A sealed letter that arrived at one of Britain’s most historic libraries in February 2011 was to leave its staff stunned.
The letter had been written before his death by a former employee of Lambeth Palace Library. Forwarded shortly after he died by the man’s solicitor, it revealed the whereabouts of many of the library’s precious books.
Staff had known since the mid-1970s that dozens of its valuable books had been stolen. But they had no idea of the true extent of the losses until the letter led them to the man’s house in London.
“We were staggered,” says Declan Kelly, director of libraries and archives for the Church of England. “A couple of my colleagues climbed into the attic. It was piled high to the rafters with boxes full of books. I had a list of 60 to 90 missing books, but more and more boxes kept coming down.”
They contained some 1,000 volumes, made up of 1,400 publications, many from the collections of three 17th century archbishops of Canterbury – John Whitgift, Richard Bancroft and George Abbot.
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One of the most intriguing aspects of the case is how a member of staff was able to get away with stealing so many valuable and often large books.
During World War II, Lambeth Palace’s Great Hall – which housed much of the library’s early collection – took a direct hit from an incendiary bomb.
It was roughly estimated that up to 10,000 books were destroyed or badly damaged. In the years after, if a book was discovered to be missing it was easy to assume it had been destroyed in the war.
But early in 1975 the then librarian noticed that some of the most important books which were known to have survived, including the Shakespeare, had been taken.
The thief had also removed the index cards of the books, making it even more difficult to work out exactly what had been stolen. It was concluded that it was a matter of just tens of books.
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He declines to say anything about the identity of the thief. “He was a former low-level employee. I don’t think he was there for that long after the theft was discovered.
“We don’t want to cause any distress to anyone still alive and connected with the thief. We want to look forward, not back.”
But Bryars has another theory. “I can understand why they didn’t reveal his name as there are other people out there who have stolen similar material, who if they saw someone else being named and shamed – even posthumously – that material could be for the bonfire,” he says.