A murder victim’s copy

A 17th century translation of a Roman classic has a history of its own...

A 17th century translation of Pliny's 'Historia Naturalis'Pliny’s Historia naturalis was one of the major texts from antiquity which furnished botanical information. Philemon Holland’s translation, The Historie of the World, first published in 1601, is one of the masterpieces of English prose, but it is not the intrinsic qualities of the book that I want to discuss here.

The Lindley Library has a copy of the 1634 edition of Holland’s translation (see left) that, in the early 19th century, was in the library at Camden Place, Chislehurst (the estate where Napoleon III was later to live in exile). The owner’s name is shown on the bookplate: Thomson Bonar.

The special interest that attaches to Bonar is that he was the victim of a once famous murder: in 1813, at the age of 70, he was killed by his footman Philip Nicholson. The story of the trial can be found in Knapp and Baldwin’s edition of the New Newgate Calendar (vol. 6, c.1826, pp. 8-19). The footman killed Mrs Bonar while she was asleep in bed, then struck Mr Bonar, but this had the effect of rousing him. Mr Bonar, despite his age, was quite athletic, and they struggled for fifteen minutes before Nicholson finally succeeded in killing him.

Bookplate showing the name Thomson Bonar EsqAt first it was thought that the motive might have been religious revenge, Nicholson being a Roman Catholic and “much bigoted”, and Bonar having ostentatiously approved the rejection of the latest bill for Catholic emancipation; but Nicholson denied this, saying that he had no idea he was going to commit the crime until minutes beforehand. He was duly hanged, and held up as a warning against drunkenness.

Bonar’s copy of Pliny did not stay at Camden Place, but passed into the hands of others; its subsequent history is unknown until the RHS bought it at a Red Cross sale during the Second World War.



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