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The John Murray archieve.

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Huw WilliamsBy Huw Williams.
It’s been described as a “Who’s Who” of the nineteenth century, and one of the world’s literary treasures. Now the John Murray Archive is up for sale.

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What is the real price of a collection of literary letters and documents collected over six generations?
John Murray

John Murray who is selling the literary works.
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John Murray Archive

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The literary works by Jane Austin

The literary works of Jane Austen.
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Father of evolution - Charles Darwin.
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Works by Lord Byron.
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Words by Walter Scott.
For more than 230 years, the publishers John Murray obtained and kept letters and manuscripts from authors like Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Darwin, and Charles Dickens.

The list goes on, through the alphabet of the greats, to Walter Scott, William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, and William Wordsworth.

In all, the archive contains more than 150,000 items. It’s been valued at £40-50 million. More, if it were broken up and sold off separately.

But now the seventh John Murray in the line has decided to offer the entire collection to the National Library of Scotland (NLS), for the knock-down price of £33 million.

“Unique Treasure Trove”

On Tuesday, the Scottish Executive announced that it’s putting up £6.5 million towards that total. There’s a bid in to the Heritage Lottery Fund for£22 million. And the library itself is committed to raising the rest.

Making the announcement, Scotland’s Culture minister Frank McAveety said that the archive gives an insight into “the critical role that Scots have played in the development of ideas and imagination through the centuries."

John Murray himself said he would "very sad" to part with the family archive. But, he said, the NLS “would be a marvellous home for it.” Mr Murray added "My feeling is it's going home. We've always had a very strong feeling of our Scottish links."

Martyn Wade from the Library described the archive as “a unique treasure trove of invaluable artefacts”.

Scientists, Explorers, Prime Ministers and Politicians

It’s full of material from eminent scientists like Charles Babbage the inventor of the calculating engine, or first ever computer Sir Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday and James Watt.

There are travellers and explorers like Thomas Cook, David Livingstone and the not-so-well-known Isabella Bird Bishop, who travelled from her home in Scotland to the Persian Gulf, Tibet, Australia, Japan, China, and the Sandwich Islands, and who became the first ever female Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Prime ministers and politicians, including Disraeli, Gladstone, and Robert Peel, are well represented. There are economists too, like Malthus, and David Ricardo.

Unrecognised Riches?

And the most remarkable thing is that no-one really knows what other riches might be lying, unrecognised and un-discovered, in the boxes of material that are still housed for the moment in the publisher’s headquarters in central London.

The Lottery should announce whether or not it’s supporting the bid to bring the archive to Scotland by the summer. If it is, the NLS will then have until January 2005 to prove it can raise the rest of the money.


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