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Black Bounty – the Mary Evans ‘Black Beauty’ Book Collection
by Luci Gosling January 6, 2016

A very warm welcome to our new Mary Evans blog: The Inquisitive Archivist. They say that every picture tells a story, and, working as we do among a cornucopia of original, historical material ranging from books and periodicals to scraps and cigarette cards, being distracted by the stories behind the pictures we supply is a daily hazard (or perk) of the job. And so it seems natural that we should combine our fabulous archive with our own insatiable appetite for history and bring you… ‘tales from the archive’. We aim to combine the fascinating and topical, strange and curious, fun and irreverent elements of history for your delectation with posts from the Mary Evans team as well as guest contributors. Mary Evans Picture Library is renowned for the depth and eclecticism of its world-class collection, and we hope this blog will be a fitting reflection of our unerring enthusiasm for the past.

The decision as to what to choose as a first blog post is of course a weighty responsibility but looking across the office at the bookshelves running parallel to our desks, it suddenly became patently obvious. We often talk of how the library’s founder, Mary, was a great dog lover – and she was. The library has a superb collection of dog photographs (particularly the Thomas Fall archive), and countless doggy books from the 19th and 20th century. But she was an animal lover in general, and was also very fond of horses. Nowhere is this better represented than in her extraordinary collection of Black Beauty books. Filling several shelves here in the library, it is difficult to give an accurate number, but a rough estimate would put the collection at around 350 individual books, and is, we imagine, the world’s largest and most complete set of different editions of Black Beauty.

When Black Beauty was first published on 24 November 1877, its author, Anna Sewell (1820-1878), had been a housebound invalid for seven years. She died just three months after publication and £30, paid by the publisher, Jarrold of Norwich, was the sole amount ever received by the Sewell family for what would become one of the world’s best-selling books (sales figures are estimated around 50 million). Sewell had loved horses since childhood, pleading at the age of two to be allowed to go outside the family’s Shoreditch home to the Bishopsgate cab rank to feed the working horses there. Her passion continued into adulthood. Black Beauty was never intended as a children’s book, but, written BY rather than ABOUT a horse, it set out to highlight the terrible cruelties suffered by horses during the 19th century, in particular the use of the bearing reign which forced a horse’s head upright and back while pulling loads. Her expert equine knowledge is evident throughout the book to the point where, Edward Fordham Flower, the harness expert, wrote of it, ‘It is written by a veterinary surgeon, by a coachman, by a groom; there is not a mistake in the whole of it.’ When the book was published in the United States for the first time in 1890, by George T. Angell, the founder of the Massachussetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, it sold an astonishing million volumes in the first two years. Mary acquired an American first edition for her collection, as well as a first English edition with an inscription by Sewell herself offering thanks to her good friends, Mr and Mrs Tench, who proofread the book.

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These two first editions of course are jewels within the collection. There is also a limited edition from 1915, one of only 600, illustrated and signed by the famous equestrian artist, Lucy Kemp-Welch. But beside these treasures are many, many more; several volumes illustrated by the great sporting artist, Cecil Aldin and plenty of children’s budget versions from various decades including one I remember owning myself, when I first wept as a child at the adventures of Beauty, Ginger, Merrylegs et al. Her quest for completeness also extended to other blast-from-the-past examples, notably several Black Beauty annuals based on the 1970s Sunday tea-time drama, ‘The Adventures of Black Beauty’ (apologies if this triggers incessant humming of the famous theme tune in any readers!).

It’s easy to see why Black Beauty appealed to Mary. She was a fervent supporter of animal welfare, a vegetarian and as a young girl, had, like Sewell, been horse mad. Acquiring as many editions as she did is firm evidence of her collecting bug that forms the basis of the library. A note to Clarissa Cridland who had sent her a signed book plate to accompany Mary’s copy of ‘Pony Thieves’ which Clarissa had written when she was fifteen, reveals the pride Mary took in her ever-growing Black Beauty collection:

‘Dear Mrs Cridland
How kind of you to send me a signed book plate. I shall treasure that greatly. I have read your book from cover to cover and really enjoyed it. It took me back to my pony passion childhood and teenage years. Your book will be in good company on my bookshelves along with my horse book collection with ‘Ponies of Bunts’ and all the classic books of the time…I also have a large collection of ‘Black Beauty’ different editions which I treasure and am still adding to.’

This note is within a folder found among the Black Beauty books, also containing numerous pieces of Black Beauty-related correspondence and research. Included is an original leaflet, which looks to be from around the 1890s or 1900s, produced by the Anti-Bearing-Rein Association. Clearly, animal rights activism is not a recent phenomenon. A further note, dated 1999, from Mary to Norfolk and Norwich Central Library who had sent her an article about Anna Sewell’s birthplace in Great Yarmouth, seems an apt quote to end on.

‘Thank you very much for the piece about Anna Sewell House. I must come and look at it to see what it is like now. How I would love to take it over and restore it as a museum – and put my large collection of “Black Beauty” books there!’

Mary’s unique collection of Black Beauty books remain here, in the library at Blackheath. Now thoroughly mired in nostalgia for the book, I don’t mind admitting that it’s sorely tempting to browse the shelves and choose one to take home for bedtime reading tonight.

For a selection of our Black Beauty images please click here.