William Grylls and the Grylls Collection

The Grylls Collection of around 7000 volumes was bequeathed to Trinity College by alumnus Revd William Grylls in 1863. A typical nineteenth-century gentleman’s library, it came from his home, Polsloe Park, in Exeter and is estimated to require approximately 300 linear metres of shelving. The Collection contains incunabula (books printed before 1501), a Shakespeare First Folio and numerous other individual books of interest including some of Grylls’ correspondence and his own handwritten library catalogue. This blog highlights some of the books in the Collection as well as providing a brief biography of Grylls. Sadly there is no known portrait of this benefactor.

The Grylls’ Bookplate

William Grylls was born in Helston, Cornwall in 1787. He was the second son of Revd Richard Gerveys Grylls, curate and later vicar of Helston for over 40 years, and his wife Charity Hill. Branches of this wealthy family were prominent throughout Cornwall. William’s surviving siblings included two brothers (who also became clergymen) and a sister.

The Grylls family of Helston had the right to present to the vicarage of St Neot in Cornwall and William’s younger brother Henry became vicar there in 1820. Soon after his father paid for the restoration of the renowned church windows. Grylls senior took the opportunity to commission an armorial window celebrating the family’s antecedents. The Grylls’ coat of arms surmounted by a porcupine (also on the bookplate pictured above) is at the top of the window.

John Pike Hedgeland, A description, accompanied by sixteen coloured plates, of the splendid decorations recently made to the Church of St. Neot, in Cornwall (London, 1830) Grylls 10.199

Grylls’s early life, of which little is known, was spent in Helston. He was educated for a brief time at Winchester College, but at the age of 16 he went to Germany for a year’s education. He came to Trinity College in 1806, obtaining a BA in 1808 and an MA in 1812.

William Grylls’ Admission Slip to Trinity College, 1806

Grylls became a barrister, called to the Bar in 1812 but four years later he left England to accompany a member of the Cornish gentry, St John St Aubyn, 5th Baronet (1758-1839), on a tour of France, Switzerland and Italy. A second trip to Rome and Naples followed. St Aubyn’s wide-ranging artistic interests must have had a momentous influence on the younger man and is reflected in the European incunabula included in the Grylls Collection.

Epistolae, Grylls.2.183-b1r

Returned from his travels, Grylls studied for the priesthood and after ordination he became curate and later vicar of Crowan, a Cornish benefice in the gift of St Aubyn. Two of Grylls sermons were published in the 1820s and 30s. Both were preached before clergy in the deanery of Penwith. The first – Conciliation without Compromise (289.c.85.27[25]) – was published in 1824. The second – The Sentiments of a Minister of the Establishment … (289.c.85.27[26]) – published in 1833 reflected his growing disquiet with the attitude of the Established protestant church towards the Wesleyans.

It is likely that the views expressed in this sermon contributed towards his decision to resign from Crowan in 1835. From that time onwards he was described as a ‘clergyman without cure’ and seems to have lived as a gentleman of private means funded by a testamentary bequest from his father and a second later bequest from his older brother Richard who predeceased him. His book collecting probably began in earnest at this time. Though wealthy, Grylls was careful in his spending and did not always seek out the finest copies wanted by other contemporary book collectors. The incunabula he purchased, for example, were usually printed on paper and not vellum which was highly valued by top-end book collectors. This often meant that he was not in competition with other collectors who sought only the finest bindings or rarest editions.

The works of Sallust, printed by de Spira in Venice in 1470, is an interesting example from the Collection. The two illuminated pages in this volume were missing and replacements were described in the sale catalogue entry pasted to the inside cover as ‘supplied by such wonderful skill by Mr Harris, as to defy detection.’ This signifies that, as a collector, Grylls did not always buy the finest copies, though this book did have a beautiful Venetian morocco binding with gauffered edges.


The Collection is known for containing many books by the highly sought-after Aldine Press. Grylls’ own manuscript catalogue of his collection lists his Aldine books as a separate entry confirming the value he accorded them.

The Aldine Device, Grylls 11.6. The device was related to the motto festina lente (hasten slowly) taken from a Roman coin.

Aldus Manutius (c.1449-1515), founder of the Aldine Press, printed and disseminated rare books. He pioneered the printing of Greek texts, as well as small portable volumes known as enchiridia. These pocket-size editions are regarded as forerunners of the modern paperback. The Grylls Collection contains examples of enchiridia as well as the first volume to include the Aldine Press device of a dolphin wrapped around an anchor.

Grylls 11.313

This first edition of a Greek anthology was printed in capital letters by Lascaris and contains annotations by Aldus Manutius. This rare marked up copy was used as a guide for printing Aldus’ own edition in 1503. Missing pages from the end of the volume were supplied in manuscript by Manutius or a member of his workshop.

Poliphili Hypnerotomachia was the only illustrated volume produced by the Aldine Press. An allegorical romance, it was highly prized for its Roman typeface cut by Francesco Griffo.

Poliphili Hypnerotomachia, Grylls 11.366

In 1859, the library of book collector Guglielmo Libri (1803-1869) was put up for sale. There were two auctions, one of manuscripts and one of the ‘choicer portion of his magnificent library’. Grylls, by now not in good health, employed the London-based agent John Leslie to bid on his behalf. Trinity College has a series of letters which Leslie wrote to Grylls at the end of each day of the 13-day library sale describing the auction and detailing the bids – successful and otherwise – he (Leslie) had made on Grylls’ behalf.

Leslie says of day 12 (August 13th 1859):

“I regret exceedingly to be obliged to send you this report of today’s sale. I missed both the Seneca! and the Tacitus! I bid them up both beyond your limits rather than lose them but to no avail. I think it was £29 that Mr Libri paid for this copy of Tacitus. It now being £48.”

The Collection contains Grylls own copies of the catalogues for both of these sales. He annotated the catalogue with the final sale price and underlined those books he had purchased. Occasionally though he cut the entry from the catalogue and stuck it into the book itself. The example below relates to a copy of Il Germini (Grylls 6.218) bought on 6th August.

Within a year of the Libri sale, Grylls had purchased another copy of the Tacitus he had missed out on in the 1859 auction. He noted in his new copy that “Libri’s copy (the Sykes’ one) sold last year for £48”. Grylls’ newly-acquired copy was printed by Vindelino da Spira, one of two German brothers based in Venice from 1468 to 1477, but was a less than perfect copy which contained several missing pages. This printed book was however one of the first to include catchwords.

[N]am Valerium Asiaticu[m] bis consulem, Grylls 3.453.

William Grylls never married but he did have a son. In his early years the child known as Thomas Henry Stephens was brought up in London by a couple formerly from Helston. Towards the end of Grylls’ life, Thomas appears to have stayed with him at Polsloe Park and was educated by the curate of nearby Heavitree. Grylls left a substantial bequest in his will to Thomas stating his wish that he should attend Wellington College and then Trinity. After William’s death in 1863, Thomas took the surname Grylls and attended both of these educational establishments. His later career is unknown, but he married in 1876 and died in Ostend in 1882.


This note to Grylls from his butler John Hill, suggests that Thomas – ‘Tom’ – was a valued member of the household at Polsloe. Hills signs off ‘Hoping your Health is better and all others wele [well] and Tom enjoying himself. With kind love to Tom and regards to all the others’.


Add.ms.a.334.24, note. The reverse side of this note details the total amount which Grylls spent at the Libri Sale (£441 7s 6d)

One final curious item to highlight in the Grylls Collection is described as his ‘scrapbook’ and it is tempting to believe that Grylls may have put this together for his son Thomas. The Library owns several closely-written notebooks containing Grylls’ notes on his reading and travels but this scrapbook of cuttings demonstrates the breadth and sometimes whimsical nature of his interests. The page below contains an advert for performing cats.

Grylls 10.237

William Grylls bequeathed the entire library at Polsloe (with the exception of the books left to him by his father which he bequeathed to Thomas and his ‘kitchen library’ which he left to his servant) in his will of 1863. He recommended that a delegate of the Master and Fellows of Trinity should visit Polsloe before the books were brought to Cambridge saying:

“I may venture to assert they would find there one of the best private Collections in the Kingdom comprising several thousand volumes of a rare and choice character.”

For over 100 years the books were kept in the Wren Library in specially designed low bookcases decorated with a Latin inscription and the Grylls coat of arms (as directed by Grylls in his will). The books are now housed in Bays F, G and H.

The Wren Library with the cases containing the Grylls Collection running down both sides. Note the Grylls’ heraldic device on the ends of the bookcases.

Not only is the Grylls Collection significant for the books which it contains, but also for the insights it provides into the collecting practices of this nineteenth-century bibliophile.

Further Reading:

R. G. Grylls, Grylls and Grills – The History of a Cornish Clan (London, 1999)

With thanks to Jeni Woolcock, Rowan Musser, Caroline Jones and Suzanne Foster.

2 thoughts on “William Grylls and the Grylls Collection

  1. Pingback: Porcupines and Postage Stamps – Trinity College Library, Cambridge

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