A Return to the Records of the Bristol Library Society

Exterior of the Old Library, Bristol, Home of the Bristol Library Society, 1774-1855, in Bristol: Past and Present (Bristol, 1882), III, p.126.

In September of last year, I made my first research trip to Bristol where over the course of two weeks I photographed the records of one of the libraries my doctoral project examines, the Bristol Library Society (1772-1894). I discussed the fruits of that search in a previous blog post. I was fortunate to return again to Bristol this year, in March, to access further library records and search for others which relate to the library’s users or Bristol’s urban culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries held at Bristol Central Library, Bristol Archives and the University of Bristol Special Collections. At each repository, staff were extraordinarily helpful, generous with their time and the sharing of their knowledge. I would like to put on record my thanks to them again.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), by Peter Vandyke, c.1795. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

As before, a large portion of my time was spent dealing directly with the surviving records of the Bristol Library Society, a subscription library and Bristol’s foremost literary institution for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Even having photographed the library’s borrowing records from 1801 to 1832 and its committee and general minute books on my previous visit, there was still an extraordinary amount of material to access. Perhaps the most useful of these, for the purpose of tracking an individual’s connection to the library, is the subscription book, in which members signed their names and thereby promised to abide by the rules of the library.[1] This book recorded signatures for almost the library’s entire existence, some ninety-nine years between 1773 and 1872, with the method of doing so changing somewhat over this period. It begins as a simple, and rather haphazard, list of names, arranged into two columns, with signatures often repeated, perhaps as members resubscribed each year or as library shares were transferred. These signatures read as a list of eighteenth-century Bristol’s civic, economic and cultural elite. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s signature appears at least twice, Joseph Cottle (his printer) appears at least three times; also present are Thomas Beddoes, Amos Cottle, Humphry Davy, Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Robert Southey. From 1806, a change to the society’s rules following an extraordinary general meeting led to a restructuring in the manner in which signatures were recorded. New members now signed their name once and the subscription book recorded the means through which they acquired a share in the library, whether by purchasing a new one or by transfer from an existing member. It is therefore a valuable resource, not only for marking when an individual first became a member of the Society but also for revealing links and networks between Bristol citizens as shares in the library were transferred.

Joseph Cottle (1770-1853), by Robert Hancock, c.1800. © National Portrait Gallery, London.








Other surviving records for the Bristol Library include a donations book, two ‘Books Engaged’ registers, which allowed members to reserve withdrawn books, and two proposal books, in which members were able to request new books for the library to purchase.[2] With this latter resource, it is possible to discover which books were requested by members but not purchased by the library committee, revealing an interesting point of contention in the library apparatus between the members and the managers.

The Bristol Library Society’s surviving documentation is diverse, and unique for a British subscription library, but there is no reason to think that similar documents did not exist at other libraries. In most cases these survive only as tattered fragments or of whispers and references in other documents. At the Leighton Library, only heavily watermarked fragments of a cash book for the 1810s and an additional borrowing register for the 1810s and 1820s survive to tell of their existence, whilst reference to a receipts book and a borrowing register held only for the trustees speak to additional library records that may have been stored in the library but are now lost.

I spent my additional time in Bristol tracking down the personal records of library members, searching their correspondence and notes for any reference to the library society or to books and reading in general. This is a very different kind of research to the mass photography of pages and pages of library records and involved the skim reading of reams and reams of letters for a keyword which would justify a photograph and further study at a later point. As many will be all too aware, this type of research is akin to searching for a needle in a haystack but can often lead to fruitful and unexpected outcomes.

I have written in a previous blog post about the Scottish dimension at the Bristol Library, notably the popularity of Scottish authors in the borrowings, but Bristol was also home to Scots who had travelled abroad to partake within the city’s expansive Atlantic trade. Foremost among these was the Baillie family of Inverness, of which the head of the Bristol branch was Evan Baillie (1741-1835). Having moved to Bristol in the late 1770s, Baillie made use of familial and mercantile connections in the Scottish Highlands and the Caribbean to expand his family business, trading first in enslaved people and later sugar.[3] He forged marital and economic ties with some of Bristol’s oldest slave trading dynasties including the Brights, Pinneys and Tobins, all of whom were library members. Civic prestige followed: Baillie was elected to Bristol’s Common Council in 1785, made a city alderman in 1802 and served as MP for Bristol between 1802 and 1812.[4] In the same year in which he was first elected to Parliament, Baillie paid £21 to the Bristol Library Society and received membership for life.[5] This was a fairly common step for prospective and successful parliamentary candidates, with the Bristol Library regularly receiving patronage from both of Bristol’s parliamentary representatives. Yet unlike others, Baillie was an active borrower from the Bristol Library and remained so even after the end of his parliamentary tenure in 1812.

Inverness from the west, by Robert Sands, after Thomas Allom, c.1830-40. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Principally resident in Bristol, Baillie was, of course, some distance from his own collection of books held at the family estate of Dochfour, Inverness. We do not have a catalogue for the Dochfour library, but an inventory for the house in 1789 gives the value of books and prints in it at £810, in addition to listing a telescope, microscopes, ‘camera obscura’, ‘magick lanthern’ and maps.[6] Baillie’s collection of books may have seen some circulation beyond his immediate family, in a manner similar to that which the Urquhart lairds of Craigston Castle lent out their personal collection of books.[7] Indeed, writing to his eldest son, Peter (1771-1811), in 1806, then managing the estate at Dochfour, Baillie hoped that ‘on Rainey days I wish the Ladies would amuse themselves by comparing the Inventories with the Books actually in the House, for I much suspect a deficiency in the number, as the Family was in the Habit of lending out many Books to their neighbours’.[8] Baillie’s membership in the Bristol Library served both a literary and social purpose, providing him with access to a broad array of books when he was unable to access his own collection and offering a further space to connect with Bristol’s civic and mercantile elite. Both of Baillie’s two eldest sons were also library members. Indeed, his eldest, Peter, served on the library committee between 1799 and 1811, with his diary from 1803 detailing how he interspersed library meetings with dinners and business between Bristol’s merchant houses.[9] For both Baillies, it is clear that the civic and sociable dimension of subscription library membership was as important to them, as the opportunity to borrow books.

[1] Bristol Central Library, B7530, Subscription Book, 1773-1872.

[2] Bristol Central Library, B26785, Library MSS, Maps, Periodicals acquisitions and donations; B26782, Books Engaged, 1816-27; B26783, Books Engaged, 1858-; B26780, Proposal Book, 1816-30; B26781, Proposal Book, 1830-45.

[3] Douglas J. Hamilton, Scotland, the Caribbean and the Atlantic World, 1750-1820 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), pp.88-101.

[4] David R. Fisher, ‘Baillie, Evan (?1741-1835), The History of Parliament, http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1790-1820/member/baillie-evan-1741-1835 (Accessed 14/08/22).

[5] Bristol Archives, 32079/155, Minute book of committee, 1789-1807, p.266.

[6] University of Bristol Special Collections, DM58 Pinney Papers, Red Boxes, Box 31, notebook recording sundries, work done to and furniture at Dochfour.

[7] See also Mark Towsey, ‘The Talent Hid in a Napkin: Castle Libraries in Eighteenth-Century Scotland’, in Katie Halsey and W. R. Owens, eds., The History of Reading: Evidence from the British Isles c.1750-1950 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp.15-31.

[8] University of Bristol Special Collections, DM58 Pinney Papers, Red Boxes, Box 30, Evan Baillie to Peter Baillie, 16 July 1806.

[9] University of Bristol Special Collections, DM58 Pinney Papers, Red Boxes, Box 33, notebook of Peter Baillie, 1803.