The Admiralty Library in 1871

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The Admiralty, Whitehall, in 1850.

Apologies for the lack of writing recently – RL has intervened. Work, illness in the family, bad historians, all conspiring to distract me from this website. Whilst going through my collection because of the last mentioned excuse, I came across a docket about the state of the Admiralty Library in 1871. It may prove of interest to archive-dwellers everywhere.

On 17 November of that year the Permanent Secretary to the Board of Admiralty, Vernon Lushington, asked the Chief Clerk, Thomas Wolley, ‘to report to me confidentially upon the position, work &c of the Librarian’. This position had been formally established by order in council in 1862, when the Library at the Admiralty, Whitehall, contained ‘above 25,000 books volumes of valuable books, that above 500 books are annually presented or purchased for the same, exclusively of parliamentary papers and newspapers’. As there was ‘no established officer to compile catalogues, classify the books and papers for reference, and generally superintend the Library’, the Admiralty appointed a Librarian, with a salary of £150 a year, rising £10 a year to a maximum of £250.

In 1871 the Librarian, Mr. R. Thorburn, had an assistant, his son, paid 30s. a week. He reported that the Library now consisted of ‘upwards of 30,000 volumes’, contained in 17 rooms, ‘mostly occupied’, across the Admiralty estate. Books, parliamentary papers and Hansard were constantly added. Ten daily and 11 weekly newspapers and their contents had to be catalogued. In addition a new catalogue of the Library was in preparation, ‘which of itself is a work of great labor, making 1272 pages of manuscript’. Searches had to be made as ‘information is often requested that could not possibly be found under any given heading’. He wrote:

It is perhaps not known that the Library is a very extensive one, rich in Naval History, Voyages, and collateral subjects, and may be considered of great and increasing value for reference.

He ended his report with a plea:

In consequence of the distribution of the Admiralty Library over the several rooms and garrets of the building, more time is occupied and labor expended in searches for answers that would result in a library placed in one or more contiguous rooms.
I believe it is from this distribution of the Library that its extensive character is not generally known.

Forty years would elapse until the Admiralty Library found a proper home. In 1910 the collection was moved into the new processional arch across the Mall, now known as Admiralty Arch, and on 20 September 1911 a 100 foot reading room was given a grand opening by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Reginald McKenna. Today the Admiralty is no more, Admiralty Arch has been sold off, the Admiralty Library broken up, and I just discovered that the successor Naval Historical Branch has made up elements of its history. But that story is for another post.

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