Professor TA Birrell: Scholar and historian who charted the miraculous survival of the Royal Library of England

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The Independent Online

The history of the old Royal Library of England, from before the time of Edward IV to the present day, is one of miraculous survival amid political upheaval, government neglect and successive librarians' insensitivity. No one was more aware of the miracle than Tom Birrell, and no one did more to retrieve its integrity.

After a long academic career, Birrell turned his energies to the Royal Library, which had reached the British Museum by gift of George II in 1757. He gave the Panizzi lectures in 1986 and summarised his work thus in English Monarchs and Their Books: "How does one describe a library? There is an abundant literature on how to describe a book; there is nothing on how to describe a collection of books. The customary method is to describe a library in terms of its plums... one might call this the Little Jack Horner method. But in the present context the owners are as important as the books which they possessed; and indeed the books owe their very survival to the fact of royal ownership."

He contrasted this with the official nature of the French Royal (later National)Library. "The English Royal Library... was a much more domestic, personal and haphazard collection – therein lies its charm and its value."

Thomas Anthony Clement Birrell was born into a family of Fife Presbyterians in south London in 1924, but Tom got his Catholic faith from his Irish mother. The family moved to Weston-super-Mare and Tom went first to prep school and then, in 1937, to Downside.

In 1941 he took the Downing College scholarship examination and succeeded, but war intervened and part way through his English degree he joined the Royal Armoured Corps, serving in the Netherlands. There he saw the depredations of war, and those who had once made a living from tulips reduced to eating the bulbs. In June 1945 he was posted to India for a year, part of it spent as an education officer.

He returned to Cambridge in 1946, completing the Tripos with honours in 1947. He then taught English at the Cambridge Technical College, then at Catholic St Benedict's School in Ealing. Hearing of a vacancy in the English department at Nijmegen Catholic University, he applied for it. He was not immediately successful; the post went to an Irishman whose brogue, however, proved unintelligible to his pupils, and Birrell was appointed instead in 1949. He spent 35 happy and productive years there as professor, then head of department of English and American literature, with a term as rector of the university.

He embraced his second language, translating the several editions of Frederik van der Meer's Atlas of Western Civilisation and himself writing on the cultural background to two scientific revolutions, Robert Hooke's in London and James Logan's in Philadelphia. He also wrote introductions to Dickens's novels in Dutch.

His inaugural lecture in 1950 was on Catholic Allegiance and the Popish Plot, reflecting his interest in Recusant history (he was one of a trio, with David Rogers and Antony Allison, who revived the Catholic Record Society after the war). From 1958 he helped to organise an annual conference on post-Reformation Catholic history, and he produced an annual newsletter for students of Recusant history.

If his main interest lay in the earlier period, he also wrote Non-Catholic Writers and Catholic Emancipation (1953) on sympathisers as diverse as Sydney Smith, Shelley, Coleridge and Cobbett. In 1984 his colleagues at Nijmegen celebrated his 60th birthday and impending retirement with a festschrift, Studies in Seventeenth-Century English Literature, History and Bibliography, with a copious bibliography of his own works.

These were far from over. He retired to a flat in Southampton Row, conveniently near the British Museum, and began a second lifetime of work on the old Royal Library. This had come to the Museum in 1757, bringing to an end almost two centuries of official vacillation about a national library that had ended with the bequest of Sir Hans Sloane in 1753, and with it the end of another national scandal, the fate of the historic library of Sir Robert Cotton. But from the outset, yet another scandal ensued: the Royal Library was broken up, aggregated with Sloane's, and the whole rearranged with later accessions in subject order; worse, starved of funds, the Museum sold "duplicates" (often no duplicates, since they included books annotated by Henry VIII or Cranmer). But multiple copies there were, and identifying which of many thousands of surviving books had belonged to the Royal Library was not easy.

That was the difficult task Birrell now took on, starting in his vacations from Nijmegen. It was not easy for the library staff, either. To them, the ideal reader orders one book, sits at a desk reading it for hours or days, returns it and departs. Birrell, relying on the manuscript catalogue made when the royal books were received, but even more on guess work, had to order books at the rate of 30 or 40 a day. It says much for his invariable courtesy, genial address, patience and sympathy for what he knew was unwelcome work that the daily passage of barrows loaded with books went to and fro without upset. Fortunately, the head of issue and return, John Sabourin, was as courteous and patient as he. The first fruit of his work was The Library of John Morris (1976), which identified the contents of an entire library acquired for the Royal collection in 1662. The reconstruction of the library of Isaac Casaubon in the festschrift for Wytse Hellinga (1980) did the same for the books of a greater man.

Birrell's work on the Royal Library will be crowned one day by the publication of a full catalogue. He moved to Oxford in 1990, to a new flat by the river, continuing to pursue and publish more useful work on libraries and their owners. He became a member of the council of the Catholic Record Society in 1987, succeeding Allison as a Trustee in 1996. His latest work was The British Museum Duplicate Sales, 1768-1832, an unhappy tale told with customary authority, the coping-stone of a scholarly career marked by humour and grace as well as learning.

Nicolas Barker

Thomas Anthony Clement Birrell, English scholar and historian of the old Royal Library: born London 25 July 1924; Professor of English and American Literature, University of Nijmegen 1949-84; died Oxford 22 May 2011.