Blavatnik Honresfield Library

Find out more about Burns material from the Blavatnik Honresfield Library.

A handwritten page by Robert Burns from his First Commonplace Book.

The Honresfield Library (now called the Blavatnik Honresfield Library) was one of the most unique and historically important private libraries collected during the late 19th and early 20th century. It was brought together by William Law, a hugely successful, self-made Victorian industrialist with a passion for literary history and book collecting. The library included a remarkable collection of rare English and Scottish manuscripts; first editions of printed books and correspondence, including handwritten works by the Brontë sisters and their brother Branwell; letters by the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell; manuscripts by Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns; and early editions by Jane Austen, Horace Walpole, Charles Dickens and Mary Wollstonecraft. William remained unmarried and lived with his brother Alfred at Honresfield House near their Rochdale factory, from which the collection takes its name.

Although many wealthy Victorians created vast library collections, the Honresfield Library stands out from the rest because of the depth and rarity of the material, which includes some of the most famous and significant prose, poems and correspondence in British literary history. It is also outstanding, particularly for its time, for the number of female writers that are represented in the collection. After Alfred and William’s deaths in the early 20th century, the library was inherited by their nephew, Sir Alfred Law. When he died in 1939, the collection slipped into obscurity, and many feared it had been lost or scattered across the world through private sales.

In 2021 the Blavatnik Honresfield Library was offered for sale at auction by Sotheby’s in London. The sale was scheduled to include more than 500 manuscripts, first editions, letters and bound collections of works. The Friends of the National Libraries (FNL) – a British charity dedicated to saving written and printed material through grants to national and regional archives, libraries and collections – encouraged Sotheby’s to postpone the sale so that FNL could purchase the entire collection and distribute it to libraries and archives across the UK.

A fundraising campaign lead by FNL in collaboration with a group of libraries, archives and author’s house museums from across the UK, successfully raised the £15 million required to ensure the important historical material from the Blavatnik Honresfield Library remains permanently accessible to the public. Alongside the other partners, including the National Library of Scotland, the British Library, Abbotsford and the Bronte Parsonage, the National Trust for Scotland contributed towards the appeal, which was generously supported by £4m from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and a private donation from Sir Leonard Blavatnik of £7.5m.

Following the successful campaign, the National Trust for Scotland acquired 12 original manuscripts by Robert Burns for the collection at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (RBBM), as well as becoming joint owners with the National Libraries of Scotland (NLS) of the very significant First Commonplace Book. Collecting material with a common theme into a ‘commonplace book’ was popular among the aristocracy at this time – it was a means of communicating your opinions, education and culture. Burns copied this aristocratic practice and produced three commonplace books during his lifetime: the First Commonplace Book (1783–85), the Edinburgh Journal (1787–90) on display in the Museum, and the Glenriddell Manuscripts (1792–94). The First Commonplace Book contains early drafts of some of Burns’s songs and poetry, alongside his observations of the world around him and expressions of his hopes and ambitions. It was collated when Burns was still a young, unpublished poet living in Ayrshire and it is an invaluable record of his personal and professional development as a poet and a man.

A handwritten page by Robert Burns from his First Commonplace Book.
The First Commonplace Book | Blavatnik Honresfield Collection

Alongside the hugely significant First Commonplace Book, the additional poems and correspondence provide further information about Burns’s life, writing and inspirations. These new works complement and enhance our existing collection, providing a unique insight into Burns’s thoughts, influences and creative processes. This new material can also be used to better understand 18th-century Scottish society, covering topics such as class and gender relations, mental and physical health, commerce and international trade.

It was the themes identified across much of the Blavatnik Honresfield material that inspired us to create the four themes that you see on the collections pages: Burns the Man, Myths and Folklore, Relationships and Memorialisation and Legacy.