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Book Chats on Annotations.

“Even a single hair casts its shadow”. P. Syrus. Epg 228.
Last updated 2020.

On occasion, the line between total shipwreck with the loss of all hands, and being saved, is so fine as to be almost indistinguishable. As for ships, so for books and their owners.

Image: Hair


This happened recently with a batch of extremely distressed volumes. Although clearly old and largely of a religious nature, the first reaction was to reject...but, wait a minute, one was heavily annotated in a difficult hand (see below), so, the lot was bought in and several weeks later the volume was retrieved for closer inspection.

The copy dates from March 1852. In fact we have the then “New” edition of Boswell's “A Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson. LL.D.”, with, interestingly, two Title Pages and two Frontispieces bound in (see below centre). This is Volume V of Boswell's "Life of Johnson".  Distressed is an understatement. It was beyond "Poor" in the standard bookseller's condition category. The top cover was hanging by a thread, pages were loose, and damp had made heavy inroads. But the volume had an interesting story to tell. Annotations were everywhere.....and told a one hundred and sixty-four year old story of pain, paternal grief, and loss. The writer clearly wrote to be read, and his grief is expressed through his narrative and poetry. Unpicking the chronology was difficult, as layers of writing from different dates overlapped. The central event? That remains a mystery.

But clearly, something traumatic occurred within the Hawkins family in the parish of Homerton on the evening of Sunday 23rd of October 1853........
(Please Scroll Down)


In the composite image below we have the first entry.... (centre)....

“Behaviour Prize. Presented to Miss Hatch by Miss Matthews. Barnsbury Park. Mids. 2.1.1852”.
[The copy must have been printed in 1851, even though the Introduction states March 1852].

Then underneath....

“It was in 1834 that I called upon this lady and in 1854 I left her one of my calling cards. I did not see her on this last occasion, but no doubt time with her, as with me, has done his work. 5 Jan 1855”.
[This must refer to the Governess Miss Matthews, as Miss Hatch was then a child].

The next entry reads (lower imsge below, top two lines)....

“Richard Hawkins.
The Gift of his daughter
The last time I saw her was Sunday Evening 23rd October 1853”.

Then, underneath....

“Homerton. 21st December 1854. How very curiously things often come about! This book was given to a Miss Hatch in 1852 by her Governess Miss Matthews of Barnsbury Park. Mr Stephen a colleague of mine taught drawing at that school and on the breaking up of the service in 1834 offered me the engagement. I called upon Miss Matthews though I did not succeed in getting it, but for what reason I do not now remember. Miss Hatch gave the book to Bessie (I cannot write her name without painful feelings) who gave it to me on Sunday night 23rd October 1853. It was the last time I saw her. Alas poor Bessie!”



Eight years pass, then he pens....

“To my Bessie. 20 Dec. 1861”

Child of my early love! Thy wayward course

Saddens my heart. Thou'rt to me a source

of ceaseless grief.

Eight years have rolled on, since I saw that face

Or heard ought of thy movements, time or place

To give relief.

The full outpouring of a troubled mind

That lov'd impression thou has left behind

I would express.

Alas! There's nothing else now left to me

What'eer thou are, my love still follows thee

Yet not the less.

My fond remembrance recalls that time

Where pure, and lovely, thou were truly mine,

That time's o'er!

My solitary way then, still I'll keep,

And hope, and love, till in the dust I sleep

To grieve no more. R.H.

Then, one year on, finally.....

“To my Bessie. Sunday night 5 Oct. 1862”.

Could I Have thought in days long past
That I should live to say?
“Nine years are now approaching fast
Since love, though went away”.

And not a line to intimate
If living! Still I’d fain
Persuade myself tis not in fate
We never meet again.

How many sad conjecture I
Have formed respecting thee
And oft I’ve asked the reason why?
Since thou’sh no thought for me.


And shall I never see thee more?
Alas! It seems too true.
The sad remembrance of yore
Is all I’ve left of you.


My own brief tale will soon be told
Ere long, my sorrow o’er
The hand that writes, pen cease to hold,
The heart soon throb no more.

But while I’ve thought and consciousness
I’ll fondly think of thee,
And dying bless thee ne’ertheless
Child! Dearest! Loved Bessie.

Well…what does one make of all this….?

All we know is Bessie unexpectedly walks out on her father Richard Hawkins on the evening of October 23rd 1853, but for what actual reason we shall never fathom.

But, why give her Father a copy of  “A Tour to the Hebrides”…as a parting shot?

The book clearly had great significance to both of them, as the text block is covered in his annotations.

By 1862 he’s near the end (see Vs. 5 & 6 in the final poem above) yet still filled with remorse for causing the parting of the ways. [P.S. We now find his death is recorded in Shoreditch, and in 1863].

Post Script. The 1861 Census records our Richard Hawkins as living alone at 2 Morning Lane, Hackney, in the Parish of St Barnabus Homerton. Age 63. Occupation: "Drawing Master & Pensioner". This is our man! His daughter Bessie disappears 8 years prior in 1853. At that date he would have been 55. His "Homerton Dec 1854" book entry above, and "....taught drawing", agrees exactly with the Occupation and Location detailed in the Census. But, alas, as he himself puts it.....of Bessie there is no trace.......

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