A Thackeray Family Library

On the pastedown (outer leaf of an endpaper) of an unassuming eighteenth-century copy of commentaries on the works of the ancient Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia is the name ‘WM Thackeray’. This mysterious annotator shares his initials but not his handwriting with the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), author of Vanity Fair (1847). Is it coincidence or something more?


W. M. Thackeray signature
The autograph of WM Thackeray on the pastedown of Pierre Petit’s In tres priores Aretaei Cappadocis libros commentarii (1726).


At the turn of the twentieth century, the newly appointed Harveian Librarian, Joseph Frank Payne (1840-1910), was invited to visit Bedford by the local council. Its hospital was moving to a new building and they had offered Payne his pick of books from their library to take back with him to the Royal College of Physicians. The Library Committee at the RCP enthusiastically accepted the gift, and Payne was dispatched to Bedford to make his choices.


The library that Payne went to inspect and partially dismantle had been a labour of love for its founder, Joseph Thackeray (1784-1832), who was a physician at Bedford Infirmary from 1814. His uncle was the grandfather of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Joseph established Bedford Medical Library at the hospital in the late 1820s with 400 of his own books.


Portrait of Joseph Thackeray.
Joseph Thackeray (1784-1832), mezzotint, Wellcome Library no. 10027i.


On his visit to Bedford, Joseph Frank Payne selected 23 new books for the RCP library, entered into the accessions register on 22nd January 1900 as donations from Bedford Infirmary. Among these are a selection of medical texts from the mid-seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth century, the earliest of which is a copy of William Ramsay’s Treatise of poysons (1661). Almost all of them contain stamps for Bedford General Infirmary Medical Library. The gift was one of the largest of the year 1900.


Medical stamp Bedford Infirmary.
The Bedford General Infirmary Medical Library ink stamp, seen here on the title-page of Diederick Wessel Linden’s Treatise on the origin, nature and virtues of chalybeat waters (1748).


Payne’s own collection included several annotated books and he seems to have been drawn to similar copies at Bedford. Of the 23 books Payne chose for the RCP, thirteen include names of former owners, nine of whom were members of the Thackeray family. These include the signatures of Joseph Thackeray and a G Thackeray, and the armorial bookplate of a T Thackeray. The latter was probably Joseph’s father Thomas Thackeray (1736-1806), a Cambridge surgeon, though it could also have been his grandfather, Archdeacon Thomas Thackeray (1693-1760).


Thackeray's bookplate.
T Thackeray’s armorial bookplate, with the motto “Nobilitas sola virtus”, in George Cheyne’s A new theory of acute and slow continu’d fevers (1722).


The WM Thackeray who owned Pierre Petit’s commentaries and three other medical texts included in the gift was almost certainly not the famous novelist, but he was probably also called William Makepeace Thackeray. Though many members of the family shared the same name and more than one was a physician, the most likely owner of these books is Joseph’s brother William Makepeace Thackeray (1770-1849), a physician at Chester in the nineteenth century.


The tiny sliver of the nineteenth-century Bedford Medical Library chosen for the Royal College of Physicians in 1900 is also itself a fragment of Joseph Thackeray’s library, in turn composed of books gathered from a branch of the Thackeray family that was almost entirely engaged in the medical field. It’s a twisting tale of provenance that reminds us how individual collections can shape institutional libraries.


Provenance information has now been added to the catalogue for the Bedford bequest.


Sources used in this blog post:


  • MS2000/14, Royal College of Physicians.
  • A biographical memoir of the late Dr. Joseph Thackeray of Bedford, London, 1832[?].
  • Rook, Arthur, “The Thackerays and Medicine”, Medical History XV No. 1 Jan 1971: 12-22, doi:10.1017/S0025727300016094.


Grace Murray, Library volunteer and PHD student at the University of York


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