HC Deb 24 July 1822 vol 7 cc1737-40

The House having resolved itself into a committee on this subject,

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

expatiated on the advantages of having an uniform and regular edition of our Antient Historians published by authority and at the public expence. This was the more necessary, because individuals were in the habit of printing imperfect copies, which were very carelessly collated, if collated at all. He hoped that even at the present time, when the public money required to be expended with so much care, a sum, which probably would not exceed 2,000l. a year, might be spared for this purpose. He concluded by moving, "That an humble address be presented to his Majesty, to represent to his Majesty, that the editions of the works of our Antient Historians are incorrect and defective; that many of their writings still remain in manuscript, and in some cases in a single copy only; and that an uniform and convenient edition of the whole, published under his Majesty's royal sanction, would be an undertaking honourable to his Majesty's reign, and conducive to the advancement of Historical and Constitutional knowledge: That this House, therefore, humbly beseeches his Majesty to give such directions as his Majesty in his wisdom may think fit, for the publication of a Complete Edition of the Antient Historians of this Realm: and that this House begs leave to assure his Majesty, that whatever expense may be necessary for this purpose will be made good by this House."

Sir J. Mackintosh

felt great satisfaction in seconding the motion, and considered the work proposed to be one of the very highest utility. Generally speaking, the government of England was a little in arrear as to its patronage of literature; but it was highly creditable to the state of society in this country, that we saw works got up by individual enterprise which in other countries would have required the assistance of the legislature. With respect to the work in question, however, there were a variety of causes—the great capital required—the great devotion of time—the limited extent of probable sale—and certain laws which pressed heavily upon the publication of expensive works—which were likely to prevent its being performed by individual speculation. For the conductor of the work there was an individual (Mr. Petrie, of the Tower) eminently qualified; and if he were not employed immediately, the desire of employing him might come too late. The work would be a history of the progress of the constitution; and, as such, it would be extremely valuable; and, whatever might be the anxiety not to spend the public money unnecessarily, there could, he thought, be no objection to the principle of the address.

Mr. Hume

did not object to the measure, but he hoped that the business would not turn out as the institution of the Irish Record Office had done. More than 70,000l had been paid by the public to that establishment, and the result obtained was trifling indeed. He should recommend, with respect to the work now proposed, the presenting of an annual report to parliament.

Mr. Goulburn

said, that the matter was under consideration. It should be remembered, however, that if the proceeds had been small, the work was of a most laborious and intricate description.

Mr. Hudson Gurney

trusted, that what had fallen from the hon. member for Aberdeen respecting the Irish commission of records (of which Mr. G. said he knew nothing), would not be construed to the prejudice of the proceedings of the commission of records in England. In fact, apparent slowness of proceeding was of the first importance. No man not employed in it, could appreciate the degree of patient labour which was required, first in becoming acquainted with, and then in examining and arranging the materials, before works of this nature could, with any hope either of correctness or completeness, be committed to the press. It was well known the public were indebted to lord Colchester, the late Speaker of that House, for the establishment of the Record Commission; for which he considered that noble lord entitled to the gratitude of his country; our records being, he believed, the most ancient and least imperfect of those of any nation in Europe, but, in their then state, for the most part inaccessible, perishable if not perishing, scattered, and uncalendared. The object of the commission was therefore to preserve and render them accessible as documents, by printing and indexing them; and the only error at first committed was the hurrying the sub-commissioners somewhat too much—probably in order to have something to shew for the money expended—by which some of the earlier volumes were rendered less perfect than they otherwise might have been.—As to the object more immediately before the House, almost every nation in Europe had published, or was now publishing, an authorized edition of their earlier national historians; and he considered it a circumstance of great good fortune that the work was to be commenced here at a period when we had the benefit of a gentleman ready to undertake it, gifted with the extraordinary qualifications for the execution of such task, which were combined in the present keeper of the Records (Mr. Petric), who came to the work prepared by the labour of a life, and, with a knowledge of his subject which probably had never been attained by any other individual.—With regard to the expense of the undertaking, it was one which might ultimately be expected nearly, if not quite, to defray itself; the slowness of the return being, in a pecuniary point of view, the only reason why it could not have been ventured on as a private speculation. It must be obvious, however, how imperfectly any association of individuals could have carried through a collection of this nature, where the authority of government could alone give those facilities for search and collation which would be necessary for its completion.—It should at the same time be observed, that in the sale of this, and any other of the publications the commission of records, there would be a wide difference; all their other works being merely of such document as would be purchased by public libraries, and by, such persons as were engaged in a particular line of study only. The sale though certain must, of these, be extremely slow: but, in the case of the National Historians, the direct reverse might be looked to. All those persons, now extremely numerous, who were collecting, libraries of any nature or extent, would be certain to purchase them. So that in fact, after the first volume or two, it seemed very doubtful whether the work would require from the public funds any considerable assistance.

Mr. Bennet

said, he never gave a vote in his life with more satisfaction than the present, but he should wish to see it a work of general utility, and one which, devoid of unnecessary splendour, might find easy circulation.

Mr. Wynn

said, he did not wish for any unnecessary splendour, but still the work should be published in a manner worthy of their character.

Mr. Bright

hoped the ancient works would be published at full length.

The resolution was agreed to.