John Davis Barnett Desk

John Davis Barnett Desk Stratford Perth Museum

Dr. Barnett's Library Stratford-Perth Archives

One tends to think of Stratford’s history as a “railway town” as distinct from the city’s current fame as a cultural centre based around the Shakespearean Festival. However, John Davis Barnett (1849-1926) was the Master Mechanic at the Grand Trunk Railway repair shops by day and an ardent book collector with a particular passion for the works of Shakespeare by night.

In her 1980 book, Floodtides of Fortune: The Story of Stratford and the progress of the city through two centuries, Adelaide Leitch describes Barnett as “a draughtsman and engineer in charge of the construction of the G.T.R. repair shops. He assembled 42,000 books, claiming his house on Douro Street (see Douro Street) was literally propped up by them. One room alone contained a Shakespearean collection of 1,500 books which became internationally famous; barely was there room in the house for Barnett’s tiny roll top desk that wound up, eventually, in the equally crowded Perth County Archives.”

This week’s treasure is Barnett’s tiny roll top desk – a great example of an important artifact that was once at the Archives and later deaccessioned to a more appropriate repository – the Stratford Perth Museum. Recently, they found a neatly typed note in one of the drawers, likely from James Anderson (see Anderson Street) first County Archivist, confirming that it had belonged to Barnett. Mrs. J.N. Patterson donated the desk to the Perth County Historical Collection in 1971. The historical collection was a treasure trove of artifacts and documents curated for a future archives and museum over many years before either was formally established.

In the fall of 1918, Barnett’s personal library of upwards of 40,000 books on many different subjects was donated to Western University in London. Barnett’s move to Western was negotiated by historian Fred Landon, then Chief Public Librarian for the city of London. Landon convinced Barnett, apparently over a lunch time stroll, to donate his collection to Western’s fledgling university library which consisted of less than 5,000 books.

Barnett, who had, at one point, drafted a will leaving the collection to McGill University or if the university would not accept them to the federal government as a nucleus for a national library, accepted Landon’s offer on the condition that Barnett would still, for all intents and purposes, be in charge of his collection as curator. Barnett stipulated that the collection be available to any earnest researcher, whether in the university or not, and he specifically did not want his collection kept separate from the growing general collection of the university library.

Barnett was given a salary and an annual travel grant to allow him to continue to seek out treasures for the library. Mrs. Patterson, who donated Barnett’s desk to the Perth County Historical Collection, was Fred Landon’s daughter, Mary Florence Landon (1916-1979). She spent much of her life in Stratford.

Many thanks to Professor Ian Rae, King’s College, for drawing our attention to the presence of Barnett’s desk. And thanks as well to Stratford Perth Museum for loaning the desk to us for our 50 Treasures exhibit. Stratford-Perth Archives