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‘Building a Library’: the Sharp family and their book catalogues

Apart from the Bamburgh Library, a substantial collection of printed material, we also have on deposit from the Lord Crewe Trustees a small group of manuscript items. The catalogue of the Bamburgh Library Manuscripts is now available on our website, thanks to the efforts of Beth Rainey, former Head of Archives and Special Collections at Palace Green Library.

Several 18th-century library catalogues survive among the manuscripts, written by members of the Sharp family, whose book and pamphlet collection of around 8,500 titles was transferred to the Lord Crewe’s Charity in the late 18th century. The Lord Crewe Trustees used the Sharp collection to form a subscription library at Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast, the headquarters of the charity. Some manuscripts also evidence the management of the library in the 19th and 20th centuries and they include a register of borrowers and borrowing.

Image of Bamburgh Castle (Photographer: Matt Buck)
Bamburgh Castle (Photographer: Matt Buck)

The Sharps and their books

The Sharps’ library originated with John Sharp, Archbishop of York (1645-1714), whose earliest book purchases date from his time as a student in Cambridge in the early 1660s. His books were inherited by his two sons John (1677-1727) and Thomas (1693-1758). The latter inherited his older brother’s books. The next generation, another John (1723-1792) and Thomas (1725-1772), in turn received shares of their father’s library, which had expanded substantially to judge from his surviving will. It is also clear from this will that a proportion of this library went to the first Thomas’ younger children, who included Granville Sharp, the anti-slavery campaigner.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any records for the Archbishop’s library – apart from a catalogue of tracts compiled by his sons – but his sons and grandsons left us a small number of catalogues and shelf-lists at least of part of their collections. Some of these were marked up in the early 20th century to indicate volumes then still in the collection and they will continue to be an important asset in the study of the history of this clergymen’s library.

With the exception of John II, who was a M.P. for Ripon and later retired to the Northamptonshire countryside, each John and Thomas held a number of clerical positions and travelled between residences. It appears that their books were also spread among these. For example, the will of Thomas I specifies the distribution of his library among his children on the basis of those kept at Durham in two separate studies and those kept at his house in Rothbury. Manuscript A2, a digital copy of a catalogue in his hand now kept in the Gloucestershire Archives, also supports the existence of separate book collections. Similarly, John III, the eldest son of Thomas I, kept books at Durham and Hartburn.

The library catalogues

Of some value for the study of student reading is Thomas II’s 1748 catalogue of books kept at Cambridge while he was completing an M.A. (Bamburgh Library MS A1). It is ordered by subject, starting with Divinity, followed by dictionaries, Classical literature – both in the original languages and in translation, belles-lettres (‘polite literature’), miscellanies, catechisms, music ‘left at Durham’, and history. He also diligently noted books he had borrowed from his brother, dated 28 December 1748.

This can be read in conjunction with Bamburgh Library MS A4, a shelf-list and valuation of Thomas II’s books made in 1776, four years after his death. It was signed off in 1779 when the Lord Crewe’s Trustees purchased the books with the intention of establishing a “public library” at Bamburgh Castle. Thomas’ older brother John III Sharp was at this time also a trustee and it is very likely that he was the driving force behind the purchase.

Image of a shelf-list and valuation of Thomas Sharp II’s books, 1776 (Bamburgh Library MS A4)
Shelf-list and valuation of Thomas Sharp II’s books, 1776 (Bamburgh Library MS A4)

The newly formed Bamburgh Library was supplemented nearly twenty years later by the bequest of John III’s library from Hartburn and Durham, consisting of “the most valuable part of my Grandfather’s Collection” (i.e. Archbishop Sharp). Once more, shelf-lists and valuations have survived, one for the library at Hartburn (Bamburgh Library MS A6), and another for Durham (Bamburgh Library MS A7, a digital copy of the original kept at Gloucestershire Archives).

Finally, a handwritten shelf-list (Bamburgh Library MS A9) created after 1796 illustrates the merger of the libraries of the Sharp brothers, showing the arrangement as used in the first printed catalogue of the Bamburgh Library: a letter from A to L followed by a running number. This system was kept in use until the mid-19th century when the current tripartite system of shelf-marking was introduced.

Why are these catalogues and shelf-lists important? For a start, they give us an insight into the intellectual interests of successive members of the Sharp family and into their attitude towards their books. For example, Archbishop Sharp hardly marked his books, while his son and grandson (the two Thomases) added bookplates to volumes old and new. John II’s presence in the collection is ghostly again, although he bequeathed his share of the family library to his younger brother in the event his own son predeceased him. John III, who was responsible for the establishment of the “public” library at Bamburgh, sometimes inscribed the books he kept at Hartburn. Together with the evidence still available to us in the books themselves, the catalogues and shelf-lists help us understand the character and development of the Bamburgh Library from its 17th-century origins to the present day.

The completion of the catalogue ties in with a project to enhance the printed book records for the Bamburgh Library, which has been on deposit with Durham University from the Lord Crewe’s Charity since 1958.
The photograph of Bamburgh Castle by Matt Buck is reproduced under CC BY-SA 4.0 licence, via Wikimedia Commons.

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