Catalogues of the Spencer Library

Scope and Content

The collection comprises six catalogues of the Bibliotheca Spenceriana of the Earls Spencer at Althorp. They range in size from a small pocket catalogue and a quarto list of 15th-century books not listed in Dibdin's Bibliotheca Spenceriana (English MSS 72 and 74), to an impressive four-volume class catalogue (English MS 65).

  • Catalogue of early incunables (1457 to 1472) in the Bibliotheca Spenceriana, 19th century (English MS 64);
  • Four-volume class catalogue of books at Althorp, written in the hand of George John, 2nd Earl Spencer, 1792 (English MS 65);
  • Catalogue of the Althorp Library of Viscount Spencer, 1761 (English MS 67);
  • Catalogue of the Aldine editions in the Althorp Library, 19th century (English MS 69);
  • Pocket catalogue of 15th-century printed books in the Spencer Library, early 19th century (English MS 72);
  • Catalogue of 15th-century books not listed in Dibdin's Bibliotheca Spenceriana, late 19th century (English MS 74).
There is also a catalogue of incunables in the Marlborough Library, c 1797-1810 (English MS 66). The latter has been included in the present collection because of its common provenance, and its physical uniformity with English MS 65, despite the fact that the Marlborough (Sunderland) Library at Blenheim was quite distinct from the Bibliotheca Spenceriana.

Administrative / Biographical History

George John, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834), 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 Reviczky, one-time ambassador of Maria Theresa in Warsaw. This was particularly rich in Aldine editions of the classics. The purchase cost Spencer a mere £2,500; he recouped some of the expense at a sale of duplicates in March 1790. 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. The celebrated Valdarfer Boccaccio eluded him, going to Blandford for the record sum of £2,260. However, when Blandford was forced to sell much of his collection seven years later at the White Knights Sale, Spencer was able to secure it for less than half that price. 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). This created further duplicates that were sold on 22 May 1813. 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. It is estimated that by the time of Spencer's death the collection contained 10,000 Italian books of all periods, one quarter of the total.

From around 1805 Lord Spencer employed the services of Thomas Frognall Dibdin as his librarian and collecting agent. 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 the Earl, who became his life-long patron and helped him secure ecclesiastical preferment. Dibdin's clerical career may have brought some advantage to Spencer himself, as his protégé had considerable success in eliciting books from religious houses. Dibdin published numerous works of bibliography, such as Bibliomania (1809, 1811), Bibliotheca Spenceriana (1814-1815), Bibliographical Decameron (1817), and Aedes Althorpianae (1822). Modern scholarship, however, has identified serious errors in Dibdin's cataloguing.

The Cassano Serra purchase signified the high-water mark of Spencer's book collecting. He continued to acquire books until his death in 1834, but the era of bibliomania was coming to an end. He could rest content that he 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. When George John Spencer died in 1834, his sons John Charles, 3rd Earl Spencer (1782-1845), and Frederick, 4th Earl Spencer (1798-1857), were content to leave the library intact. However, the agricultural depression of the 1880s compelled his grandson John Poyntz, 5th Earl Spencer (1835-1910), to sell the collection in 1892. He entrusted the sale to Edward Grose Hodge of Sotheby's. Amid considerable secrecy, Alexander Railton of Henry Sotheran & Co. negotiated on behalf of Mrs Enriqueta Augustina Rylands to purchase the collection almost in its entirety for the John Rylands Library. The revelation of the buyer's identity and of price she paid - £210,000 - caused a sensation, amid much relief that the collection had not been dispersed or sold abroad.

Access Information

The collection is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Purchased by Mrs Enriqueta Augustina Rylands, on behalf of the John Rylands Library, from John Poyntz Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer (1835-1910), in July 1892.


Description compiled by Jo Klett, project archivist, and John Hodgson, Keeper of Manuscripts and Archives, with reference to:

  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article on George John Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer;
  • Thomas Frognall Dibdin, Bibliotheca Spenceriana: or, a descriptive catalogue of the books printed in the fifteenth century and of many valuable first editions in the library of George John Earl Spencer (London: printed for the author by W. Bulmer, 1814-15);
  • Seymour De Ricci, English collectors of books & manuscripts (1530-1930) and their marks of ownership (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930), pp. 72-8;
  • Anthony Lister, 'George John, 2nd Earl Spencer and his 'Librarian', Thomas Frognall Dibdin', in Robin Myers and Michael Harris (eds), Bibliophily (Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 1986), pp. 90-120;
  • Anthony Lister, 'The Althorp library of Second Earl Spencer, now in the John Rylands University Library of Manchester: its formation and growth', Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, vol. 71, no. 2 (1989), pp. 67-86.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogued in the Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1928 (English MSS 64-67, 69, 72 and 74).

Custodial History

The collection was formerly part of the Spencer Library at Althorp, Northamptonshire, which was largely assembled by George John Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834); then by descent to John Poyntz Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer (1835-1910).

Related Material

The JRUL also holds the Dibdin Collection (ref.: DIB), which includes the manuscript draft of his Bibliotheca Spenceriana (ref.: GB 133 Eng MS 68 ) and letters by George John Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer, to Thomas Frognall Dibdin (ref.: GB 133 Eng MSS 71 and 1241 ). Eng MS 1305 also contains some letters of Dibdin and George John, 2nd Earl Spencer.

Major holdings of papers of the Spencer family elsewhere include the Althorp Papers at the British Library, bulk 15th century to 1910 (ref.: GB 0058 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

Geographical Names