Priceless Jeremy Bentham books found at

3 June 2024

Rare books from a priceless collection owned by ’s intellectual inspiration, Jeremy Bentham, have been found in ’s libraries and archives.

Tim Causer, Isabel Evans, Erika Delbecque, Joanna Baines, Bentham Project, Faculty of Laws

The existence of the collection was long known about, but a chance conversation between two university staff at a conference two years ago has helped unearth a list of the volumes in it.

The bequest was much larger than had been anticipated – 4,500 books with some dating back to the 16th century. And so far, dozens of volumes have been found in ’s library.

Crucially, many of the volumes contain notes made by Bentham in the margins which may shed light on his thinking.

Dr Tim Causer, Principal Research Fellow at the Bentham Project in the Faculty of Laws, which is producing the , said: “It’s a terrific resource.

“We’ve been aware of the existence of the collection for some time, but the extent and content of Bentham’s bequest had been unknown to us until recently.

“From a Bentham scholar’s point of view, it is potentially a quite remarkable window into Bentham’s thought.”

In his will Bentham left the majority of his book collection to the London University, as used to be called.

A conversation between two university staff helped to shed light on the collection’s remarkable size and whereabouts.

’s Head of Records Colin Penman mentioned at a conference to Dr Causer that he had been cataloguing accession registers listing books acquired by the library, and that the registers for 1833 contained many books donated by Bentham, who died in 1832.

The process of tracking the books down has been painstaking. Most of the books bequeathed by Bentham ended up on the shelves of ’s library, their history forgotten about. Later, many made their way into the university’s rare book collections, where they were dispersed amongst several individual collections.

First a colleague of Dr Causer’s, Transcription Assistant Dr Peter Lythe, had to compile a list of the books in the registers donated by Bentham. This was made possible thanks to funding from the Faculty of Laws.

Then a volunteer working for the university’s special collections team, student Isabel Evans, started going through the library’s book catalogue to see if the library still holds those volumes in question.

Dr Causer said he was “confident” that many more books Bentham owned could be found – but only if more funding for the project can be secured.

Dr Causer said: “It’s been a painstaking process but thanks to Dr Lythe, we now have an extensive list of the titles of the books, the names of the authors, year of publication, and other bibliographic information, which is helping our volunteer to track the books down.

“She has identified some quite important works that were formerly owned by Bentham – several dozen so far.

“The cataloguing of the rare books in ’s collections that were transferred from ’s lending libraries is still ongoing.

“The majority of Bentham’s books, if they still exist, will be in that collection. Because they are not catalogued, going through them will not be possible without some more funding.

“A long-term aim is to digitise the books and make them available as a virtual Bentham library, but in the first instance we are trying to find out where they are.

“Some of the books date back to the 15th and 16th centuries. They are really important works and are priceless.”

Volumes found so far include The Union of the two noble and Illustre famelies of Lancastre and Yorke by Richard Grafton (1548), The Last Volume of the Chronicles of England and Ireland by Richard Holinshed (1577) and – the oldest one in the bequest – The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde by Sebastien Brandt, translated by Alexander Barclay (1509).

Erika Delbecque, Head of Rare Books at Special Collections, who is overseeing Ms Evans’s work, said: “It is a hugely significant collection for because Bentham is so closely related to the history of the university.

“To have part of his original library that we no longer knew we had is a really exciting discovery.”

The line in Bentham’s will which mentions the bequest of his books says after giving some to his friends that “I give all the rest of my books to be added to the library of the London University.”

His will is among the documents published in the new volume of Bentham’s correspondence published in open access by Press last month entitled The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, Volume 13: July 1828 to June 1832.

Bentham’s will included the provision for his body to be publicly dissected and preserved as an ‘auto-icon' after his death in 1832, something which was highly unusual at the time.

In keeping with Bentham’s wishes, his body was publicly dissected and his skeleton, dressed in his own clothes and surmounted with a wax head, is on display at the Student Centre.



  • From left to right: Isabel Evans, Dr Peter Lythe, Erika Delbecque and Joanna Baines. Credit: Michael Lucibella.

Media contact

Nick Hodgson

E: nick.hodgson[at] ucl.ac.uk