The Bamburgh Library was created by three generations of the Sharp family between c.1660 and 1792. The Sharps were an extraordinary Northumberland family of clergymen, politicians, lawyers, surgeons, industrialists, and philanthropists.
Dr John Sharp (Archdeacon of Northumberland and Canon at Durham), the eldest of seven exceptional siblings, was a trustee of Lord Crewe’s Charity, which owned Bamburgh Castle. Under his direction the dilapidated castle was transformed into a miniature welfare state, and it was he who brought together the family's books to form a public library at the castle in 1792. The surviving borrower registers show that the most popular subjects were local history, travel, and perhaps surprisingly sermons and other ‘improving’ literature.
The wide-ranging collection is particularly strong on 17th-century controversy and science; early abolitionist literature; extensive runs of both English and foreign early periodicals; some notable early atlases; good holdings of theology, common law and English literature; and some French and Italian literature.
Individual items of interest include early printed works by William Caxton (famous for introducing the printing press to England in 1476), first editions of some of Robert Boyle’s treatises, and a small collection of Armenian religious works printed in Amsterdam.
There are around 8,500 titles including 16 printed books from before 1501 (of which 6 are English) as well as 320 foreign 16th-century books.
By the late 19th century not many people were interested in the library anymore and it was packed away when the Lord Crewe Trustees sold the Castle to Lord Armstrong of Cragside. After years of trying to find a new home for it, the library was deposited with Durham University in 1958 and housed in the Exchequer building.
The top half of the first page of the Bamburgh Library borrower register. Although the library was given to the Lord Crewe Trustees in 1792, it did not formally open until June 1797 (DUL Bamburgh MS B1, folio 1). Reproduced with permission of the Lord Crewe’s Trustees.
Portrait of John Sharp, Archdeacon of Northumberland (1723-1792), painted by Benjamin West (around 1780), which is still at Bamburgh Castle. Photo credit: Nick McCann