The Abdication Speech of George III

Professor Arthur Burns, Vice Dean for Education, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Professor of Modern British History, King’s College London

There are few more dramatic incidents in the recent history of the British monarchy than the abdication of Edward VIII on 11 December 1936, not least because the act was captured in such a vivid manner in the speech Edward delivered the same day on the radio. The occasion is often referred to simply as ‘The Abdication Crisis’, no doubt partly because such renunciation of the throne has been a rare occurrence in the history of the British monarchy. In Scotland Mary Queen of Scots had been forced to abdicate in favour of the thirteen-month old James VI (later I of England) in 1567.  It was convenient for some of his subjects to believe that James II of England had abdicated the throne in 1688, but this was a legal fiction designed to disguise the constitutional implications of his deposition. In fact no English monarch had voluntarily relinquished the throne since Anglo-Saxon kings such as Centwine (king of the West Saxons 676-85) and his successor Caedwalla (685-8) had done so for religious reasons, the former to enter a monastery, the latter to seek baptism at Rome.

There was at least one other monarch who contemplated voluntary abdication, however, and more than once, in the course of his 59 years on the throne: George III. The first occasion on which George seriously considered abdication came in 1782, when the king got as far as drawing up a terse declaration of his intention to abdicate for delivery to parliament.[1] This followed crushing blows related to the war with America: first the military disaster of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis and the capture of his army following the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781; secondly the passing in the House of Commons of a motion against the further prosecution of the war on the 27 February 1782, signalling the doom of Lord North’s administration (North would resign as First Lord of the Treasury on 20 March) and indicating the lack of support in the House for the king’s preferred policy of resisting American independence at all costs. No decisive evidence has yet been found of precisely why or when the king changed his mind, although his Lord Chancellor Edward Thurlow for one certainly sought to dissuade him and instead to accept the unwelcome inevitability of a ministry headed by Charles Watson Wentworth, marquess of Rockingham, whose supporters not only sought an end to the war and the concession of American Independence, but also promoted measures designed to curb what they saw as the undue influence of the monarch in parliament.

It was not long before George was once more driven to consider his position. The following year Lord Shelburne, who had succeeded Rockingham as premier on the latter’s unexpected and sudden death in July 1782, offered his resignation on 24 February 1783 following a defeat in the Commons over the terms of the peace then being negotiated. There followed five weeks which the historian John Cannon correctly identifies as ‘one of the most protracted cabinet crises in British history’.[2] Shelburne’s fall had been a consequence in part of the formation of a new and remarkable political alliance between George’s estranged former premier Lord North, and Charles James Fox, a leading figure in the Rockingham party — and a politician personally offensive to the king, hated on account both of his apparently malign influence on the prince of Wales and his vituperative critique of Lord North’s American policy. Until the end of March the king desperately sought to form a new administration that could save him from humiliation: the creation of a ministry from the unnatural and hostile coalition of Fox’s and North’s followers, ‘men who I know I cannot trust’ and who, by imposing conditions for taking office, would make him ‘a kind of slave’.[3] He finally conceded defeat and allowed Fox and North to kiss hands on 2 April 1783.

Fragment of ‘Draft of a message of abdication from George III to the Parliament’ (1783?) RA GEO/MAIN/5367. Royal Archives / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

The draft of an abdication speech in the king’s hand reproduced and transcribed here was written during the endgame of this process (it is undated, but historians concur in attributing it to the last week of March 1783; on the 28th the king told Thurlow that he was perhaps only a couple of days away from delivering it).[4] He had already countenanced the thought earlier in the month, telling John Dunning, Lord Ashburton, that he had prepared an abdication address ‘without assistance’.[5]  The seriousness of the proposal is underlined by the survival of a contemporaneous draft letter to the prince of Wales in which George spoke of ‘a cruel dilemma’, leaving him ‘but one step to take without destruction of my principles and honour; the resigning of my crown’.[6] Just how cruel a dilemma it was is in turn emphasised by the fact that George was prepared to see the prince of Wales, not yet come of age, prematurely promoted to his throne despite the serious reservations the father entertained about his fitness to rule. (Indeed he wrote to Thomas Thynne, Viscount Weymouth, that he envisaged that, were this to come to pass, his son would become ‘the puppet …. the House of Commons [is] not disinclined to see their sovereign’.)[7] The king was, however, eventually persuaded that there were better options by Thurlow and William Pitt the Younger’s cousin Thomas, MP for Old Sarum, the key argument being perhaps that, if the king systematically and visibly starved his new government of patronage and support, it would soon be rendered sufficiently unpopular that it would not long survive.[8]

If we examine the text of the speech itself, a number of things strike the reader. That care was taken in the writing is apparent from the corrections made to the draft.  Given the context in which the proposed abdication is usually mentioned – the loss of America – it is worth noting how little of the speech is directly concerned with this issue. The casual reader might wonder why this was not the public justification for abdication at this moment: either because George could not persuade politicians to resist the concession of defeat; or simply from defeat in the cause which he had to such an extent made his own. But this would be to underestimate the importance of George’s providential understanding of history and his own life, articulated in the final paragraph with reference to the future of the kingdom under the prince of Wales. At a certain point the loss of America had to be acknowledged as a providential outcome rather than resisted or ignored. The address reflects the fact that by this point George had finally come to accept defeat.

Such an understanding, however, did not preclude – indeed it necessitated – a clear understanding of the course of events which had led to this outcome. The speech very clearly sets out the analysis, both short and long-term, at which the king had arrived by March 1783. He was clear in his belief that, as he stated near the start of the speech, ‘Unanimity … must have rendered Britain invulnerable though attacked by the most powerful combinations’. Therefore the fact that it had proved only too vulnerable could be attributed to the absence among the governing political class of ‘the first of public Virtues, attachment to the Country’, this having been replaced by ‘selfish views’. This development in turn George attributed to the decline of a proper ‘sense of Religious and Moral Duties in this Kingdom’, to which ‘every Evil that has arisen owes its Source’.[9] And here we see George placing the immediate context of the loss of America within a much longer timeframe, one bringing into consideration the whole history of the high politics of the nation since his accession in 1760 and indeed before. In particular, he located the actions of leading politicians in the cabinet crisis within a much broader interpretation of the actions of a political class who had collectively frustrated the ambitions which he had set out for himself as monarch on his accession, and indeed trespassed upon his royal prerogatives. His efforts to recruit the brightest and the best to his government had been continually obstructed by politicians’ refusal to serve unless in particular combinations (of factions or parties) or on particular conditions regarding policy or personnel. Here ‘the powerful party that has long publicly manifested a resolution not to aid in the service of their country’ clearly fingered the Rockinghamite branch of the whig tradition and Charles James Fox. At key moments, moreover, he felt himself to have been abandoned by those who should have felt an obligation to continue to serve as long as their king desired it: here Lord North was clearly in the firing line. It was thus the internal crisis of the British polity, identified by both George and his opponents in parliament, but attributed by the latter rather to his own attempt to redefine the position of the monarch, which was for George the main justification for the threat of abdication, not the loss of America, which he understood as its consequence.

The sense of disillusion here is underlined by George’s proposition that, on his abdication, he should retire to Hanover, ‘my electoral dominions [and] the original patrimony of my ancestors’. This was of course in one sense the obvious place for ‘exile’ – but it was nevertheless clearly a pointed remark from a king who explicitly recalled that, in his accession speech in the same venue as he intended for this address, he had announced that ‘Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Briton’ above his association with what he had once called the ‘horrid electorate’. Several historians have in fact identified what amounts to a ‘Hanoverian turn’ in George III’s orientation during the mid-1780s, crystallised in 1785 in his negotiating independently of his ministers regarding involvement in a north German Fürstenbund (league of princes). One should not underestimate his engagement with Hanover even before this, but it may be that this British constitutional crisis played a part in any reconfiguration of his priorities.[10]

This document has usually been considered in the context of George’s struggles with party politicians or as part of the fall-out from the crisis in America. This may explain why one interesting question it provokes has received insufficient attention. Where did George get the idea of abdicating from? The fiction of James II’s abdication would clearly not have been a welcome precedent, quite apart from the fact that it was taken to apply equally to James’s heirs, leaving parliament to determine the succession, whereas George explicitly designated this for his son. In that George spoke of retiring to Hanover, his proposed abdication had more in common with the action of another monarch presiding over a multiple kingdom, the abdication on his accession to the Spanish throne in 1759 of Charles III from the monarchies of Naples and Sicily in favour of his son. However, in this instance not only was the relationship between the status of the positions involved the inverse of that between the British monarchy and the electorate of Hanover, but there had been no hint of monarchical failure in the rationale. We’ve already seen that there were no other English precedents. Did it come from the classical precedents of the emperor Diocletian or dictator Sulla? If nothing else, the proposal underlines the significance for understanding George III as monarch of the various essays he composed as a young man and which form part of the first release of documents under the Georgian Papers Programme. In these he reflected on forms of government, the constitutional history of Britain and Europe, and on politics. This was a king who had thought long and hard about what it was to be king, and who in the document before us instinctively referred back to his understanding of that role at the point at which he had ascended the throne in 1760. George was also clear that he knew what it was to be a good king; and it was against this measure that, in 1783, faced by what appeared momentarily an irresolvable crisis, he judged that he could no longer be of ‘utility’ to his kingdom. In that circumstance, his own understanding of what it meant to be a good king meant that it was time for him to go.


Note: In this transcription, the underlinings of the document are reproduced; these appear to represent intended deletions. The text in italics and square brackets indicates material that has been added between the lines of the original text in the document. Spelling, punctuation and capitalization follow the original.

Page 1 of 4 of Draft of a message of abdication from George III to the Parliament, RA GEO/MAIN/5367. Royal Archives/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

The original document is available online here.

I cannot at the most serious, as well as most painful moment of My Life, go out of this Great Assembly, without communicating to You My Intentions, not asking Your Advice.

The first time I appeared as Your Sovereign in this place now above twenty two years, I had the pleasing hope that being born among You, I might have proved the happy Instrument of conciliating all Parties and thus collecting to the Service of the State the most respectable and most able Persons this Kingdom produced. Of this object I have never lost sight, though sad experience now teaches Me that selfish Views are so prevalent that they have smothered the first of public Virtues, attachment to the Country, which ought to warm the breast of every Individual who enjoys the advantage of this excellent Constitution, and the want of which Sentiment has prevented that Unanimity which must have rendered Britain invulnerable, though attacked by the most Powerful Combinations.

My own Inclination to alleviate the Distresses of my People, added to the Change of Sentiments of one branch of the Legislature which rendered the real object of the War impracticable, made Me undertake the arduous task of obtaining the Blessings of Peace, rendered indeed more difficult by the Resolution above alluded to. I cannot sufficiently acknowledge the candour with which the Courts of France and Spain have conducted themselves during the Negociation of the Preliminary Articles, which greatly accelerated that desirable Work.

Circumstances have since arisen that might make those Courts more doubtful of the stability of the Councils of this Country, in forming the Definitive Treaties. I have therefore again attempted to collect the most efficient Men of all Parties that [who] under My Inspection the completion of Peace might be speedily and effectually concluded. [might with dispatch  and confidence proceed on forming the Definitive Articles.] But this Patriotic attempt has proved unsuccessful by the obstinacy of a powerful party that has long publicly manifested a resolution not to aid in the Service of their Country, but if employed to have the exclusive management of this Country and who has on[ce] again declined any assistance but agreeable to its own ambitious views, And the [the Empire, unless the whole Exclusive management of Affairs is thrown entirely in its hands, and from which it has not on this Occasion departed; at this same time] want of Zeal prevents others from standing forth at this critical conjuncture; to become the tool of a Party neither My Duty to the Station I hold among you nor to[o] my own Character will permit. [My obedience to the Oath I took at my Coronation prevents my exceeding the powers vested in Me, or submitting to be a Cypher in the trammels of any self created band.]

I must therefore to end a conflict which certainly puts a stop to every wheel of Government make a final Decision, and that I think my self compelled to do in this Assembly of the whole Legislature.

A long Experience and a serious attention to the Strange Events that have successively arisen, has gradually prepared My mind to expect the time when I should be no longer of Utility to this Empire; that hour is now come; I am therefore resolved to resign My Crown and all the Dominions appertaining to it to the Prince of Wales my Eldest Son and Lawful Successor and to retire to the care of My Electoral Dominions the Original Patrimony of my Ancestors. For which purpose I shall Draw up and Sign an Instrument to which I shall affix my Private Seal. I trust this Personal Sacrifice will awaken the various parties to a Sense of their Duty and that they will join in the Support and Assistance of the Young Successor.

You may depend on my arduous attention to Educate My Children in the Paths of Religion, Virtue and every other good Principle that may render them if ever called in any Line to the Service of Great Britain, not unworthy of the kindness they may hereafter meet with from a People whom collective I shall ever Love.

May that All Wise Providence who can direct the inmost thoughts as well as Actions of Men give My Son and Successor not only every assistance in guiding his Conduct, but Restore that sense of Religious and Moral Duties in this Kingdom to the want of which every Evil that has arisen owes its Source; and may I to the latest hour of my Life, though now resolved forever to quit this Island, have the Comfort of hearing that the Endeavours of My Son, though they cannot be more Sincere than Mine have been for the Prosperity of Great Britain, be Crowned with better Success.

[1] Sir J. Fortescue (ed.), The Correspondence of King George the Third, 6 vols (London, Macmillan, 1927-8), v. 425, no. 3601 [March 1782]:

‘His Majesty during the twenty one years he has sate on the throne of Great Britain, has had no object so much at heart as the maintenance of the British Constitution, of which the difficulties he has at times met with from his scrupulous attachment to the rights of Parliament are sufficient proofs.

His Majesty is convinced that the sudden change of sentiments in one branch of the legislature has totally incapacitated him from either conducting the war with effect, or from obtaining any peace but on conditions that would prove destructive to the commerce as well as essential rights of the British nation.

His Majesty therefore with much sorrow finds he can be of no further utility to his native country which drives him to the painful step of quitting it for ever.

In consequence of which intention His Majesty resigns the crown of Great Britain and the dominions pertaining thereto to his dearly beloved son and lawful successor, George Prince of Wales, whose endeavours for the prosperity of the British Empire he hopes may prove more successful.’

[2] John Cannon, The Fox-North Coalition: Crisis of the Constitution, 1782-4 (Cambridge, University Press, 1969), p. 65.

[3] George III to Prince of Wales, draft, Mar. 1783, reproduced in A. Aspinall (ed.), The Correspondence of George Prince of Wales, 1770-1812, i. 1770-1789 (London, 1963), no. 71.

[4] See e.g. Cannon, Fox-North Coalition, p. 79 fn. 2. A pencil date of ‘1782’ on the reverse is a later addition.

[5] Cannon, Fox-North Coalition, 72 fn. 2 plausibly suggests that this draft is that preserved as Royal Archives,  GEO/MAIN/5366, reproduced as Fortescue (ed.), Correspondence of King George, vi. no. 4259.

[6] George III to Prince of Wales, draft, Mar. 1783, in Aspinall (ed.), Correspondence of George Prince of Wales, no. 71.

[7] George III to Lord Weymouth, 25 Mar. 1783, no. 447 in Fortescue (ed.), Correspondence of King George, vi.

[8] The king would, however, once more at least mention the possibility of abdication, in a letter to Pitt the Younger as the latter struggled to form a ministry over Christmas 1783: see Cannon, Fox-North Coalition, p. 153, citing Geo III to Pitt, 23 December 1783, British Library, Add.  MS. 42772, fo. 3.

[9] Four years later George would issue a ‘Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality’ which explicitly linked this to avoiding divine retribution on the nation as a whole.

[10] See on this e.g. the work of Torsten Riotte, esp. ‘George III and Hanover’, in Brendan Simms and Torsten Riotte (eds.), The Hanoverian Dimension in British History 1714-1837 (Cambridge, University Press, 2007), pp. 58-85.

[11] Published as Sir J. Fortescue (ed.), The Correspondence of King George the Third, 6 vols (London, Macmillan, 1927-8), vi. no. 4260 [?28 March 1783].

Material from the Georgian period in our library collections

Katie Sambrook, Head of Special Collections, King’s College London

The rich holdings of the Foyle Special Collections Library at King’s College London include some 10,000 printed and manuscript items from the Georgian period. Their subject scope is broad, with particularly strong coverage of political history, exploration and travel, science and medicine.


Political history


The transfer to King’s in 2007 of the historical library collection of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) greatly enriched our holdings of material documenting the political history, both domestic and foreign, of the Georgian period. For much of its long history, the Foreign Office Library (formally founded in1782) fulfilled functions over and above those normally assigned to a library. The librarian not only acquired, documented and managed collections of books and papers; he had custody of all treaties with foreign powers, maintained correspondence files and undertook research on all aspects of international affairs at the request of ministers. The collection was thus very much a working tool of government, its contents handled and often annotated by government officials and used to inform and influence British foreign policy. Large bound volumes of declarations of war (1796-1813), treaties of peace (1814-41) and royal marriage treaties (1736-1893) were assembled by the Foreign Office for reference purposes; some of their contents are in printed form, others in manuscript.  Other notable manuscript material includes a register of the correspondence sent and received by the Foreign Office during foreign secretary Castlereagh’s attendance at the Congress of Vienna from September 1814 to June 1815.


The library collection of the Colonial Office (formally founded in 1854) and its predecessor departments fulfilled a similar function for colonial affairs.  Eight large volumes of printed and manuscript material with the title Colonial estimates document official budgetary allocations to the expanding British Empire from 1782 to 1890.  A slim manuscript volume, entitled An essay on the commercial and political importance of ye island of Tabago [sic], dated 1810 and illustrated with charming watercolour maps and landscape views, represents a compelling but unavailing attempt by Tobago’s governor, Sir William Young, to persuade the London government to make this small island Britain’s principal naval and commercial base in the Caribbean. A folio manuscript volume of 1796, entitled Sketches of the political and commercial history of the Cape of Good Hope includes an introductory essay by Henry Dundas, then secretary of state for war, setting out his stance on how Britain should govern its newest overseas possession. The volume contains a circulation slip, initialled by members of the Cabinet to show that they had read it. Dundas advocates governing the Cape with a light touch, leaving existing Dutch government structures broadly intact and introducing any changes gradually. He states:

I lay it down as a fundamental principle that Great Britain must never attempt to hold possession of the Cape on the principles of a strict colonial connexion.

Watercolour view of Man o’ War Bay, Tobago, from ‘An essay on the commercial and political importance of ye island of Tabago’, by William Young (1749-1815). Image: King’s College London.
Coloured frontispiece of Table Bay, with Cape Town and Table Mountain in the background and title page, from The importance of the Cape of Good Hope as a colony to Great Britain, by Richard Barnard Fisher, 1816. Image: King’s College London

 At this date Britain, preoccupied with its war with France, saw the Cape primarily as a strategic coastal staging post on the route to its Indian possessions. With the post-Waterloo peace would come a shift in thinking; Britain’s rule of the Cape would become more civil than military in character, as the Cape’s potential as a settler colony was realised, a development documented in such works as Richard Fisher’s The importance of the Cape of Good Hope as a colony to Great Britain (1816).


The printed holdings of the FCO Historical Collection amply reflect the main foreign and colonial policy questions of the Georgian period, with a particular emphasis on the latter. There is extensive coverage of colonial America and the American Revolution, particularly through pamphlet literature. Pamphlets include a 1776 London printing of Thomas Paine’s Common sense in which the publisher, John Almon, has left potentially seditious passages unprinted, the gaps in the text being subsequently filled in by hand, and a copy of Francis Maseres’ Considerations on the expediency of admitting representatives from the American colonies into the British House of commons (1770), annotated extensively by the leading campaigner for the abolition of slavery, Granville Sharp.



The operation of the Atlantic slave trade, its abolition in 1807 and the eventual emancipation of all slaves in Britain’s Caribbean colonies from 1833 were the focus of fierce debate in the pamphlet literature of the day, and the FCO Historical Collection contains hundreds of such publications, written by politicians, clergymen, plantation owners and others and reflecting every shade of opinion. Many of these pamphlets were printed in the Caribbean and are of considerable rarity. The Jamaican Maroon Wars of the 1730s and 1790s, the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s and the establishment by the Sierra Leone Company in 1792 of a settlement in West Africa for escaped slaves – all these developments are amply documented in books, pamphlets and parliamentary papers of the time, and again many of these items are of extreme rarity.


Leonard Parkinson, a Captain of the Maroons, taken from the Life, from The proceedings of the governor and Assembly of Jamaica, in regard to the Maroon Negroes, 1796. Image: King’s College London.

Complementing the multitude of pamphlets that poured off the presses of the Georgian Britain and elsewhere are more substantial works of political and economic theory, including some of incalculable influence on public discourse and events, such as David Hume’s Political discourses (1752), Adam Smith’s  Inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations  (1776) Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).


Exploration and travel


The richness of our holdings in the literature of exploration and travel from the Georgian period is due in part to the strength of the FCO Historical Collection in this field, but also to another important collection, the former library of William Marsden (1754-1836), who gave his library to King’s shortly before his death.


An East India Company official, who later became first secretary to the Admiralty, Marsden was an orientalist, numismatist, linguist and bibliophile, an active member of the Royal Society who enjoyed friendships with Joseph Banks, Alexander Dalrymple and others. His own published output includes an important Grammar of the Malayan language (1812) but perhaps his most significant achievement was the amassing of his collection of books and manuscripts, documented in Bibliotheca Marsdeniana philologica et orientalis:  a catalogue of books and manuscripts collected with a view to the general comparison of languages, and to the study of Oriental literature (1827). As the title of this catalogue suggests, Asia is a major strength of the collection, which contains such works as Mountstuart Elphinstone’s Account of the kingdom of Caubul (1815), describing the British diplomatic mission to Afghanistan of 1808, George Fitzclarence’s Journal of a route across India, through Egypt, to England (1819) and a copy of Sir George Staunton’s Authentic account of an embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China (1797), presented to Marsden by its author.

Title page in Tamil characters, from the New Testament, translated into Tamil by Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg and Johann Ernst Gründler, 1715. Image: King’s College London.
“A Dooraunee Gentleman’, a 19th century Afghan riding a horse, from An account of the kingdom of Caubul,  by Mountstuart Elphinstone, 1815. Image: King’s College London.

Marsden’s collecting interests were by no means confined to Asia, however, and the contents of his collection range from a 1765 grammar of the Andean language of Mapuche, printed in Lima, to a manuscript notebook containing an Icelandic vocabulary compiled or Joseph Banks in 1772 by Uno von Troil, Swedish theologian and later archbishop of Uppsala.


The discovery and exploration of Australia, the establishment of British colonial settlements in New South Wales and its subsequent development as both a penal colony and a destination for free emigration are themes documented in depth in our collections, primarily through the extensive holdings of the FCO Historical Collection.  Works by Dampier, De Brosses and Cook, among others, document the first European voyages to Australia, and there is extensive coverage of the arrival in New South Wales of the First Fleet and its results, through such works as governor Arthur Phillip’s account of the voyage of the First Fleet (1789) and surgeon-general John White’s Journal of a voyage to New South Wales (1790). There are extensive holdings of official or semi-official publications relating to the administration of New South Wales as a penal colony and the practicalities of convict transportation, as well as numerous pamphlets discussing the benefits and drawbacks of free emigration. The exploration and settlement of the Australian hinterland is also well documented, through such rarities as manuscript copies of surveyor John Oxley’s accounts of his 1817 and 1818 expeditions to trace the source of the Macquarie River and a copy of Gregory Blaxland’s Journal of a tour of discovery across the Blue Mountains in New South Wales (1823), believed to survive in only a handful of copies.

A Poto roo or kangaroo-rat, a type of Australian marsupial, from Journal of a voyage to New South Wales, by John White, 1790. Image: King’s College London

The naval officer and hydrographer Matthew Flinders is best known today for his circumnavigation of Australia and we hold a copy of his Voyage to Terra Australis (1814), but perhaps of equal interest is a large manuscript volume compiled by Flinders in 1807-8 during his imprisonment on the island of Mauritius; the volume mainly comprises accounts of Madagascar by other writers, transcribed,  translated and commented on by Flinders. The exploration of mainland Africa is amply documented in our collections, which include such important publications as Mungo Park’s Travels in the interior districts of Africa  (1799) and Thomas Bowditch’s 1819 account of the 1816 Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee.




We have extensive holdings of scientific publications from the Georgian period, with particular strengths in astronomy, engineering and natural history. Highlights include magnificently illustrated botanical works, such as William Curtis’s monumental Flora Londinensis (1777-98) and William Woodville’s  Medical botany (1790-93), beautifully illustrated with hand-coloured plates by James Sowerby, and masterpieces of 18th century technical writing, such as A narrative of the building and a description of the construction of the Edystone [sic] lighthouse (1793), by James Smeaton.  Works by Erasmus Darwin, Humphry Davy and Joseph Priestley, among others, are all well represented in our collections, and our copies of some of Nevil Maskelyne’s works on chronometers are from the collection of the King George III Museum.

Honeysuckle, from Flora Londinensis, by William Curtis (1777-98). Image: King’s College London




Medicine is another strength of our Georgian period collections. King’s has a rich medical tradition,  incorporating not only the foundation of King’s College Hospital in 1840 but the merger in the 1990s with two far older teaching hospitals, St Thomas’s (originally a medieval foundation) and Guy’s, founded in 1721.  All these institutions assembled large collections of 18th and 19th century medical books, and there is surprisingly little duplication of holdings between their respective historical collections.


Many of the Georgian period medical books in our collection originally belonged to the Physical Society of Guy’s Hospital. Founded in 1771 and active until 1852, the Physical Society, membership of which was open to apothecaries, physicians and surgeons , held weekly meetings, hosted lectures and ran a lending library. It played an important role in fostering debate on medical and scientific matters, and many of its leading members, such as Astley Cooper, whose works are well represented in the collection, were also instrumental in establishing the formidable reputation of Guy’s Hospital as a centre for medical education in the early 19th century.  Somewhat surprising to 21st century eyes is the presence in the Physical Society’s collection of a copy of the second edition of Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English opium-eater (1823), bound with a copy of Samuel Merriman’s Synopsis of the various kinds of difficult parturition (1814).


The historical library collection of St Thomas’s Hospital is a similarly rich resource for the study of medicine in the Georgian period. The works of those associated with St Thomas’s are, as one would expect strongly represented, and include copies of William Cheselden’s magnificently illustrated Osteographia (1733), works on the plague written and formerly owned by the physician Richard Mead and a copy of Gilbert Blane’s Observations on the diseases incident to seamen (1785), inscribed by the author, a St Thomas’s physician who made pioneering discoveries on the link between scurvy and diet.

Frontispiece to Osteographia, by William Cheselden (1733). Image: King’s College London.

Many of our early 19th century medical books have now been digitised for the UK Medical Heritage Library.


Find out more


This summary of our Georgian holdings can only provide a snapshot of the richness of our collections, which span the humanities, social sciences and sciences.  From copies of the Tamil New Testament of 1715 (the first translation of the Bible into a language of India) and the Oriental miscellany of 1789 (the first printed rendition of Indian music in Western notation)  to copies of Samuel Johnson’s  Dictionary of the English language (1755) and volumes of 18th century English hymnals and chapbooks, our collections provide a rich and wide-ranging resource for anyone interested in the life and achievements of the Georgian period.


To find out more, please consult the library catalogue and the Foyle Special Collections Library’s web pages or contact Foyle Special Collections Library staff, who will be happy to provide further information.

King’s College London and its archives relating to the long eighteenth century

Patricia Methven, Programme Manager, Georgian Papers Programme, King’s College London

King’s College London was founded by Royal Charter in 1829 under the patronage of King George IV for which it is named. Sharing original goals with University College London, it sought to offer a metropolitan counterblast to both the perceived exclusivity and expense of Oxbridge and a practical education modelled on German practice. Where King’s differed in intent was on the matter of religion. Its launch meeting at the Freemasons tavern on 21st June 1828 set the tone. Chaired by the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, and attended by no less than seven archbishops and bishops the context of the College was firmly that of the Church of England although students were not required to be Anglicans. Focusing initially on the humanities, law, science and medicine, the vocational training of theology did not follow until 1846 when a need was recognised for an increase in the number of clergy willing to serve in the burgeoning number of city parishes.

Although hugely expanded in its locations on both sides of the River Thames, King’s original building is still in use located on Crown land granted to the College on a peppercorn rent, the site of the lumber yard of Somerset House. Whilst the suitability of the site raised questions in the press of the day, situated as it was alongside what we now know as the Dickensian rookeries or slums, it was also a burgeoning quarter of Georgian cultural interests. The original Somerset Palace, having been demolished in 1775, was gradually rebuilt and by the time the College opened its doors to students in 1831 was home to the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries, as well as the Navy Board. A number of members of these bodies supported the new College through serving as lectures or benefactors.

Amongst the earliest benefactors was William Marsden (1754-1836) a fellow of both the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries and between 1795- 1807 successively second and first secretary to the Admiralty. An early career in the East India Company including eight years in Sumatra inspired a fascination with language and a determined collecting interest in examples of early bibles in a variety of languages, a significant number of which were passed to the College in 1835. For more about Marsden and the College holdings of his print collection: Within  the Archives are held examples of 17th and 18th century grammars and vocabularies including examples in Welsh, Icelandic, Kannada, Tamil, Javanese and Tagalog; a manuscript letter from CTde Murr to Marsden , 24th February 1797 regarding the Bibliotheca universalis and accompanying translation; and an Ionian newspaper of 1805 concerning King George III.

Another early benefactor was Phillip Hammersley Leathes, an antiquarian, who the year before his death in 1838 donated a collection of books, papers and medals to the College. Leathes’s collecting interests were wide ranging and he was an active correspondent with other antiquarians. Materials and topics include the discovery of early brasses  in the foundations of St Dunstan in the West, Fleet Street; manuscript copies of a narrative by Mr Clare of the Lisbon earthquake, 1755; materials collected on the observations of the comets,1811-14; papers mostly relating to the provenance of the Portland Vase at the British Museum, 1811-25; devotional exercises, an illustrated autograph book previously opened by Casper Johann Northbeeg van Revel with entries dating between 1691-1702; manuscripts by John Anstis, Garter King of Arms, on memorials at Windsor Castle; funeral processions, women bearing arms and the manner of creation of various nobles; and a manuscript volume by Francis Harrison on the elements of navigation ,1757. Leathes interests are also reflected in a number of dictionaries compiled for different languages, genealogies, and examples of title deeds, wills, indentures and residency certificates, 1650-1770. Leathes’s collection also include papers collected in his capacity as the executor of John Carter (1748-1817) a fellow antiquarian and draughtsman. More workaday in nature than Leathes, these papers include samples of handwriting by way of trade cards, a number of drawings notably of architectural detail and memorials of and in chapels and churches and commissioned by wealthy antiquarians. Two volumes in particular (Leathes 7/4) are autobiographical in nature and include depictions of his patrons. They also reflect stories from his family’s history, as a gardener at Windsor Castle and the fortuitous damage to a sculpture in the family’s London premise occasioned by shot fired in pursuit of an escaping highwayman. A full catalogue to the collection may be consulted here:

Among the most remarkable holdings in the archives are manuscripts forming part of the King George III Museum collection. With the encouragement of Stephen Demainbray, astronomer and sometime tutor to the royal children, a private observatory was established in 1769 in Richmond in time to observe the Transit of Venus. This rare event had excited very wide ranging scientific interest with observations and readings being planned across the globe. Most notably the Royal Society of London commissioned Captain Cook to take readings in Tahiti with the specific intention of developing and testing an accurate way to calculate longitude which was regarded as essential to improving naval navigation out of sight of land.

First page of the manuscript notebook, ‘Observations on the Transit of Venus’ (K/MUS/1/1)

Closer to home, is the manuscript notebook (K/MUS/1/1) recording the detailed observations of the event made by the King himself and Demainbray on 3rd June, together with notes compiled by Abraham Gotthelf Kaestner, Professor of Mathematics and Natural History at the University of Gottingen at the Gottingen Observatory together with observations of an earlier lunar eclipse of 1768. These were observations were followed by further series  on the transit of the sun, 4th June -15th July  taken by Demainbray, Stephen Rigaud, Professor of Astronomy, Oxford and George Wollaston utilising a variety of regulator clocks (K/MUS/1/2) and of the solar eclipse, 4th June, taken by the Royal Astronomer, Nevil Maskelyne (K/MUS/1/3)  Associated volumes and texts reflect detailed work in setting up and testing equipment as well as observations reported by learned societies in Europe and made widely in Britain and reported  to the British press.

Another volume of 1772 (K/MUS/1/6) in the collection records measurements made during a test of the H5 chronometer created by John Harrison, the clock which finally offered critical accuracy in establishing longitude at sea. The most sustained observations made in the Observatory were the daily temperature, rainfall and pressure readings taken from 1773 to 1840 (see K/MUS/1/7-10).

Engraving of Prince Albert opening the George III Museum, King’s College London. 1843

The scientific equipment in use at the observatory eventually expanded to include mechanical demonstration equipment including spring balances, levers and an Archimedes screw; electrical apparatus including Leyden jars, electroscopes and batteries; and navigational and astronomical instruments including globes, orreries, theodolites, and telescopes. Some were plainly built and used in teaching by Demainbray, whilst others represented the finest examples of the instrument makers’ craftsmanship. In 1841 a decision was taken to disperse the collection. Some items were transferred to the British Museum and the Armagh Observatory and a small number retained by the Royal Household. The majority were presented to the College by Queen Victoria as the basis for a new King George III Museum where they could continue their use as a teaching collection and be available for public view.  Regular visitor books and accessions books were compiled (K/MUS/4). By 1926, however, the collection’s use for the teaching contemporary science had dwindled and the College transferred the collection on loan to the Science Museum. On display for many years, in 2018 significant items will form the nucleus of the Museum’s new Enlightenment gallery.

King’s College London’s own institutional archives include a rich record of its early days including minutes from 1828; correspondence; accounts and share certificates of early benefactors and contributors; title deeds from 1678 the earliest notably relating to properties near the original site in Strand Lane and Surrey Street; and student records from 1831. The twentieth century mergers of the College medical school with those of St Thomas’s and Guy’s Hospitals is reflected in in collections of prints, drawings, engravings and paintings of  people and hospital and nearby buildings in the Southwark and London Bridge respectively from 1720 and 1647 onwards. Student and pupil records date from the 1720s. Administrative records for both medical schools date from the early 19th century and for Guy’s there are also clinical records from 1801. Items of note for the 18th century include a surgical casebook, 1725-6, describing lithotomy and cataract surgery compiled by Charles Oxley and for Guy’s the papers of the weekly discussion group, the Physical Society, 1775-1851.