Althorp-Spencer Bibliographical Letters and Papers

Scope and Content

Miscellaneous letters (42) and papers from the Althorp-Spencer Collection in the John Rylands Library. Correspondents include several well-known scholars, book collectors and bibliographers: Richard Bentley (1662-1742), philologist and classical scholar; Philip Bliss (1787-1857), antiquary and book collector; Jean Baptiste Bodoni (1740-1813), Italian printer and typographer; Thomas Frognall Dibdin (1776-1847), antiquary and bibliographer; Frederick James Furnivall (1825-1910), textual scholar and editor; William Herbert (1718-1795), bibliographer and antiquary; Thomas Johnes of Hafod (1748-1816), agriculturist and translator; and Antoine-Augustin Renouard (1765-1853), French bibliophile and book dealer. There are letters from:

  • Richard Bentley, to Dr [John] Davies, [president] of Queens' College, Cambridge, respecting Prof. Joshua Barnes's new edition of Homer (number 5);
  • Philip Bliss, to T.F. Dibdin (number 27);
  • T.F. Dibdin, to Thomas Johnes of Hafod, respecting the Stanesby Alchorne Library (numbers 12-16);
  • F.J. Furnivall (number 38);
  • Jean Baptiste Bodoni, acknowledging a payment from Lord Spencer (number 8).
 The papers include items in the hands of the bibliographers Antoine-Augustin Renouard (number 46) and William Herbert (number 47).

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 the wider British public's 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 Reviczky, one-time ambassador of Maria Theresa in Warsaw. 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. The collection was sold by his grandson, the 5th Earl Spencer, to Mrs 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

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 Henry Sullivan and Jo Humpleby, project archivists, with reference to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article on Reverend Thomas Frognall Dibdin.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogued in the Hand-List of Additions to the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1937-1951 (English MS 915).

Custodial History

The manuscript 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

For more information on the Althorp Library of the Bibliotheca Spenceriana see the JRUL's Spencer Library Catalogues (GB 133 Eng MSS 64-67, 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 (GB 058 Add MSS 75301-78155), and the Spencer Papers at Northamptonshire Record Office, c.1155-1963 (ref.: GB 0145 SOX). For information of holdings of Dibdin's papers elsewhere, see the JRUL's Thomas Frognall Dibdin Collection (GB 133 DIB).