Library acquires major bluestocking archive

The John Rylands University Library at The University of Manchester has rescued for the nation the papers of Mary Hamilton (1756-1816), courtier, diarist and bluestocking.

This nationally important archive offers wonderful insights into royal, aristocratic and literary circles during the reign of George III. Saved from being exported, the archive now resides in the splendid surroundings of the newly restored John Rylands Library, Deansgate, Manchester.

Mary Hamilton held a post in the household of George III's daughters. She was regarded with great affection by the princesses and her fellow courtiers and for several months she had to negotiate the tricky business of the adolescent Prince of Wales's infatuation with her. Her wide circle of friends included some of the leading literary and intellectual women of her day - Elizabeth Carter, Elizabeth Montague, Hannah More and Fanny Burney - the so-called bluestockings, as well as Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Horace Walpole and Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The archive provides a remarkably complete picture of the daily life of the royal household and of the cultural elite of the period. There are 1,200 pages of intimate diaries, 3,000 pages of letters sent to Mary Hamilton by her relatives and friends, and six manuscript volumes containing copies of verses, letters, sermons and other prose pieces. The diaries crackle with the highly charged atmosphere of the literary circles in which Hamilton moved. The papers are largely unpublished and offer vast scope for research in many fields.

When an American library successfully bid for the archive at auction in July 2006, it seemed inevitable that the papers would go abroad. However, Culture Minister David Lammy placed a temporary export embargo on the archive, giving institutions a last chance to raise the money to keep the archive in the United Kingdom. After frantic fund-raising efforts, the John Rylands University Library has now secured the purchase of the archive and researchers have already booked to consult the collection.

Bill Simpson, University Librarian and Director of the John Rylands Library, said: "The export of important literary archives, such as the papers of Mary Hamilton, impoverishes the nation's heritage. When the Culture Secretary halted the export of the Mary Hamilton archive, we gladly accepted the challenge of raising the funds to purchase it. We are grateful to our funders, without whose support this major acquisition would not have been possible."

The purchase of the archive has been made possible by generous grants from the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Pilgrim Trust, the Friends of the National Libraries, the Society of Dilettanti Charitable Trust, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and the Friends of the John Rylands.

For further information please contact:

Dawn Yates, Head of Visitor Services, The John Rylands University Library, tel. 0161-275 8749, email dawn.yates@manchester.ac.uk


1.  The John Rylands University Library is part of The University of Manchester. Its Special Collections are housed in the historic, Grade 1-listed John Rylands Library, on Deansgate in the heart of Manchester, which has just reopened after a major three-year restoration and development project. It is open to the public free of charge.

2. Culture Secretary, David Lammy, imposed a temporary export bar in November 2006. He acted on the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, run by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA). The Committee recommended that the export decision be deferred on the grounds that the archive is of outstanding significance for the study of the social and cultural history of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

3.  Mary Hamilton's archive contains a large amount of important and as yet unstudied material about all three aspects of her activity. It consists of over a thousand pages of vivid, detailed and closely written dairies, 28 substantial files of incoming letters (some 3000 pages in all) and six further volumes, including commonplace books.

4.  The bluestockings were an informal grouping of enlightened aristocratic women in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England. They met to discuss intellectual and literary matters. The term was later applied derogatorily to any woman showing a taste for learning. 

5.  The MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund is a government fund, established at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in 1881 as part of its nationwide work. 2006 marked the Fund's 125th anniversary. The annual grants budget, currently £1,000,000, is provided by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA). The Fund supports the acquisition of objects relating to the arts, literature and history by regional museums, record offices and specialist libraries in England and Wales. Each year it considers over 300 applications and in 2005-06 awarded grants to 104 organisations, enabling acquisitions of over nearly £4 million to go ahead.

6.  The National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) is the fund of last resort for the nation's heritage, set up as a living memorial to those who had given their lives in conflict. In recognition of the vital role it plays and to help meet an increasing number of applications, the government doubled its grant to NHMF from £5million to £10million for the coming year. For further information about the NHMF please contact Dervish Mertcan or Alison Scott, tel. 020 7591 6102 / 6032, mobile: 0797 3613 82.