It was owing to an attempted burglary that the library of one of the oldest German churches in London, St George's Lutheran Church in Little Alie Street, Whitechapel, was first brought to the attention of Anglo-German library historians in Britain. In the autumn of 1995, when the building was broken into, concern about the safety of the books prompted the pastor and his church elders to approach the British Library to negotiate the possibility of providing a more appropriate home for this important collection.
St George's Church Library bookplate from Christliche Stimmen von den Bergen, by JH Daub (Essen, 1838), shelfmark: RB.23.a.16559. © The British Library
This German Lutheran parish church in London, founded in Goodman's Fields, dates back to 1762 and the appointment of the congregation's first pastor, Gustav Anton Wachsel. Not obviously recognisable as a church building from the outside, the interior bears design features typical of German Protestantism of this period. A heavy gallery surrounds three sides of the nave, and wooden pews, complete with swing doors, remain beautifully intact.
Parish life certainly flourished during the 18th and 19th centuries, when a large German population, roughly equivalent to that of a small German city, inhabited this area of London. The second half of the 19th century saw the expansion of parish facilities, when infant and secondary schools were added to the existing parish school. The turbulent 1930s brought German refugees to Britain; and, remarkably, for a few months only, Dietrich Bonhoeffer led the congregation in worship. After the war, German wives of British soldiers now entered the congregation, encouraging parish life to blossom once again. Latterly, however, the congregation's number fell to under twenty regulars, and it was no longer considered worthwhile to maintain the building as a place of worship. So, at the close of 1996, St George's was placed in the care of the Historic Chapel Association.
A church in Whitechapel might have seemed an unlikely home for such an outstandingly important collection. Certainly, though, a small room above the vestry used to house some 750 volumes in remarkable book drawers, which date back to the 18th century. Pastor Wachsel's own library formed the core collection, upon which a parish and school library were subsequently founded, that expanded through successive donations from members of the congregation themselves.
The history of the collection seems to have been a fascinating one: many of the items reveal an interesting provenance. Typically, the volumes bear the St George's Library bookplate with an allocated number, or the ink stamp of 'St George's School'. Some however bear a different number on the spine, possibly relating to another library. One of the most interesting items in terms of provenance is a copy of Gottfried Keller's Die Leute von Seldwyla (Braunschweig, 1856), which has the printed label of an unidentified book club or small reading-society on its front board, listing the names of its members, all of whom were men.
Much of the collection, not surprisingly, consists of theology and pietistic Erbauungsliteratur. A fair number of established German authors are represented, as well as classics of English literature in translation, travel literature, school-books, and books for young adults. Among the most valuable volumes are several early 18th-century imprints of the Waisenhaus in Halle, as well as German books originally printed in London, some of which had been hitherto unrecorded. Of the approximately 600 items which have now been acquired by the British Library, less than thirty per cent were already held by the Library. In total, they consist of: 17th-century items (1%), 18th-century (20%), 19th-century (66%), and 20th-century items (13%).
Important items which had not previously been listed in the British Library catalogue include: Wolfius's Christianismus Salviani Illustratus (Hamburg and Ratzeburg, 1678); Pastor Wachsel's own Entwürfe seiner Vormittags-Predigten, printed by Carl Heydinger (London, 1766); and a collection of sermons by F.M. Ziegenhagen, printed by Haberkorn and Gussen at the first German press in London (1750). Another valuable group of additions to the British Library's collections is a number of books published by the Franckesche Stiftungen in Halle, including August Hermann Francke's Schriftenmässige Betrachtung von Gnade und Wahrheit (Halle, in Verlegung des Waysenhauses, 1729). From the early 19th century comes a fine example of travel literature for young adults in Johann Heinrich Campe's Neue Sammlung merkwürdiger Reisebeschreibungen für die Jugend (Braunschweig, 1802-1804). Some of the St George's Church books replace British Museum copies destroyed during the Second World War: for example, Neue Festpredigten (Halle, in der Verlegung des Waisenhauses, 1792) by J.J. Spalding et al., and Bernhard Scholz's Musikalisches und Persönliches (Berlin and Stuttgart, 1899).
The library of one of the oldest German churches in London forms part of Britain's own national heritage. The British Library therefore considers it its duty to assist in making this collection more widely and easily available. To this end, Dorothea Miehe has compiled a check-list of items in the library of St. George's Church, and a full catalogue of the collection is being prepared. A dedicated range of shelfmarks are being allocated to the Collection, and items will be traceable in Explore the British Library by way of a provenance note.
For a German-language account of the acquisition by the British Library of this collection, see: Dorothea Miehe, 'Kurze Geschichte einer Rettungsaktion: die Bibliothek der St. Georgs-Gemeinde in Spitalfields, London', German Studies Library Group Newsletter, no. 22 (July 1997), pp.7-11.
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