Ashley Library

Black and white bookplate of the bibliophile and owner of The Ashley Library, T.J. WIse. A panel with two winged angels, one with a trumpet holding a scroll banner reading "Thomas James Wise His Book" another angel sits in the foreground reading  a scroll. An epigram is contained in an ornamental plaque beneath the illustration which reads "BOOKS BRING ME FRIENDS WHERE'ER ON EARTH I BE, SOLACE OF SOLITVDE - BONDS OF SOCIETY!"
Bookplate of the bibliophile and owner of The Ashley Library, T.J. WIse.

The Ashley Library of English literature formed by Thomas James Wise (1859-1937)

About the collection

The Ashley Library collection was assembled by Thomas James Wise (1859-1937). The collection of approximately 5,700 titles is named after Ashley Road in north London where he lived. It was purchased from his widow by the British Museum in 1937 and now resides at the British Library.

Wise began collecting books as a young boy and always favoured poetry and plays. He funded his book collecting by selling duplicate copies and acting as an agent, purchasing books for other collectors.

The collection is rich in 16th- and 17th- century literature, particularly plays. It has a large amount of 18th- and 19th- century literature, with a strong emphasis on works of poetry. The collection also contains heavily annotated proof copies. In addition to printed books Wise collected manuscripts; these items, and occasional books with manuscript additions, such as letters, are kept separately as part of the Western Manuscripts Collection.

Highlights of the manuscript collection include rare survivals of poems, juvenilia, notebooks and letters by all four Brontë siblings – Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne. 19th- century English literature is also represented by handwritten poems and letters by William Wordsworth, S T Coleridge, Lord Byron, P B Shelley, Mary Shelley, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, A C Swinburne and Alfred Tennyson.

Wise’s reputation as a book collector has been overtaken by the story of his forgeries and book thefts. He stole leaves from other books to complete his copies. He forged or pirated copies of early editions, often to make people believe he had discovered an earlier copy than had previously been known. More information can be found on those topics via the 'further information' sources below.

A number of plays included in the collection at the British Library are made up of leaves which were stolen from other copies. Many of the copies that Wise mutilated in this way are also in the British Library today, as are further editions that he forged or pirated.

An example of one such play is James Shirley’s The Bird in a cage (1633), shelfmark 644.c.42. The Garrick copy contains notes about the missing leaves on its fly-leaf. In one of the great ironies of the movement of books among library collections, the stolen leaves later returned to the British Library as part of Wise’s own 1633 copy of The Bird in a cage, now at shelfmark Ashley 1700.

What is available online?

  • The collection is catalogued and records can be found via the main library catalogue, Explore the British Library. The collection shelfmark prefix is 'Ashley', e.g. 'Ashley 1'. Some duplicates of editions present in other Library collections are not yet entered in the Library’s main catalogue.
  • A number of volumes from the collection are digitised and available to view online. Use the online filter in Explore to identify these items.
  • More detailed bibliographic records for the individual books included in the Ashley Collection which are dated before 1801 can be found via the English Short Title Catalogue.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

  • The printed collection has been microfilmed and access to the original copies is restricted. For information on accessing the microfilms please contact or use the Rare Books and Music Reading Room. An online 'quick chat' service is available Monday-Friday.
  • Manuscripts can be consulted in the Manuscripts Reading Room. Most items from the Ashley collection require a ‘letter of introduction’ to be sent to the Manuscripts Reference Team before they can be requested. These items are identified in the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue by a note in the Details description saying ‘Conditions of Use: Letter of introduction required to view this manuscript’.

What is available in other organisations?

  • Wise’s personal papers, together with additional mutilated copies from his library, are available at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.
  • Other personal papers, including correspondence, are available at the Firestone Library, Princeton University.

Further information

  • W. Todd, ‘A Handlist of Thomas J. Wise’, in Thomas J. Wise: Centenary Studies (1959)

  • D.F. Foxon and W.B. Todd, ‘Thomas J. Wise and the Pre-Restoration Drama: a Supplement’, The Library, 5th ser., 16 (1961), 287-93

  • A. Freeman, ‘The Workshop of T J Wise’, Times Literary Supplement (17 Sept 1982)
  • J. Carter and G. Pollard, An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets (2e, 1983): includes N. Barker and J. Collins, A Sequel to An Enquiry
  • W. Partington, ‘Thomas J. Wise in the original cloth : the life and record of the forger of the nineteenth-century pamphlets’, London: Robert Hale, (1946)