Twelve Days of Special Collections

Welcome to our Christmas Special Collections blog! This edition is based around the song The twelve days of Christmas, in which the narrator is sent gifts by their true love. The gifts increase in number with each day and each new gift is followed by a repeat of the others counting back to the first. There are several versions of the song and it isn’t known exactly where it originated. (You can read more about the song in this article from the Classic FM website). The best known version includes the following gifts:

  1. A partridge in a pear tree
  2. Two turtle doves
  3. Three French hens
  4. Four calling birds
  5. Five gold rings
  6. Six geese a-laying
  7. Seven swans a-swimming
  8. Eight maids a-milking
  9. Nine ladies dancing
  10. Ten lords a-leaping
  11. Eleven pipers piping
  12. Twelve drummers drumming

So, what has this got to do with Special Collections? Well, we decided that it would be fun to choose items from our collections to match with each of the twelve days in the song, so here are the Twelve Days of Special Collections

1st Day: A partridge in a pear tree

Our first item is The life story of the partridge, by Samuel L. Bensusan, published in 1914. In this little book, a partridge talks to the narrator about his life and that of his fellow birds as they try to find food and shelter and try to avoid being caught by hunters or foxes. Unfortunately, the book does not have a happy ending for the partridge, but he is still a worthy addition to our list. Samuel Levi Bensusan (1872-1958) was an author who is best known for his works about rural life in Essex and East Anglia. The collection includes his published works, his diaries for the years 1891 to 1957, files of published and unpublished works, and other documents and letters.

A cover of a book, made of brown paper with a photograph of two partridges in the centre in a circle

2nd Day: Two Turtle Doves

The turtle dove, according to the RSPB website, is a “dainty dove, much smaller and darker than the collared dove -slightly larger than a blackbird.” To represent the two turtle doves in the song, we have A treatise on domestic pigeons, by John Moore, printed in 1765, from the Russell Collection. The collection is the private library of the Russell family, who lived at Stubbers, North Ockendon, a country house which is now demolished. The books, which were almost all published in the 18th or early 19th centuries, reflect the interests of generations of the family. There are practical works on farming, sport, and law and many works on history, topography and travel, and literature. The collection also includes family papers and account books which record the household’s day-to-day financial transactions.

An open book, showing title page and engraved illustration. The illustration shows a pigeon sitting on a box, with a striped cat hissing at a mouse on the floor nearby. in front o of the box is a funnel on a stand with a cup underneath and a cage is mounted on the wall, with a net on a stick on the side of it.

3rd day: Three French Hens

For three French hens, we have the title page of Life in Normandy, by John Francis Campbell, published in 1863. The subtitle tells us that the book covers fishing, farming, cooking, natural history and politics, so there will certainly have been some hens on the farms visited by the author! This book is part of the Spitzer Collection. The collection was left to the University in the will of Mr. Paul Spitzer and includes books on history, particularly military history, literature, geography and art. Mr. Spitzer served in the Czech air force during the Second World War, and was stationed at Wivenhoe Park in 1943.

Title page of a book, with an illustration of a map of Normandy in an oval.

4th Day: Four Calling birds

Yes, there are more than four birds in this picture, but when they are as beautiful as these, does it matter? These birds were drawn by the artist and sculptor Henri Gaudier Brzeska (1891-1915), and the drawing is part of the Gaudier Brzeska Archive, which contains letters from Henri to his partner, the author Sophie Brzeska, and her diaries and some of her unpublished writings.

a pen and ink drawing of 8 birds, shown siting on twigs in various poses

5th Day: Five gold rings

Why have just five rings when you could have a whole page full? These magnificent specimens feature in Die römischen Fingerringe der Rheinlande und der benachbarten Gebiete, published in 1913, a record of rings recovered from archaeological digs in the Rhine region of Germany. This book is part of the library of the Essex Society for Archaeology and History, which has more than 15,000 volumes acquired over the last 150 years or so, covering subjects relating to archaeology, antiquities, ancient and modern history, with a special focus on the history of East Anglia.

photographs of a series of rings, labelled with numbers

6th day: Six Geese a-laying

We only have one goose, but as she is the fairy tale goose that lays the golden eggs, she is a goose worth having! This illustration is by John Hassall, for the children’s book Ruff & Reddy, the fairy guide, published in 1905. John Hassall (1868-1949) was described in his day as the ‘king of poster artists’. The Hassall Collection consists of his diaries from 1894-1948, letters, photographs, and printed books, as well as preparatory sketches.

a print of a drawing of a goose with three eggs behind it. One of the eggs has "18 carat" written on it and a caption reads "She finds the goose that lays the golden eggs. p.56"

7th Day: Seven Swans a-swimming

We are staying in the world of fairy tales for the swans, with this exquisite illustration by Kay Nielsen from a book of stories by Hans Christian Andersen, published in 1924, part of the Special Collections general sequence. The general sequence contains books that meet the criteria for special storage and access, but which do not belong to a specific collection.

an illustration on a page. The illustration shows a man in a small sailing boat, led by six swans with crowns around their necks. He is sailing past trees and a castle and two women in crowns are leaning towards him from the top of the turret

8th Day: eight maids a-milking

One of the risks of milking cows by hand (which was often done by women, or “milkmaids”) was exposure to cowpox, a disease that can be passed from animals to humans. This book by George Bell, published in 1802, gives an account of current knowledge of the disease, and has illustrations showing the sores that are the visible signs of cowpox in humans. The study of cowpox was a vital part of the development of the smallpox vaccine. The book is part of the library of the Colchester Medical Society, which contains 500 historical books on medical topics, including early works on surgery, anatomy, illness and disease.

An open book on a white pillow showing the title page. The words "Richard Bell" have been written in ink near the title and the page is stamped "Essex & Colchester Hospital Library" in the top right corner

9th Day: Nine ladies dancing

Our choice to represent nine ladies dancing is the manuscript of Dancers in mourning, a detective novel by Margery Allingham, first published in 1937, which is part of the Allingham Collection. Margery Allingham grew up in Layer Breton, was educated in Colchester and Cambridge, and lived most of her adult life in Tolleshunt D’Arcy. She wrote her first novel at 19, and in 1929 (in the novel The Crime at Black Dudley) introduced one of the most famous characters in British detective fiction, Albert Campion. The Allingham Collection contains archival material and artwork, including original manuscripts, copies of most of her books and stories, correspondence and copies of various editions of her works. The collection also includes a large number of paintings and drawings by the artist Philip Youngman Carter, Margery Allingham’s husband, who designed the dust-jackets for many of his wife’s books.

a handwritten manuscript. The paper has discoloured with age and there is a mark made by a rusty paperclip on the top left corner

10th day: ten lords a-leaping

We have a combination of collections for the lords a-leaping. From the SDP Archive, a marzipan model of David Owen (now Lord Owen), one of the original leaders of the SDP, made for a party conference. The archive of the SDP (Social Democratic Party) includes committee minutes and papers, administrative records, publications, local SDP files, speeches of the ‘Gang of Four’ (the nickname for the founding members of the party), a newspaper cuttings collection and conference materials, including the marzipan bust shown here!

a portrait bust of a man, made from marzipan, in a box with a clear plastic cover.

For the leaping, a description of the parachute tower, which was one of the attractions available to visitors to the 1937 Exposition, held in Paris. This image is taken from Livre d’or officiel : de l’Exposition Internationale des arts et techniques dans la vie moderne, Paris, 1937, from the Special Collections general sequence.

an open book, showing photographs of parachutists jumping from a tower, with text in French explaining the visitor attraction.

11th day: Eleven pipers piping

We have one piper for the 11th day, Peter Piper, in another illustration by John Hassall, from the Hassall Collection. Peter is at work picking pickled peppers, as in the children’s rhyme, with his pipes hanging on the wall behind him.

a coloured illustration headed Peter Piper. A boy with red hair is sitting on a bench in the foreground, he is working with a bowl held between his knees, picking peppercorns from a bag next to him. Bagpipes and a hat with a red pompom on hang on the wall behind him. He is looking out to a field where other boys are playing a game with curved sticks and a ball.

12th Day: Twelve drummers drumming

We return to the Russell Collection for drummers, with this satirical book from 1783. Advice to officers of the British army: with the addition of some hints to the drummer and private soldier, by Francis Grose, satirises military life and the gap between the standards of behaviour expected of soldiers and the reality. On the frontispiece we can see a satyr holding a mirror, showing the satirical reflection to the men looking into it.

title page of a book, with the name C. L. Branfill, Capt. 3rd Dragoons written in ink at the top. Next to the title page is an illustration showing men in 18th century costume, looking at a mirror, which is being held up by a satyr.

We hope you’ve enjoyed the Twelve Days of Special Collections. More information about the collections can be found on our webpages. New to Special Collections? Why not check out our introductory blog?

Featured books

Andersen, H. C. (Hans C. (1924) Fairy tales. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Anon (1937) Livre d’or officiel : de l’Exposition Internationale des arts et techniques dans la vie moderne, Paris, 1937. Paris: Éditions SPEC.

Bell, G. H. (1802) A treatise on the cow-pox : containing an enumeration of the principal facts in the history of that disease, the method of communicating the infection by inoculation, and the means of distinguishing between the genuine and spurious cow-pox. Edinburgh: Laing.

Bensusan, S. L. (Samuel L. (1914) The life-story of the partridge. London: .

Campbell, J. F. (1863) Life in Normandy : sketches of French fishing, farming, cooking, natural history, and politics, drawn from nature. Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas.

Grose, F. (1783) Advice to the officers of the British army : with the addition of some hints to the drummer and private soldier. The seventh edition to which is now added, for the first time, some advice to the officers of the ordnance and to the Secretary at War. London: Printed for G. Kearsley …

Henkel, F. (1913) Die römischen Fingerringe der Rheinlande und der benachbarten Gebiete : mit Unterstützung der Römisch-germanischen Kommission der Kaiserl. Archäologischen Instituts. Berlin: Georg Reimer.

Moore, J. (1765) A treatise on domestic pigeons ; comprehending all the different species known in England … Carefully compiled from the best authors. To which is added, a most ample description of that celebrated and beautiful pigeon called the almond tumbler. London: Printed for C. Berry.

Season’s greetings from Special Collections


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