St John’s College Library, Cambridge

Ancient library with rows of dsecorative dark wood shelves and a large stained glass window at the far end

My 7xG grandfather, Lister Simondson, studied at St John’s College, Cambridge.  I found him there quite by chance while doing a general search on Ancestry a couple of years ago.  I could never have imagined then, that within two years I would be walking in his footsteps inside the Upper Library at St John’s.

The library was completed in 1624.  That date is affixed in stone to the exterior of the building on the brick parapet above the oriel window, and clearly visible from the river, which flows immediately outside, as well as from the adjacent Bridge of Sighs (which is where I was when I took the photo below).  By the time Lister arrived in 1696, it was still fairly new, but even so the Library of St Johns College could claim to be the largest and most impressive in Cambridge. The books are arranged on 22 beautifully carved tall, dark oak bookcases alternating with 20 ‘dwarf’ cases.  At the end of each of the taller cases little doors open onto a tiny cupboard, inside which are itemised, in various hands contemporaneous with Lister’s time in the library, the contents of the shelves.  It seems likely, then, that the library remains pretty much as it was when he was there.  In 2005, it was designated by the Museums Libraries and Archives Council as of national and international importance.

The library isn’t usually open to the public, but a year ago, by some strange quirk of fate, a distant cousin from the US on my husband’s side was awarded a visiting fellowship at St John’s, and a few months ago I was able to visit.  Since I was with a Visiting Fellow, we were able to go up there and wander round, just three of us, alone.  We weren’t allowed to touch any of the books but we could take photos without flash, and I took quite a few.

I was looking for any books that Lister, who graduated from St John’s in 1700, might have used.  This little set seemed likely – the Holy Bible in Ancient Greek, Latin and German. I happen to know Lister was a talented linguist, and he went on to become a Church of England vicar.  Of course I can’t guarantee he used these books, or even that they were in the library at the time he was there (1696-1700) but online research confirms that they were published in 1596, edited by David Wolder and printed by Lucius Jacob.  So I’m thinking they were.  Imagine that!

Ancient leather-bound Bible in 3 volumes, in Ancient Greek, Latin and German

The Cambridge University Alumni records for 1200-1900 are available on Ancestry.  Or you can search without any subscription here.
Oxford University Alumni records, 1500-1886 are also available on Ancestry.

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