The Club was founded in 1883 to focus political energies in an era of widening political involvement and, from the earliest days, it was intended to develop at the Club a political and historical library, a fitting tribute to the national services of one of the most bookish of British statesmen. Surviving collections demonstrate that the founder’s enthusiasm was channelled effectively and imaginatively into the creation of a library addressing not only matters of historical record but also current political issues, an aim shared by its custodians today.
Thus the collection of the election addresses of candidates in London County Council and general elections began in 1889 and 1892 respectively. The series of LCC addresses covers elections until 1913, with the exception of 1910, and records, inter alia, the early involvement of women in the political process.
General election coverage continues to the present day. Every declared candidate is requested to submit to the Library an address and any other supporting material thought suitable. In addition, the Library attempts to garner a full range of party manifestos. A similar tradition has developed in the monitoring of the UK elections to the European Parliament and the recent Scottish and Welsh elections were covered as well. Some retrospective but piecemeal acquisition of election ephemera, chiefly posters and handbills, went on at the Gladstone Library and this tradition is also honoured in Bristol.
The earliest material is a substantial collection of posters and bills from the Durham County election of 1820, in which the Whig interest was triumphant and small caches survive for Plymouth (1846-47); Bristol (1868); and Shaftesbury (1880). One group of papers charts the involvement of the Stanton family in the Stroud constituency and includes election materials dating from 1847 through to 1880.
An early start was made at the Gladstone Library in the accumulation of pamphlet literature. Much came from the library of Charles Bradlaugh (1833-91), the freethinker and member for India. To date, well over 28,000 records have been added to the University of Bristol Library’s catalogue, thanks to grants from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Research Support Libraries Programme. These records include over 1,800 items issued by the Liberal Party Publication Department. The Department’s annual accumulation of publications, the Pamphlets and Leaflets series, has been catalogued item by item from 1888 until 1914. As yet the annual volumes for the period 1915-30 have not been so catalogued but some pamphlets from the period have survived separately and have been entered on the catalogue.
Naturally, the Library holds other important serials issued by the Publication Department, including the Liberal Magazine (1893-1949); the Liberal Yearbook (1887-88, 1905-17, 1919-39); and the Liberal Agent (1896-1916, 1919-29). The online catalogue is freely available at www.lib.bris.ac.uk/ALEPH.
In 1991 a substantial part of the archive of the National Liberal Club itself was returned to the Club on permanent loan. The University Library has retained materials principally relating to the proceedings of the Cobden Club, the Eighty Club and the Political and Economic Circle. Documents concerning Liberalism beyond the confines of the Club have remained in Bristol and have been augmented through the good offices of local and national associations and interested individuals.
Thanks to a magnanimous gesture on the part of the British Library of Political and Economic Science, in transferring Minute Book 1 of the Liberal Central Association to Bristol, there now exists a run of the minutes of this body from 1860, at the very beginning of the Liberal Party, through to 1914. Other national bodies for which minute books have survived in the collection include the Liberal Council (Executive Committee,1927-39); the Liberal Social Council (Committee,1926-30 and 1934-38, and Executive Committee, 1914-26 and 1947-63, in incomplete form); the National League of Young Liberals (Executive Committee, 1964-71, General Purposes Committee, 1965-68, and Joint Political Planning Committee with the Union of Liberal Students, 1957-68); and the Union of Liberal Students (Executive Committee, 1964-68).
The Women’s Liberal Federation has generously deposited its archive, a major collection, including Executive Committee minutes (1910-12 and 1949-88), agendas for Council, correspondence, and many of its publications. The National Liberal Federation is represented through the printed proceedings of its council, 1879-1939, and the correspondence of its galvanic secretary, Francis Schnadhorst (1840-1900), in the form of copies of letters apparently prepared for a publication which never saw the light of day. Resolutions, memoranda and other papers of the Liberal Party Organisation Executive it is thought have survived routine disposal in the case of a single decade, 1950-60, and have been sorted roughly under such headings as constituency and parliamentary strategy, trade unions, and Commonwealth and colonial affairs.
Looking to the provincial presence of Liberalism, the Association of Liberal Councillors has given papers covering not only the operation of the association but also a formidable record of local party publications in the period 1974-88. These papers are complemented by a presentation from the Yorkshire Region of the Liberal Party of records from the 1980s. In the Bristol region the Bristol West Liberal Democrats papers, relating to the Liberals and the Social Democrats from the 1960s through to the 90s were deposited as recently as July 2000 but under a rule of thirty years closure from the date of creation of each document. The focus of the collection is local government. They have joined the minute books and ledgers of the Western Counties Liberal Federation (1922-67). Among the remaining small collections originating in local associations mention should be made of an album of letters and postcards from the Accrington Liberal Association (1838-1925).
Caches of personal papers housed in the library include letters of Charles Geake, head of the Liberal Publication Department; Sir Geoffrey Le Mesurier Mander, MP for Wolverhampton East; James White, MP for Brighton; and Alfred Austin, the poet laureate. There are political papers (approximately 1949-62) belonging to Derick Mirfin, who was involved with the Union of University Liberal Societies and there is a substantial collection of letters to Jane Cobden Unwin, accompanied by pamphlets and ephemera, covering the period 1880 to 1939. The chief subjects are Irish independence, Eastern Europe, anti-slavery agitation and the Aboriginees Protection Society.
An overview of the Liberal and other holdings of the Special Collections Department of the University Library may be consulted at www.bris.ac.uk/is/services.
These holdings are made available to all, subject to appointment and the production of proof of identity. The Department is located in the Arts and Social Sciences Library, Tyndall Avenue, Bristol, BS8 1TJ.