Papers of A.B. Railton

Scope and Content

Correspondence and other papers of A.B. Railton concerning negotiations relating to the purchase of a number of significant collections of books and manuscripts in the 1890s and early 1900s. These collections include the Althorp Library and Crawford Manuscript Collection, sold to Mrs E.A. Rylands in 1892 and 1901 respectively. Other important sales represented are the Bennett Collection of manuscripts and early printed books and a collection of Byron manuscripts sold to J. Pierpont Morgan in 1902 and 1900 respectively, the Lucien Bonaparte philological library sold to the Newberry Library in 1901 and the Warwick Castle Shakespeare Collection sold to H.C. Folger in 1897.

The papers generally comprise letters and cuttings etc. pasted onto paper, as if intended for a scrapbook. In most instances, there is a summary of the sale proceedings. There are letters and telegrams sent to Railton and H. Sotheran & Co., by prospective purchasers, booksellers, valuers and vendors etc., along with copy letters out. These letters cover many aspects of the sales, in particular valuation, authenticity, payment, and the administration of large transfers of books. There are also collection lists along with notes and supporting information relating to the collections. In the case of the purchase of the Althorp Library there are also many press cuttings.

These papers are small in volume, but great in research value. They relate to sales of extremely important collections of books and manuscripts, some of which formed the basis of world famous libraries, including the John Rylands Library and the Morgan Library. As such, the papers provide useful information about the individual collections, but perhaps more significantly, provide insights into the foundation of major research libraries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The ongoing debate about the sale of rare books and manuscripts to institutions in America is also well documented in the papers.

Administrative / Biographical History

Alexander Balderston Railton (1844-1904) was a bookseller with the firm Henry Sotheran & Co. He managed the purchase by Mrs E.A. Rylands of the Althorp Library, one of the most significant transactions to be undertaken by the firm, and indeed in bookselling history.

Railton was born in Gorbals, a suburb of Glasgow, in 1844, the son of James Railton and Hannah Balderston. He was educated at a Catholic seminary and showed promise as a scholar, carrying on to study medicine at the University of Glasgow. On the death of his father, by necessity, he took a job at a bank. After two years, in a quest for learning, he resolved to become a bookseller. In 1868 Railton moved to London and became an apprentice to the bookselling trade under Messrs Henry Sotheran & Co. His intellect and hard work enabled him to progress rapidly; by the late 1880s he was a senior member of the firm, responsible for the management of the Strand Branch. By 1881 Railton also had a wife, Minnie or Marion (also born in Scotland) and two children, Minnie and Alexander.

Sotheran's was a minor player in the book-trade compared to the established bookseller Bernard Quaritch. However, their reputation grew in the late nineteenth century with the purchase of the library of Charles Dickens. Sotheran's was the only London bookseller with a Manchester branch, which was maintained from 1881 to 1893.

Railton's most important achievement was the sale of the world famous Althorp Library, reputed to be the finest library then in private hands. It was sold en bloc to Mrs Enriqueta Rylands, the wealthy Manchester widow, for £210,000, under the agency of Railton. The Library was core to the foundation collection of the John Rylands Library, opened in 1900. A contemporary article in Library Journal September 1892, says of Railton: 'In London he is called the 'Flying Scotchman.' Ever alert, he more than any one else has prevented this library from going to America.' Railton combined bibliographical learning with an ability to negotiate and organise large and complex transactions.

The agent for Lord Spencer was Edward Grose Hodge (1825-1907), a partner in Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge. According to D.A. Farnie in his biography of Enriqueta Rylands,

Railton secured a commission of only 1 per cent but was made a partner in the firm of Sotheran's.... while E.G. Hodge secured from Lord Spencer a commission of 9 per cent and left in 1907 an estate of £126,199, or sixteen times as much as Railton.

On the retirement of Henry Sotheran senior in 1893, Railton was made a partner together with Charles Buckland and Henry C. Sotheran. The sale also had a major impact on the firm as a whole; they acquired a reputation, not equal to, but at least approaching that of Bernard Quaritch. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a flurry of sales to major American collectors, including J. Pierpont Morgan and Henry C. Folger. This outcome was somewhat ironic considering the praise heaped on Railton for preventing the loss of the Althorp Library to America. In 1901 he was again the agent for Mrs Rylands in her purchase of the manuscripts of Lord Crawford.

Railton also worked for many years at the night schools of Westminster, under the Rev. Samuel Martin (1817-1878), a Congregationalist. During the 1890s Railton suffered ill health and spent time convalescing in Switzerland and with his family in Aberdeen. He died at Sutton, Surrey, in September 1904.


The papers were found with the John Rylands Library Archive. Those relating to the John Rylands Library had been bound into a large volume, while the others were contained in a large parcel titled 'Re Bennett Manchester Collection / Re Bonaparte Library / Re Byron MSS.' Most of the documents had been pasted onto pages, some numbered consecutively. Sequences identified from this pagination show that the papers had been ordered by collection, and indeed the papers were only slightly disordered. For convenience, I have listed each sale as a separate item, even though the Althorp and Crawford papers are physically bound into one volume. These items have been ordered with the Spencer and Crawford papers first, then the papers from the parcel largely in the order in which they were found.

Unless otherwise stated, letters are addressed to A.B. Railton or Sotheran & Co., and copy letters are from him.

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Unknown. The collection was found with the institutional archive of the John Rylands Library.

Other Finding Aids


Separated Material

The bulk of the archive of H. Sotheran & Co. was destroyed during the blitz.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Keeper of Manuscripts and Archives, John Rylands University Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

The papers were accumulated by bookseller A.B. Railton during his employment at H. Sotheran & Co. It is not known how the material came to be in the John Rylands Library. The papers relating to the Spencer and Crawford purchases have been bound in one volume by the Manchester bookbinders Bramhall & Menzies, but all the other papers were loosely bundled into one large parcel, labelled in Railton's hand. It seems possible that the papers were given to Mrs Rylands or the John Rylands Library by Railton himself or shortly after his death.

Related Material

The Archive of the John Rylands Library contains substantial quantities of correspondence, accounts and other papers relating to the purchase of the Althorp Library and the Crawford Collection. The John Rylands Library holds manuscript catalogues of the Althorp Library (GB 133 Eng MSS 64-67, 69, 72, 74) and of parts of the Crawford Manuscript Collection (not listed).

The Morgan Library holds some records relating to those collections purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan, namely the Bennett Collection, Phillipps Library and Byron Manuscripts (see

Correspondence relating to the sale of the Lucien Buonaparte books is held by the British Library, Manuscript Collections. The Archives of the Newberry Library may also contain records relating to the Lucien Bonaparte Collection).

The Folger Archives, held at the Folger Shakespeare Library (see contain records relating to the establishment of the Folger Library, including records of acquisitions.


Obituary of A.B. Railton, The Times, 15 September 1904.

D.A. Farnie, 'Enriqueta Augustina Rylands (1843-1908), Founder of the John Rylands Library', Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, Vol. 71, No. 2, Summer 1989.

Seymour De Ricci, English collectors of books & manuscripts, 1530-1930, Franklin, New York [1969], pp. 145-148 (re. Halliwelll-Phillipps) and pp. 172-173 (re. Richard Bennett).

Martin Spevack, James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps: The Life and Works, Oak Knoll, London (2001).