Bookish Kensington


No Stealing the Books!

Posted by Oliver, on 12 Jan 2014, in Bookish Kensington
‘Statue of Thomas More in front of Chelsea Old Church, Cheyne Walk, London’, © 2007 pablo.sanchez, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License

‘Statue of Thomas More in front of Chelsea Old Church, Cheyne Walk, London’, © 2007 pablo.sanchez, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License

When I was in school, my mother used to joke about having to chain me to my books to get any school work done. Back then, I had no idea that some books have chains – literally!

A chained library is a library where the books are attached to the bookcase by (you guessed it) a chain. These chains are long enough to allow the books to be taken from their shelves and be read, but can never be removed from the library itself.  I love the mystery and intrigue of chained libraries. That books can still be regarded as so precious that they are physically immovable from their place is amazing to me. Luckily the libraries aren’t so strict in our local hotels. In Kensington, London it’s somewhat of a free for all!

Chained libraries started in the Middle Ages and were popular until the 18th century, as books were extremely valuable during this era. It wasn’t until the printing press became commonplace in the 19th century that the tradition of chained libraries died out completely. I love this quote I found from that era, detailing the expense of books: “The manuscripts were very valuable, more especially the missals which, since the lettering was necessarily large, used up a great deal of expensive parchment.”

You would think that readers during this era would have a great respect for books, but nothing could be further from the case! The English writer Samuel Johnson was notoriously terrible at book etiquette, he famously wrote notes in the margins and rarely returned the books he borrowed!

Because of my fascination with chained libraries, I feel so lucky to work near the Chelsea Old Church, the only chained library in London. There are only a few chained libraries left in existence, making this one truly amazing. This small collection of books was bequeathed by the Irish intellectual Sir Hans Sloane and includes a “Vinegar” bible along with some older religious books. Sloane was an incredible figure, and as a keen intellectual, collector, physician and adventurer, his collection of chained books is just one of his many accomplishments. After encountering cocoa in Jamaica, Sloane was the first person to add milk and sugar to the bitter power, officially making him the inventor of hot chocolate! In fact, his contribution to history is so vast that Sloane Square in Kensington was named for him!

The church itself was established in 1157 and narrowly escaped being completely destroyed in WWII by the London bombings. Sometimes when I make the journey from home to the many hotels in Kensington, London, I make a point of stopping at the Chelsea Old Church. If you’re staying in the Regency Hotel, there’s no excuse to miss this rare gem of a library.