Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ellis, Henry (1777-1869)

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ELLIS, Sir HENRY (1777–1869), principal librarian of the British Museum, born in London on 29 Nov. 1777, was educated at Merchant Taylors' School, where his brother, the Rev. John Joseph Ellis, was assistant-master for forty years. In 1796, having gained one of the Merchant Taylors' exhibitions at St. John's College, he matriculated at Oxford, and in 1798, by the interest of his friend Price, Bodleian librarian, was appointed one of the two assistants in the Bodleian Library, the other being his subsequent colleague in the museum, the Rev. H. H. Baber. In the same year he published at the age of twenty-one his ‘History of St. Leonard's, Shoreditch, and Liberty of Norton Folgate,’ an earnest of the laborious industry and the zeal for antiquarian pursuits which were to distinguish him all his life. He took the degree of B.C.L. in 1802. He was a fellow of St. John's till 1805. In 1800 he was appointed a temporary assistant in the library of the British Museum, and in 1805 he became assistant-keeper of printed books under the Rev. W. Beloe. The unfortunate robbery of prints which cost Beloe his appointment in the following year [see Beloe, William; Dighton, Robert] raised Ellis most unexpectedly to the headship of the department, Baber, his former senior at the Bodleian, becoming his assistant. His promotion coincided with a period of increased activity at the museum. Already, in 1802, three attendants had been appointed to relieve the officers of the duty of conducting visitors over the establishment; and in 1807 the trustees, finding that this relief had not occasioned any remarkable increase of official labour, took serious steps to expedite the compilation of new and more accurate catalogues. The printed catalogue of the library was at that time comprised in two folio volumes, full of inaccuracies, but provided with a manuscript supplement, and to a considerable extent revised and corrected in manuscript by Beloe's predecessor, the Rev. S. Harper. Ellis and Baber commenced their work of reconstruction in March 1807, and completed it in December 1819. The length of the operation may be partly accounted for by Ellis's transfer to the department of manuscripts in 1812; he continued, however, to attend to the catalogue for some time afterwards, and completed the portion he had originally undertaken, being from A to F and from P to R inclusive, Baber doing all the rest. According to his own statement he derived great assistance from the learned Bishop Dampier; his portion of the catalogue, nevertheless, has been most severely criticised by his successor Panizzi; and it cannot be denied that errors have been pointed out damaging not only to his character for scholarship, but to his better established reputation for industry. It must be remembered, on the other hand, that the standard of catalogue-making was by no means high at the period, that Ellis worked nearly single-handed, and that his catalogue is, after all, a great improvement on its predecessor, and is even now, from its simplicity and brevity, frequently found useful by visitors to the reading-room. He had meanwhile, besides removing to the manuscripts department, accepted (1814) the then almost sinecure office of secretary to the museum, and in the same year he became secretary to the Society of Antiquaries. His diligence in this post was most exemplary; during the forty years for which he held it he only missed two meetings, and his contributions to the ‘Archæologia’ are exceedingly numerous. His catalogue of the society's manuscripts was published in 1816; in the same year he edited the ‘Additamenta’ to Domesday Book. His general introduction to this national record, written in 1813, was published in a separate form in 1833. It is unquestionably the most valuable of his antiquarian labours, and a work of very great importance. He also, in conjunction with Caley and others, edited Dugdale's ‘Monasticon’ between 1817 and 1833, and turned his position as head of the manuscript department to account in the publication of ‘Original Letters illustrative of English History,’ mostly drawn from originals in the museum. Three series of this invaluable collection appeared, in 1824, 1827, and 1846 respectively. The first is in three volumes, the others each in four. None of his publications is so well known, and it is as important to the historical student as delightful to the general reader. He also drew up, as secretary, several useful guides to the various departments of the museum. In 1827 Planta, the principal librarian [q. v.], died, and Ellis, who had for nine years taken a large share of his duties, naturally expected to succeed him. When, however, in compliance with the act of parliament, two names for the vacancy were submitted to the crown, that of Henry Fynes Clinton [q. v.], the renowned chronologist, a protégé of Archbishop Manners Sutton, was placed before Ellis. It is said that Ellis was actually named first, but that an unauthorised change was effected. It is also said that Ellis obtained redress by pursuing the carriage of the royal physician, Sir William Knighton, and enlisting his good offices with the king. It is certain that for the only time in the history of the museum the name first submitted was set aside, and that Ellis obtained the office, 20 Dec. 1827. In 1832 he was made a knight of Hanover, an honour which he shared with Herschel, Madden, and others, and he was knighted next year. The museum, unfortunately, was then at a low ebb, both as regarded public favour and public usefulness. Ellis, who might have presided creditably over an institution which he had found in a high state of efficiency, was not the man to raise it out of a low one. His administrative faculties, which had served him well during a period of mere routine, were inadequate to cope with the rapidly augmenting demands of the country and the inevitable, almost involuntary, increase of the institution. His views, though natural enough at the beginning of the century, seemed strangely illiberal in the era of the Reform Bill; he told the parliamentary committee of 1835 that if the museum were not closed for three weeks in the autumn, ‘the place would positively become unwholesome,’ and that it would never do to open it on Saturdays, when ‘the most mischievous part of the population was abroad.’ He possessed, indeed, few qualifications for the chief office except industry and kindness of heart, and the latter very essential quality certainly went too far with him. After the revelations of the parliamentary committee of 1835–6 the trustees could but recognise the necessity for a thorough change of management, which they endeavoured to obtain by devolving the most laborious of the principal librarian's duties on the secretary, who suddenly became the most important officer in the museum. During his ascendency, Ellis, though as ever industrious, active, loquacious, and seemingly unconscious of any change in his position, was virtually superseded as chief officer; and when the committee of 1848–9 made an end of this anomalous state of things by uniting the offices of secretary and principal librarian, the time for any effectual exercise of authority on his part had long gone by. Panizzi was the real ruler of the museum, and it says much for Ellis's placability that he should have so cordially accepted the direction of one who had assailed him with a contemptuous acerbity which would have been inconceivable if the condition of the museum at the time had not been absolutely anarchical. Excellent health and the absence of any machinery for compulsory retirement kept Ellis at his post until February 1856, when he resigned on a pension, and lived thirteen years more close to the museum, full of geniality, urbanity, and anecdote to the last. He was director of the Society of Antiquaries 1853–7. He died at his house in Bedford Square 15 Jan. 1869. A diligent antiquary and an amiable man, he could scarcely be blamed if the altered circumstances of his times rendered him unequal to a post which at an earlier period he would have filled with distinction.

[Obituary notices in Athenæum, Notes and Queries, and Illustrated News; Edwards's Founders of the British Museum; Robinson's History of Merchant Taylors' School; Reports of British Museum Committees, 1835 and 1849.]

R. G.