The Times/1912/Obituary/George Knottesford Fortescue
MR. G. K. FORTESCUE
We regret to announce the death, which took place on Saturday, of Mr. George Knottesford Fortescue, Keeper of the Printed Books at the British Museum since 1899. He was in his 65th year, having been born in October, 1847, and would have retired under the age limit on Thursday next, after 42 years of service. For several years he had been ailing, and a year or so ago had a long leave of absence from official duties.
The fourth son of the Very Rev. E. B. K. Fortescue, Provost of the Episcopal Cathedral at Perth, Mr. Fortescue first adopted the Royal Navy as a career. In 1870, however, he secured an appointment as assistant librarian at the British Museum. He was made superintendent of the Reading Room in 1884, and soon became very popular among the frequenters of the room owing to his courtesy to readers and the cheerful alacrity with which he helped them in their researches. It was the inquiries of readers which suggested to him the compilation in non-official hours of his first subject index. This was not intended for publication, but the attention of the Trustees having been called to the utility of the work, they sanctioned the printing in 1886 of subject indexes which has made the name of Fortescue so widely and honourably known. The primary of the object of the index being to assist readers in the library of the British Museum, it was not considered necessary to reproduce such portions of the great printed catalogue (which is mainly an author catalogue) as were the nature of a class catalogue, such as the headings of Bibles and Liturgies, and for the same reason personal names were omitted as subject headings. Novels, poems, plays, and miscellaneous essays were also ignored. The index was at once found to be a great boon to readers; a second volume describing the additions of the years 1885-90 was published in 1891, and a third in 1897 for those of 1891-95. The number of entries in the third volume was about 37,760, while the total number of entries in three volumes covering the period between 1990 and 1895 was about 124,700. The three volumes were incorporated in one alphabet with the addition of the titles of books added during the years 1896-1900, aw well as the Slavonic, Hungarian, and Finnish books published between 1881 and 1900 which had not been included in the former indexes. The new edition was published as Subject Index of the Modern Works added to the British Museum in the years 1881-1900 (1902-3, 3 vols., 8vo). The edition contained about 155,000 entries in one alphabet of subjects with many sub-headings. The British Museum shelfmarks are added to the titles. A first supplement appeared in 1906; it dealt with the additions received between 1901 and 1905. A second supplement, classifying the additions between 1906 and 1910, was published in 1911. Mr Fortescue hoped to bring out a third supplement in 1916, and to be able in 1921 to incorporate all three in one subject index for the period of 20 years from 1901 to 1920. In the index brought out in 1902-3 and the two supplements (1906-11) there are arranged in classified order a list of 262,651 references to books representing the recent literature of all countries of European civilization, including new editions of books originally published in earlier periods.
As the original projector and general editor of these indexes, the main burden of organization and arrangement fell on Mr. Fortescue's shoulders, but he had many helpers. Among those whom he thanked for assistance were Messrs. R. F. Sharpe, R. A. Streatfeild, F. D. Sladen, A. W. Pollard, W. A. Marsden. R. G. Proctor, and R. N. Bain. The great usefulness of these indexes is acknowledged, not only by readers at the British Museum, but by all who use books of bibliographical reference. In spite of certain weaknesses of method, student, bibliographers, and librarians are grateful for Mr. Fortescue's labours, and for the skill and industry shown in the preparation of the volumes, which form a lasting monument to the memory of the editor.
Mr. Fortescue joined the Library Association in 1897, and was elected president when that body met at Plymouth in 1901. On that occasion he devoted his inaugural address to the subject of the completion of the general catalogue of printed books at the British Museum. In 1909 he became president of the Bibliographical Society, to which he had contributed papers on The Thomason Tracts at the British Museum in 1904, The Croker Collections of French Revolutionary Literature (1788-1815) in 1905, and A Comparison between the Pamphlet Literature of the English Civil War and that of the French Revolution in 1906, all showing much reading and an agreeable vein of quiet humour. He also published a List of the Contents of the Three Collection in the British Museum Relating to the French Revolution (1890). From the University of Aberdeen he received the degree of LL.D.
He was twice married; his first wife died in 1896. His second wife, who survives him, was the widow of Dr. H. W. Jones.
Mr. Fortescue had a high sense of his professional obligations as a librarian, and in a long and honourable career proved himself a useful public servant. he had a wide knowledge of books, and was always most ready to impart that knowledge. A man of sunny good nature and genial disposition, modest and unassuming in manner, he was universally beloved and respected.