The Collected Letters, Volume 26


TC ET AL. TO JOHN ROMILLY; 30 June 1851; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18510630-TCEA-JORO-01; CL 26: 95-98


[30 June 1851]

Sir,—The undersigned Historical Writers, Members of various Literary Societies specially interested in the prosecution of historical inquiry, and persons otherwise engaged in literary pursuits, or connected therewith, beg leave most respectfully to submit to you:—

That, by the Statute 1 and 2 Victoria, cap. 94, sec. 9, the Master of the Rolls is empowered to make rules for the admission of such persons as ought to be admitted to the use of the Records, Catalogues, Calendars, and Indexes, and also to make rules for dispensing with the payment of fees in such cases as he shall think fit.

The undersigned would also most respectfully submit to you, that the researches of persons engaged in historical investigation and inquiry would be greatly facilitated, and the welfare of our national historical literature be promoted in a very high degree, if you would be pleased to exercise the power given to you in the Statute before mentioned by making an order that such persons may have permission granted to them to have access to the Public Records, with the Indexes, and Calendars thereof, without payment of any fee.

At present any person may search for and inspect any Record on payment of a fee of one shilling for a search in the Calendars, which may be continued for one week, and of another fee of the same amount for the inspection of each Record, or such fees may be commuted at the sum of five shillings per week, provided the search be limited to one family or place, or to a single object of inquiry.

These fees are of no benefit to any individual, but are paid over to the nation, the different officers of the Record Establishment being remunerated by salaries.

When a person desires to inspect one or two specific Records for his own private purposes these fees are unimportant in amount.

But when a person engaged in historical or antiquarian research wishes to build upon the evidence of public documents—the only sure foundation of Historical Truth—it ordinarily happens that in the progress of his inquiry he is obliged to refer to many Records; the inspection of one almost necessarily leads him on to others, and, as he proceeds, he continually finds references and allusions to many more, all which he ought to inspect, if for no other purpose, in order to be satisfied of their inapplicability to the subject of his research. This is the course of inquiry which in such cases is absolutely necessary to be adopted for the establishment of historical truth. Under the present practice this course cannot be adopted. Inquirers are deterred from referring to Records by the total amount of the reiterated fees, and are thus compelled to copy erroneous or questionable statements from earlier authors.

The literary men of the present day find it necessary for the establishment of truth to verify the authorities and references of earlier writers, but the amount of the present fees compels inquirers to accept statements professedly built upon the authority of the Records as they find them. Thus doubt and mistake are perpetuated and made part of our national history, and thus time, which ought to be a test of truth, is often made to lend additional authority to error.

The present practice cannot be defended on the ground of its productiveness to the national revenue. The amount received for literary searches is altogether insignificant except to those who pay it. The attainment of historical truth—an object in which the whole nation is interested—is therefore prejudiced, and in many cases defeated, by the enforcement of fees which produce the nation absolutely nothing.

The exclusion of literary men from the inspection of the Records excites a demand on the part of persons interested in historical literature for the continuance, at the expense of the Government, of works similar to those published by the late Record Commission. If access were freely granted to the Records, such demand would be silenced; for such publications would be undertaken by the numerous existing publishing societies, or by other voluntary associations which would be instituted for the purpose, as well as by individuals. Every thing that is historically valuable at the British Museum is published without difficulty as soon as it is discovered.

Even in cases in which free access to manuscripts does not lead to their being printed, it promotes transcription, which tends to preserve valuable information against the unavoidable danger of total loss, to which it is liable whilst existing in a single copy. With a view to this danger the House of Commons ordered a transcript to be made of the Parliamentary Survey of 1650, a manuscript existing in the library of Lambeth Palace,1 and examples might be adduced of the contents of Cottonian MSS. destroyed by fire in 1731,2 having been partially supplied through the means of notes and transcripts previously made by persons who had access to the MSS.

Many of the most valuable historical works of past ages—such works, for example, as Dugdale's Baronage, the foundation of all our books relating the peerage;3 Madox's History of the Exchequer, the basis of much of our legal history:4 Tanner's Notitia Monastica, the groundwork of our monastic history;5 and Rymer's Foedera, which first enabled historical writers to put general English history upon a sure foundation6—were all compiled principally from the Records. Every page contains many references to them. It is a common complaint that now-a-days no such works are published. Under the present practice such works cannot be compiled, nor can the improved historical criticism of the present age be applied to the correction of the errors which unavoidably crept into such works published in times past.

Lastly, the undersigned desire to state distinctly that they do not solicit this permission on behalf of any persons engaged in Record searches for legal purposes, or for any persons whatever save those who are carrying on researches for historical or other literary objects; and they would most readily acquiesce in and approve of the most stringent precautions against any abuse of the privilege which they solicit on literary grounds solely.

The undersigned therefore beg with the greatest respect to solicit your attention to the circumstances they have stated, and to request that you would be pleased to make an order that persons who are merely engaged in historical inquiry, antiquarian research, and other literary pursuits connected therewith, should have permission granted to them to have access to the Public Records, with the Indexes and Calendars, without payment of any fee.

And the undersigned have the honour to be, Sir, with the greatest respect, your most obedient and very humble servants. 7

[TC and 82 others]