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.

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Ælfric and Ælfric Bata, Grammatical Texts, Manuscript 154

Ælfric and St John’s College

At St John’s College special collections and manuscripts are the treasures of the Library. These are often invaluable for research purposes and, in some cases, are unique volumes.  Such irreplaceable objects require equally distinctive care and treatment, and St John’s is a member of the Oxford Conservation Consortium which provides excellent conservation possibilities for its texts.

Recently this has been significant for one of the college’s greater treasures: manuscript 154, a broadly contemporary copy of grammatical works by Ælfric of Eynsham (ca. 955-ca. 1010) and his namesake, Ælfric Bata, who would also appear to have been his pupil. Written in England during the very early 11th century, this is the only book amongst the Library’s collections which is fully Anglo-Saxon, and has received praise from Professor Ralph Hanna, Oxford’s Emeritus Professor of Paleography, for representing ‘a virtually unique insight into late Anglo-Saxon schooling’. Continue reading

Jane and George Austen, Letters (MS 279)

This collection of six letters, either written by or relating to the novelist Jane Austen, is one of the most interesting items held in St John’s College Library. George Austen, Jane’s father (and the writer of one of the letters), and her brothers James and Henry all studied at and became Fellows of St John’s, giving the family a connection to the College.

The letters are mounted in a guard book and consist of one letter written by George Austen, followed by five written by Jane herself to her niece Anna Austen (later Anna Lefroy). The letters remained in the Lefroy family; the latter were donated to the College by Mary Isabella Lefroy (Anna’s granddaughter) in 1939, and the former by Miss L. L. Lefroy the following year.

George Austen Letter

Letter from George Austen to Thomas Cadell, 1st November 1797 (MS 279) (Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John’s College, Oxford)

George Austen’s letter is dated the 1st November 1797, and addressed from the family home in Steventon, Hampshire, where he was rector. It was sent to the publisher Thomas Cadell, (presumably Thomas Cadell the younger), owner of a successful and respected London publishing firm established by his father. George offers Cadell the manuscript of First Impressions, which would eventually become Pride and Prejudice – today perhaps Jane’s best-known and most-loved work. In the letter, frequently cited by Austen scholars, George describes the book as ‘about the same length as Miss Burney’s Evelina’, referring to a hugely popular novel of 1776, which is generally considered to have had some influence on Jane’s work. His efforts were unsuccessful however; a note on the top of the letter states that the manuscript was ‘declined by return of post’. This very blunt rejection marked the start of Jane’s struggle to get her works published, something that she would only achieve fourteen years later with Sense and Sensibility.

Jane Austen Letter

Letter from Jane Austen to Anna Austen, 1814 (MS 279) (Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John’s College, Oxford)

Jane’s letters, by contrast, are of a personal rather than commercial nature. Written in 1814, they also give a different perspective on her career; by that time she was a published author, albeit an anonymous one. Sense and Sensibility, as noted above, had been published in 1811, Pride and Prejudice in 1813 and Mansfield Park earlier in 1814. They had all been commercial successes, and had given Jane experience of dealing with publishers. With this in mind it is perhaps unsurprising that the content of the letters, written to Anna Austen (later Anna Lefroy), concerns the recipient’s own attempts at writing a novel. Jane provides criticism, advice and encouragement regarding her niece’s efforts, as well as discussing more general domestic and familial news. Most are sent from the Hampshire village of Chawton, part of Jane’s brother Edward’s estate, where she lived from 1809 with her mother and sister Cassandra and which marked one of the most productive stages of her career. The letters therefore give a sense of Jane’s confidence in her authorial identity; her status as a writer becomes an inherent part of her general correspondence with her niece. In short, the letters provide insights both into Jane’s career as a writer and the ways in which members of her family engaged with it.


Butler, Marilyn, ‘Austen, Jane (1775 – 1817)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2010 [, accessed 24 June 2014]

Dille, Catherine, ‘Cadell, Thomas, the elder (1742 – 1802)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 24 June 2014]


‘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.