Archive Find: Dom Raymund Webster

Amongst the rich and varied archives at Downside Abbey are the personal archives of Dom Raymund Webster OSB 1880 – 1957, within which is the recently discovered Last Will (Codicil) dated 1952. This discovery nicely rounds out the evidence and legacy of Dom Webster’s commitment to the monastic library at Downside, at the same time as the newly fashioned panoramic windows are positioned in the library.

Having been an academic at both Harrow School and Oxford, and as a Benedictine monk, Dom Raymund Webster was at home with scholarly methods and endeavours. He was not the first monk librarian to get to grips with Librarianship as a social science, but he was by far only one of a few that dabbled in the craft of bibliography to the extent with which his legacy reveals.

He had previously studied at New College Oxford where he would have undoubtedly been exposed to the lavish bibliography made by Robert George Collier Proctor (1868-1903). Proctor was an esteemed English bibliographer, who left a lasting reputation at Oxford of being an avid book-collector with a taste for antiquarian studies, and compiled a catalogue of the incunabula and early printed books in the library collection at Corpus Christi College in 1890, and subsequently at the Bodleian Library, and at New College, where Webster attended from 1898 to 1902.  He may have had a profound influence on Webster, even as far back as those early Oxford days, and it could be conjectured that Dom Raymund knew well of Proctor, and of his preoccupation with attention to detail and description of books, had perhaps made use of Proctor’s catalogue during his own studies, and that this knowledge had some influence over him latterly.

Following this early encounter with special collections, it was during his life as a monk that Dom Raymund was able to develop his strong connection to bibliography and the collection of recusant works on behalf of Downside Abbey. When he was made librarian in 1913, the library at Downside Abbey was not housed in a separate building like it is today. At that time, the collection of recusant works amongst others, was housed in the Calefactory. The splendour of such a library would have been a sight to behold in all its intellectual and religious qualities. Once Dom Raymund had begun to audit this collection, he embarked on a long and committed journey to complete controversies and find ideal copies as well as rare works.

This journey began in France, where he was stationed as an Army Chaplain between 1915 and 1917 during World War I. In the many letters held in the archives that he wrote from the front, he talked about the acquisition of particular titles and copies, and his desire to search for rare books upon his return. Indeed, when he did get back to Downside, Dom Webster took up the mantle of librarian proper and started building relationships with booksellers and bibliographers, notably F.S. Ferguson of Bernard Quaritch Ltd, and David McGregor Rogers, who would go on to become Head of Special Collections at the Bodleian (1978 – 84). In the early 1900s, Webster drew up plans for a separate library in the gothic architectural style that would house the collections that he was building upon. Sadly this design never came to fruition, and it wasn’t until much later in the 1960’s that Francis Pollen (1926-1987) was commissioned to design and build the library that we know at Downside Abbey today, resplendent with its new picturesque windows and its sweeping views of Somerset.

Around the early 20th century, Dom Raymund began his assessment of the Benedictine houses libraries as he attempted to complete his collection. During his time as librarian, Dom Raymund created the card catalogue; the legacy of a true librarian. Even on his appointment to Worth Priory in 1935 where he was deployed to set up the library, he wrote to the Abbot at Downside Abbey to request the retainment of his lay worker (and cataloguer) Tom Deverell, who had worked assiduously to help create the collections we see today. Despite various bouts of debilitating illness, Dom Raymund endeavoured to work tirelessly cataloguing books and making sure that he had recorded each one not only with the respect that they deserved, but with the bibliographic expertise that was envisaged by his peers. So judiciously did he make bibliographic notes that we are able to determine special discoveries from his personal journals and marry them to the individual books. By the mid-20th century, Dom Raymund had most certainly not only learnt the craft of bibliography from the likes of Joseph Gillow, (1850-1921), but he was also instrumental in the collation of the Short-title catalogue of books printed in England, Scotland and Ireland, and of English books printed abroad 1475-1640, edited by A.W. Pollard and G.R. Redgrave first published in 1926. One of the rarest runs of recusant controversies can be found at Downside Abbey thanks to Dom Raymund; that of the Jewel-Harding controversy.

Article written by Venessa Harris

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