Univ’s unsung treasure
On the 14th of January 1932 Univ’s then Master, Sir Michael Sadler, received an unexpected letter from an Old Member who was facing a conundrum. Donald Cree (1897) had been made executor of an old friend’s will and was having difficulty finding a home for an extraordinary collection of books.
The creator of the collection wanted it to find a home in “some quiet scholarly centre, such as a College Library” and as such it had been offered to Magdalen College who turned it down. The subject matter of the collection was, at the time, a contentious issue; it contained an almost complete back-catalogue of books by Oscar Wilde (alumnus of Magdalen College) as well as books, letters, photographs, newspaper cuttings, and booksellers’ catalogues relating to the literary and artistic movements of the 1890s.
Sir Michael Sadler, much to his credit, entered into correspondence with Cree and finally it was agreed that the collection be given to Univ. but housed in the Bodleian Library where it would be accessible to scholars. At that time there was nowhere in the College Library where the collection could have been securely housed. As an illustration of how tricky a subject Wilde was, even in the 1930s, when the College Record of 1930-1931 noted the benefaction, there was no mention of Wilde’s name; the collection was described as “illustrating the literary movement in England in the nineties of last century.”
The collection was amassed by Walter Edwin Ledger who died, aged 69, in December 1931. Most of what we know about Ledger’s life comes to us via his executor and friend Donald Cree, who sheepishly recalls in a letter to Sadler that he had been too embarrassed to take Ledger to lunch in Lincoln’s Inn on account of his penchant for wearing a sailor’s uniform. To the right is the only known likeness of Walter Ledger (fig. I), in which we see him posing in his beloved garden. Ledger, in addition to being a keen sailor (the name of his boat, Bluebird, was embroidered on his hat), was a pianist, bibliophile, and according to Cree, “the greatest living authority on ceropoegias” (a type of succulent flowering plant).
Although we do not have a great deal of information about Ledger’s life, he must have been an unusual personality to begin his collection in the late 1890s, only a few years after Wilde’s very public disgrace and subsequent imprisonment for gross indecency. Ledger named his life’s work the Robert Ross Memorial Collection as a “tribute of admiration and affectionate esteem to [his] friend the late Robert Ross in appreciation of his chivalrous and selfless devotion to and friendship in adversity for Oscar Wilde.” Robert Baldwin Ross was Wilde’s friend and literary executor.
In September 2013, due to the extensive refurbishment of the Old Bodleian Library, the Robert Ross Memorial Collection was returned to Univ where it will continue to be made available to scholars and Wilde researchers. A new catalogue of the archival material in the collection is underway, and the existing catalogue records on SOLO are being upgraded.
Future Univ Treasures will illuminate items from the Robert Ross Memorial Collection.
Darwall-Smith, R. H. (1997). An Oscar for Master Sadler: the Acquisition of the Robert Ross Memorial Collection, University College Record, Vol. XII no. 1, pp. 46–54.
Edwards, O. D. (2012). Wilde, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills (1854-1900), writer. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Doi: 10.1093/ref:odnb/98339
(1973). [Obituary of] Mr. Donald Charles Ludlow Cree. University College Record, Vol. VI no. 3, p. 290.
UC:MA44/7 – Papers of Sir Michael Sadler (Master 1923-34) > Papers on the Robert Ross Memorial Collection. See Papers of Former Masters on our Archives page.
Published: 13 June 2014
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