Our earliest gift: ‘185 Volumes Presented by Nathaniel Vye, Esq.’

In 1838, Senate Minutes recorded the gift of 185 volumes from Nathaniel Vye, esq.: a medical practitioner in Ilfracombe who died two years later, aged 49. These were among the very first books to enter the University of London and become part of its library. Unlike some educational reports given at the same time, the items constituting the gift were not listed. But in 2013, the cataloguing of early printed books led to the serendipitous discovery of a couple of books with a pencilled note in the front stating: ‘N. Vye’ or ‘Nath. Vye’ and the number of volumes (e.g. “N. Vye, 1 Vol.”).

Marbled endpapers

A hunt for more followed. Many of the books that came from Vye are bound in marbled calf with a gilt border, and have gilt flowers on the spine: each compartment between the false raised bands on the spine has one flower in the centre and four small ones in the corners. This uniform binding made it possible to walk along the shelves picking out Vye books from their external appearance. A methodical search followed by reading the University Library’s first catalogue, from 1876, identifying books printed before 1838 which were not marked as having come from other sources, and inspecting them. Several of Nathaniel Vye’s books are bound with distinctive bright blue or pink paste endpapers. This was a method of producing patterned endpapers that was particularly prevalent in Germany in the last third of the eighteenth century, when most of the books in the Vye gift were issued. Opening books and seeing these endpapers proclaimed them to be Vye’s before looking at any other evidence. All the books had the first ownership stamp used by the University of London – a rectangular stamp discarded by the time the Library’s foundation collections arrived in 1871 – and 141 of the 185 volumes given by Vye to the University can be identified by a pencilled note of the kind that initiated the quest. Ultimately it was possible to reconstruct the entire gift: 98 titles covering above all German eighteenth-century devotional literature, with belles lettres and history prominent among the rest.


Who was Nathaniel Vye? And what precisely did he give? For more information, including a speculative list of the entire donation, see this newly published article:

K.E. Attar, ‘The University of London’s Earliest Books (1838): 185 Volumes Presented by Nathaniel Vye, Esq.’, Library & Information History, 32 (2016), 100-11.

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