One of the age-old delights of this time of year for many people is to take the opportunity to curl up with a good book, with the fire roaring, a steaming mug of cocoa at hand and more than a few biscuits perfecting the cosy atmosphere. Yes, the library atmosphere has long been one of life’s great pleasures, offering a safe and relaxing space to unwind and immerse yourself in a different world or time. Interestingly, one of the oldest libraries in the UK is found in Maldon. The Thomas Plume Library is not only a wonderful legacy of an incredible gentleman but also a story of survival.

The name Dr Thomas Plume is not an unknown one in the county. With both a library and a school named after him, Plume was a philanthropist whose family hailed from the quintessential village of Great Yeldham close to the border with Suffolk.

Born in the 17th century, Thomas Plume would go on to become a churchman following his studies at Chelmsford and then Christ Church Cambridge where he became a Bachelor of Arts and Doctor of Divinity. Although Plume was firmly committed to his career in the church, his thirst for knowledge and education was evident throughout his life.

Dr Plume lived during an exciting time - the same century in which he was born saw the discovery of gravity, bacteria and phosphorus, and the invention of the telescope, the adding machine and the steam pump.

Certainly, for those with an active, intelligent or educated mind, these world-changing discoveries and inventions meant for exciting reading at that time, even if the full weight of what had been uncovered could not possibly have been fully understood then.

That did not stop Dr Plume from making a concerted effort to continue his education on a variety of subjects and thus he embarked, perhaps unwittingly, on an amazing legacy-creation in which he began what would become a beautiful collection of books, pamphlets and other written material. Even if George Orwell had never discovered his flying machine, Dr Plume’s collection provides an enthralling insight into the mindset and excitement of the day. And he gifted it all to the people of Maldon.

Great British Life: The library was constructed from the ruins of the old St Peter’s Church The library was constructed from the ruins of the old St Peter’s Church

The Thomas Plume Library in Maldon is now recognised as one of the world’s most interesting collections of reference works spanning a range of subjects from chemistry and medicine to history and travel, and includes some real treasures including Sir Francis Drake’s ‘The World Encompassed’ and John Speed’s ‘Atlas of 1631’. The collection is impressive, not merely owing to its content, but also because of its size - more than eight thousand pieces of work complete with no fewer than 13 portraits of monarchs and divines.

Thomas Plume bequeathed to the people of Maldon his beautiful collection which remains to this day, nestled securely in the building which he had constructed from the ruins of the old St Peter’s Church in the centre of this lovely Essex town. Although the books are no longer able to be closely examined, members of the public may visit the library and soak in, not only the atmosphere of a beautiful ambiatic library but to walk through the intellectual mind of a local man who wanted to share his legacy. According to Dr Plume, the library was to be ‘for the use of the minister and clergy of the neighbouring parishes who generally make this town their place of residence and any who desires, may go into it, and make use of any book there or borrow it.’

This was not the only kind gesture that Thomas Plume extended following his death in 1704. A rather wealthy local man, Plume left what would have been eye-watering sums in bequeaths numbering into the hundreds and thousands. One such special legacy Plume established was the ‘Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at the University of Cambridge’ - a prestigious position which still exists to this day.

Plume wrote that the purpose of this was to ‘erect an Observatory and to maintain a studious and learned Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy, and to buy him and his successors utensils and instruments like quadrants and telescopes.’ Interestingly, the first recipient of this professorship was Roger Cotes who was a pupil of Isaac Newton and who continued to work closely with him.

This wonderful collection of books, pamphlets and other written materials stands today as a beautiful insight into an era long gone, a time of education and knowledge when exciting new inventions and discoveries made for avid reading. The Thomas Plume Library also stands as a lovely reminder of the mentally adventurous spirit of the Essex people, as evidenced by this priceless gift left by a generous local gentleman to the people of Maldon and the generations to come.