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Written by:
25 Oct 2021

A book recently returned to the Jerwood Library was over half a century overdue. It had been borrowed by a Trinity Hall undergraduate in the early 1970s, although there are no surviving records of loans from that time, so the exact date is not known. It was dropped off after a College reunion event with a note from the borrower explaining that it was an old atlas that was of historical interest.

To the librarian’s surprise it turned out to be a rare 19th century atlas published by the curiously named Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK). The Society was founded in London in 1826 by the prominent Whig politician, Lord Henry Brougham (1778-1868).

From 1826 until its demise in 1848, the Society published a range of publications on a variety of ‘useful’ subjects intended for a working class readership. Its most successful was a set of relatively inexpensive, but high quality atlas maps. Until the Society published their maps, atlases were expensive – luxury items intended for the gentleman’s library. The SDUK maps were intended to attract a wide readership and be affordable, and they are some of the most accurate and well-designed maps of the time.

Trinity Hall’s atlas was published in around 1856 by George Cox. It contains over 160 engraved maps produced by J & C Walker. The maps reflect a time when the British Empire was expanding and people were interested in the colonial possessions in far off lands. It includes 11 detailed maps of India showing the areas under British control.

Map of India from 1856 atlas

Another map shows British North America. These territories include Canada, as well as all or large parts of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the Northeastern part of Minnesota, and large parts of Maine.

Map of British North America from 1856 atlas

At an average rate of 20p per day, the library fine for the book’s late return would have been roughly £3,000. However, the library has not charged overdue fines for the past 3 years.

The Librarian said they were “really grateful to the person who returned this book to us. It’s definitely a case of better late than never!”.