7 February 2012
The Bodleian’s Harding collection, the world's largest collection of popular songbooks and miscellanies, will be featured on Radio 3’s Twenty Minutes programme today at 8.10pm.
Bequeathed to the Bodleian in 1974, Walter Harding's gift of his extensive collection of music, drama and poetry was the largest donation ever made to the Bodleian Library. The son of an East-End bricklayer who emigrated to Chicago in the 1900s, Harding earned his living playing ragtime music, in silent cinema, and later in a church in downtown Chicago. He had no musical or academic education. His ability to collect on such a scale was partly due to the contemporary lack of interest in these ephemeral and lowbrow publications, and also to the flood of books generated by the depression and crash. Harding gradually collected the world’s largest collection of popular songbooks and miscellanies. Before he died in 1972, Harding chose to give his treasure trove to the Bodleian, despite never having visited Oxford. He built the largest collection of popular music and verse from the 17th and 18th centuries in the world. Packed in 900 boxes weighing 20 tonnes, the donation was flown from Chicago to Oxford in two chartered aircraft.
Abigail Williams Fellow of St Peter's College, Oxford tells this largely unknown story with the help of Clive Hurst, Head of Rare Books at Bodleian Library and Michael Turner who was Head of Special Collections in 1970s and knew Harding himself. Dr Williams will also read from the correspondence between Harding and the Bodleian, and the journalistic coverage that accompanied this extraordinary bequest.