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History

From the archives: Lord Byron’s £1m lost manuscripts

21 December 2018

In 1976, the forgotten manuscripts of 19th century Romantic poet Lord Byron – estimated to be worth £1m – were uncovered in Barclays’ Pall Mall branch. Considering his works to be a part of the nation’s literary heritage, Barclays passed on the manuscripts to the British Library as a “literary Christmas present”. In the 42nd year after the discovery, we delve into the Barclays archives to retell the story. 

Lord Byron – or George Gordon Byron – is often cited as one of the most flamboyant of the Romantic poets of the 19th century, known for his scandalous private life and famously described as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’.

In the 1820s, Byron banked with Ransom and Co of Pall Mall – which later merged with Barclays in 1888. While the ledgers for the period in which Byron banked with Barclays have not survived, the poet’s name reappeared at the bank’s Pall Mall branch in 1976 – more than a century after his death. An article published in the Barclays staff magazine, Spread Eagle, in January 1977 describes the event in detail.

Manuscript belonging to Lord Byron

The forgotten manuscripts were unearthed in the bank’s vaults in a trunk belonging to Scrope Berdmore Davies – a friend of Byron. One of the most important discoveries of the Pall Mall chest was the original manuscript of the third canto of Bryon’s epic poem Childe Harold – believed to be entrusted to Scrope for delivery to Byron’s publishers.

Also found inside were fellow Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s original manuscript of Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, an early version of Mont Blanc and two of his previously unpublished poems. An article published in The New York Times in December 1976 reported the estimated value of the papers in the chest to be “as high as £1 million, or about $1.67 million”. The trunk also contained a bill from Scrope’s bootmaker for a pair of red slippers and a pair of tennis shoes, summons for a debt of £7,000 and a bill for 12 guineas for 12 long cloth shirts.

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After an unsuccessful search for any of Scrope’s direct descendants, the bank decided to loan the manuscripts to the British Library, considering the treasures to be a part of the nation’s literary heritage. In an official ceremony on the British Library steps, Timothy Bevan – Barclays’ Deputy Chairman at the time – is pictured handing over the literary treasure chest to Lord Eccles, then Chairman of the British Library, and Dr D P Waley, the library’s then Keeper of Manuscripts.

“We had known of the existence of the trunk for some while, and spent time looking for a direct descendant of Scrope Davies and seeking expert opinion on the contents,” Christopher Norman-Butler, Local Director of the Pall Mall branch told the Spread Eagle.

“We decided that the nation needed a fillip – something to cheer us all up – so we timed the announcement for the beginning of Christmas week, as a literary Christmas present.”