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Classics in the blood

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) professed to have ‘the smallest library of any literary man in London’, and section V of the Butler Collection (books formerly the property of Samuel Butler) bears this out, amounting to little above 70 volumes. Works by or about Charles Darwin account for one tenth of the collection – as do works of Christian theology. Add several works of general science, a handful of histories and biographies, and a peppering of literature (namely Shakespeare), art and music, and two-thirds of Butler’s little library is accounted for.

Yet Butler was a Classicist – by training (at Shrewsbury and St John’s) and, it seems, by birth. His father, the Rev. Thomas Butler (B.A. 1829), and grandfather, Dr Samuel Butler (B.A. 1796), both excelled at Classics at St John’s. Dr Butler (later Bishop of Lichfield) was the revered Head Master and Classicist at Shrewsbury during Charles Darwin’s time as a pupil (Darwin and Thomas Butler were contemporaries). It’s not surprising, then, that the remaining portion of Samuel Butler’s book collection consists of Classical texts, and that some of these had originally belonged to and been annotated by his grandfather.


The volume shown above (BV P11) is the only one clearly inscribed by Dr Butler, though quite a few others are heavily annotated by him. A few also bear the markings of other Butlers. Take this one (BV P9):

The annotations are Dr Butler’s, but the ‘S.B.’ of the pencil note is his grandson Samuel – whose comment shows, rather endearingly, that he had read his grandfather’s annotations in detail before he presented the volume to the “family College” in 1889. Presumably in doing so Butler formed the good opinion of his grandfather’s character that he went on to promote in his two-volume The Life and Letters of Dr Samuel Butler (1896).

One volume in the collection introduces another Butler:

The pencil inscription here reads ‘T. Butler March 15 1823’ and was presumably made by Samuel Butler’s father, Thomas, who at that time was in his final year at Shrewsbury. It is tempting on this basis to attribute other pencil annotations to Thomas Butler, given that his father was disposed to annotate in ink – but handwriting styles, like academic talents, can be inherited, and it is difficult to say for sure who authored certain of the notes in these books. Assuming the marginal doodle in the middle of this volume was the work of either Dr Butler or Thomas, though, we can at least say with confidence that in draughtsmanship the younger Samuel Butler surpassed his forebears.

To find out more about the Samuel Butler Collection click here.


This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 21 June 2013 by Rebecca Watts, Butler Project Associate.