Autograph letters collection: a hidden treasure?

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By | From the Collections

L0022370 Letter from Mary Anning concerning the discovery of the pleisiosaurus (MS.8592)

L0022370 Letter from Mary Anning concerning the discovery of the pleisiosaurus (MS.8592)

Practically all archives held by the Wellcome Library can be viewed, or at least identified, online, with one exception: the autograph letters collection. Chris Hilton’s recent blog post on Simón Bolívar is one of many which have been based around material which was formerly part of this collection.

The autograph letters collection is probably the least known of all our archive collections, as it is both the hardest to find and the least cohesive in terms of subject matter. It is an artificial collection put together gradually over many years, by purchasing relevant material as and when it came to our attention.

As the name of the collection suggests, it mainly consists of items that have been signed by identifiable individuals. Unfortunately, as the emphasis of the collectors was often on acquiring items written by notable names rather than the content, the research quality of the items can be somewhat variable.

The bulk of the material was purchased from auction houses and booksellers during the early decades of the twentieth century, usually one or two items at a time. Occasional larger purchases were made, however, such as in 1945, when the Library purchased a large part of the autograph collection of Thomas Madden Stone, former Librarian of the Royal College of Surgeons (d.1894).

The autograph letters collection is no longer actively added to, and we are working behind the scenes to integrate these items into the catalogue. Material relating to individuals whose surnames begin with the letters M-Z has all been catalogued, and can now be found in the manuscript sequence. We still have some work to do on the letters A-L, although most prominent names and significant material has already been extracted and incorporated into the manuscripts sequence. In the meantime, index cards for all items can be found in the Rare Materials Room.

Selection of items from MS.8488, Rev. Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), clergyman and novelist. Photographed by Natalie Walters.

Selection of items from MS.8488, Rev. Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), clergyman and novelist.

As well as the big names in medicine who appear in this collection, including:

Writers appear frequently, with novelists:

Given his association with Henry Wellcome, it should be no surprise that the autograph letters collection includes material from Sir Henry Morton Stanley (MS.7635), along with his fellow explorer David Livingstone (MS.7329). Researchers will also be unsurprised to find the names of naturalists Charles Darwin (MS.7781) and Alfred Russel Wallace (MS.7798) in the collection.

Perhaps less expected is the notorious murderer Hawley Harvey Crippen, whose work for the Drouet Institute for the Deaf and The Aural Remedies Company (MS.8332) demonstrate his tenuous connection to the medical world. The latter item is of particular interest because it dates from the period between his wife’s disappearance and the discovery of her body at their Hilldrop Crescent home.

MS.8332 Hawley Harvey Crippen (1862-1910)

MS.8332 Hawley Harvey Crippen (1862-1910)

Where the piecemeal nature of acquisition meant there was not enough material by an individual or family to justify assigning a manuscript number, miscellanies have been created, with similar items grouped together. Some example:

  • MS.7404, Miscellany: Polar explorers
  • MS.7227, Bethlehem Hospital miscellany
  • MS.7140, Ceylon: Miscellany, 19th century.

Next time you’re researching an individual or subject, why not try searching our archives catalogue? You may be pleasantly surprised at what you find, even if the same search has drawn a blank in the past.

Author: Natalie Walters, archivist

Natalie Walters

Natalie Walters is Archives Project Manager at the Wellcome Library. She specialises in the management and curation of born-digital records, and has a worrying knowledge of the history of poisoning.

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