A Treasure Trove at Guildhall Library

For the past twelve years Isabelle Chevallot has worked as a librarian at Guildhall Library where she presents talks, runs workshops, leads discussion groups and even organises Regency Balls to engage people in history.  She is also the author of The Song and the Sword, which is set in twelfth-century England, when King Richard the Lionheart has just ascended the throne.

As you will read, the Guildhall Library is a brilliant resource – here’s Isabelle to tell us a little about it.


Guildhall Library is the Library of London History.  A public library, our core collection covers London and its history and is the largest collection in the world devoted to the history of a single city. We hold over 200,000 titles dating from the 15th to the 21st centuries including books, pamphlets, periodicals, trade directories and poll books. The collection covers the whole of London, in addition to the City. 

Our collection covers all aspects of life in London, past and present: its trade, people and buildings. architecture, churches, restaurants, rivers, topography, sports and recreation, theatres, local government, education, crime, prisons, markets, medicine, transport…

In addition to our core London collections, we also hold some special collections as well as iconic items or treasures. Here are a few of our treasures:

Source: Guildhall Library

2023 marks the 400th anniversary of the publishing of Shakespeare’s First Folio. Guildhall Library has a remarkable copy of the Folio and will be celebrating the volume throughout the year. The First Folio was published seven years after Shakespeare’s death. It is particularly significant because it is the first collected edition of his plays – containing 36 plays. 18 plays appeared for the first time in the First Folio, and these included – As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Tempest and Twelfth Night. Without the First Folio these would likely have been lost as no substantial manuscripts of Shakespeare’s work survive.

The City’s First Folio, one of only two in public libraries in the UK, will be on display on 23 April as part of Folio Day when across the country many copies of the book will be displayed simultaneously.

The London Bills of Mortality are a treasure from our core London collections.

Source: Guildhall Library

In 1891 the Parish Clerks deposited the London Bills of Mortality here at Guildhall Library and we have since added to this collection. The earliest printed bills in the collection date from the late 16th century, with a virtually complete run from 1664 to the middle of the 19th Century. We also hold the manuscript records of the Parish Clerks Company.

The Bills of mortality record the number of deaths each week and provide an extraordinary statistical record of disease in London. They began to be produced after an outbreak of plague in 1592 (although there are a few earlier instances). From 1603, after another outbreak, they were made regularly on a weekly basis, with the view to giving authorities and inhabitants full information as to the increases or decreases in the number of deaths.

Source Guildhall Library

From 1629 The Bills of Mortality included information about the cause of death with a summary count of those killed by named ‘diseases and casualties.’ These covered a wide range of illnesses some of which are readily identifiable to us today some which are not. 

For the week shown here in addition to the 4237 individuals who died of plague, other diseases we would recognise include consumption – which caused 126 deaths and jaundice – which caused 7 deaths

For sudden violent deaths more details about the circumstances are often provided – as seen here: Broke her skull by a fall in the street at St Mary Woolchurch

There are some diseases you may not recognise . . . Such as Tissick, which caused 9 deaths and probably refers to tuberculosis or consumption. And Rising of the Lights, which caused 18 deaths. The lights are likely to be lungs and Rising of the Lights would have referred to croup or pleurisy. 

Those who died as a result of fright, grief and ‘suddenly’ are also recorded. 

Source: Guildhall Library

Another important item in our London collection is this first edition copy of ‘The city & country purchaser & builder’ by Stephen Primatt, printed in 1667, a year after the Fire of London had devastated some 430 acres, destroying over 13,000 houses, 87 churches, and 52 livery company halls in the City.

While the rebuilding programme led by Wren and Hooke would re-establish the public face of London, there was also a massive need for private redevelopment and Primatt’s was the first treatise issued in response to these private efforts. 

It is the first and the most important book about the rebuilding of the houses and shops of London. It is also ‘the first work in English on building valuation, measurements and prices.’ This provides us with valuable information about the values of houses before and after the Fire. 

Source: Guildhall Library

Guildhall Library holds first edition copies of ‘Microcosm of London’ commissioned by Rudolph Ackermann and published 1808-10. ‘Microcosm of London’ contains aquatint plates covering all the well-known public buildings of London at the time. From the elegant ladies of Sadler’s Wells to the brawling fish wives at Billingsgate Market, shown in this image, all of London life is captured.

[In total the work contains 104 large folio hand-coloured plates, 1000 copies were published so in all 104,000 plates had to be separately coloured by hand.]

Thomas Rowlandson – a caricaturist, watercolourist, draughtsman and engraver – supplied the figures, while Augustus Pugin drew the architecture. The bulbous, irregular shapes of the people are typically spread across the bottom of the picture by Rowlandson beneath Pugin’s large regular shapes of London’s interiors and exteriors. 

Source: Guildhall Library

This is one of the perhaps more unique, ephemeral items in the London collection a book of hand-coloured engravings depicting the costume worn by the children of each charity school in London taking part in the anniversary service at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Dating from around 1805 it consists of 5 plates of hand-coloured engravings by John Page. The anniversary service was an annual event with the purpose of drawing attention to the plight of charity school children and raising money. 

The intricate figures show the costumes worn by the children of each charity school in London which took part in the service. There are 124 children each depicted in the distinctive uniforms which were a feature of the charity schools. The styles were evidently a little old-fashioned for the period – possibly partly due to the schools’ benefactors desire to humble the beneficiaries by emphasising their lowly status. 

Special collections held at Guildhall Library include:

Livery Company records and histories:

Source: Guildhall Library

The City of London is unusual in retaining its trade guilds, although today the City of London Livery Companies are quite different organisation than they were in the medieval period.

Guildhall Library holds a wealth of published material on the City Livery Companies. We hold published histories for most of the companies. We also hold Webb’s published indexes to the London Livery Company apprenticeship registers, publications on trades and extensive holdings of London trade directories. 

In addition, the original records of over 80 of the Livery Companies can also be consulted at Guildhall Library including apprenticeship and freedom records and the records of the Thames Watermen and Lightermen.

The Lloyd’s Marine Collection

Source: Guildhall Library

The Lloyds Marine Collection provides details of Merchant Navy vessels and shipping movements and casualties from the 18th century onwards. The collection comprises the historical printed and manuscript records formerly held by Lloyd’s of London that have been deposited at the Library. These include publications such as Lloyd’s List and Lloyd’s Register, manuscripts including the Loss and casualty books and unique items, namely the Voyage record cards.

Business History Collection

Source: Guildhall Library

Our Business History Collection includes the records of the London Stock Exchange including the annual reports of quoted companies from 1880-1965.

We also hold the Course of the Exchange dating back to 1698. This is on display today and was the first printed list of securities and their prices.

Our business holdings also include published histories of businesses, historical files of commercial periodicals, the Financial Times from 1888 to date and the Stock Exchange Daily Official List from 1899 to date. 

Food and Drink collection

Source: Guildhall Library

Guildhall Library holds the largest collection of food, cookery and drink related books in any UK public library, including books from the personal libraries of food writers such as André Simon and Elizabeth David.

Legal and parliamentary collections – Law reports; UK Statutes; Acts of Parliament; Hansard; Parliamentary Papers

We hold one of the largest collections of poll books not just for London but for many other cities, towns and counties. 

Before the days of the secret ballot, lists of people entitled to vote and, in many cases, the names of candidates for whom they voted, were published in poll books. These can be a useful source for family, local and political history. 

We also hold the electoral registers for the City of London

Historic books on gardening, archery and Clock making and clock makers:  Guildhall Library houses the library of the Antiquarian Horological Society and the library and archive of the Clockmakers’ Company; In addition, we hold many published reference sources which provide biographical information on clock and watch makers and technical information on their clocks and watches

Biographical reference works – As a major reference library we hold – as you might expect – an excellent collection of Biographical reference works including the Dictionary of National Biography and Who’s Who. Increasing we also provide access to these as electronic resources which can also be accessed off site.

Directories of Professions, Clerical directories from 19th – 21st centuries; The Law List 18th – 21st centuries; Medical directories 19th – 21st centuries (and the records of the Society of Apothecaries) Army List, Navy List and Air Force List

Trade and telephone directories: London Trade directories from 1677; 18th – 20th century provincial directories; London and provincial telephone directories from 1880s onward.

 Some of our collections cover the whole of the UK as well as London and an example of this is our collection of directories.

Guildhall Library holds the best collection of trade directory’s in any UK public library.

Guildhall Library provides free access to a wide range of electronic resources, including genealogical sources, digitised newspapers, legal databases and reference works

A number of resources are available for City of London Library members to access from home or work 24 hours a day. If you are not already a member you can join at Guildhall Library today. E-resources which can be accessed in the library include a wide range of e-journals, Ancestry Library edition, Find My Past, Stock Exchange Daily Official List.

E-resources which can be accessed in the library and off-site with a City of London Library card include Times Digital Archive 1785-1985, 17th, 18th & 19th Century British Library Newspapers, Illustrated London News 1842-2003, Financial Times 1888-2009, the Dictionary of National Biography. 

To visit Guildhall Library, we strongly recommend that you book a place if you wish to access material from our stores: Guildhall.Library@cityoflondon.gov.uk

Please visit our website for more information: Guildhall Library – The Library of London History – City of London

Guildhall Library has an engaging programme of events: Guildhall Library Events – City of London

Most events are free, and, with the exception of walks, they take place either online, onsite or both (Hybrid). 

To book  Guildhall Library Events | Eventbrite

Didn’t I promise you a treasure trove? Many thanks to Isabelle Chevallot for introducing us to the Guildhall Library collection. I could get lost in such a library for weeks.

The Song and the Sword by Isabelle Chevallot

In twelfth-century England, King Richard the Lionheart has just ascended the throne, and preparations are underway for the Third Crusade to wrest the Holy Land from Saladin’s clutches.

Young lovers Eleanor and Hugh are thwarted by their fathers. While Eleanor is married off to Baron Rolf, a man who simmers with menace and will stop at nothing in his bid for power, Hugh trains to become a knight and embarks on Crusade to escape an arranged marriage to a woman he despises.

From the stark walls of Dover Castle, to the sanctuary of an austere priory and across tempest-swept seas to Normandy and the prosperous city of Messina, Sicily, Eleanor and Hugh must each brave a lonely and perilous journey of love and loss, grief and endurance with only their own wits to rely on.

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Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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