History of Sion College Library, part I

Thomas White, Vicar of St. Dunstan in the West, left provisions in his will for the founding of Sion College and an almshouse in 1624.  As his executors, Thomas Wood and John Simson, were standing in the newly built attic of the almshouse Wood made the remark that it would be suitable for a library.  Simson seized on the idea and ‘fownded the library at his owne proper cost’.  Meaning, he paid for the room to be fitted with desks and shelves, but not books as he preferred to keep his books for his own use while he was still alive.  However, he used his influence as Rector of St. Olave’s Hart Street to secure donations from wealthy parishioners and by 1650 Sion produced the second printing of the library catalogue.

Old Sion Library (Guildhall MS 33554)
Old Sion Library (Guildhall MS 33554)

Despite the move of many books to Charterhouse, 1/3 of the collection was lost in the Great Fire of London.  This was not as tragic as it could have been; Sion exploited the disaster and turned it into a valuable PR opportunity.  The successful appeal for funds was able to first rebuild the College, then fit out the library and finally replace the books.  Additionally, many of Sion’s early benefactors were remembering the College in their wills.  Some of the larger bequests include 1,100 volumes from Thomas Lawson M.D. in 1705 and 3,000 volumes from Thomas James in 1711.  Edward Waple, a clergyman with a fine taste in books, left another 3,000 books, many of which are still amongst the most valuable items in the collection.

The 1710 Copyright Act further helped to fill the shelves of Sion College Library.  Although the books were free, they arrived in sheet form and the binding had to be paid for by the library.  In 1724, William Reading, Sion’s librarian, complained that while their income was a healthy £118/2/8d, their outgoings were £126/12/2d, a portent of things to come.  With the founding of the British Museum Library in 1754 and redrafting of the copyright law in 1836 Sion College lost its legal deposit right.  Nevertheless, Sion was accorded annual compensation of £363/3/2d which was considered the value of the books (less the cost of binding).  Also in 1836, the Charity Commission investigated the finances of Sion.  The investigators found that the bequest of Thomas White was used for the almspeople, but that surplus money from investments was being spent on books.  This led to the demand that the almshouse and College be made into separate entities.  In 1845 the College was so short of ready cash that the property was mortgaged and fellows were charged membership fees for the first time in order to pay the new librarian’s salary.

In 1849 disquieting rumours reached College Court and an unannounced inspection was called.  It was found that the new librarian, Henry Christmas, although a respected scholar and man of the cloth, was collecting his generous salary while delegating all the work of the library, including book selection with little or no oversight to adolescent boys.  Rather than purchasing scholarly religious tomes, the boys were spending at least 30% of the library’s income on ‘penny dreadfuls’.  The library was filthy, it was impossible to find books except by accident, and most users did not even know that a librarian existed.  Christmas was promptly sacked.

The next librarian, W.H. Milman was appointed in 1856 and was able to change the Library’s situation for the better.  A professor and skilled librarian, he used the library’s funds to purchase early and rare printed material of the highest calibre.  The housing of the almshouse and library within the same building became less favourable and a new site was found on the recently created Victoria Embankment.  By the time Milman died in 1908, the College had repaid all its debts and by 1913, commissioned a history which proudly announced that the College no longer suffered from financial struggles.

Compiled by Anna James, Edited by Talitha Wachtelborn

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