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‘One of the most exciting undiscovered libraries in Britain’

First editions inscribed by Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth and Tennyson, and unknown manuscripts of Napoleon Bonaparte, George Washington, Florence Nightingale and Charles Dickens are among more than 7,500 books left to Trinity’s Wren Library in one of the largest bequests in its history.

They were bequeathed by Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe, whose father, Robert Crewe-Milnes, and grandfather, Richard Monckton Milnes, both studied at Trinity before embarking on important political careers. Between the 1830s and the early twentieth century, they amassed what Trinity’s Librarian, Dr Nicolas Bell, said was ‘an extraordinary library – one of the most important private collections in Britain.’

The Duchess of Roxburghe, who died in 2014 aged 99, lived at West Horsley Place, the Surrey house her father had bought in 1931. She bequeathed all the books to Trinity, while the house and its other contents were left to her great-nephew, the broadcaster Bamber Gascoigne.

Dr Bell said:

‘Richard Monckton Milnes was a fastidious collector of unusual books. As well as major works of English and French literature, his library included transcripts of notorious trials for murder, forgery and witchcraft, rare political pamphlets on the French Revolution and the American Civil War, and several shelves of unpublished literary manuscripts.’

Richard Monckton Milnes, by George Richmond, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Richard Monckton Milnes, by George Richmond, © National Portrait Gallery, London

Many of the books were presented by their authors to Monckton Milnes, later Lord Houghton, who was a leading Liberal in Victorian politics as well as a writer and poet. Dr Bell said:

‘While a student at Trinity, Richard Monckton Milnes was a friend of Tennyson, Arthur Hallam and Thackeray. In London he got to know Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Trollope, and later Henry James, Oscar Wilde and the great travel writer Richard Burton. Hitherto unknown letters from such famous authors are of particular interest.

He was a charismatic and clever man, supporting his literary friends and campaigning on various progressive causes, from universal education and women’s suffrage, to the abolition of the death penalty.’

Half the books in the Crewe Collection are French, showing Milnes’ particular interest in the French Revolution. Dr Bell said:

‘In 1848 Monckton Milnes travelled to Paris to witness the revolutionary fervour at first hand, where he collected little pamphlets, song sheets and other printed propaganda This material is extremely rare – some seems to be unknown in any library catalogue in the world.’

When Dr Bell and Trinity’s Sub-Librarian Sandy Paul visited West Horsley Place they were amazed by what they found.

Dr Nicolas Bell with the Duchess' blue suitcase
Dr Nicolas Bell with the Duchess’ blue suitcase

‘There were books everywhere, shelved to the ceiling in most rooms and in piles on the floor. We had a final look around before leaving the house and in a cupboard in the Duchess’s bedroom we found an old blue suitcase.’

Dr Bell realised that this was what the Duchess had referred to as ‘the holy of holies’.

‘Opening the suitcase was an exciting moment: it contained some exceptionally rare first editions of Shelley’s poems, books inscribed by William Beckford and Oscar Wilde, a pristine first edition of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’, and some bizarre curiosities such as a fragment of Voltaire’s dressing gown.’

West Horsley Place
West Horsley Place

Dr Bell said it had been ‘quite a complicated logistical exercise’ moving 7,500 books from Surrey to Trinity and a ‘huge effort by staff sorting, classifying, cleaning and conserving the books.’

The first few hundred volumes have been added to the Library’s online catalogue and all the books in the Crewe Collection are available for consultation by researchers by appointment. A display of selected treasures from the collection is on view in the Wren Library during public opening hours, and a first selection of books have been added to the Wren Digital Library, where they may be browsed in full online.

Some of the books in the Crewe Collection in the Wren Library
Some of the books in the Crewe Collection in the Wren Library

Bamber Gascoigne welcomed the Crewe Collection’s move to Trinity.

‘It is a delight for me, and would be for my aunt who left her library to Trinity, that the books from now on have a secure and lasting home as the Crewe collection. And it is thrilling that the team at the Wren Library are discovering so many treasures and rarities unknown to anyone since the death of her father in 1945, and that they will from now on be available to everyone.’

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