AE Monthly

Articles - February - 2010 Issue

British Lighthouse Board Sells Collection of Early Voyage Books

Northern lighthouse

One of the Northern Lighthouses, from their website.


By Michael Stillman

Much of a distinguished institutional book collection, hundreds of years in the making, went up for sale in January, with the results much better than anticipated. There's always some sadness when an institution is forced to dispose of a book collection for economic reasons, but this is part of the inevitable maturation and rebirth process. Collections may die, but the books go on, becoming part of new and different collections.

This library was held by an unlikely collector, the Northern Lighthouse Board. The Northern Lighthouse Board is in the business its name suggests, maintaining lighthouses and other navigational aides such as buoys along the northern coast of Great Britain. It is responsible for protecting navigation along the coasts of Scotland and the Isle of Man. According to their website, this covers 6,214 miles of coastline and most manned offshore oil platforms, over half of the UK's coast. The Board was formed in 1786, during the reign of George III, as the Commissioners of Northern Light Houses. The Board is financed through dues paid by commercial ships calling at British ports and by larger fishing vessels. At one time, there were light keepers in each of the towers, but the system became fully automated in 1998.

Along the way, the Commissioners acquired a library including many notable books, particularly up through the middle of the 19th century. You might not expect an obscure agency devoted to lighthouses to have such a collection, but their library held works from many of the most important voyagers, including Cook, Anson, La Perouse, Flinders, Vancouver, d'Entrecasteaux, Ross, Franklin, Parry and Barrow. These are wonderful books, but not of much practical use for the lighthouse authority in the 21st century. Meanwhile, the maintenance of the collection was eating up funds the Board no longer felt it could afford. The result was a decision to transfer its library to a trust that could determine which books related specifically to the Board's mission and history and should be kept, and which books, though interesting and valuable, were not a part of the lighthouse heritage. That trust, the Northern Lighthouse Heritage Trust, reached its decisions, and put the books it deemed not essential up for sale. That sale was concluded at Lyon and Turnbull's auction house in Edinburgh (home of the Northern Lighthouse Board) on January 13.

The sale proved to be a great success, at least by the Trust's expectations. They figured the sale would bring in around £200,000. Lyon and Turnbull put a low to high estimate range of £188,300 - £277,550 on the sale. When the final lot was hammered down, the sale had taken in £435,950 (approximately $712,000 in U.S. dollars), even with 11.5% of the items remaining unsold.

The top item in the sale was Peron and Freycinet's Louis Voyages de decouvertes aux terres australes... an account of the Baudin expedition to Australia by two of the participants, an 1815 first edition with the atlas. It sold for £40,000 (US $64,000), double the estimate. It was followed by a first edition of Vancouver's A Voyage of Discovery... (£23,750 or $38,000); Matthew Flinders' A Voyage to Terra Australis... (£17,500 or $28,000); La Perouse's Voyage de La Perouse autour du monde... (£15,000 or $24,000); Bougainville's Voyage autour du monde... (£13,750 or $22,000); and a second edition of Cook's first voyage, John Hawkesworth's An account of the voyages... (£12,500 or $20,000). Each of these books was published in either the late 18th or early 19th century.

While these books will no longer be a part of the library of this venerable institution, each does contain the gilt stamp of the Northern Lighthouse Board, a reminder of the provenance of their first 200 years.

AE Monthly


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