A bound volume of eighteenth-century almanacs does not seem like a logical addition to Cotsen’s collection of illustrated children’s books. I can’t explain why the third volume of the Diaria Britannica: or the British Diary: An Almanack, for the Year of Our Lord 1790 printed in Birmingham caught Mr. Cotsen’s eye, but I can hazard a guess.
If you flip through the pamphlet, you will find a number of pages filled with rather intimidating mathematical questions, to which eager readers were invited the previous year to supply solutions. People who submitted correct answers had their names and calculations printed in the next year;s volume. Mr. Cotsen, who could do “huge horrible sums” in his head with astonishing ease probably passed these over for a curious page mostly filled with rather scratchy writing in what looks to be a child’s hand.
It looks suspiciously as if the writer had been on the lookout for a blank piece of paper to practice his or her penmanship. The text that the perpetrator copied out is a variation of a familiar book curse, or folk formula to protect the precious object from light fingers. I have seen the first two lines scribbled in other Cotsen books, but not this longer version in six. Certainly the punishments called down on the thief’s head sounds like something a child rather than an adult would say.
But parts of two lines in the poem are difficult to decipher and my first attempts at filling in the blanks didn’t make much sense in context. A little research turned up a version fairly close to this one, but the missing words can’t be substituted here because the lines won’t scan. Perhaps the young writer was transcribing a text heard orally and didn’t catch those words correctly rather than simply having problems with spelling. Or maybe the writer could not recall the passages exactly and simply filled in bits as best he or she could.
STEAL NOT THIS BOOK MY HONEST FRIEND
OR ELSE THE GALLOWS WILL BE YOUR END.
AND IF I CATCH YOU BY THE TAIL
I WISH [TO] LODGE YOU SAFE IN NEWGATE GAOL
AND WHEN THE JUDGE WILL COME LORD SAY AYE
WHERE IS THAT BOOK YOU HAVE [stole]
With thanks to Dame Rose Hay for emending the transcription!