Endbands and the conservation of the Coningesby catalogues

In which a 21st century conservator uses a medieval technique to repair an 18th century book

The conservation of a four-volume set of 18th century folio library catalogues was recently completed for Balliol College Library.

The catalogues are large, heavy books bound in brown, reverse sheep leather and contain a printed Bodleian catalogue of 1738 with Balliol’s holdings underlined or noted  on interleaved manuscript pages. They form the main record of the large donation left to the College by George Coningesby in 1768. Books belonging to him are marked ‘Cy’ in the catalogue.

These working books showed signs of handling commensurate with their 300-year life in a busy library. Because of their poor condition the books could not be safely consulted without fear of causing further damage.

One of the main problems to be addressed during the project was the weak board attachments; the sewing was still intact but the leather had split along the joints and the cord supports were weak or had completely split. A key element of the treatment proposal was to reinstate the missing endbands. New endbands would not only restore the former aesthetic of the books, they would also form an important structural part of the in-situ repair. The endbands would provide extra strength to the board attachment, and support to the heavy text-blocks, without having to completely re-sew the leaves.  None of the original endbands had survived; however, fragments of thread (tie-downs) still present between the leaves were evidence that they did exist, and that they were alternating blue and natural linen colour –  typical of those commonly found on 18th century Oxford bindings.[1] 

By the 1700’s endbands had lost much of their structural function as bookbinders tried to keep up with increased demand: what was once part of the mechanics, had by this point become simply a decorative part of the binding. [2] Therefore, new endbands were devised for the Coningesby catalogues which took inspiration from earlier medieval bindings; the new endbands would match those now lost but would offer the much needed support which hadn’t been provided before.

Working the endbands: decorative secondary sewing
Working the endbands: decorative secondary sewing

New structural endbands were created using a traditional medieval two-part process: strong primary thread wound around a thick linen core to form the base of the structure, and then thinner coloured thread worked over the top to for decoration.[3] Rather than lacing the cores through new holes pierced into the boards, a less invasive approach was to splay out the ends and paste them between the layers of board which had been laminated together. This provided a strong connection between the loose boards and the text-block. It was important that the new endbands should sit harmoniously with the original binding so new threads were hand-dyed with natural indigo to match the thread that survived. Hand dyeing threads rather than using pre-dyed thread offered a better range to choose from and produced a good match to the distinctive natural indigo colour used in the early 18th century.

The new indigo endband with the cores sandwiched into the boards
The new indigo endband with the cores sandwiched into the boards

The conserved catalogues can now be safely consulted in the Library once more.  The new medieval inspired endbands have contributed to a sympathetic but robust repair which should help to extend the life of these unique books for many years.

18th century Balliol Library catalogue after conservation
After conservation

By Arthur Green 

Book Conservator greensbooks.co.uk


[1] David Pearson, Oxford Bookbinding 1500-1640, (Oxford Bibliographical Society, 2000), 50.

[2] Nicholas Pickwoad, Onwards and Downwards: how binders coped with the printing press before 1800, (Oak Knoll Press, 1994), 80.

[3] For more information on medieval endbands see: Arthur Green, A compensation endband: a structural endband for a book with uneven edges. (Journal of the Institution of Conservation Vol. 39(2), 2016) 158-169. 


George Coningesby’s books

Among the early printed books in Balliol Library, one distinctive 18th-century hand appears again and again

Similar notes, in English and Latin, can be found in hundreds of books, on paste-downs, endpapers, on title pages, in the margins, in slips of paper.

The notes belong to one of the most important benefactors to the Library, the clergyman and antiquary George Coningesby (1692-3?-1766).

Coningesby proceeded Doctor of Divinity at Balliol in 1739. He was vicar of Bodenham, Herefordshire and then rector of Pencombe, in the same county.

The Oxford antiquary Thomas Hearne knew Coningesby, and described him as ‘a learned man, & studious, [who] bears the character of being honest’.

Coningesby made himself notorious in Oxford. In a 1727 sermon, he praised Charles I as ‘a Prince that was not alien by birth, & that preferred to dignities in the Church men of true worth and learning’ – in implied contrast to the current king, George I. By the time he was called before University officials to explain the offending sermon, Coningesby had contrived to ‘misplace’ his notes, according to Hearne. He was banned from preaching for two years and had to leave St Mary’s Hall.

The earliest book in the collection is a 1495 edition of Aristotle, but Coningesby collected books published throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Coningesby collected books with great energy, especially in the areas of classics, English history, church history, and religious polemics.

Coningesby acquired books owned and inscribed by other important scholars and antiquaries.

Thomas Hearne’s ownership inscription in a book later acquired by Coningesby.

These include Thomas Hearne; Arthur Charlett, master of Univ; Anglo-Saxonist George Hickes; the bibliophile Thomas Rawlinson; and Cambridge antiquary Thomas Baker.

Coningesby wrote on paste-downs, endpapers and in the margins, as well as on loose scraps of paper. He emended the text, transcribed errata lists and recorded bibliographical information. His notes also offer cross-references, citations and quotations from other scholarly works.

This little-known collection offers students of 18th-century history and literature opportunities for original research on reading and collecting practices.

Research by Paris O’Donnell


T. Hearne. Remarks and collections of Thomas Hearne. Vol. XI. Oxford: Clarendon, 1921

W.R. Ward. Georgian Oxford: university politics in the eighteenth century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1958