The London Library is more than fortunate to boast some of the most helpful and courteous Issues Desk staff that one could hope for. For the first half of the twentieth century, however, members would have experienced a rather more ambiguous welcome as they entered the Library under the terrifying gaze of the legendary Frederick James Cox who manned the Issue Desk for several decades until his retirement in 1951.
Cox joined the Library as a messenger boy in 1882 – a year after Thomas Carlyle its founder and President had died and at a time when a number of members, including the Duchess of Cleveland (Prime Minister Lord Rosebery’s mother), were still arriving on horseback. He continued working until the age of 86 – a career spanning nearly 70 years, during which he came into contact with an extraordinary range of public figures, from Gladstone to Somerset Maugham; Randolph Churchill to Evelyn Waugh; Thomas Huxley to Rose Macaulay.
Dressed in wing collar and studs and fronting the Issue Desk like an imperious bank manager, Cox became a London landmark, sketched by Punch and frequently remarked upon by members amazed by his encyclopaedic knowledge, intimidated by his overbearing manner, and all too frequently patronised by his sharp sense of humour.
JW Lambert, Editor of the New English Dramatists series, recalled how “the presiding genius of the Issue Desk always made me shake in my shoes, riven by the conviction that I should not be taking out whatever I was taking out, or that I was transgressing some unwritten law or another”.
Cox rounded on those he disapproved of. He refused to acknowledge JB Priestley’s success, asking Priestley to repeat his surname more loudly in front of everyone at the Issue Desk so that Cox could fill in the borrowing form properly. When an embarrassed Priestley obliged, Cox barked: “Initial?”
Lady Galway – daughter of Sir Rowland Blennerhassett, one of the leaders of the English liberal Catholic movement - found herself searching for an interpretation of a passage in the Book of Revelation. Cox instantly identified the appropriate authority: “Sir Rowland would have known” he said, frowning at her.
Edith Sitwell was snubbed altogether. JW Lambert recalled, “There appeared through the entrance doors a startling vision: a tall thin woman with an ivory profile and imperious carriage, followed at a respectable distance by a chauffeur with his cap tucked under his arm and carrying a pile of books. She addressed him (Mr Cox) with all the confidence of birth and fame. He broke off what he was saying to me, paused and without turning his head uttered … ‘One moment, Miss Sitwell, if you please’, before carrying on, for several minutes whatever it was that he was telling me”.
Concerned at the treatment of books by some members, Cox remonstrated with Frank Pakenham (later Lord Longford) who was returning several books, one of which had a page turned down. Cox bellowed, “Right, you just wait there!” Moments later he returned, and slammed a pile of books onto the desk, all of them with pages turned down. He roared, “I’ve been lookin’ for the culprit for some time!”
Cox was no less able to hide his disdain for Virginia Woolf when a friend of hers asked for a copy of The Voyage Out. “By Virginia Woolf?” he asked. “Let me see; she was a Miss Stephen, daughter of Sir Leslie” (Leslie Stephen was a former Library President). “Her sister is Mrs Clive Bell I think. Ah, strange to see what’s become of those two girls. Brought up in such a nice home too. But then, they were never baptised”.
Yet for all his idiosyncracies and inverted snobbery, this man – who spent nearly three quarters of a century serving, sometimes insulting, and often intimidating some of the greatest names in literature – was revered for his vast knowledge of the Library and its collection. Nicholas Henderson, ambassador to Washington and Paris, commented: “He knew everything. You asked him anything you wanted to know and he knew where you would find it, he’d get you the book”. JW Lambert concurred: “I don’t know why this remarkable figure, portly, wheezing, wing-collared Mr Cox should have inspired such anxieties; I cannot remember any occasion when I received anything but benign, not to say patronizing, treatment at his hands – hands which had entered books for half the famous authors I had ever heard of.”
Cox died on 19th August 1952, and three days later the Times published a lengthy obituary. The newspaper described him as “a much loved and respected figure… a survivor of a bygone age of leisurely good manners…he needed little encouragement to draw on his memories of St James’s Square. It is not too much to say he became a sort of Remembrancer to all the members of the Library”.
Cox’s anecdotes – from fetching novels for Gladstone, gossiping about Thackeray’s mistress or dealing with the aftermath of Second World War bomb damage at the Library (“it wasn’t what we were used to”) – spanned a unique period in The Library’s growth and development. By his death he had established himself as one of London’s great characters, and if he had amassed a full store of memories, they were matched by those of countless Library members who had equally vivid memories of him!
Julian Lloyd, The London Library
For further information:
The London Library edited by Miron Grindea, The Boydall Press, Adam Books, London 1978
Rude Words: A Discursive History of the London Library, John Wells, Macmillan, London 1991
Founders & Followers – Literary Lectures Given on the 150th Anniversary of The London Library, Sinclair-Stevenson, London, 1992
“Mr. F.J. Cox.” The Times (London, England), Monday, Aug 22, 1955; pg. 9; Issue 53305.