Paper was once precious. It is so ubiquitous today — newspapers, paper towels, wrapping paper, paper napkins, tissues — that we forget it was once a valuable commodity.
Nowadays, paper is produced in industrial quantities from wooden pulp. Before the nineteenth century, however, paper was difficult to make, took ages to make, cost a fortune, could only be made from rags, and rags were in constant short supply. So short, in fact, that in England the export of rags was forbidden and, in 1680, an Act of Parliament directed that people could only be buried in wool and not linen. The Act had the intention of “lessening the Importation of Linnen from beyond the Seas and the Encouragement of the Wollen and Paper Manufactures of this Kingdome”.
So he should have known better, John Warburton. Much better. It was only the middle of the eighteenth century, after all, and paper was still hard to come by.
He was a collector, John Warburton, as well as being the Somerset herald of arms, and what he collected were old manuscripts. Not just any old manuscripts but around 60 play manuscripts; manuscripts of plays performed in the sixteenth century by The King’s Men, the acting company to which William Shakespeare was attached for most of his literary career.
Some of the manuscripts were over one hundred years old, otherwise unpublished, and featured classics of the Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses. The collection included such delights as Love Hath Found His Eyes by Thomas Jordan, The Maiden’s Holiday by Christopher Marlowe, and the alarmingly titled ‘Tis Good Sleeping in a Whole Skin by William Wager.
Where did John Warburton keep these 60 irreplaceable manuscripts? That’s right. In the kitchen.
When he went looking for them later, he found only a few remaining. His cook (sometimes referred to as Betsy Baker, although I suppose she could just have easily been Betsy the baker) had used most of them while baking. Betsy was probably delighted by the discovery of a paper collection, what with paper being so expensive, in her kitchen. Turns out, rare Elizabethan and Jacobean scripts are perfect for lighting fires or for lining the bottoms of baking dishes. Just three were left. (They’re now safely in the British Library, not still in the kitchen.)
Upon discovery of the loss, Mr Warburton lamented: “After I had been many years collecting these MSS. Playes, through my own carlesness and the ignorance of my ser… in whose hands I had lodged them, they was unluckely burnd or put under pye bottoms.”
One of the works Warburton lists as lost is “A Play by Will. Shakespear”, with no title mentioned. Could this be a completely unknown work by the genius dramatist? Probably not. Plays, by their very nature, usually require several copies. Also, John Warburton would likely have mentioned the fact.
Betsy was not alone in her arsonous activities. In 1835, another domestic servant burned Thomas Carlyle’s manuscript of The History of the French Revolution. In 1866, a proof for Riemann’s hypothesis may have blazed in a housekeeping bonfire.
Betsy the Baker, however, in pursuit of her pies, managed to deprive us of over 50 manuscripts that are now lost forever. Who knows how different the world might have been if ‘Tis Good Sleeping in a Whole Skin had survived? How changed might the landscape be if The Puritan Maid, the Modest Wife, and the Wanton Widow had not been baked in a pie? If The Lovers of Ludgate had not succumbed to the flames? We’ll never know.
Thanks, Betsy. (But I bet the pies were delicious.)