Thomas Frognall Dibdin Collection

Scope and Content

The Dibdin collection of the John Rylands Library centres on the collected correspondence of Thomas Frognall Dibdin with his patron George John, 2nd Earl Spencer (Eng MS 71), his literary friends (Eng MS 1241) and various printers and booksellers (Eng MSS 707 and 1151). Also included are the original manuscript draft of Dibdin's Bibliotheca Spenceriana (Eng MS 68), and six bound volumes of manuscript notes and transcriptions written by Dibdin in the course of his bibliographic research (Eng MS 73).

Administrative / Biographical History

The Reverend Thomas Frognall Dibdin was born in Calcutta in 1776, the son of Thomas Dibdin, a captain in the Royal Navy, and Elizabeth Dibdin (née Compton). Both his parents died on the way home to England in 1780, and young Thomas was brought up by William Compton, a maternal uncle. He was educated first at small schools in Middlesex and Berkshire but went up to St John's College, Oxford in 1801 and then entered Lincoln's Inn to study law under Basil Montagu. He married early in life, and decided to reside at Worcester, intending to establish himself as a provincial counsel. However, after an unsuccessful attempt to practise law there, he changed his mind and pursued a career in the Anglican Church, being ordained in 1805 and appointed curate in Kensington, London.

Dibdin's career as a bibliographer began in 1802 with the publication of his Introduction to the knowledge of rare and valuable editions of the Greek and Roman Classics. This work attracted the notice of George John, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834), who boasted one of the most valuable private libraries in the country. Earl Spencer soon became Dibdin's life-long patron, helping him obtain ecclesiastical patronage and giving him access to his library at Althorp in Northamptonshire. With his patron's support, Dibdin published numerous works on bibliography, with his Bibliomania (1809, 1811) contributing to the development of a wider interest in old and rare books. In 1812 Dibdin, along with Earl Spencer and sixteen others, founded the Roxburghe Club, the first and most exclusive British private publishing society, and he became its first Vice President. He travelled extensively across the British Isles and Europe in search of books and manuscripts for his patron, and often published his memoirs of such journeys, as with his Bibliographical, antiquarian and picturesque tour in France and Germany (1821) and Bibliographical, antiquarian, and picturesque tour in the northern counties of England and Scotland (1838).

His literary style is generally characterized by a witty, light-hearted and often gossipy approach, with his Bibliographical Decameron (1817) and Reminiscences of a literary life (1836) being essentially social commentaries on the world of book collectors, book auctions and printers. Modern scholarship, however, has identified serious errors in his cataloguing, especially in his Bibliotheca Spenceriana (1814-15) catalogue of the Althorp Library. Nevertheless his works are well known for the high quality of their printing and their detailed illustration.

Source: John V. Richardson Jr., 'Dibdin, Thomas Frognall (1776-1847)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press -

George John, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834), politician and book collector, was educated at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he obtained a nobleman's MA degree in 1778. He was a life-long Whig, and was elected to Parliament for Northampton in 1780. He supported the Fox-North coalition in 1783 but turned down the offer to become lord lieutenant of Ireland. He succeeded to the earldom on the death of his father in October 1783, and for the next decade devoted himself to the management of his estates. However, the impact of the French Revolution on Britain stirred his sense of public duty and, with the Duke of Portland and other Whig leaders, Spencer broke with Fox and Grey and joined the government of William Pitt in 1794. He served as First Lord of the Admiralty at a critical period in the history of the Royal Navy, until Pitt left office in 1801. Spencer then retired from political life, except for a brief hiatus when he served as Home Secretary under the Grenville-Fox ministry of 1806-7.

Lord Spencer was one of the greatest book collectors the world has ever known. He built upon the foundations of the family library at Althorp in Northamptonshire, which Dibdin estimated to contain some 7,000 volumes, including several rarities. However, he disposed of many of the books that his father, the first Earl Spencer, had collected in favour of better copies. Throughout his career George John was very willing to improve his collection in this way, and there were notable sales of duplicate and inferior copies from the Bibliotheca Spenceriana. He acquired several complete libraries by private treaty with their owners, and he purchased books through dealers and at auction, though he did not attend sales as frequently as some of his fellow collectors.

Spencer was fascinated by the classics and he eagerly sought first editions of all the principal Greek and Roman writers. One of his first significant purchases, in 1790, was the library of Count Károly Reviczky, one-time Imperial ambassador in London. This was particularly rich in Aldine editions of the classics. Spencer bought heavily at the sensational Roxburghe sale of 18 May 1812, bidding against stiff competition from two of his chief rivals in book collecting, the Marquess of Blandford and the Duke of Devonshire. In 1813 Spencer paid £3,400 to Thomas Johnes of Hafod for the fine library previously assembled by Stanesby Alchorne, Controller of the Mint (d. 1800). In 1819-20 Spencer undertook a tour of Europe in quest of bibliographical rarities, in particular books produced by Sweynheym and Pannartz, the first printers in Italy. The high-point of the tour was Spencer's purchase of almost the entire library of the Neapolitan nobleman, the Duke di Cassano Serra. The duplicates from this collection were sold in 1821. By the time of his death Spencer had created the greatest library then in private hands, rich in incunabula, Bibles, Italian literature of the fifteen and sixteenth centuries, illustrated books, and examples of fine printing from all the major European presses. In 1892 the collection was sold by his grandson, the 5th Earl Spencer, to Enriqueta Rylands for the John Rylands Library.

Source: Malcolm Lester, 'Spencer, George John, second Earl Spencer (1758-1834)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press -

Access Information

The collection is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

The Dibdin collection has come from multiple sources of provenance. In 1892 Mrs Rylands purchased from John Poyntz Spencer (1835-1910), 5th Earl Spencer, the Spencer Library at Althorp, Northamptonshire, which had largely been assembled by George John, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834). English MSS 68 and 71 were part of this collection that later came to the John Rylands Library. English MS 73 was acquired by the John Rylands Library at some date prior to January 1900. English MSS 707 and 1241 were both purchased at auction; English MS 707 was purchased via the London bookseller Bernard Quaritch at Sotheby's on 14 December 1909, and English MS 1241 was purchased at Hodgson's sale on 30 June 1959. The provenance of English MS 1151 is unknown.


Description compiled by Henry Sullivan, project archivist, with reference to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article on Reverend Thomas Frognall Dibdin.

Other Finding Aids

The manuscripts are catalogued as follows: 

  • For English MSS 68, 71, 73 see The Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1928;
  • For English MS 707 see The Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1928-1935;
  • For English MS 1151 see The Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1937-1951;
  • For English MS 1241 see The Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1952-1970.

Related Material

Within the UML's English Manuscripts sequence, English MS 1305 contains some letters of the Reverend Thomas Frognall Dibdin and the 2nd Earl Spencer, George John Spencer (ref.: GB 133 Eng MS 1305), and English MS 915 includes several items of correspondence with Dibdin (ref.: GB 133 Eng MS 915).

Dibdin's papers are widely dispersed. Major holdings include: 

  • British Library, Manuscript Collections: correspondence, 1809-1813 (ref.: GB 0058 Egerton MS 2974); letters to Philip Bliss, 1810-1845 (ref.: GB 058 Add MSS 34567-81); letters to S. Lahee, 1829 (ref.: GB 058 Add MS 45498); letters to Lackington & Co., 1824 (ref.: GB 058 Add MS 28653); correspondence with Sir Frederick Madden, 1829-1837 (ref.: GB 058 Egerton MSS 2838-41); letters to Lord Spencer, 1803-1834;
  • Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives: notes on early printed books (ref.: GB 012 Mm VI 47);
  • Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections: miscellaneous correspondence and papers, 1812-1836 (ref.: La ii 646-47, 682); 1821-42: letters to David Laing, 1821-1842 (ref.: GB 237 La iv 17);
  • Liverpool Record Office: correspondence with William Roscoe, 1813-1817 (ref.: GB 138 Roscoe Papers 1224-1237);
  • National Library of Scotland, Manuscript Collections: letters to William Blackwood & Sons, 1812-1835 (ref.: GB 233 MSS 4001 4004 4024 4040 4717); letters to Sir Walter Scott, 1809-1829 (ref.: GB 233 MSS 3878-3910);
  • Oxford University, Bodleian Library, Special Collections and Western Manuscripts: correspondence and papers relating to Reminiscences of a literary life, 1834-1837 (ref.: MSS Eng misc d 85-86); letters to Sir Egerton Bridges, 1807 (ref.: GB 161 MS Eng lett d 74); letters to Isaac D'Israeli (ref.: GB 161 MSS Disraeli); correspondence with Francis Douce, 1806-1833 (ref.: GB 161 MSS Douce);
  • Harvard University, Houghton Library: correspondence and papers, 1798-1837;
  • Huntington Library, San Marino, CA: letters, 1813-1845.
For more information on the Bibliotheca Spenceriana see the JRUL's collection of Spencer Library Catalogues (ref.: GB 133 Eng MSS 64, 65-67, 69, 72 and 74). Major holdings of papers of the Spencer family elsewhere include the Althorp Papers at the British Library, bulk 15th century to 1910 (ref.: GB 058 Add MSS 75301-78155), and the Spencer Papers at Northamptonshire Record Office, c 1155-1963 (ref.: GB 145 SOX): see the National Register of Archives at