Letter: Bernard Shaw's missing gift to the nation

Mr Jack Emery
Thursday 29 April 1993 23:02 BST

Sir: The good news that the British Library has achieved a pounds 1m sponsorship from Digital is to be welcomed ('British Library's largest sponsorship deal provides pounds 1m computer system', 28 April).

It is only to be expected that Digital will have a gallery in the British Library bearing its name as its quid pro quo for pounds 1m. But is the British Library going to name at least a gallery after the playwright George Bernard Shaw who - had the spirit, vision and intention behind his will been faithfully carried out - would most certainly have been the British Library's biggest private benefactor?

When Shaw died in 1950 he left the income from his royalties until the year 2000 first to his phonetic alphabet and second, to be divided equally among three beneficiaries: the National Gallery of Ireland, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and the trustees of the British Museum, 'in acknowledgement of the incalculable value to me of my daily resort to the Reading Room'. The will was administered by the Public Trustee.

To date the British Museum has received more than pounds 3.4m (paid monthly and allowing for inflation since 1950), a sum worth pounds 13m today. In 1959 the Secretary to the Treasury, Sir Edward Boyle, announced that the trustees of the museum would be setting up a capital fund . . . because of Shaw's statement in his will about the value to him of the use of the Reading Room . . . the Trustees have decided that the income from the new fund should . . . be used primarily for the benefit of the library.

The British Museum has certainly not honoured that assurance given to Parliament in 1959, neither has it publicly announced a change of policy. But it has not spent that money 'primarily for the benefit of the library'.

When the British Library was established separate from the British Museum in 1973, the only honourable course for the British Museum, if the trustees really did wish to acknowledge the spirit of Shaw's will and abide by parliamentary assurances given on their behalf, would have been to allow the British Library to administer the Shaw Fund. Instead, the British Museum has hung on to the money and required the British Library to go cap in hand for individual grants which reportedly amount to no more than pounds 480,000. On what has the remaining money been spent?

The very least that should happen now is that any future royalties to the year 2000 (which will be worth at least pounds 1m) should be administered by the British Library. And if pounds 1m obtains a gallery dedicated to Digital, surely Shaw should receive at least the same.

Yours sincerely,


London, W1

28 April

The writer is the executive producer of 'Mr Shaw's Missing Millions' (to be broadcast on Channel 4 on 4 May).

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