People from the Past: 1. Robert Proctor (1868-1903)

Robert George Collier Proctor, bibliographer, was born in Budleigh Salterton. He is chiefly remembered for Proctor order, the method of organising incunabula - books printed before 1500 -  first by country, then by town, and then by printer and edition. 

It was this method, used in his Index to the British Museum and Bodleian collections which earned for him the title of 'the great bibliographer.' In his short life he managed to revolutionise the study of 15th century printing.

He was born on 13 May 1868, the only child of Robert Proctor and Anne Tate. A Robert Proctor is recorded as living at 2 Lawn Villas in Morris and Co.'s Commercial Directory and Gazetteer of 1870. 

Although his father had poor health the family had private means and the young Robert Proctor grew up in a bookish environment. His father, educated at Eton and Charterhouse, had "imbibed a strong love of the classics" according to his British Museum colleague and biographer Alfred Pollard, and it seems that within the family "a book rather than a toy was always chosen when a present was offered."

His grandfather, also called Robert (1798-1875) had written a Narrative of a Journey across the Cordillera of the Andes, and of a Residence in Lima and other parts of Peru in the years 1823 and 1824, published in 1825. The author, while described in a review as providing "minute and interesting sketches, without affecting to color them by any beauty of language" was praised for the "clearness, simplicity and animation" which he brought to the work. 

The family had other interesting connections, the grandfather having married a sister of the Shakespearean scholar John Payne Collier (1789-1883) who in 1860 was exposed as a literary forger. An uncle by marriage was George Edmund Street (1824-81), an architect who designed the Royal Courts of Justice in London. 

Robert George Proctor was educated at Daymond's, a preparatory school in Reading before going to Marlborough College, pictured above, at the age of 10. He stayed there for less than a year, partly owing to trouble with his eyes.

Above: The former Bath College. The building is now a hotel

Following his father's death in 1880, Mrs Proctor and her son moved from Budleigh in 1881 to settle at Bath.  Here Proctor  joined Bath College, a small public boys' school founded in 1879 by the Reverend Thomas William Dunn (1837-1930) who had previously been second master at Boston Grammar School and assistant master at Clifton College, Bristol. He had also been a Fellow and Dean of Peterhouse College, Cambridge in the mid-1860s.

The above photo is of William Dunn as an assistant master at Clifton College, soon after leaving Boston Grammar School 

The new headmaster was obviously someone to whom Proctor owed a great debt. Long after his days at Bath College he kept in touch with 'The Old Man' as he refers to him in his diary, calling on him in Cambridge in November 1899, and in the following year dedicating to him a monograph on Greek Printing in the Fifteenth Century.

A scholarly man, Dunn's writings included translating part of the late 15th century edition of De beatitudine claustrali (On the benefits of the monastic life) by the Dominican monk Engelbertus Cultrifex (1430-92). The work is prefaced by a short passage purporting to be by the theologian Peter of Blois (c.1130-1211) who became Archdeacon of Bath in 1176. 

Dunn is also recorded as having undertaken a translation of the Premediarum peccatorum, attributed to Peter of Blois, for the Rev. J.A. Giles (1808-84), a scholar of Anglo-Saxon history who was a Fellow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Could it have been through Giles that Dunn obtained a place at the same College for his obviously brilliant pupil Proctor?

As a teacher Dunn seems to have been idolised by his charges judging by this Memorial Address given at Bath Abbey in 1932 by John Alfred Spender (1862-1942), journalist, author and uncle of the poet Stephen Spender. 

"He had none of the recognized marks of the trade - the starched dignity, the aloofness, the order-must-be-kept attitude which was thought proper in a headmaster in those days," wrote this former Bath College pupil. "Every hour spent in class with him was an adventure. No one knew, least of all he, where it might lead; he followed his thought with the flattering assumption that his boys could keep pace, though it took them from Greek grammar to the philosophy of Plato, and ended in a disquisition on the origin of species."

For Proctor, the future disciple of William Morris and yearner for a more egalitarian society, this teacher who treated his charges as equals must have made a deep impression. "He encouraged you to come out with your crudest thoughts, and suffered argument and even contradiction with a patience that bridged the gulf between boy and man, and made him the friend even more than the schoolmaster."

Above: Corpus Christi College, Oxford

As for the headmaster's recollections of his former pupil, Dunn remembered him clearly as "born for out-of-the-way scholarly pursuits" and recalled the unusually large library of books which Proctor took with him when in October 1886 he entered Corpus Christi College, where he had gained an open scholarship to study the classics course, also known as 'Greats.'

His bookish inclinations became even more evident at University. Soon after arriving at Oxford he printed his own translation of Captivi, a comedy by Plautus, which was that year acted in Latin at Bath College. 

A fellow-undergraduate at Corpus, the historian J.G. Milne, also remembered Proctor's library, recalling how he soon got a footing in the literary group of the period, joining College societies like the Pelican Essay Club and co-founding an even more select group known as the Owlets, composed in equal proportions of dons and undergraduates, which met to read English plays or selections from English literature on alternate weeks.

He was remembered during his time at Oxford as following every type of antiquarian pursuit, from brass rubbing to war-gaming, and, while not physically gifted as a sportsman followed College rowing with enthusiasm.

His mother had moved from Bath to Oxford, where she took rooms in Walton Street, and during University holidays Proctor spent much time on walking tours with her, including trips to Scotland, Belgium and Norway. But bibliography soon became his main chosen pursuit. In his second year he was elected Junior Librarian and set about producing a catalogue of the College Library. 

Before he left Oxford he had made for his College a complete list of its incunabula and also of its English books printed before the close of the sixteenth century.

It was following a suggestion by Edward Gordon Duff (1863-1924), notable for producing from 1893-99 the first catalogue of the John Rylands Library in Manchester that Proctor wrote his first paper on a bibliographical topic, choosing as his subject Jan van Doesborgh (c.1508-30), the printer remarkable for the numerous books in English which were issued from the various presses of Antwerp. The paper appeared in the 1892 issue of The Library and subsequently in the second of the illustrated monographs of the Bibliographical Society.

Above: The Radcliffe Camera, part of Oxford University's Bodleian Library

Duff had been engaged in cataloguing incunabula at the Bodleian Library, but had only got to the end of letter J when he left Oxford. He was succeeded by Proctor who on a paid basis between February 1891 and September 1893 catalogued over 3,000 incunabula at the Bodleian, as well exploring New College Library where he made the discovery of some fragments on vellum of a previously unknown Caxton.

During his time at the Bodleian Proctor lived with his mother at a house at 10, St Margaret's Road, in Oxford. But 1893 saw him move to London, where on 16 October he took up the post of assistant in the printed books department at the British Museum.  For five years Proctor and his mother rented a house in Pelham Road, Wimbledon.

Above: The Reading Room at the British Museum

By 1898 he had at last, by the use of nearly all his leisure for more than four years, completed his great work An Index to the Early Printed Books in the British Museum: from the invention of printing to the year MD, with notes of those in the Bodleian Library. It was published in four parts in an edition of 350 copies.

It was the bibliographer Henry Bradshaw (1831-86) who had pioneered the method of cataloguing books according to the printers, the centres in which they worked, and the centres and countries into which printing was gradually introduced.

Proctor's genius was in using his extraordinary eye and memory for typefaces to apply this approach to the incunabula of the British Museum. By listing and describing every known type used by each printer, he showed how printing technology had developed throughout Europe. His efforts allowed the many books printed with no named place or printer in the period up to 1500 to be ranged with those books whose origin is explicitly stated. 

Thanks to his efforts the British Museum came to be seen as a world leader in bibliography since his help was sought, almost daily, by students in every part of Europe and also in the United States.

Indeed the Bradshaw-Proctor approach was soon applied to collections anywhere in the world. It lay behind the 1908 publication by the British Museum of its official Catalogue of Books Printed in the Fifteenth Century Now in the British Museum which listed more than 10,400 separate editions. 

In 1898 Proctor and his mother moved to Oxshott, Surrey, where they had built themselves a house. By subsequent purchases nearly two acres of land were added to this. Proctor seems to have enjoyed the life of physical exertion which the cultivation of his domain involved, including growing large numbers of fruit trees. The garden features prominently in his diaries. Sometimes he would walk to work at the British Museum through the Surrey countryside, arriving as late as 11.00 am but putting in a full day's labour.

His diaries, started in 1899, are in the British Library. There were originally four volumes but volume 3 has been lost. The diaries discuss his work as a bibliographer but also give an insight into his home life with his mother. They reveal him through his views on current affairs to be something of a radical.

Above: William Morris in 1890

While at Oxford Proctor had become acquainted with the writings of William Morris (1834-96) and John Ruskin (1819-1900), and he soon came to take an interest in their political and economic ideas. 

He first met Morris in 1894, becoming a fanatical admirer and collecting books and ephemera from the Kelmscott Press, the private press that Morris had established at Hammersmith in 1891 with the aim of proving that the high standards of book production the past could be repeated - even surpassed - in the present. Medieval in design, the books produced by the Kelmscott Press were modelled on the incunabula of the 15th century. It was this admiration for Morris that in 1900 led Proctor to publish The printing of Greek in the fifteenth century.

This was followed by the experiments in Greek printing. In 1903 Proctor was involved in the development of a new type face for printing Greek, based on that used by the Spanish printer Arnaldo Guilen de Brocar in 1514 at Alcalá, near Madrid. The new font was known as Otter, based on Proctor's own family crest, and resulted in the fine edition of Aeschylus' Oresteia printed at the Chiswick Press in 1904.

Shown above is William Morris' design 'Brother Rabbit.'  This particular design is used to decorate the cover of Dr John Bowman's edition of Proctor's diaries

An enthusiast for using Morris fabrics in his own home, Proctor was also inspired to support his aesthetic ideas. His name appears in an 1897 list of members of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, a group founded by Morris twenty years earlier in 1877. 

Known in Proctor's time as 'Anti-Scrape' the group had been founded to oppose the practice adopted by many Victorian architects of scraping off the old plaster of medieval buildings. 

The group was joined in 1889 by the architect Ernest Gimson (1864-1919), another admirer of William Morris who has an interesting connection with Budleigh. For it was Gimson who designed the house known as Coxen, off Dalditch Lane in Knowle, pictured below and mentioned elsewhere in these pages at 

Gimson had attended a lecture on 'Art and Socialism' at the Leicester Secular Society given by Morris. In 1893 he moved to the rural region of the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire “to live near to nature.” The use of Devon cob, an eco-friendly material, in Coxen’s construction is characteristic of his work. 

From May 1900 Proctor began to attend the weekly committees of the 'Anti-Scrape,' occasions which were made all the more enjoyable by suppers which followed at Gatti's, an Italian eating house in the Strand.  

It is highly likely that Proctor would have met Gimson, who would go on to design in 1911 this Arts and Crafts Movement-inspired house now listed as Grade II* only a few miles from the former's birthplace.  

For more information about Gimson click on

The Lawn, next to St Peter's Church, Budleigh Salterton

It is curious to note that by a strange quirk of fate, the house in which Proctor was born would eventually be transformed by the same Arts and Crafts movement into the brick and tiled Lawn Terrace that we see today. But that aping of medieval architecture would not take place until 1935.
It was also in the early 1900s that Proctor began studying in the original the Icelandic Sagas, many of which Morris had helped to translate. This new interest resulted shortly before his death in the publication through the Chiswick Press in 1903 of a version of Laxdæla saga, translated as The Story of the Laxdalers.

The socialist ideas expounded by Morris found a willing disciple in Proctor.   According to his friend the historian J.G. Milne already quoted by Alfred Pollard in the collection of Bibliographical Essays printed for the Proctor Memorial Fund in 1905, he "was constantly thinking out schemes for the improvement of life and its conditions; he was always ready to hear and inquire about the circumstances of the 'East-Enders' amongst whom I work, and to suggest solutions for the problems arising there. The enthusiasm of humanity was the real ruling force of his character."

No doubt he continued to discuss these radical ideas with Emery Walker (1851-1933) and Sydney Cockerell (1867-1962), friends who had worked with Morris in the book publishing business and who visited Proctor frequently at Oxshott.  In 1901 he was honoured by the request to become one of the trustees of the Morris estate.

Above: Queen Victoria, a symbol of much that Proctor disliked about the society of his time

Throughout his diaries he is fiercely opposed to the Boer war, celebrating Boer rather than British victories.  A fervent anti-monarchist he rejoices at the death of any member of a royal family. On 19 January 1901, a few days before the death of Queen Victoria on the 22nd, he notes "The old Washerwoman of Windsor reported to be kicking the bucket - à la bonne heure!"

Proctor's diaries refer constantly to the long walking tours, generally with his mother which he had enjoyed since his student days. Though in her seventies she continued to accompany him.

This water colour painting by Arthur Wyatt Edgell shows Budleigh Salterton's Steamer Steps and the coast path from Exmouth in 1868, the year of Proctor's birth

In October 1902 the pair took the train to Exmouth and then took to the coast path to Budleigh. "A warm hazy calm morning, the sea like glass," he notes. "It was a very pleasant walk along the cliffs. At Straight Point I turned aside & had a dip off the rocks; the water was as warm as in summer. Then we went on by the Beacon to B-S, came in down along the cliff to the Parade, & then up the street to 'Station Road' once Moor Lane. 

Revisiting his childhood haunts he commented: "Less change than we expected, but a smartening up generally, and a disappearance of many old names. The house in Lawn Villas is now a milliner's shop." Various old acquaintances and neighbours remembered them: Mrs Webber, of Prospect House off Chapel Hill; the Mercers, of Lydney House, East Terrace, who gave them tea; and the Bakers, of The Lawn, whom he describes as "dull."

After a twilight walk to Sherbrooke Hill the pair returned to the Rolle Arms, the hotel in the centre of Budleigh where they had taken rooms, now sadly demolished.  "There being no Sunday trains I had to carry the bag all day," notes Proctor. He mentions their "most delightful walk" to Sidmouth via the Otter bridge and Ladram. Understandably, after a further tramp as far as Branscombe, and then on to Beer, he described his mother as "completely done."

In the early summer of 1903 the two went together to Corsica and Florence. For the later walking tour in the Austrian Alps, Proctor started by himself on the evening of 29 August. His whole trip was planned to last only just three weeks, and he was due back at the British Museum on 22 September. His mother, concerned that she had not heard from him, prompted a search of the region by the Austrian police, but no body was ever recovered and it was presumed that he had died in the mountains after losing his footing.

He was 35 years old, but it was said of him that in that short time he had achieved a lifetime's work.

"He was perhaps one of those lucky people for whom his work was his life," writes his editor John Bowman. And yet the question of how long Proctor could have maintained such a work rate inevitably arises. Alfred Pollard had doubts, as he writes in the memorial volume. "His eager, untiring energies could not long have survived the rate at which they were burning away, and he himself had calmly faced the certainty that he could only hope for a few more years of effective eyesight." 

Bath Central Library Catalogue
Bowman, J.H. (ed.) - A Critical Edition of the Private Diaries of Robert Proctor  The Life of  a Librarian at the British Museum
The Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston  Queenston  Lampeter 2010  
Morris and Co.'s Commercial Directory and Gazetteer. 1870
Spender, John Alfred - Men and Things, 1937 (Cassell and Company)
Pollard, Alfred W. (ed.) - Proctor, Robert: Bibliographical Essays
For the Donors and Subscribers to the Proctor Memorial Fund. MDCCCV
Printed at the Chiswick Press, London, 1905

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