From beer production to nostalgic children’s tales: our weird and wonderful Special Collections

From beer production to nostalgic children’s tales: explore the weird and wonderful world of our Special Collections

Have you ever wondered when pantomime was first performed in the UK, or why mistletoe was never hung in churches? Annabel Valentine, Archivist at Oxford Brookes University, writes about the University's Special Collections.

At Oxford Brookes, our library’s unique Special Collections are a gateway into a wonderful world of festive celebrations from times past, and give us a glimpse of many other fascinating subjects.

The Special Collections in our award-winning archives are home to a vast range of resources. They include the Booker Prize Archive, the National Brewing Library, the celebrated cookery writer Jane Grigson’s Collection, and the Museum of Modern Art Oxford Collection. Open to the public in Covid-free times, you can browse the shelves and discover books and magazines which enlighten and entertain.

To find out how Victorians celebrated their Christmas, look no further than Christmastide - Its history, festivities and carols published in 1852. And for guidance on how to make a Christmas plum pudding, leaf through Cassell’s Household Guide - A complete cyclopaedia of domestic economy. Published in 1911 it advises adding a quarter-pound of chopped beef suet and a pound of raisins which you have ‘opened and stoned’.

Festive books and annuals for children are an important feature of the Early Children’s Book Collection. My favourites include Astrid Lindgren’s Christmas in the Stable, published in 1963, which brings a Scandinavian feel to the traditional Christmas tale. In the wartime story Christmas Anna Angel, written in 1944 by Ruth Sawyer and Kate Sereby, Anna hopes for a miracle so that her family can have a Christmas cake.

The many children’s classics include an 1852 edition of Aesop’s Fables illustrated by John Tenniel, and an early reproduction of Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript for Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. By the time it was published in 1865, its title had become Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

During normal times, the Special Collections are open to the public for their own interest and research, and we typically welcome around 500 visitors a year. Due to Covid restrictions we’re sadly unable to offer visits at the moment, but we are running an email enquiry service, so anyone can ask about the collections, or request scans of material.

So if you want to delve into ancient fairy tales, read the thoughts of the Booker Prize judges, or discover the secrets of whisky-brewing, the Special Collections offer a wealth of insights. In these screen-based times, there’s something quite special about physically holding a book or magazine from a different era.

And just in case you were wondering, pantomime was performed in the late 16th or early 17th century and mistletoe was associated with pagan ritual so was never hung in churches.

As soon as we are able to, we look forward to welcoming you back to our Special Collections so you can make your own discoveries. But for now, find out more on our special collections website.

This article was originally published in the Oxford Mail