Story of Memorial to David Livingstone -10 Manuscripts

Continuing a look at how the David Livingstone Centre came to be. Written in 1943 by Rev James Macnair, this transcript documents the efforts made to save and turn Shuttle Row into a museum in 1929. Today, the story of how manuscripts and other gifts were obtained.

“The Memorial Trust has been markedly fortunate in donations of manuscripts and letters of many kinds. Ordinary relics of Livingstone do not in general fetch very high prices. The demand is small, but manuscripts, probably because collectors of these are numerous, have considerable commercial value. A well preserved Livingstone letter of fair length may fetch up to forty pounds in the sale room. We now possess a large number of such, but with the exception of one set, which we bought for the purpose of cleaning up an uncertainty about Livingstone’s relation to his young assistant Richard Thornton (See Livingstone the Liberator Page 233), all have been free gifts.

The first presentation of this sort that we received was a set of letters written by David to his brother Charles then living in the USA. This was the generous gift of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and the letters arrived before we had a place to put them – a real encouragement at the time.

Many such treasures still remain in private hands, which is unfortunate in that not infrequently such manuscripts contain unrecorded facts that should have a place in the history.

Here are the stores of some of the letters that have come into our keeping.

Some years ago, a friend of the writer stayed with two elderly ladies, daughters of the Rev. George Drummond of the London Missionary Society’s Samoan Mission, one of the most intimate friends of Livingstone’s youth. They showed him in confidence, five long Livingstone letters written to their father in Africa. They had remained hidden for a generation. My friend told them of our Memorial and suggested that the manuscripts were much too valuable to remain in private keeping. The advice was gratefully accepted and they are now safe in our archives.

Here is a more recent story. Mr. A.O Smith of Falkland, Fife discovered in a desk that had belonged to his grandfather a long letter, dated 1849 from Livingstone to Dr. A. Tidman, then Secretary of the London Missionary Society. Happily, he knew of our Memorial and sent it to us. We realised at once that this was a document of quite exceptional historical value, one of the most important letters the missionary ever wrote. It told of the discovery of Lake Ngami.

This discovery was geographically a feat of the first importance. Greatly elated at his success, Livingstone lost no time in reporting the event to the Royal Geographical Society in London. To ensure the safe reception of the news, he wrote another letter in almost identical terms to the London Missionary Society and sent these probably by different routes. The Royal Geographical Society epistle apparently arrived first, and the reading of it created something of a sensation. It was this letter that first brought Livingstone into public notice. It is the duplicate that we now possess.

Of the coincidences that helped us so much, of which several have been recorded, one of the most remarkable concerns the model of the spinning jenny that stands in the Blantyre room. One of the early difficulties had been to find the type of machine at which the lad Livingstone had worked. It was a time when water power was being superseded by steam and models were changing rapidly. We were fortunate in having the advice of Mr. Peters, a retired spinner, who claimed to have worked at the machine at which many years before Livingstone had wrought. This man had very clear ideas of the proper model, but though we searched the Museums of Glasgow , Edinburgh, London and elsewhere no illustration that we could produce satisfied him.

Then by some happy chance, we got into touch with Professor R.H. Tawney, then in the Labour Ministry, and at his suggestion we approached Messrs Platt Brothers of Oldham; specialists in textile machinery. They took our problem up with interest and sent their expert, Mr. Taylor, to investigate the matter in Blantyre. This gentleman arrived with a large selection of plans and diagrams, and he and Mr. Peters were soon in consultation. But an unexpected difficulty arose. Mr. Taylor spoke broad Lancashire, Mr. Peters broad Lanarkshire, the two men could not understand each other, so the Parish Minister, had to be called in to interpret between them! But again there was disappointment.

Nothing that Mr. Taylor had to show came near to satisfying his colleague. In the end the Englishman suggested that Mr. Oeters should visit Oldham and examine the museum there. This he did but- one more a blank. Nothing in the large museum approximated even to Mr. Peter’s exacting memory of his machine. And then, once more, the finger of ‘coincidence’.

It happened that a retired workman of the firm, a man of about Mr. Peter’s age was dandering about the place and met them on the way. The problem was put to him. He took the visitors to a room full of long discarded models, and among them there was the exact machine of Mr. Peter’s recollection! Messrs Platt Brothers had a model specially made and installed in Blantyre. This was their munificent gift to the Memorial at the cost of some hundreds of pounds.

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