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Joseph Ritson collection

Call Number: GEN MSS 76

Scope and Contents

The Joseph Ritson Collection contains manuscript and printed material by and about the eighteenth-century antiquarian Joseph Ritson. The material spans the dates 1782-1824.

The collection has been divided into three sections. The first section, Joseph Ritson, consists of three volumes and nine folders of works and letters by Ritson. Volume 1 is a first edition of Bibliographia Poetica, annotated in two hands which have been identified as Ritson's and his nephew's. Ritson's interest in Scottish literature is reflected in Volumes 2 and 3. Volume 2 is the autograph manuscript of his unpublished Bibliographia Scotica. which he described as "a catalogue of historians and poets, native to Scotland, with the titles of their respective works." The listings include Latin authors, works still in manuscript. and pieces which appeared only in periodicals. Select Scotish Poems is the binder's title of Volume 3, a composite work assembled from sheets of two of Ritson's unpublished anthologies. The work opens with ninety-six pages titled Select Scotish Poems, followed by corrected and repaginated sheets of The Caledonian Muse, and four additional texts copied in Ritson's hand.

Letters by Ritson are located in Box 1, folders 2-9, and are largely devoted to bibliographical and literary subjects. An 1803 letter to George Chalmers contains questions about Scottish writers. Folders 8-9 hold transcripts of Ritson's letters to Joseph Cooper Walker. Topics include Irish literature; romances; Percy's ballads; spelling reform; the French Revolution; and Ritson's poor health and frequent depressions.

Section two consists of works by Ritson's biographer and colleague Joseph Haslewood. Volume 4 includes a printed copy and two manuscript drafts of Haslewood's 1824 life of Ritson. The more finished manuscript has been annotated and corrected by Thomas Park. Volume 4 also contains an index of Ritson's anthology of Percy's Reliques; the 1803 auction catalogue of Ritson's library; and several portraits and caricatures of Ritson. Volume 5 is another copy of Haslewood's biography, heavily annotated by Edith and T. G. Wright. The notes include information on the ladies mentioned in Ritson's "Verses Addressed to the Ladies of Stockton," and other biographical data.

Additional information on Ritson's life can be found in Section three, Other Papers. A short biographical sketch, tentatively attributed to Thomas Park, is located in folder 11. H. C. Selby's letter to Thomas Percy details rumors concerning Ritson's background, early unpopularity, and atheism. Folder 14 contains an account by Robert Smith of Ritson's final insanity, accompanied by a report by Selby of an interview with Smith.


  • 1782-1824


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The Joseph Ritson Collection is the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Mrs. Bertrand H. Bronson, 1986.


1 Linear Feet ((1 box) + 5 volumes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The collection contains works by and about Ritson, a small quantity of correspondence, and the manuscript of the Bibliographia Scotica.

JOSEPH RITSON (1752-1803)

Joseph Ritson was born at Stockton-on-Tees in 1752. Although his family was not prosperous, Ritson was articled to a Stockton solicitor and later to the conveyancer Ralph Bradley. He settled in London in 1775 as managing clerk to the firm of Masterman and Lloyd. In 1780 he began business as a conveyancer on his own, taking the Gray's Inn chambers that he occupied until his death. Ritson was appointed high bailiff of the liberty of the Savoy in 1784, and received a life patent of that post two years later.

While Ritson published a few articles on legal subjects, he is best known as an antiquarian and legal scholar. Despite poor health and nervous complaints, he produced many editions and essays, often employing a modified spelling system devised by himself. Between 1783 and 1793 he prepared a long series of anthologies of popular and local poetry, such as The Caledonian Muse(1785; published 1821) and The Northumbrian Garland (1793). He also published several collections of early English poetry, including Pieces of AncientPopular Poetry (1791), Robin Hood, a Collection... (1795), and Ancient Engleish Metrical Romanceës (1802), as well as the useful Bibliographia Poetica (1802), a useful collection of pre-1600 English poets with short accounts of the works.

Ritson's concern with historical and textual accuracy led him into several lengthy and acrimonious controversies with contemporary scholars,among them George Steevens, Joseph Malone, and John Pinkerton. His first scholarly publication, Observations on...the 'History ofEnglish Poetry' (1782), was harshly critical of Thomas Warton's interpretations of early English literature. He repeatedly charged Thomas Percy with publishing forged and garbled versions of traditional ballads. The same preoccupation, however, also led to his detection of the Ireland Shakespeare forgeries in 1795 and enabled him to assist Sir Walter Scott with Border Minstrelsy.

Ritson's health failed rapidly in his later years. His last publication was a defense of his lifelong vegetarianism, An Essayon Abstinence from Animal Food as a Moral Duty (1802). In September, 1803, he barricaded himself within his chambers and began to set fire to many of his manuscripts. He was removed to the house of Sir Jonathan Miles at Hoxton, where he died of paralysis of the brain on September 25, 1803.

[From: Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. xvi, p. 1213-17.]

Guide to the Joseph Ritson Collection
Under Revision
by Diane J. Ducharme
December 1986
Description rules
Beinecke Manuscript Unit Archival Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Repository

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Access Information

The Beinecke Library is open to all Yale University students and faculty, and visiting researchers whose work requires use of its special collections. You will need to bring appropriate photo ID the first time you register. Beinecke is a non-circulating, closed stack library. Paging is done by library staff during business hours. You can request collection material online at least two business days in advance of your visit, using the request links in Archives at Yale. For more information, please see Planning Your Research Visit and consult the Reading Room Policies prior to visiting the library.