02 November 2022

The library in All Souls College,
Oxford, addresses the legacy
of slavery and a slave owner

The Library at All Souls College, Oxford, once known as the Codrington Library, with the sundial designed by Sir Christopher Wren (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

In recent weeks, I have written about the way growing awareness of the legacy of slavery and racism has led to the removal of the memorial to Sir John Cass in Saint Botolph with Aldgate Church in London, and to debates about the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the High Street fa├žade of the Rhodes Building in Oriel College, Oxford.

Today is All Souls’ Day, and I was reminded during a recent visit to All Souls College in Oxford that a similar debate has focussed on the name of All Souls College Library.

I was writing about the chapel in All Souls College earlier today. The beautiful cloister links the college chapel with the college library, which was known for centuries as the Codrington Library. The library’s collections are particularly strong in law and history, especially the history of Britain and early modern Europe, and military history. Philosophy, sociology, and the history of science are also well represented.

Visitors to the college and the library are always shown the sundial designed in 1658 by Sir Christopher Wren, who was a fellow in 1653-1661. Wren’s sundial was originally placed on the south wall of the chapel, but it was moved in 1877 to the quadrangle, above the central entrance to the library.

For three centuries or more, the library was known as the Codrington Library. It was built in the early 18th century, mainly with money donated by Christopher Codrington (1668-1710), a former fellow who amassed his vast wealth from plantations in the West Indies that were worked by enslaved people of African descent. But two years ago, in 2020, All Souls College decided to stop referring to the library by that name to make plain its abhorrence of slavery.

Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, co-founder of All Souls College with Henry VI in 1438, decided the college should have books and a library from the very outset. In its first years, the college set about accumulating a collection for people working in the higher faculties of theology, law, and medicine, although the statutes envisaged that fellows of All Souls would study only arts, philosophy, theology, and law.

Other subjects came to be represented through donation and acquisition, including the history of England and Italian humanism. From the beginning, fellows left books to the library. By the end of the 15th century, the library had about 250 manuscripts and 100 printed books. This increased gradually over the next century through purchases and gifts.

The chapel lost its organ, reredos, and service books during the turmoil of the Reformation. However, the library was left more or less unscathed, and under Elizabeth I found a new champion in the person of Robert Hovenden, who was the Warden in 1574-1614.

Hovenden drew up a new catalogue, erected the beautiful plaster barrel ceiling in what is now the Old Library, introduced more book presses, and commissioned a full set of maps of the college’s estates.

All Souls College received a substantial legacy of £10,000 from Christopher Codrington in 1710 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

All Souls College continued to buy books and to receive donations from fellows in the 17th century, and Dudley Digges bequeathed over 1,000 books and pamphlets. However, the additions made the shortage of space yet more acute. This was solved by a substantial legacy of £10,000 from Christopher Codrington.

Cordrington’s wealth came principally from sugar plantations — worked by slaves — in Antigua and Barbados. When he died in 1710, Codrington’s wealth was more than £80,000. He left his library of 12,000 volumes to the college, and stipulated that £4,000 of his bequest should be used to buy books. The remaining sum was to build a new library and to stock it with books.

He left the Codrington Plantations in Barbados and Barbuda to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG, now USPG) to establish a college in Barbados. Codrington College was completed in 1745, and was initially confined to white students. It remains an Anglican theological school and is now part of the University of the West Indies.

The new library in All Souls College became known as the Codrington Library, although that name was never formally adopted by the Statutes of the College. The new library was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and was built in 1716-1720. However, the interior was not fully furbished and ready to accommodate books until 1751.

A Library Committee was set up in 1751, with a new vision of retaining its specialisations in law and theology and developing its holdings in the classics, history, travel and topography, belles-lettres, and natural history. In many ways, it became more like a gentleman’s reference library than a college library.

William Blackstone (Fellow 1743-62), a lawyer and keen student of architecture, prompted the college to buy nearly 500 drawings from Sir Christopher Wren’ office in 1751, as well as other rare publications on architecture.

From the beginning of the 19th century, however, the library fund dwindled in size, and fewer books were bought, although some donations of note were received from fellows, including a collection of Persian manuscripts from Amelia, the widow of Reginald Heber, sometime Fellow, hymnwriter and Bishop of Calcutta.

While Sir William Reynell Anson (1843-1914) was Warden (1881-1914), a new reading room was built and the library’s specialisation in law and history was reasserted. Several important donations included the papers of Sir Charles Vaughan, a major source of information about the Peninsular War and the USA in the 1820s, JA Doyle’s collection of Americana, and collections of military history.

But these donations created new space problems of space. A new bookstore was built in 1909 and extended in 1952. By the late 1990s, it became clear that work was required on the fabric of the Library, and this project was completed in 2002.

In recent years, All Souls College has had extensive discussions about the best ways to address Codrington’s legacy and its origins in money deriving from the slave trade.

In 2018, the college put up a plaque ‘In Memory of Those Who Worked in Slavery on the Codrington Plantations in the West Indies’ which stands facing the Catte Street entrance to the library. At the same time, the college made a substantial donation to Codrington College in Barbados, and established three fully-funded graduate studentships at Oxford for students from the Caribbean.

All Souls College decided in 2020 to cease referring to the library as ‘The Codrington Library’. Discussions continue on how best to contextualise the statue of Codrington and on measures to address the legacy and history of slavery.

£100,000 was pledged to Codrington College in Barbados in 2020 and three fully-funded graduate studentships at Oxford were set up for students from the Caribbean. These are named after Sir Hugh Springer (1913-1994), a Visiting Fellow in 1962-1963 who became Governor-General of Barbados in 1984.

The college decided, however, that a statue of Codrington should remain in the library. Onto it are projected a sequence of the names of enslaved persons who worked on Codrington’s plantations and adjacent estates in the early 18th century.

The statue is contextualised by digital displays in the ante-room of the library. The current presentations look at the Codrington’s statue and its context; Codrington’s religion and the founding of Codrington College; and Codrington’s attitudes, beliefs and role in the slave trade. Two more screens on either side of the statue carry additional presentations and a fuller list of the names of the enslaved.

All Souls College also agreed further academic initiatives last year (June 2021), including a donation of £1 million over 10 years to Oxford University’s new Black Academic Futures programme; future programmes to support UK graduate students of Black or Mixed-Black ethnicity; further financial support to Codrington College; an annual lecture on the modern Atlantic World, slavery and colonialism; and a programme of visiting fellowships and travel grants for Caribbean researchers in Oxford.

Meanwhile, the collection on military history and law is being broadened to include global history and the legacies of the Atlantic slave trade.

When Codrington died on 7 April 1710, his body was brought to England and he was buried on 19 June in All Souls Chapel. A carved panel without a label in the chapel in All Souls College could depict souls waiting for prayer on All Souls’ Day. But I also imagined they could be a metaphor for the souls of slaves in the past waiting for restorative justice when it comes to the legacy of Christopher Codrington.

All Souls? All Slaves? All deserve prayers, all cry out for justice.

All Souls? All Slaves? All deserve prayers, all cry out for justice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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