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History of the collections

Sloane’s career and collections
The later history of Sloane’s library
The British Museum duplicate sales

Sloane’s career and collections

Born in Ireland in 1660, Sloane moved to London in 1679, and trained as a physician both in London and in France, receiving a doctorate from the University of Orange in 1683. A stay in Jamaica in 1686-7 as personal physician to the Duke of Albemarle allowed him to extend his study of natural history. His A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers, and Jamaica, with the natural history ... of the last of those islands (London, 2 vols, 1707-25) records his experiences and findings. After his return to London Sloane established a successful career as a physician in London while continuing scientific investigations and, increasingly, collecting objects, specimens, books and manuscripts in his field of interest. He received many honours and was elected to many scientific societies, most notably as Fellow of the Royal Society in 1685, its second Secretary in 1693 and President in 1729, which office he held until the age of eighty-one, in 1741. He died in January 1753 at his home in Chelsea.

Sloane’s collections, held initially at his home in Bloomsbury, and later at the manor house in Chelsea, were well known and much used and visited, both by members of the scientific community and by visiting dignitaries. The diversity and extent of the collections is illustrated by the list transmitted to his executors in 1753. There were some 80,000 items of which the largest single category was printed books, the second coins and medals, followed by varying numbers of specimens - dried plants and other botanical items, insects, shells, fish, quadrupeds, metals and minerals, precious stones, etc. In his will, Sloane specified that his collection should be offered to the nation on provision of £20,000 for his heirs. This legacy effectively catalysed the creation of the British Museum, and Sloane’s materials formed one of its three founding collections.

The substantial article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography should be consulted for the salient facts of Sloane’s life, and an outline of his collections. See also A. Macgregor, “The Life, Character and Career of Sir Hans Sloane” in Sir Hans Sloane, Collector, Scientist, Antiquary, Founding Father of the British Museum ed. A. Macgregor, London: British Museum, 1994. More extensive biographies by G.R. de Beer, Sir Hans Sloane and the British Museum, London, 1953, and E.St.J. Brooks, Sir Hans Sloane, the Great Collector, London, 1954, are also useful.

The later history of Sloane’s library

On Sloane’s death in 1753 his collection of books and manuscripts was estimated at 50,000 volumes, of which 136 were books of prints, 2666 volumes of manuscripts and the remainder printed books. The number of printed books must be considered approximate. At the foundation of the Museum, his books were moved from Chelsea to Montague House along with the other collections. Although Sloane’s books were kept in designated rooms, they were placed into subject categories, the Museum trustees having expressed their opinion that the books were ‘dispos’d in a very irregular manner, with little regard to the subjects or even the size of them’ and ordered that they should be re-arranged by subject; they should be ‘placed on the shelves according to their respective faculties’. By end of the eighteenth century, Sloane’s books were interspersed with items from other sources, particularly the Old Royal Library, and with subsequent acquisitions. In many cases, evidence of identity was lost by the early practice of binding or re-binding in a Museum style which involved removing the preliminary leaves where Sloane’s identification marks are often found.

The identification of Sloane’s printed books is therefore not entirely straightforward. Unlike his manuscripts, the books were never kept together in the order in which they had been during his lifetime. Those that remain in the British Library are now scattered in various parts of the collections: moreover, some of them are no longer in the British Library, having been sold or otherwise disposed of as duplicates and many of those remaining have lost their identifying marks through wear and tear and repair.

The British Museum duplicate sales

The British Museum held a number of sales of duplicate items, in 1769, 1788, 1805, 1818, 1819, 1831 and 1832. As a result of these sales an unknown but evidently substantial number of Sloane’s books left the Museum, many of which are now to be found in libraries both in the UK and abroad. The 1769 sale catalogue is the only one for which we have an extant copy with indications of the collections from which the lots were taken. 390 separate Sloane items are listed there, to which must be added many tract items sold as part of mixed lots. One of the aims of the Sloane Printed Books project is to locate as many as possible of the items disposed of as duplicates and to enter them in the catalogue, in order to give a complete listing of the collection.

Items sold at these sales were normally stamped as duplicates. The example below was sold as a duplicate in 1787, bought by Sir Joseph Banks, and subsequently re-entered the Museum with Banks’s collection after his death in 1820.

 
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