Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Treasures of Guildhall Library – the library of London History

 by Isabelle Chevallot

In the six hundred years since it was first established there have been several incarnations of Guildhall Library. The first library at Guildhall was founded around 1425, under the terms of the will of Richard Whittington ‘a rich and pious merchant’ who served as Lord Mayor of London. In English folklore, Richard or ‘Dick’ Whittington became a legend, reportedly rising from poverty by making his fortune through the sale of his cat to a rat-infested country and for centuries he has been immortalised in pantomime. However, Whittington did not come from a poor background. He made his fortune as a mercer and then from making loans, including to the king, which provided financial profits, together with access to the royal ear and a position of influence.

Richard Whittington pictured with a skull

When Richard Whittington died in March 1423, he left his entire fortune to charity and the City. Some of this money was used to found a library to serve the college of priests at Guildhall. There is no surviving catalogue of the contents of this collection, but it is logical to conclude that it was a library of theological books.

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In his ‘A Survey of London Written in the Year 1598’ pictured above, John Stow describes a "fair and large library, furnished with books, pertaining to the Guildhall and college". He tells us that during the reign of Edward VI (around 1549) the whole collection was 'sent for' by the Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset. The books were loaded on to carts and taken away but were not returned. It is probable that the Duke 'borrowed' the books to furnish Somerset House, his new palace on the Strand.

The Duke of Somerset

Only one book from the original collection has found its way back to Guildhall Library, a 13th century copy of Petrus de Riga's Aurora, a metrical Latin version of the Bible pictured below.

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The Corporation does not appear to have attempted to recover the library from the acquisitive Duke and there was a gap of around 300 years until another library was formed.

Here is one other work which may be a survivor of the original library, a fourteenth century copy of the Chronicles of France pictured below.


We think this may have been held in the original collection because there is a record in the City Archives of a manuscript copy of the Chronicles having been returned to Guildhall in 1516 after having been a ‘long tyme in the keping of’ Robert Fabyan. 

There is no record of Guildhall Library acquiring a copy of the Chronicles, so it is fair to assume that this copy is one and the same. It also seems likely that some marginalia in this volume is in the hand of Robert Fabyan. 

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In 1828 a small library was opened for use initially only by members of the Corporation.  There were only 1700 volumes in the library at this time but as the library grew so did its membership, with tickets being granted to literary men as well as Members.

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This small library increased in size and importance and eventually outgrew its accommodation, and a new building was planned to the East of Guildhall and into Basinghall Street.  The Corporation and Common Council decided that from now on access to its books should be made available to the public free of charge.

The new library building was designed by Horace Jones (the City architect) and opened to the general public in 1873.  

By then the library contained about 60,000 volumes of works covering the history of London, its architecture, topography, its suburbs and a large collection of early printed plays connected with the city.  

It is this building which is now called ‘The Old Library’ and the office of the Guildhall Librarian is now the Chief Commoner’s parlour.

Around 25 000 volumes were lost in the Second World War, on 29th-30th December 1940, through the destruction of some of the library’s storerooms, but the damage to the library building itself was not extensive. However, the area around Guildhall was devastated by the bombing and for the second time in its 600-year history the hall itself had lost its roof - the first time had been during the Great Fire of 1666.  

After the war, the library continued to grow and flourish, expanding into the Guildhall crypt for some much-needed extra stack space. 

The image above shows the ‘Old Library’, as it is now called, depicted shortly before its closure and the layout had changed little in the 100 years of its existence.

As part of the post-war Guildhall reconstruction scheme, the Corporation decided to develop the West Wing and incorporate a new modern library.  The present Guildhall Library, in the West Wing of Guildhall, opened on 21 October 1974. It was designed by the architects Sir Giles Scott, Son and Partners, it ranged over five floors, two of which were purpose built for the storage of the now vast printed books and manuscript collections. 

Guildhall Library today

Guildhall Library is the Library of London History.  Our core collection covers London and its history and is the largest collection in the world devoted to the history of a single city. We hold over 200,000 titles dating from the 15th to the 21st centuries including books, pamphlets, periodicals, trade directories and poll books. The collection covers all aspects of life in London, past and present, its trade, people and buildings and the whole of London, in addition to the City. 

The library holds internationally renowned collections of books on family and local history, wine and food, Samuel Pepys, John Wilkes and Thomas More, business and parliamentary history, poll books plus the libraries of the Clock Makers', Gardeners' and Fletchers' Companies, the Antiquarian Horological Society, Gresham College and the Charles Lamb Society.

Archive collections include the archives of 80 City livery companies, the Lloyd's Marine Collection and the London Stock Exchange.

While it is impossible to do justice to Guildhall Library’s collections in a single blog post, I shall highlight some of our more iconic treasures.

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The jewel in our crown pictured above is our copy of Shakespeare’s 1st folio: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies which was published in November 1623 around seven years after his death. It is the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays – containing 36 plays. By the year of his death, only 18 of his 37 plays had been published.  Eighteen plays appeared for the first time in the First Folio, and these included - As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Tempest and Twelfth Night. Without the First Folio these would likely have been lost. No substantial manuscripts of Shakespeare’s work survive.

Many copies lack this iconic title page, which would have been removed due to its value, to be sold or displayed.


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In 1891 the Parish Clerks deposited the London Bills of Mortality at Guildhall Library. The earliest printed bills in the collection date from the late 16th century, with a virtually complete run from 1664  to the middle of the 19th Century. 

The Bills of Mortality record the number of deaths each week and provide a statistical record of disease in London. They began to be produced after an outbreak of plague in 1592 (although there are a few earlier instances). From 1603, after another outbreak, they were made on a weekly basis, with the view to giving authorities and inhabitants full information as to the increases or decreases in the number of deaths.


The Parish Clerks collected and published the information every week. The printed bills were distributed on Thursdays at a subscription charge of a penny a sheet or 4 shillings per annum. They were delivered to the King and the Lord Mayor first by 8 am and then went on sale at 10am.

 The Bills of Mortality allow historians to trace the relentless march of the Great Plague, week by week and parish by parish as it progressed across the City. They show that September 1665 was the worst month for deaths from plague which reached 7165 for the week 12th – 19th September.


At this time the bills were edged with a border adorned with skull and crossbones, skeletons and implements of burial. At the top the inscription Memento Mori meaning ‘remember you will die’ sits beneath a winged hourglass representing the flight of time.


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From 1629 The Bills of Mortality included information about the cause of death with a summary count of those killed by named ‘diseases and casualties’. These covered a wide range of illnesses some of which are readily identifiable to us today some which are not. 

For the week shown here in addition to the 4237 individuals who died of plague, other diseases we would recognise include consumption and jaundice. 

For sudden violent deaths more details about the circumstances are often provided - as seen here: Broke her skull by a fall in the street at St Mary Woolchurch.

There are some diseases you may not recognise such as Tissick, which caused nine deaths and probably refers to tuberculosis or consumption and Rising of the Lights, which caused 18 deaths. The lights are likely to be lungs and Rising of the Lights would have referred to croup or pleurisy. Those who died as a result of fright, grief and ‘suddenly’ are also recorded.

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Another important item in our London collection is this first edition copy of 'The city & country purchaser & builder' by Stephen Primatt, printed in 1667, a year after the Fire of London had devastated some 430 acres, destroying over 13,000 houses, 87 churches, and 52 livery company halls in the City.

While the rebuilding programme led by Wren and Hooke would re-establish the public face of London, there was also a massive need for private redevelopment and Primatt’s was the first treatise issued in response to these private efforts. It is the first and also the most important book about the rebuilding of the houses and shops of London. It is also ‘the first work in English on building valuation, measurements and prices’.


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Guildhall Library holds first edition copies of 'Microcosm of London' commissioned by Rudolph Ackermann and published 1808-10. It contains aquatint plates covering all the well-known public buildings of London at the time. From the elegant ladies of Sadler’s Wells to the brawling fish wives at Billingsgate Market, shown in this image, all of London life is captured. Thomas Rowlandson – a caricaturist, watercolourist, draughtsman and engraver – supplied the figures, while Augustus Pugin drew the architect.

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Pictured above, is from a book of hand-coloured engravings depicting the costume worn by the children of each charity school in London taking part in the anniversary service at St Paul’s Cathedral, to draw attention to the plight of the children and raise money. Dating from around 1805, it consists of 5 plates of hand-coloured engravings by John Page. There are 124 children each depicted in the distinctive uniforms which were a feature of the charity schools. 

Guildhall Library is a public library and open to all. For more information about visiting:

The library has a varied programme of events the majority of which are free and can also be accessed online.

Images Copyright of Guildhall Library, City of London.


For the past twelve years Isabelle Chevallot has worked as a librarian at Guildhall Library where she presents talks, runs workshops, leads discussion groups and even organises Regency Balls to engage people in history. Her debut historical fiction medieval adventure novel The Song and the Sword is due to be published on 29th September 2022 in ebook, paperback and audiobook format. For more information:

The Song and the Sword - Kindle edition by Chevallot, Isabelle . Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @


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