Cataloguing A.E. Housman’s Personal Papers

A full and digitised description of the Housman papers at St John’s is in the works. Connie Bettison, St John’s library trainee from 2016-17, writes about her experience beginning the digital cataloguing process.

A.E. Housman

A.E. Housman (1859-1936) is best known today for his poetry but in his own time he was highly regarded as a classical scholar. His entrance into this world was a mixture of leaps and bounds and slow-burning effort. He matriculated as a student of Greats at St John’s in 1877 and achieved a first in Mods. Despite this, he failed his final exams. Returning to college in the years that followed while working as a clerk for the Patent Office in London, he eventually passed his exams and graduated in 1892.

After these twelve years of administration work at the Patent Office and independent study of Greek and Latin, Housman got a job as Professor of Latin at University College London. Housman taught there for nineteen years. Then, in 1911 he moved on to take a Latin professorship at Trinity College Cambridge. This was where he lived and worked until the end of his life in 1936.

Continue reading


“excuse the scrawl”: literary letters from St. John’s special collections

Alongside collections of manuscripts and early printed books, St. John’s College’s Special Collections include personal papers of a number of well-known literary figures: Robert Graves, A.E. Housman, Jane Austen, Philip Larkin, Spike Milligan and Professor J.B. Leishman. Included in these papers is a great deal of correspondence, occasionally between other literary figures, or concerning literary topics.

The library’s current exhibition (Trinity Term – Summer Vacation 2017) displays the letters of twenty-two of these correspondents. All members of St. John’s College are welcome to attend the exhibition and to bring their guests. Non-members should contact the Librarian ( to arrange a viewing appointment.

Literary Societies

1) W.B. Yeats to Charlotte Shaw, 22nd September 1932

W.B. Yeats writes to Charlotte Shaw in 1932

While certain literary groupings such as the “war poets” and the Movement of the 1950s were never formally endorsed by its supposed members, the Irish Academy of Letters, discussed in this letter from W.B. Yeats to Charlotte Shaw, was different altogether. The Academy sought to organise Irish writers chiefly in order to counter censorship. By September 1932, when this letter was sent, James Joyce had refused an invitation to join the Academy, while authors such as Padraic Colum and James Stephens, the novelist Edith Somerville, the short story writer Frank O’Connor, and the dramatist Lennox Robinson, had all become members.

Continue reading

‘The Field of Human Conflict’: War Exhibition 2014


The Library at St John’s College houses extensive Special Collections, which date back to the 9th century and include some 400 manuscripts, 20,000 early printed books and significant collections of modern literary papers. In order to give College members the chance to learn more about these, we organise exhibitions displaying a number of items of interest twice a year. Each exhibition is based around a particular theme, with recent topics including a Classical A to Z and the Seven Deadly Sins. The current exhibition, set up before Easter and open until September, covers representations of war and warfare throughout history. With 2014 marking of the centenary of WWI, the issues and debates surrounding war as a concept have gained a new prominence in the media, and the exhibition engages with the impact of conflict on the public consciousness.

To tie in with the centenary, a range of items relating to World War I are displayed as part of the exhibition. These include artwork by Muirhead Bone, the first official war artist (some of whose pictures feature on the exhibition poster and handlist), letters to St John’s alumnus Robert Graves from his former comrades in WWI, and an illustrated first edition of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, given by the author to his mother and brother. The exhibition as a whole, however, offers a broader perspective of the experience of war, covering responses to ‘human conflict’ from the 14th to the 20th century.

Woodcut illustration from Vegetius, De Re Militari (text c. 400) (This edition printed Paris: Christian Wechel, 1553) (Delta.3.1(1))

Woodcut illustration from Vegetius, De Re Militari (text c. 400) (This edition printed Paris: Christian Wechel, 1553) (Delta.3.1(1)) (Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John’s College, Oxford)

The oldest item exhibited is a 14th century Egyptian  manuscript about military devices, by a renowned Mamluk officer of the guard, who wrote pretending to be Alexander the Great. From here the exhibition moves onto other texts covering weaponry and sieges: a 17th century printing of Vegetius’ De Rei Militari, a 1633 copy of Pacata Hibernia by Sir Thomas Stafford (recounting the Flight of the Earls in 17th century Ireland) and a decorative manuscript of an Old French poem describing the 1300 siege of Caelavarock Castle in Scotland by Edward I.

Illustration from The Siege of Caelavarock, an Old French poem copied by R. Glover in 1587 (MS 174) (Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John’s College, Oxford)

Early printed books featuring works by such diverse figures as Niccolo Machiavelli and King James I are followed by documents related to the English Civil War, collected by the 18th century antiquary John Pointer. The 19th and early 20th centuries are represented by the imperialism of Rudyard Kipling and a magazine competition asking readers to bet on battles in the Mahdist War, contrasted with the more sombre tone of A. E. Housman’s poetry. After the WWI items, the exhibition ends with some further Graves correspondence, in this case related to WWII, along with books by Gertrude Stein (one of which belonged to Graves with an enclosed letter from Stein) and original drawings and papers related to Spike Milligan’s War Memoirs.

Illustrations of the mottoes of the 'Parliament Officers' in the English Civil War, from John  Pointer, Musæum Pointerianum, MS 253

Illustrations of the mottoes of the ‘Parliament Officers’ in the English Civil War, from John Pointer, Musæum Pointerianum (MS 253) (Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John’s College, Oxford)

We hope that the exhibition provides an interesting and informative insight into its subject, whilst also making people aware of the wider nature of the Special Collections held in St John’s College Library. We’ll be updating this blog every month, so look out for other posts about individual Special Collections items coming soon.