Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thomason, George

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THOMASON, GEORGE (d. 1666), the collector of the remarkable series of books and tracts issued during the period of the civil war and the Commonwealth, formerly known as the ‘King's Pamphlets,’ but now more often referred to as the ‘Thomason Collection,’ was a bookseller who carried on business at the sign of the Rose and Crown in St. Paul's Churchyard, London. He took up his freedom as a member of the Stationers' Company in 1626 (Arber, Transcript of the Register, iii. 686), and his name first appears in the entries of books on 1 Nov. 1627, when there was assigned to him, James Boler, and Robert Young, Martyn's ‘History of the Kings of England,’ of which a new edition, with portraits by R. Elstracke, was published by them in 1628. He does not appear to have published any books of much importance except the two narratives by Jean Puget de La Serre, the French historiographer, of the visits of Mary de' Medici to the Netherlands and to England—‘Histoire de l'Entrée de la Reyne Mere du Roy tres-chrestien dans les Prouinces Vnies des Pays-Bas,’ and ‘Histoire de l'Entrée de la Reyne Mere du Roy tres-chrestien dans la Grande-Bretaigne’—both of which were published by John Raworth, George Thomason, and Octavian Pullen in 1639, and were illustrated with plates engraved by Hollar and others.

In 1647 Thomason issued a trade catalogue bearing the title ‘Catalogus Librorum diversis Italiæ locis emptorum Anno Dom. 1647, a Georgio Thomasono Bibliopola Londinensi, apud quem in Cæmiterio D. Pauli ad insigne Rosæ coronatæ, prostant venales,’ which included among other books a number of works in oriental languages, and in 1648 the parliament directed that a sum of 500l. ‘out of the receipts at Goldsmiths' Hall should be paid to George Thomason for a collection of books in the Eastern languages, late brought out of Italy,’ that the same might be bestowed on the Public Library in Cambridge. In 1651 Thomason was implicated in the royalist and presbyterian plot [see Love, Christopher]. On confessing what he knew and giving bail for 1,000l. the council of state ordered his release (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1651, pp. 218, 230; Report on the Duke of Portland's MSS. i. 586, 590).

Thomason's chief claim to notice rests on the important collection which he formed of the books, pamphlets, and single sheets which poured forth from the press on both sides during the civil war and afterwards until the Restoration. The idea of collecting these ephemeral productions appears to have occurred to him first in 1641, and he began his task by seeking to procure copies of all such tracts and broadsides printed in the years immediately preceding as were still to be obtained. His sympathies were with the king, but he nevertheless collected impartially everything which appeared on both sides of the controversy, as well as many tracts from abroad which related to English affairs. He then, to use his own words, ‘proceeded with that chargeable and heavy burthen, both to myself and my servants that were employed in that business, which continued about the space of twenty years, in which time I buried three of them who took great pains both day and night with me in that tedious employment.’ He pursued his object steadily until 1662, by which time he had gathered together nearly twenty-three thousand separate articles, and he himself records that ‘exact care hath been taken that the very day is written upon most of them that they came out.’ He obtained also transcripts of ‘near one Hundred several MS. Pieces, that were never printed, all, or most of them on the King's behalf, which no man durst then venture to publish here without endangering his Ruine.’ This enormous mass of historical materials he arranged in chronological order and caused to be bound in about 1983 volumes. A catalogue which he drew up still remains in manuscript in the British Museum.

Some of the tracts have on them notes as to their authorship, or sarcastic comments if the opinions of their writers were not exactly those of their possessor; but he records with equal pride that one work had been ‘given me by Mr. Milton,’ and that another had been borrowed by the king and returned both speedily and safely.

The collection underwent many vicissitudes and caused much anxiety to its owner. Early in the days of the civil war it was hastily packed up and sent into Surrey, but afterwards, through fear of the advance of the parliamentary army from the west, it was brought back to London. It was next entrusted to the care of a friend in Essex, whence it returned again to London, and remained for a time hidden in tables with false tops in its owner's warehouse; but at length Thomason decided to send his collection for safe custody to Oxford, and so it escaped destruction in the great fire of 1666. Bishop Barlow, then Bodley's librarian, tried in vain to secure the collection for Oxford, and eventually, about 1680, it was sold to Samuel Mearne, who was acting on behalf of the king. It was left, however, on Mearne's hands, and in 1684 his widow petitioned for and obtained leave to sell it, when it appears to have passed back to Thomason's descendants and to have remained in their hands until 1761, when, on the recommendation of Thomas Hollis, it was bought by George III for 300l., and presented to the British Museum in 1762.

Thomason died in Holborn, near Barnard's Inn, London, in April 1666, and was buried ‘out of Stationers' Hall (a poore man)’ on 10 April (Smyth, Obituary, Camden Soc. 1849).

[Thomason's Note prefixed to MS. catalogue of his collection, printed in Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. iv. 413; Edwards's Memoirs of Libraries, 1859, i. 455–60, 595; Madan's Notes on the Thomason Collection of Civil War Tracts, in Bibliographica, iii. 291–308; Masson's Life of Milton, 1859–94, iii. 44, 45 n., vi. 399–400, 403.]

R. E. G.