Black Musicians in the John Johnson Collection: the Bohee Brothers by Hope Williard (Part 1: What is the John Johnson Collection?)

This is the first in a series of four posts about using library collections for the study of black history, literature and culture, in Britain and abroad. We would love to hear your comments and questions about the posts: please tweet us at (main library twitter), email us at, or tell us your thoughts in the comments section at the end of the post.

James Douglass Bohee (1844-1897) and his brother George (1857-1930) were among the earliest black musicians to record their music. Even though these recordings are seemingly lost today, we can use the John Johnson Collection, a digitised archival collections to learn more about their performances and careers. Part 1 of this post explains what the John Johnson Collection is and part 2 explains how to use it. In part 3, I explore the evidence of the Bohee Brothers’ lives and careers found in the John Johnson Collection.

Part 1: What is the John Johnson Collection?

The John Johnson collection is one of the most significant collections of ephemera (handwritten or printed documents which are not meant to last for a long time) in the world. The online database to which the University of Lincoln library subscribes includes over 65,000 items from the 19th, and 20th centuries. Many different types of documents have been digitised: posters and handbills for plays and other performances, myriad kinds of advertisements, topographical prints, broadsides about murders and executions, and notices about the publication of books and journals. These sorts of material can provide a wide array of insights into how people of the past lived their lives: what they might have bought and why, how they spent their leisure time, and what technology was available to them. Studies of gender, popular culture, visual culture, and the history of printing are among the many areas in which ephemera can be vital evidence.

The collection was put together by John de Monins Johnson (1882-1956), a great collector of ephemera whose career was principally spent as head of Oxford University Press. He was born in Kilmington, in North Lincolnshire, and his father was the long-serving and much beloved Rector of Brocklesby with Kirmington. After studying at Oxford and working in the British colonial administration in Egypt for two years, Johnson built a career as a papyrologist and archaeologist until the outbreak of the First World War. His collecting of ephemera came out of his Classical education and work studying and discovering ancient texts written on papyrus. As he recounted in later life, his experiences of carefully sifting through the wastepaper of ancient civilisations made him wonder how that of his own country would be treated. [1]

Over the course of his collecting, Johnson amassed over a million items, which he himself organised under seven hundred different headings.[2] The online collection is organised into five principle categories:

    1. Nineteenth century entertainment: This includes both theatrical and non-theatrical performance. It can be used to study both the history and development of different forms of entertainment, as well as high and popular culture
    2. The Booktrade: Bookplates and publishing materials, useful to those studying the publishing trade as well as trying to look at the dissemination of different kinds of information during these periods
    3. Popular prints: This includes landscapes, topography and artistic works.
    4. Crime, murder, and executions: This includes broadsheets and pamphlets. It is useful for historians who study crime and punishment and well as historians of certain kinds of printing (such as woodcuts)
    5. Advertising: This section of the collection contains a wide variety of advertisements and can be used to study economic and social history as well as consumerism.


[1] M. L. Turner, ‘John Johnson and His Collection of Printed Ephemera’, reproduced from The John Johnson Collection: Catalogue of an Exhibition (Oxford, 1971), pp. [5]–18. Available from [accessed 8 October 2018]

[2] Charles Batley and Anne Lambert, ‘Johnson, John de Monins (1882-1956)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004). Available from [accessed 8 October 2018]