Introduction to British Armorial Bindings


Under the sponsorship of The Bibliographical Society of London in conjunction with the University of Toronto Library, the British Armorial Binding database brings to fruition almost half a century of endeavour.  Its purpose is to create a comprehensive catalogue of all the coats of arms, crests, and other heraldic devices that have been stamped by British owners on the outer covers of their books, together with the bibliographical sources of the stamps.   

Begun by the late John Morris in 1964, the British Armorial catalogue was originally conceived as a multi-volume reference work that would replace Cyril Davenport’s English Heraldic Book-Stamps, (London, 1909).  With the advent of new technologies in the form of the personal computer, the Internet, and the digital camera, the catalogue has developed into a multi-faceted online research tool that may be accessed free of charge.  Cataloguers in libraries with historical collections, and the retail antiquarian book trade will save themselves much time and effort in establishing the identities of armigerous owners; scholars engaged in questions of provenance, the formation and dispersal of collections, and the movement of books through the book trade, will find a wealth of relevant material at their disposal; and researchers whose interest lies in heraldry and genealogy will also find the database useful.

The database has been designed primarily for those with little or no knowledge of heraldry. To this end a simplified version of heraldic language has been employed to describe the elements that constitute a heraldic achievement. With a little practice the uninitiated researcher should be able to master the basic rules and language of heraldry, and through the comprehensive series of indexes, ascertain the owner of a particular stamp quickly and efficiently.

In 2005 at a CILIP conference devoted to provenance held at New Hall Cambridge, John Morris generously distributed a CD of the Armorial catalogue as it existed up to that time.  Since John Morris’s death in 2006, I have visited over a hundred libraries, including several major collections, resulting in the addition of many new owners, armorial stamps, and sources to the catalogue.   At present the armorial database describes over 3300 stamps belonging to close on 1900 owners, both individual and institutional.  Over 12,000 sources for the stamps are cited.

In its present state the database should be regarded as a work in progress; publication merely marks the end of the first phase in its development.   In the next phase a heraldic introduction, a history of the project, and a history of British armorial binding stamps will be appended to the database.  In instances where the quality of particular stamps is inferior, they will be replaced by better examples as they are acquired.

In a work of this nature, errors of various kinds are inevitable.  Errors of attribution, mistranscriptions, and typographical inaccuracies still exist.  Users are strongly encouraged to bring any errors or omissions to the attention of the editor in the forum provided.  Reports of new owners and new stamps will also be warmly welcomed, and any assistance in identifying the stamps that have so far evaded identification will be gratefully accepted.

The British Armorial Bindings database provides a new foundation on which others may build.  It is hoped that as it enters this collaborative phase, a more comprehensive and accurate record of British armorial binding stamps will ultimately ensue, and complete the considerable gift that John Morris has bequeathed to scholarship, thereby creating a fitting monument to his memory.

February 2012

Philip Oldfield

Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

University of Toronto