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Ragtime to Riches

Abigail Williams reveals the extraordinary story of Walter Harding - bricklayer's son turned ragtime pianist - who became a major benefactor of the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Abigail Williams uncovers the lost story of Walter Harding, a British-born Chicagoan ragtime pianist who amassed the world's largest collection of popular songbooks and then left them to the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

In 1974 Walter Harding's gift of his extensive collection of music, drama and poetry was the largest donation ever made to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is all the more remarkable because Walter Newton Henry Harding was not an academic, a book dealer or a millionaire bibliophile, but the son of a bricklayer from the East End of London who emigrated to Chicago in the 1900s.

Harding earned his living playing ragtime music - despite having had no formal musical education. His ability to collect on such a scale, despite modest means, was due to a lack of scholarly interest in popular music at the time, and also to the flood of books on the American market during the Great Depression.

Gradually, Harding assembled the world's largest collection of popular songbooks and miscellanies in a modest townhouse in a shabby suburb of Chicago. By the time he died, the house contained some 30,000 rare books.

The story of Harding's collection is one of obsession, and of a passionate desire to reconnect with the past through its music and writing.

Abigail Williams tells this largely unknown story with the help of members of the Bodleian Library and those who knew Harding himself, as well as with readings from the correspondence between Harding and the Bodleian, and the journalistic coverage that accompanied this extraordinary bequest.

Dr Williams is a Fellow of St Peter's College, Oxford with a special interest in the Harding Collection and in 18th century miscellanies.

Producer: Beaty Rubens.

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20 minutes