Cataloguing A.E. Housman’s Personal Papers

A full and digitised description of the Housman papers at St John’s is in the works. Connie Bettison, St John’s library trainee from 2016-17, writes about her experience beginning the digital cataloguing process.

A.E. Housman

A.E. Housman (1859-1936) is best known today for his poetry but in his own time he was highly regarded as a classical scholar. His entrance into this world was a mixture of leaps and bounds and slow-burning effort. He matriculated as a student of Greats at St John’s in 1877 and achieved a first in Mods. Despite this, he failed his final exams. Returning to college in the years that followed while working as a clerk for the Patent Office in London, he eventually passed his exams and graduated in 1892.

After these twelve years of administration work at the Patent Office and independent study of Greek and Latin, Housman got a job as Professor of Latin at University College London. Housman taught there for nineteen years. Then, in 1911 he moved on to take a Latin professorship at Trinity College Cambridge. This was where he lived and worked until the end of his life in 1936.

The Collections

One of the Housman cupboards in the Laudian Library, St John’s College Oxford

Housman’s Classics Library

Soon after A.E. Housman’s death, Sir Basil Blackwell received the poet’s working library and subsequently donated it to St John’s College Library. In 1984, another large donation arrived; this was from John Sparrow – Warden of All Souls College Oxford and book collector – who had curated a significant collection. Some of the books from Sparrow had belonged to Housman, some were written by him or about him, and some are from John Sparrow’s personal collection.

For more information about these collections, see the relevant pages on the college website.

Personal Papers

As well as books, there have been several donations to the Library of personal papers relating to Housman from multiple sources. The largest of these collections was also from John Sparrow; he donated letters, photographs, manuscript documents and printed material such as journal articles and newspapers.

Slightly smaller collections arrived from Dr T. Martin Higham (the son of T.F. Higham, who was employed at Blackwell’s to work with Housman material) and Dr Michael Symons (a great-nephew of A.E. Housman’s).


Archie Burnett’s catalouges of the Sparrow, Higham and Symons collections

These three major collections (Sparrow, Higham, and Symons) were catalogued in 1987 by Dr Archie Burnett, a Housman scholar whose work includes editing landmark editions of Housman’s poetry and letters. His catalogues are available in bound volumes at St John’s College Library.

Thirty years after Burnett’s cataloguing project, my job has been to digitise and expand these records using Archives Hub. Several other collections of personal papers at St John’s College are searchable on this website; for example, the Spike Milligan Papers, Papers of Robert Graves, and the Philip Larkin Papers are all catalogued there.

Some Items from the Collections

The Sparrow Collection: A letter to J.M. Mackail


This letter was one of my favourites from the Sparrow collection for the sheer number of classical references made in such a small space.

Housman’s concern, in this letter, is the use of the word fluvii, as opposed to fluvi in Virgil’s Aeneid, in book III, line 702. To make his point, in two highly condensed sentences, he refers to The Fasti by Ovid (book IV, line 631), and page 326 of Karl Lachman’s edition of ‘De rarum natura’ by Lucretius.

Housman is writing to J.W. Mackail, who matriculated at Balliol at the same time as Housman matriculated next door at St. John’s. Mackail was a Professor of Poetry at Oxford and well-regarded as a Virgil scholar.

I enjoyed cataloguing this item as it presented a little bit of mystery. I came to the Housman collection knowing nothing about classics so when I began a spot of research to find what text Housman might be referencing I was entering a whole new world of academia, and found it very rewarding when I was eventually able to identify the Aeneid reference.

The T. Martin Higham Collection: some classical papers


Similarly to the Mackail letter, I enjoyed cataloguing these classical papers as they gave me lots of work to do.

However, unlike the Mackail letter, I had little backup. For the letters, there are Archie Burnett’s catalogue records and the complete publication edition from 2007 which gives transcriptions and footnotes. For these papers, there are no such supporting materials. Usually, Burnett’s catalogue records would give me a starting point, but in this specific case, they did not.

For this collection of classical notes, Burnett’s record is minimal, and if I wanted to create individual item records I needed to do more independent work.

I was able to get to grips with Housman’s methodology of citing texts in these notes and identify links between items in the group.

The Dr Michael Symons Collection: ‘Stray Verses’ by A.E. Housman

AEH/3/3/1: MS: ‘Stray Verses’ by Alfred Edward Housman

In the Dr Michael Symons Collection there are various papers from A.E. Housman’s direct family: mostly from his sisters’, Katharine (Michael Symons’ grandmother) and Clemence, but also from his brother Laurence.

These include several versions of Housman’s nonsense poetry. He wrote in this style as a child as part of their games, but he resurrected it to write for his nephews and nieces, and when one of his brothers fell ill.

Included in the collection is a notebook full of Housman’s nonsense poetry, written out by his siblings. It includes some of the educational nonsense poems Housman wrote for his nephew Arthur, such as ‘The Latin author Lucan’.

Although this poem is apparently poking fun at Lucan, Housman spent a lot of time working on his writings; he even published an acclaimed edition of his writings in 1926: M. Annaei Lucani Belli Ciuilis Libri Decem.

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