Photo of books on shelf

In April 2015, State Library Victoria received the most significant and valuable donation of rare books in its 160 year history. The collection of over 5,000 titles was assembled by Melbourne barrister John Emmerson between 1968, when he began collecting, and his death in August 2014. The collection comprises mainly 16th and 17th century English printed works, with a particular focus on the reign of King Charles I and the events surrounding the English Civil War.

One year on, we thought it was timely to look back over the extraordinary work being carried out by our rare book cataloguers Derrick Moors and Richard Overell, who are currently cataloguing the collection. Below, Richard tells us something about their experiences working with this incredible collection.

Richard and Derrick

Rare book cataloguers Richard Overell (left) and Derrick Moors at work on the Emmerson collection

It was just after Easter last year that Derrick Moors and I began to catalogue the 5,022 titles in the John Emmerson Collection. Progress has been brisk and we have now done 2,290.

As rare books cataloguers you expect to have the opportunity of working closely with many beautiful and priceless items but the Emmerson Collection is truly exceptional. It is by far the best collection of early English books in Australia, and its concentration of books from the 17th century, especially those produced during the English Civil War of the 1640s, give us the opportunity of closely examining many very scarce items produced in that turbulent time.

There are several outstanding books in fine bindings, possibly the best of these is The Workes of the Most High and Mightie Prince, James, (1616) a presentation copy given by the King, James I, to his son Charles, later to be King Charles I.

Emmerson Collection

Collected writings of King James I, in a special binding for his son Prince Charles, future King of England and Scotland and Ireland

There are also embroidered bindings, one of which, Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Policy (1635), is thought to have belonged to Queen Henrietta Marie, Charles I’s wife.

Emmerson Collection Image

Embroidered binding believed to belong to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I, c1630

We are cataloguing the books item by item, shelf by shelf, keeping them in the order in which John arranged them in his own book-cases, so we are often taken by surprise at the next book we open. An example is a copy of the Eikon Basilike (1649). This is one of the most common books from the period. It was published in 36 editions in 1649 alone. It appeared ten days after the execution of Charles I and is presented as the King’s thoughts in his own defence. It has an intriguing symbolic frontispiece centred on the King himself. We were cataloguing at least a shelf of these when we opened yet another inconspicuous small volume, but this one had the folding frontispiece with beautiful hand-colouring.

Emmerson Collection Image

Eikon Basilike: the Pourtraicture of His Sacred Majestie in His Solitudes and Sufferings (London, 1649)

The collection also includes another copy of the Eikon in an embroidered binding (below right).

Two small books from the John Emmerson Collection with embroidered bindings on a white pillow. A librarian's right hand is next to the item on the right for scale. The items are smaller than the size of a palm.

Items with embroidered bindings in the John Emmerson Collection, including one depicting Charles I, Eikon Basilike, London, 1649 (right). Photo: Christian Capurro 2023

John did not collect primarily for the fineness of the bindings. He certainly preferred to buy books in contemporary bindings and he preferred the pamphlets from the period to be untrimmed and in as close to original condition as possible. This was all a part of his aim to achieve through his collection as authentic a feel for that early era as possible.

During the 1640s in particular, pamphlets poured from the presses at the rate of several a day and were quickly circulated, essentially as propaganda for the opposing sides, the King’s Cavaliers and the Parliament’s Roundheads. John had them arranged in day by day order so we can track the turmoil as it happened. Many of these were official announcements but they also include graphic descriptions of victories and defeats on the battlefields up and down England.

One of the aspects which John collected as exhaustively as possible were the books and pamphlets concerned with the King’s nephew, Prince Rupert, one of the most successful and charismatic of the Cavalier Generals.

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Historical Memoires of the Life and Death of that Wise and Valiant Prince Rupert (London, 1683)

The enemies of the King made much of Rupert’s poodle dog, “Boy” which he would take into battle with him. “Boy” appears in many pamphlets and satirical woodcuts. At the moment we are steadily working our way through hundreds of Civil War pamphlets, giving us the daily news. When we arrived at the accounts of the Battle of Marston Moor, (2 July 1644), among them was one with a woodcut on the title page, Ruperts sumpter, and private cabinet rifled, and a discovery of a pack of his jewels (1644).

This tells of the flight of Prince Rupert from the battle-field, leaving behind his pack animals and bags, and also his dog, who was killed by one of the Parliamentary soldiers. So we see the dead dog, (poor “Boy”), the contents of Rupert’s pack including a crucifix and various Papal Bulls (Rupert was a Catholic), and, so well-concealed we did not at first notice it, Rupert himself hiding in a bean field, as he apparently did to evade capture.

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Ruperts sumpter, and private cabinet rifled, and a discovery of a pack of his jewels (London, 1644)

Ruperts sumpter – detail, showing Rupert’s dog “Boy”, dead on the battlefield. Second detail showing Rupert hiding in the bean field after the battle of Marston Moor.

Ruperts sumpter – detail, showing Rupert’s dog “Boy”, dead on the battlefield. Second detail showing Rupert hiding in the bean field after the battle of Marston Moor.

Incidentally the dog was killed by “A souldier skilled in necromancy” as “Boy” was supposed to be Rupert’s “familiar”, in league with the devil, who could, through his infernal power, deflect bullets. Only thus were the Puritans able to explain Prince Rupert’s success on the battle-field.

The cataloguing of the books themselves involves detailed description of the pagination and the gatherings (the sequence of letters printed at the foot of the pages, often a more accurate way than the pagination of determining the completeness or not of an early book; and detecting the possibility of corrections having been made during the printing, a frequent occurrence during the events of those times). We also describe any manuscript markings. These help point to the unique nature of each copy. Sometimes they are corrections or comments by contemporaries or early readers. As an example, we have been discovering pamphlets with the mark (a cross inside a circle) and shorthand notes of John Rushworth, a contemporary and one of the earliest historians of the period.

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Seventeenth century historian John Rushworth’s familiar mark indicating a passage he found of interest.

The provenance of the book is also noted, in particular ownership marks such as signatures and bookplates. John collected heavily from important libraries dispersed through the auction rooms in the period during which he was buying. The books belonging to John Evelyn, the seventeenth century diarist and those from the Fairfax family library feature strongly in the Emmerson Collection. The Fairfax family were descendants of Thomas Fairfax (1612-1671), general and Parliamentary commander-in-chief during the English Civil War.

Emmerson Collection images

Fairfax family bookplate and crest

For those who wish to look at the records, they can all be retrieved by the term “John Emmerson Collection”. We include that in one of the note fields, followed by the acquisition number which John assigned to each book.

Though there is still a great deal to do we are hopeful that we will be able to have the Emmerson Collection fully catalogued late next year.

Richard Overell

Richard and Derrick

Rare book cataloguers Richard Overell (right) and Derrick Moors pictured in the McArthur Gallery

A selection of early printed books from the John Emmerson collection can currently be viewed in the Library’s Mirror of the World exhibition, located on level 4 of the Dome Galleries.

This article has 12 comments

  1. Great blog! I have often wondered about the process of rare book cataloguing so this was fascinating reading. I really enjoyed the insights into the John Emmerson collection too.

    • Thanks Sarah, glad you enjoyed. Richard and Derrick are doing an amazing job, and it demonstrates how much they know about rare books.

  2. Thank you, really interesting. Are there many of John Evelyn’s books in the collection? Living not that far from Deptford, I am interested in John Evelyn and the history of Deptford. It is just amazing to think that they have ended up in Australia!

    • John Emmerson took a keen interest in John Evelyn as a book collector, Sarah. Books from his library came up for sale in the late 1970s, and John Emmerson acquired a number of them. To date, Richard and Derrick have catalogued over seventy items either written by Evelyn or owned by him. It is incredible to think that a number of Evelyn’s books ended up in Melbourne, something he could never imagined in the 17th century.

  3. Beatriz Dieguez -Arias

    Thank you Des for showing some books from such a special collection and what a fantastic job have Richard and Derrick in their hands.
    Congratulations !

    • Thanks Beatriz, we’ll post more blogs about the collection as we work through it; always new discoveries to be made.

  4. Malcolm Macdonald

    The stories about the books either content, physical aspects or provenance are all great and make it so much more engaging. How are you going to make the stories and books available? Well done regardless.

    • Thanks Malcolm, we expect to have the entire collection catalogued by 2017. In the interim, we have two display cases of books from the Emmerson collection currently on view in the Library’s MIrror of the World exhibition; and we’ll be featuring some talks and presentations during Rare Book Week in July in Melbourne. We’ll also keep running blog posts about some of the more interesting items we come across as we progress through the collection. In 2017, we also expect to offer the first fellowship for research into the collection, which should open up new avenues of research. It has been a privilege to work with John Emmerson’s extraordinary collection

  5. Rosemary Cotter

    Thank you for sharing this blog/observations on the contents of the Emmerson Collection. It is fascinating to read of the sequence of the books on the shelves and reason for it. The reproductions via the web are amazing affording us a close up view of bindings and illustrations. I particlularly like Rupert hiding amongst the beans, very clever! Might you comsider displaying this as a special exhibition adjacent to the SLV entrance? Perhaps when some research is completed. I shall look for the talks in Rare Books Week. Thank you for making the cataloguing process visible to the public and conveying the excitement of its findings.

  6. Thanks for your comments Rosemary. We are featuring some of John Emmerson’s books in the Library’s Mirror of the World exhibition, housed on level 4 of the Dome Reading Room. There is a case of books on display currently relating to King Charles I; and, in October 2016, we’ll be changing this and displaying some of the books referred to in the blog post, including a number of items relating to Prince Rupert, such as that fantastic woodcut of him hiding in the bean field.

  7. A quite wonderful accession and important work! Well done SLV, Richard and Derrick.
    John Emmerson would have been thrilled by all this. I don’t think any of us at Monash realised the true extent of what he had collected. Was Charles I’s travelling library included in the donation?

    • Thanks Clive, it was an act of extraordinary generosity on John Emmerson’s part to bequest the collection to the people of Victoria. We have also been quite amazed at the depth and riches of the collection as we have catalogued it. With regard to Charles I’s travelling library, this was the only item of John’s collection he bequeathed elsewhere – it has gone to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which is its rightful home. You will find the information on the Bodleian website:

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