Senate House Library

The Collection

Subject: English literature

This collection comprises over 7,000 volumes of first and fine editions of English literature: poetry, prose, and drama. It is divided into five main sections:

  1. Authors before 1900
  2. Twentieth-century literature
  3. Private press books
  4. Illustrated and extra-illustrated works
  5. Manuscripts

The collection covers most high spots of English literature, from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1492 edition) onwards. Some special highlights include two books printed by William Caxton; the first edition of Martin Luther’s New Testament (September 1522; one of very few items not in English); a set of the first four Shakespeare folios; three early Shakespeare quartos; a presentation copy of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé to Aubrey Beardsley; E. B. Browning’s Aurora Leigh, annotated acidly by Thomas Carlyle; and the original parts of three Dickens novels, alongside original parts of novels by some of Dickens’s contemporaries. Particular author strengths include Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Thackeray, W.B. Yeats, and Tennyson. Twentieth-century books retain their dust wrappers.

Private presses represented begin with Horace Walpole’s press at Strawberry Hill and peak with the entire Kelmscott Press output. Most English presses from the heyday of the Private Press movement are represented: the Ashendene, Essex House and Golden Cockerel Presses and, in Dublin, the Cuala Press, especially well. Productions by Rudolph Ackermann and George Cruikshank stand out among the illustrated books, followed by Walter Crane and Rockwell Kent.

Most manuscripts are literary; some are letters. The earliest are two manuscripts from about 1400 of William Langland’s Piers Plowman. Many are from the twentieth century: Rhys Davies, H. E. Bates, Compton Mackenzie, and letters to Charles Lahr among others. Highlights in between include letters by John Ruskin, Robert Burns and Robert Southey and literary manuscripts by Byron, Tennyson, and Swinburne.

The EMI record company director and bibliophile Sir Louis Sterling (1879-1958; see ODNB) donated the nucleus of the collection (ca 4,200 items) in 1954, with an endowment to purchase additional material for the collection. The most notable such purchases were a complete set of books published by Dublin’s Dolmen Press (1994), which was founded to publish Irish poetry, and the so-called ‘Ilchester manuscript’ of Piers Plowman. Bequests and donations have enabled further growth. These include presentation copies and first editions of the works of Sean O’Casey and of John Masefield, given by Masefield’s widow, Eileen (1966) and O’Casey’s sister, Mrs Stockdale-Ross (1987), and a full set of specially bound books from the Gregynog Press, a private press in Wales, given by Sir David Hughes Parry (1966).

 Sterling supplemented his literary collection with a small clutch of Napoleoneana and the first editions of such ground-breaking non-literary works as Newton’s Principia and Opticks and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

    Access

    For an overview of the library in classified order, do a mixed classmark search on [S.L.]. An author search on “Sterling, Louis” as former owner will isolate items owned by him.

    Digital versions of most books printed before 1801 (not of our copies) are available via Early English Books Online and Eighteenth Century Collections Online. You can find digital versions of our copies of the following on Bloomsbury Medieval Culture: a Piers Plowman manuscript (SL.V.17), The Canterbury Tales ([1492]) and The Cronicles of Englond (1480). These are all subscription databases.

    Related materials

    Further reading

    • Byron, George Gordon, Lord Byron: ‘Don Juan’ Cantos X, XI, XII and XVII Manuscript: A Facsimile of the Original Draft Manuscripts in the University of London Library, ed. by Andrew Nicholson (New York and London: Garland, 1993)
    • Carlyle, Thomas, and Jane Welsh Carlyle, The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, vol. 32: October 1856-July 1857, ed. by Ian Campbell et al. (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2004)
    • Martland, Peter, Since Records Began: EMI, the First 100 Years (London: Batsford, 1997; for Sterling himself)
    • Mosser, D. W., ‘The Manuscript Glosses of the Canterbury Tales and the University of London’s coy of Pynson’s [1492] Edition’, Chaucer Review, 41 (2007), 360-92.
    • Piper, David, ‘The Chesterfield Library Portraits’, in: Evidence in Literary Scholarship: Essays in Memory of James Marshall Osborn, ed. by René Wellek and Alvaro Ribeiro (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), pp. 179-95
    • Private Libraries: Sir Louis Sterling’, Times Literary Supplement, 4 Feb. 1939
    • The Sterling Library: A Catalogue of the Printed Books and Literary Manuscripts Collected by Sir Louis Sterling and Presented by him to the University of London ([England]: privately printed, 1954)
    • Walworth, Julia, ‘Sir Louis Sterling and his Library’, Jewish Historical Studies, 40 (2005), 159-75
    • Entries 2, 7, 32, 39, 43 and 46 in Senate House Library, University of London, ed. by Christopher Pressler and Karen Attar (London: Scala, 2012)