During the last eighteen months of our HLF-supported project based around the rare book collection of former King’s Provost George Thackeray we have enjoyed sharing gems from the collection with the public through this blog, a variety of exhibitions in King’s Library, some public talks, and more recently through our Thackeray project digital library. As we enter the final six months of the project it seems appropriate to pause for a moment and think about who Thackeray was, why he collected books, and perhaps give some thought to Thackeray the man as opposed to Thackeray the book collector.
Born in 1777 in Windsor, to parents Frederick and Elizabeth, Thackeray was admitted to Eton as a King’s Scholar in 1792 before proceeding to King’s College in 1797. He became a fellow of King’s in 1800, and received the BA in 1802, the MA in 1805 and the BD in 1813. He had returned to Eton in 1801 as Assistant Master and had married a Miss Carbonell in 1803. Tragically she died young (possibly in 1810), and it seems to be peculiarly difficult to find any more about her. In 1814 Thackeray was elected Provost at King’s and in the same year the degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred on him, by royal mandate. He remained Provost until 1850, overseeing major building works in the College including the building of the current College Library which was completed in 1828.
Things seemed to be looking up for the newly elected Provost of King’s. He married again in 1816, his bride being Mary Ann Cottin. However, tragedy was looming only two short years away. On 13th February 1818 when in labour with their first child, the accoucher (someone who looks after ladies in their confinement) in attendance, Sir Richard Croft, showed great agitation and exhaustion in their house in Wimpole Street. Thackeray found Croft dead at 2am in a bedroom in the house, the latter having shot himself in the head with two pistols which belonged to Thackeray. Apparently Thackeray had kept the pistols in the house for protection against a spate of house robberies that had been taking place in the area. Former King’s Librarian Tim Munby conjectured that Mary Ann’s labour might have shown similarities to the labour of Princess Charlotte who had died in childbirth in the previous year. She was also attended by Sir Richard Croft. Mary Ann gave birth to a daughter, Mary Ann Elizabeth, on 13th February, exactly two hundred years ago today. It appears from a note in Thackeray’s hand in his Bible (now in King’s Library) that she was not expected to survive, so was hurriedly baptised five days later on the 18th, on which day her mother died:
Today we are on the eve of the start of Lent, a period often associated with self sacrifice and suffering, so it seems appropriate to pause to think of Thackeray’s early personal tragedy. Thackeray’s obituarist wrote that ‘this sad event threw an air of gloom and desolation about his house from which it never altogether recovered’. He goes on to say that whilst this early tragedy appears not to have prevented him from assiduously undertaking his college and university duties, or being a valued member of such society as he mingled in, ‘it threw him, for his general companionship, upon Erasmus and Propertius, black-letter Bibles, and odd books generally—for there was not a vendor of literary curiosities in London who had not some reason for knowing the Provost of King’s’.
Book collecting and ornithology were two of Thackeray’s passions, and his collection includes a large number of natural history books in fine bindings, alongside the English literature, black-letter divinity books and Bibles. Whether the book collecting really was an anodyne for Thackeray (as Munby suggests) or whether he would have been an equally devout bibliophile had his early tragedies not happened we will never know. When he died in 1850 he left his black-letter books to King’s in his will (some 165 volumes). His daughter, Mary Ann Elizabeth, did live into adulthood and left the remainder of her father’s library, amounting to some 3,200 volumes in total, to the College in her will when she died in 1879.
After his death in 1850, in his house in Wimpole Street in London, Thackeray was buried in King’s Chapel. His funeral, by all accounts, was a grand affair. A copy of the ‘Programme of the procession of the funeral of the late George Thackeray’ survives in the College archives and gives an indication of the scale of the occasion.
In May of this year we will be exhibiting a number of the black-letter divinity books in King’s College Chapel. More information will be announced on this blog in due course.