Act of Parliament enforcing military conscription, or the horror of the Somme trenches –  are typically easier to source quotations for, given the flurry of contemporaneous news reportage and commentary each provoked. These events become the points of entry in to the archives and printed collections, while periods of lesser historical infamy are accessible through more generic war-related keywords combined with a date range.

From a professional perspective, to find a pithy remark encapsulating one of the most infamous events in twentieth-century military history is incredibly satisfying. From a human perspective, it is sometimes slightly disconcerting. These events are brought to life; they shown to be far more than points on a textbook timeline.

This week’s war: 97


The evening paper has just come out with the official news that Kitchener has been drowned or killed in H.M.S “Hampshire” off the Orkneys, sunk by mine or torpedo, no one saved, apparently early this morning. I have not seen a paper yet.

June 6th 1916. Extract from a letter from John Sampson. [John Sampson Archive: SP8/1/2/11/45]. This week’s war: 97.

This week’s war: 95


Just a word to say that I have been to the Chemists who made a great fuss and said that in consequence of a new Army Order they are forbidden to send Opium Morphia or Cocaine in any form to officers or soldiers at the front.

May 25th 1916. Extract from a letter from John Sampson. [John Sampson Archive: SP8/1/2/11/41]. This week’s war: 95.

This week’s war: 85


I have been wondering a great deal about Mick’s course [musketry], and must ask him how long it will be. It seems to me that if the officers taking this course are all ‘selected’, and expected to do well, it must be much more than the ordinary routine or something just to fill up time for the wounded officers recuperating, and I cannot help thinking it possible that if Mick gets his “D” [distinction] – if he does not it will be owing to the stupidity of the examining brand – he might perhaps be retained here or at some other base as special instructor, which I should no greatly regret. Mick, one knows, is ready for any duty, but he has risked his life already more than once, and [?] his little bit, and if he were put on other duties just because he could do them better than others, I should be the last to regret it.

March 14th 1916. Extract from a letter from John Sampson. [John Sampson Archive: SP8/1/2/11/29]. This week’s war: 85.