New consortium formed to save literary treasures for the nation

18 June 2021
Friends of the National Libraries (FNL) has announced that it is leading a bid to raise £15 million to purchase the Honresfield Library on behalf of the nation.

The FNL has this week launched an appeal and is in discussion with private philanthropists and sources of public funds to raise the purchase price of £15 million for the Honresfield Library, one of the most important private collections of manuscripts and printed books associated with some of the greatest writers in the UK.

The national role of Friends of the National Libraries makes it ideally placed to spearhead the campaign to purchase the Honresfield Library and as such, it has launched an appeal for funds to enable the Library to be preserved and shared across the UK.

FNL, and the participating libraries and museums listed below, have announced they are 'profoundly grateful' to the vendors and their representatives Sotheby’s for deciding to postpone the auction of the first part of the library, originally announced for July 2021, in order to preserve the entire library as a collection to be allocated to libraries around the UK for the benefit of the public.

The Honresfield Library

The Honresfield Library collection has been largely inaccessible for the last 80 years, its contents examined only by a few scholars. It was formed at the end of the 19th century by William Law (1836-1901), a Rochdale mill-owner living at Honresfield, a few miles from Haworth in Yorkshire. The bulk of the Library has remained in family ownership, and it has remained largely intact.

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The Honresfield collection includes:

  • the complete working manuscript of Sir Walter Scott’s iconic novel Rob Roy
  • part of the autograph manuscript of Scott’s verse romance, The Lay of the Last Minstrel
  • a copy of Border Antiquities with extensive manuscript revisions
  • an 'exceptional' group of Scott first editions in their original condition. 

Other Scottish material of huge importance is an early volume of poems by Robert Burns in his own hand - containing some of his earliest recorded literary works - known as the ‘First Commonplace Book’, as well as individual autograph poems (‘Cessnock Banks’ and the ‘Brigs of Ayr’), and a group of the poet’s earliest correspondence, including the only extant letter to his father.

According to the FNL, a private library of English literature of such significance has not been placed on the open market for many decades, or is ever likely to appear again.

The institutions involved in the bid to save the library for the nation are:

  • Abbotsford: The Home of Walter Scott, Melrose, Scotland
  • The Bodleian Libraries, Oxford
  • The British Library, London and Yorkshire
  • The National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
  • The Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, Yorkshire
  • Jane Austen’s House, Chawton, Hampshire
  • The Brotherton Library, University of Leeds
  • The National Trust for Scotland: The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway

 Once in a generation opportunity

John Scally, Trustee of the FNL and National Librarian and Chief Executive of the National Library of Scotland, said: ''Once in a generation, a collection of books and manuscripts appears from almost nowhere that is met with a mixture of awe and stunned silence, followed by concerted action to bring it into public ownership. The UK-wide consortium is determined to raise the funds to ensure we can save the Honresfield Library for everyone to share and enjoy."