Research spotlight #2: Archives of the Royal Literary Fund

by Matthew Sangster

Plaque commemorating David Williams, founder of the RLF.Founded by the dissenting minister, educationalist and philosopher David Williams in 1790, the Literary Fund (or Royal Literary Fund (RLF) from 1842) was intended, according to an early advertisement, to ‘withdraw those apprehensions of extreme poverty, and those desponding views of futurity, which lead Genius and Talent from the path of Virtue, prostitute them to pernicious factions, and convert the Liberty of the Press into a detestable and unsufferable license.’ The Fund has operated continuously since its foundation, providing confidential financial assistance to writers who have suffered personal or professional setbacks.

The archive
The RLF’s extensive archive is held physically at the British Library, but is also available in large part at many other libraries on microfilm. It provides distinctive and valuable data for studying the lives lived by working writers throughout the nineteenth century. Authors assisted by the Fund include Samuel Taylor Coleridge, François-René de Chateaubriand, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, E. Nesbit and Bram Stoker. Further well-known writers, including William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and J. M. Barrie, were involved with administering the Fund. While materials on these exalted figures are important, the archive is especially valuable for its range and expansiveness—3060 authors applied to the Fund between 1790 and 1918, of wildly varying fame, from a huge range of backgrounds and due to numerous different circumstances. RLF materials thus have enormous potential in broader-based studies examining different genres, periods and geographical locations. The archive is particularly valuable for tracing social networks, as most case files contain letters of recommendation from literary friends of the applicant. Joyce’s file, for example, contains letters from Edmund Gosse and William Butler Yeats and a passionate statement of support from Ezra Pound, and a great many writers in the Victorian period sought endorsements from various curators on the staff of the British Museum. The archive is an immensely useful quantitative and qualitative resource, providing a unique window on the difficulties of living by the pen in the nineteenth century.

The greater part of the archive consists of letters from distressed authors and their sponsors, with all files from 1841 onwards also including detailed application forms on which applicants were required to give details of their works, lives and situations (these can be very useful for confirming attributions). As well as these letters and forms, some files contain newspaper clippings, printed advertisements, administrative notes and subscription lists. The archive also includes sundry anomalous materials, for example two copies of a poster created by an angry applicant, Matthew Ferstanig, who responded to the Fund’s refusal to give him a grant by flypostering their headquarters with the claim that the Committee, among other things, ‘kept up a seraglio of 82 women & voted £1275 out of the Literary Fund for their support.’ Ferstanig was later imprisoned for threatening to assault the Fund’s secretary, the redoubtable and hyper-efficient Octavian Blewitt.

Online catalogue
With the support of the RLF, the British Library and Royal Holloway, I have recently completed a catalogue that covers every document in case files opened between 1790 and 1918, as well as detailing the Fund’s minute books and annual reports. My online catalogue builds on and integrates previous physical catalogues produced by Nigel Cross at the time of the archive’s microfilming, expanding on his records to cover 55,000 or so relevant files and items while also greatly increasing the depth of reference through fuller description and through the use of modern digital resources to make new attributions. Using census data, library catalogues, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and other repositories I have been able to definitively identify a great many previously elusive correspondents. The new interface makes it possible to search for documents by and relating to individuals across the whole archive; this is particularly useful for recognising the importance of prolific recommenders, key connectors and patrons who held together mutually supportive groupings in the literary milieu.

The new catalogue is structured so it serves both for the physical documents held at the BL and for their microfilm surrogates, although it does include some materials that were not covered by the microfilming process (which omitted all post-1918 documents; the new catalogue includes full details for any file where the first application was made prior to 1919). The records are integrated into the BL’s new manuscripts catalogue (; this is currently still in development, so any feedback as to how it could be improved would be gratefully received). To search only for records in the Royal Literary Fund Archive, just add ‘RLF’ as a search term. References for items generally look something like this: Loan 96 RLF 1/41/1 (this particular item is a letter from James Martin to the Committee of the Literary Fund dated 13 May 1796). To use this reference to locate the document on the microfilm, omit Loan 96 RLF (the overall designation for the archive) and the first 1 (which indicates the series, in this case the case files; 2 is the minute books, 3 the Annual Reports). The next number (41 in this case) is the case file number (in this case the file for Samuel Taylor Coleridge), and the final number indicates the position of the document within the file. The higher level records provide additional guidance on using the archive.

Future developments
There are plans to add to the catalogue in the future by extending it to include further twentieth century case files, additional administrative documents and manuscripts relating to the Fund’s major source of income in the nineteenth century, its bibulous, speech-heavy Anniversary Dinners. These additions should further enhance the usefulness of the archive and our understanding of the ways writers in the nineteenth century lived and worked.

Further information about the history of the RLF is available here.

About Matthew
Matthew Sangster is completing a PhD at Royal Holloway on literary success and failure in the Romantic Period. He is also undertaking further cataloguing work on the archive of the Royal Literary Fund and co-curating the upcoming exhibitionThe Worlds Of Mervyn Peake at the British Library.



  1. This is invaluable work on a fascinating archive. For the Cardiff-based, the RLF archives are available on microfilm in Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University.

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