Overdue Library Book Returned... 300 Years Later

- by Michael Stillman

Canon Keith Farrow with the book (Sheffield Cathedral photo).

It took a while...


A package showed up in the mail at the Sheffield Cathedral in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, recently. Inside was a book. It was being returned to the cathedral library, which surprised Vice-Dean Canon Keith Farrow who opened the package. It surprised him because the Sheffield Cathedral library closed 200 years ago. That is quite late to be returning a book.


The book is The Faith and Practice of a Church of England-Man, a seventh edition dated 1704. Canon Farrow doubts that it is worth very much money. A seventh edition of a not-rare book is generally not worth much, even if it is 300 years old. A handwritten inscription said, “This Book belongs to ye Lending Library in Sheffield Church 1709.” The Vice-Dean said no one knows where in the cathedral the lending library was located, although it did have a reputation in the cathedral's history. Some of its books are still held there, though most were dispersed centuries ago. At the time, it was still a parish church, it not being made a cathedral until 1914.


Canon Farrow revealed the explanation for the late return. He said it came from a lady in Wales, whose Godmother had recently died. It was among her belongings. In her will, she said that the book should be returned to Sheffield Cathedral.


This doesn't totally explain its history. It is safe to say that this woman, no matter how old she was when she died, is not the one who borrowed it in 1709. It apparently was passed down in the family, which must have been several generations, so it isn't clear why someone didn't return it sooner. Canon Farrow said that he promised the woman he would not charge a late fee, but maybe regretted that generosity later. He joked that someone had mentioned they could use a new roof.


While this age in America would have dated the overdue book back to before the United States even existed, it is not that old for England. A cross was placed at the church site in the 9th century, and the original church dates to the 12th century. It burned down in 1266, but was rebuilt in 1280. There have been changes and rebuilds over the centuries since. Old has a different meaning in England than in America.