Burns and The Athenaeum

The recent mention of the Burn’s Night Dinner may have made you wonder why we celebrate a Scots poet when many more outstanding literary figures go unremarked.  If this is the case you may not know that Burns and the Athenaeum have a special connection which involved the Institution in a press storm and legal battles.  It’s quite a story and one that shows that a belief that none of the problems we face today are something new. Amongst the group of founders and intellectual leaders in Eighteenth Century Liverpool was Dr James Currie MD Frs. President 1801 -2.   He was keenly interested in literature and knew Burns personally, corresponded with him and was the author of the first biography of the poet and edited the first collection of Burn’s verse.  While preparing this work Currie was given, by the Riddel family of Glenriddel near Dumfries, a volume of letters and one of poems.  Herein lay the basis for the Athenaeum’s involvement. The manuscripts were inherited by James Currie’s eldest son Wallace Currie, whose widow gave the books to the Athenaeum on 1853.

They lay in the Library largely ignored until the Annual General Meeting of 1912.   Interest in the poet had been stimulated by the celebrations in 1896 associated with the centenary of his birth; when the papers were loaned to an exhibition in Glasgow.  Suddenly the neglected manuscripts became a valuable asset.  At the meeting the President made a suggestion that they should be sold and that the money raised be devoted to subsidising the Library.  Nothing more came of the suggestion but in 1913 the issue was raised again.  This time it was proposed the Glenriddel papers be sold and that a Currie Memorial Fund be set up and the income be disposed of by the Main Committee rather than the Library Committee.  Despite opposition from those who wanted the proceeds to be used for the Library the suggestion was approved by 23 to 6 votes. 

The matter was put in hand and the manuscripts offered for sale through Sotherby’s and it was agreed that there was to be no publicity.  There were still rumblings of discontent amongst the members, not at the sale but due to the fact that the proceeds were not to be devoted to the Library. Robert Gladstone, led the rebels, especially when it seemed that the sale might be to an American collector.  Sputters of “the final indignity” and “catastrophe” echoed through the building, and were redoubled when, for£5000 the volumes went to John Gribbel of Philadelphia.

What so far had been an internal quarrel became public knowledge through an article in the Daily Post in July 1913 which roused the patriotic indignation of Scots and the heather was ablaze and the fiery cross went round.  Neil Munro, author of the Para Handy books wrote that it was “the most Philistine and discreditable transaction that any library committee ever carried through” and another Liverpool Scot wrote “Liverpool loses one of her proudest possessions which associated the city, not only with one of the greatest poets [sic!] anywhere but …with his first biographer”…

The dispute took a more serious turn when Burns’ descendents took legal action, claiming that neither Currie or the Athenaeum had a right to the manuscripts.  A claim flatly rejected by the Athenaeum

The next threat came from the Lord Provost of Glasgow but this did not fully develop, no doubt much to the relief of the Athenaeum when John Gribbel, probably terrified of a Scots invasion of Philadelphia returned the volumes to the keeping of the Lord Provost of Edinburgh from whom they eventually passed to the National Museum of Scotland – though the Burns heirs still attempted to get some financial benefit.  However it was now 1914 and everybody had other things to think about and the furores died down.

Recently the Athenaeum Book Trust set up by Gladstone and his cohort to raise money for the exclusive purchase of Library books which had become moribund, has been wound-up thus closing a turbulent chapter in the Athenaeum’s past.

David Brazendale, January 2021

Further reading

Brazendale D & Towsey M The first Minute Book of the Liverpool Athenaeum Records Society of Lancashire and Cheshire vol. 157 Liverpool. 2020

Carrick N & AshtonE  The Athenaeum Liverpool 1797 – 1997  Liverpool 1997

ODNB James Currie