The Thomason Collection of Tracts is a key resource for the study of 17th century British history. The material documents the events, politics, religious debates and social life throughout the turbulent period of the English Civil Wars, the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, and the Restoration of the monarchy. It consists of printed materials, mostly issued in London from 1640 to 1661.
Formation and Scope of the Collection
Based in St Paul's Church Yard, the London bookseller George Thomason was in an excellent position to collect and preserve the mass of fleeting literature issued during the turbulent middle decades of the 17th century. Even a short spell in prison in 1651, following his implication in the Christopher Love Plot, did not stop him from adding to his collection. By 1661, Thomason had acquired some 22,000 pamphlets and other ephemera, including around 7,200 news pamphlets, news books and early newspapers. Much of this material relates to the burning religious controversies and political conflicts of the day, and often survives nowhere else. In addition, Thomason annotated many of the tracts at the time of acquisition, giving exact or corrected publication dates and attributions of authorship. It appears that the collection itself was moved several times during his lifetime in order to ensure its safe-keeping.
The final speech of King Charles I, given at his execution in January 1648/9. Shelfmark: E.540.(17). © The British Library Board.
At the time of Thomason's death in 1666, the pamphlets were at Oxford in the care of Thomas Barlow, the Provost of Queen's College. Thomason himself appreciated the significance of his collection; his will emphasised the unparallelled scope of the collection as well as the time and money that had been spent in its formation. After Barlow became Bishop of Lincoln, various attempts were made to sell the collection to the University of Oxford, to the nation, and, later, to several of the wealthiest private collectors in the country. All these attempts failed, mainly because of the high price being demanded. As a result, for almost a century the vast collection remained inaccessible, ignored and neglected by historians. It was not until 1762 that the pamphlets were finally sold to the Earl of Bute, acting on behalf of George III. They were presented to the British Museum in 1762 in the King's name. As a result, the collection is occasionally known as the 'King's Tracts' in some 18th and 19th century sources. The Thomason Collection was transferred to the British Library in 1973.
The Thomason Collection of Civil War Tracts is now bound into approximately 2,000 volumes, which are housed at the British Library's main St Pancras site. The largest part of the collection is shelved in the 'E' (i.e. English Tracts) sequence at shelfmarks E.1-1938, E.2103-2143, and E.2255-2272. Due to their larger size, the broadside materials are shelved elsewhere at 669.f.3-27.
Much of the material is now fragile and the original pamphlets are restricted from general reading room use. Full digital facsimiles are now available via Early English Books Online (EEBO) which is accessible onsite. A complete set of preservation microfilms also exists (shelfmark Mic.B.58) and reels can be ordered from on-site storage. Microfilms of the broadside materials (shelfmark: 669.f.3-27) are kept on the open shelves in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room. Bound photocopies (shelfmark: Thomason RAX E. + number) can also be ordered from on-site storage. Staff at the Rare Books Reference Enquiries Desk can advise about this.
In 1977, University Microfilms International of Ann Arbor, Michigan, published a microfilm edition of the collection under the title The Thomason Tracts, 1640-1661. This microfilm series is often held by larger research libraries.
Catalogue records for the Thomason Tracts appear in Explore the British Library, and in printed editions of the British (Museum) Library Catalogue. They have also been re-catalogued for the English Short Title Catalogue.
A separate published catalogue is also available: Catalogue of the pamphlets, books, newspapers, and manuscripts relating to the Civil War, Commonwealth, and Restoration, collected by George Thomason, 1640-1661 (London, 1908; reprinted Ann Arbor, 1977). The Catalogue lists the pamphlets in chronological order and includes an extensive index of names and subjects and a lengthy essay describing the formation and history of the collection. Copies can be found on the open shelves in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at the British Library (for example at shelfmark: RAR094.20941), and are often available at other research libraries.
The following articles give further information about George Thomason and his collection. British Library readers can find a set of The Library at shelfmark RAR010 on the shelves for small periodicals in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room.
- Lois Spencer, 'The Professional and Literary Connexions of George Thomason', The Library, 5th series, vol. 13 (June 1958), pp. 102-118.
- Lois Spencer, 'The Politics of George Thomason', The Library, 5th series, vol. 14 (March 1959), pp. 11-27.
- David Stoker, 'Disposing of George Thomason's Intractable Legacy, 1664-1762', The Library, 6th series, vol. 14 (December 1992), pp. 338-355.
British Printed Collections 1501-1800
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