Individual Readers at the Royal High School

One of my favourite things about working with library borrowers’ records is getting to know the individual quirks and tastes of specific borrowers. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the borrowing habits of the boys at the Royal High School began to diversify. Prior to this, a large majority visited the library to borrow one or two of the same texts as their peers; frequently those by Charles Rollin and World Displayed (1759), a collection of travels and voyages printed by J. Newbery and aimed at a child readership. However, in the nineteenth century you can see the individuality of many of the borrowers come through; with some showing specific interests in botany or naval history for example.

For this post I want to take a closer look at an individual borrower from later in the period of our project. My PhD research took the Royal High School records up until the late 1820s and by then, novels, particularly those by Sir Walter Scott, had come to dominate the borrowers’ records. As we’ve seen in other libraries in the Books and Borrowing project, covered in a previous post by Gerry McKeever, Scott’s novels were widely borrowed and requested at many libraries. He was also one of the Royal High School’s most famous alumni and the school made sure the library was well-stocked with his work. However, other novels were also popular among the boys.

Borrower's record for John Hope Meiklejohn

This borrower’s record belongs to pupil William Hope Meiklejohn, showing his borrowings from the school library in 1825/26 and shows a strong preference for novels with many of Scott’s works borrowed alongside Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782) and Camilla (1792) and Henry Brooke’s Fool of Quality (1765-1770). These books were all hugely popular among Meiklejohn’s classmates.

Unlike the other novels, Fool of Quality is unusual in that it was not acquired deliberately by the school, like the bulk of the most frequently borrowed novels. Rather it came into its hands via a large bequest from a former pupil, George Grindlay, in 1801. Despite this, it was the tenth most borrowed book in the 1820s. As Matt Sangster has previously highlighted, it is a work which deserves greater critical attention given its enduring popularity across our various libraries.

The books that Meiklejohn borrowed all appear in the top twenty most frequently borrowed works at the Royal High School in the 1820s and so, in this respect, his reading is typical for a pupil of this time. However, his almost complete devotion to novels is slightly unusual. Many of the pupils interspersed their reading of fiction with other genres, but this example points to the individualization of reading habits among the boys in this decade as well as an appetite for novels, particularly Scott’s works, which extended across our libraries down to the young readers at the High School.