After we had found out everything we could about Charles Clark from searching the internet we knew that the next step forward was to visit the Public Records Office in Essex. In 2010 Carrie and I won the Antiquarian Booksellers Award from the Bibliographical Society which facilitated this trip. Flights and hotel booked, we could not wait to see the archive, especially Clark’s letters to John Russell Smith .We were particularly looking forward to seeing examples of his printing, and hoped to find more examples of his bookplate poem. Unfortunately, the trip coincided with the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in April 2010 and the resulting volcanic ash cloud meant that we could not fly from Cork. Faced with the possibility of having to postpone the trip we did what any dedicated book historian would do. We spent twelve hours on the ferry from Cork to Swansea and another four hours on the train to London. (After a sleepless night on the ferry and lack of adequate provisions we have especially fond memories of sausage rolls and comfy seats on the train).
Once we arrived in Chelmsford we lost no time in registering as readers at the Public Records Office. We knew from the online catalogue that there were over three hundred letters from Clark to Smith, and we decided that the best use of our time would be to photograph as much material as we could. I remember feeling nervous as it was my first time working with manuscripts of any kind. I had recently finished my PhD thesis on Byron and I was used to having everything to do with him already transcribed, edited and published. I knew Carrie was very familiar with working in archives, and that she was used to dealing with medieval manuscripts in all sorts of conditions. All I could think of was that I wouldn’t be able to read Clark’s writing, or worse, that I would damage the letters!
Fortunately, when the letters arrived (with a few exceptions where Clark writes across the page in different coloured ink) we saw that he had a neat, clear hand. We carefully photographed letter after letter, until the charger for the camera went missing and we spent two days transcribing as quickly as we could. I was fascinated by the process of learning Clark’s handwriting. I could spend half an hour staring at a word and all of a sudden it would come into focus. We both learned Clark’s inimitable abbreviations and became familiar with his distinctive style. It took us a while to realise that when he asked Russell Smith for his ‘O’ he meant his circular….
Realising we would never get to the end of the material we acquired a new charger and once we finished photographing the letters we began to look at examples of printing, and his remarkable commonplace book which contains hundreds of newspaper cuttings relating to his obsessive interest in population. When we finished this we searched the newspaper records and found a few letters relating to Clark. Our highlight was undoubtedly the discovery of a variant version of his bookplate poem, ‘A Pleader to the Needer when a Reader’; particularly timely as we were spending our evenings completing an article on it.
It was a memorable week in many ways, not least because we were staying in a near empty hotel where the only other guests were there for a meeting of the Mid-Essex Magical Society… After a brief visit to the British Library where we saw Clark’s letters to John Clare we returned to Cork (a nearly missed train to Swansea and another twelve hours later) with hundreds of images of letters and poems. Over the next year Carrie and I transcribed this material whenever we had a chance, mostly in the evenings after work. It took us a year but we now have a file called the letters of Charles Clark to John Russell Smith. It is almost 150,000 words long.