Niagara couple gifts Brock rare 1900s book collection

Social media has enabled travellers to easily research destinations, review experiences and share photos, but a century ago, those who could afford to relied on books, paintings and illustrations for information.

Now, thanks to a generous gift from Niagara-on-the-Lake residents David Murray and Elizabeth Surtees, Brock Library’s Archives and Special Collections is home to the Twenty Shilling Series, a rare antiquarian book collection devoted to different places around the world.

“100 years ago, travel was becoming less strenuous and complicated, but was still very costly,” says Murray. “At the time, each Twenty Shilling book cost about a week’s pay for a London labourer. While expensive, for book subscribers, 20 shillings was still cheaper than making an actual trip.”

Sold to relatively affluent readers, the London, England-based publishing house Adam and Charles Black produced 92 volumes of these high-quality colour collectable picture books from 1901 to 1921.

At the time, the English-only books were made with the most advanced technology — a newly invented three colour technique — in limited print runs of 1,000 to 3,000 copies per volume.

“To pull together a complete collection of 92 books more than 100 years after publication is quite the accomplishment,” says David Sharron, Head of Archives and Special Collections. “We are honoured to house this beautiful collection that will be an important resource for scholars.”

Several high-quality colour collectable picture books displayed  together on a table.

Select volumes of the Twenty Shilling Series are on display on the main floor of the Brock University Library until the end of August.

Each book is comprised of decorative covers, gilt lettering and edges, and watercolour reproductions.

“These books are real treasures and may be the only complete set in Canada,” says Murray, a retired labour arbitrator. “It took over 15 years to accumulate this collection and I trust Brock will preserve these beautiful books.”

Murray had already started the rare collection when he met Elizabeth Surtees in a Toronto bookstore. Each perusing the shelves to pass time, the pair bonded over their fondness of books, art and travel — mutual interests that would lead to marriage.

“Each book is a memory of our own travels,” says Murray. “Liz and I often go to antiquarian bookshops and at least three big book fairs a year. We have a list and check off each book as we find it.”

While some of these books were purchased during the couple’s distant travels, others were found closer to home.

“I remember a few years ago we dropped into the Alphabet Bookshop in Port Colborne and the owner helped us find three books in this collection,” says Surtees.

The series focuses each book on a specific region and includes geographical and topographical information and the writer’s observations and experiences.

“While reading these books, sometimes you come across a place you have been to, and it is interesting to see what it looked like in 1910,” says Murray.

Valuing post-secondary education, Murray and Surtees are longtime supporters of Brock who have created two graduate student awards.

The David C. Murray and Elizabeth Surtees/Niagara Historical Society Scholarship in the History of Niagara is awarded annually to a master’s student in History who is carrying out research on a local history subject.

The David C. Murray Scholarship in Political Science is received annually by a Master of Arts in Political Science student who is planning to specialize in law, human resources and dispute resolution including labour arbitration.

For more information, visit Brock Library’s Archives and Special Collections web page or the Development and Donor Relations web page.

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