The Library of Victoria, Lady Welby

The Special Collections of Senate House Library (SHL) include many smaller, less well known collections.  The Lady Welby Library is one such, deposited a hundred years ago this year.  It provides a fascinating insight into the interests and methods of this important writer and theorist.

The collection is the personal working library of Victoria, Lady Welby,  a self-taught philosopher who originated the science of significs (closely related to semiology and semiotics) and corresponded with over 400 intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in a range of spheres (Welby’s professional correspondence and papers are held at the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, York University, Toronto).  The Lady Welby Library comprises over 1000 volumes and around 1500 uncatalogued pamphlets and offprints on a range of subjects reflecting Lady Welby’s diverse interests.  It was given to the Library following Welby’s death in 1912 by her son, Sir Charles Welby, who hoped to find a home for the collection where it would be of value to scholars and students.  Many of the collection’s books can still be found at the core of SHL’s most important collections such as psychology and philosophy.  The collection is particularly notable for Welby’s extensive annotations and marginalia. In her introduction to a collection of her mother’s letters Echoes of a larger life (1929), Welby’s daughter,  Nina Cust, wrote of her enthusiasm for study and reading: ‘As the years passed, indeed her


An example of Welby’s copious notes in her copy of The Psychology of eduction by J Welton (1912)

Lady Welby's annotations of The Psuchology of education

On p. 313 of The Psychology of education, Welby expresses the importance of ‘significally trained’ teachers’

craving for knowledge increased in a constant progression, and she quickly became the almost embarrassed possessor of innumerable books, scored from cover to cover with notes that never failed to excite if they sometimes tended to bewilder.’   These extensive notes were also remarked upon in the minutes of the University Senate when the collection was first offered to the University Library (University of London Senate Minutes, 1912, minute 3595).

The annotated books of her library offer a valuable insight into Welby’s methods of study, the development of significs and her response to the work of her contemporaries.  The collection is one of several held at Senate House featuring annotations of former owners, including the recently catalogued collection of books owned by T. Sturge-Moore.  The presence of annotations and marginalia is now recorded the in the notes field of an item’s catalogue record to aid researchers in identifying and using this important source for the history of reading, literary studies, intellectual history and many other disciplines.

Welby's mansucript index of here notes and marginalia in Betrand Russell's The Principles of mathematics (1903).

Welby’s manuscript index of her notes and marginalia in Betrand Russell’s The Principles of mathematics (1903).

Marginalia and notes from The Principles of mathematics

Marginalia and notes from The Principles of mathematics

The Lady Welby Library was dispersed among SHL’s collections, most probably in the move from South Kensington to the current home in Senate House, but recently work has been undertaken to improve access by tracing the current location of titles from the original catalogue of the collection’s books and periodicals.  The catalogue is now available to view online as a PDF.


Marginalia explored

User queries often entail looking closely at an early reader’s annotations. This week Philip de Commynes’s The Historie of Philip de Commines Knight, Lord of Argenton, translated by Thomas Danett (London, 1601) came under the spotlight. Marginal comments in a seventeenth-century hand show an engaged and caustic reader. Next to the claim ‘the realme of England is the country where the common wealth is best gouerned’, which has been underlined, the underliner has written: ‘this may have been true in Commines his day’. Besides the sentence: ‘but he was so wise that no man could faile to please him if he executed his commandements, without adding ought thereto of his owne braine’, also underlined, the same annotator has noted: ‘that example ought to teach servants their dutye’. One feels very close to one’s forbears.