Sion College Library

In 1624 the Reverend Thomas White, Vicar of St. Dunstan in the West, left £3,000 in his will for the founding of Sion College, providing a meeting hall, lodgings and an almshouses for clergy. Although White’s will made no specific provision for a library, one was quickly established on the upper storey of the College building. Initially founded for the benefit of the clergy of the City of London, the Library rapidly became a resource used by the citizens of London as a whole, many of whom gave or bequeathed books. Merchants, doctors, lawyers, booksellers and bishops all found their way into the Library’s detailed benefactor records.

Sion College Library was the pre-eminent library in London from its foundation until the establishment of the British Museum library in the 1750s. It was the first library in London to publish a printed catalogue (1650, and another in 1724) and the first, other than the royal library, to be awarded the legal deposit privilege of receiving books from Stationers’ Hall (from 1710 until 1836). Admission records for its readers show that by the 1650s Sion College Library was already attracting scholars from as far afield as New England and the Baltic. The historic importance of Sion College Library is greatly increased by the way in which its library records, manuscripts and the provenances of its printed books interconnect and supplement each other.

When Sion College sold its building in 1996, the Library’s collections were split between two sites. The pre-1850 material, comprising 35,000 printed books, was transferred to the ownership of Lambeth Palace Library, together with the manuscripts, the library records and the entire pamphlets collection. In total the Library received some 65,000 items; the post-1850 collections were removed to King’s College London.

The Sion College collections were well documented in a series of catalogues and inventories produced from the foundation of the Library up until its closure.

Sion College Printed Books

There are approximately 35,000 printed books, many of which complement well the Lambeth collections. Out of 57 incunabula (books printed before 1501), 51 are editions previously lacking at Lambeth. There are some 1,600 STC and 4,000 Wing books. Significant collections were donated or bequeathed to Sion College by George Berkeley, Earl of Berkeley; Walter Travers, the puritan opponent of Richard Hooker; Henry Compton, bishop of London; John Lawson, M.D., brother-in-law of Archbishop Tenison; and Edward Waple, Vicar of St Sepulchre’s (1647-1712). Sion College Library also had a close relationship with the London book trade, which was the source of numerous donations of books on both a large and a small scale; both Thomas James (c.1650-1711), London bookseller and mathematical printer to the King, and Richard Chiswell (1640-1711), a bookseller in St. Paul’s Churchyard specialising in the works of Anglican divines, contributed significant collections. Other accessions of note include the Jesuit Library seized at the time of the Popish Plot and transferred to Sion College in 1679, around 500 books from the Library of Archbishop Tenison, and the Port Royal Library, collected in the first half of the 19th century. Among many interesting former owners, there are books from the libraries of Ben Jonson, James Boswell and John Donne.

The extensive pamphlet collection comprises 30,000 items. Significant donations and bequests included 3,700 items belonging to Edmund Gibson (1669-1748), bishop of London, 5,800 from John Russell (1787-1863), headmaster of the Charterhouse and rector of St Botolph without Bishopsgate, 1,600 from William Goode (1801-1868), dean of Ripon, and 7,100 from William Scott (1813-1872), vicar of St Olave Old Jewry.

Finding Aids

More than 15,000 records can now be viewed on the Library’s online printed books catalogue. The remaining 50,000 items are searchable in the card catalogue and various manuscript catalogues available in the reading room.

Please contact us for further advice. Records of items published after 1850 are available through the catalogue of Kings College London.

Selected images from the collection are available here.

Sion College Manuscripts

The Sion College manuscripts total over 300 volumes and range in date from the 11th century to the 20th. The manuscripts are arranged by language, comprising English (234 vols, 6 boxes, 2 files), French (1 vol), Greek (14 vols), Hebrew (3 vols), Latin (45 vols), and Oriental (21 vols). Notable medieval manuscripts include a 13th century psalter belonging to Archbishop Meopham, a 15th century York breviary, and Wycliffite New and Old Testaments. Later material includes the minutes of the Presbyterian Provincial Assembly of London, 1647-60, an augmentation order book of the Committee for the Reformation of the Universities, 1650-2, and works of the mathematician Nathaniel Torporley (1564-1632). Alongside works on church history, theology, liturgy and biblical studies are more diverse works on history, philosophy, language and affairs of various periods. Many items relate to the London clergy and to Sion College and its Library, including historic catalogues and the Book of Benefactors. Additional manuscript items can also be found bound among the printed books and in the pamphlets collection.

Finding Aids

The Library’s online archives and manuscripts catalogue holds the fullest descriptions of the Sion manuscripts. A project to re-catalogue the English, French and Latin manuscripts was completed in 2013-14.

Ker, N.S. Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, volume 1: London (Oxford, 1969), pp. 263-91. This work also provides a list of manuscripts belonging to Sion College before the fire of 1666 and includes manuscripts sold by the College in 1977.

Kitching, C. J. Summary list of the Latin and English manuscripts in Sion College Library, London (typescript, Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, 1990); copy included in Sion L40.2/E173.

Pickering, O.S. & O’Mara, V.M. The index of Middle English Prose: handlist 13. Manuscripts in Lambeth Palace Library including those formerly in Sion College Library (Cambridge, 1999).Catalogue of the manuscripts in Sion College Library. This is the catalogue of the manuscripts (all language series) used at Sion College 1909-1996. Held at Sion L40.2/E175 (copy in Reading Room in card index form).

Selected images from the collection are available here and a selection of fully digitised volumes are available here.