Robert George Collier Proctor

Member of The Hundred

Robert George Collier Proctor
Birth and death
1868 - 1903
Profession details
Related places
John Bowman

Robert George Collier Proctor is famous now among bibliographers for two things: primarily for his rearrangement of the incunabula (books printed before 1501) in the British Museum according to what has become known as 'Proctor order', based on the way in which printing spread in its early days; and secondly for the mystery which has always surrounded his death. A man of boundless energy, he accomplished a prodigious amount in his short life, and one can only wonder how much more he might have achieved had he lived longer.
He was born at Budleigh Salterton, on the south Devon coast, on 13 May 1868. His grandfather Robert (1798-1875), the second son of George Proctor of Clewer Lodge, Windsor, married a sister of John Payne Collier (1789-1883), the editor and literary forger, and they had two sons and two daughters. The elder son was Robert, who married Anne (or Annie) Tate on 9 July 1867 at St Stephen's church, Paddington. The Robert Proctor with whom we are concerned here was their only child.


Robert Proctor attended a preparatory school in Reading, and then went on to Marlborough College. By this time his father had died and his mother moved to Bath, and owing to trouble with his eyes, necessitating that they should be carefully watched, he moved in January 1881 to Bath Academy, a school which had been started by T. W. Dunn in 1878. In 1886 Proctor won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and his mother, having nothing now to keep her in Bath, moved to Oxford also and took rooms in Walton Street. There he called on her every day for lunch, and again for tea, while still taking a full part in college life. He graduated with a second-class BA in Literae Humaniores (Classics) in 1890.
It is from his time at Oxford that the only known photograph dates. Pollard tells us that by the time of his death it was not a very close likeness because he had long since ceased to shave. He was 'a man of no great stature, with a pale face and dark hair and beard, who never wore a black coat, or high hat, or overcoat, and never carried a stick or, save in drenching rain, an umbrella'.

Bibliographical work

Proctor had taken with him to Oxford an unusually large collection of books, and while there his interest in bibliography developed further. In early 1891 he obtained some paid employment at the Bodleian Library, continuing a catalogue of incunabula which had been started by E. Gordon Duff, and he worked on this until September 1893. During this time he also prepared lists of incunabula in some of the other Oxford colleges.
In October 1893, at his second attempt, Proctor obtained a post of Assistant in the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum, and it was here that he did his most important work. This arose out of his ability to identify type, which enabled him to put printers' names and places to the majority of those early printed books that did not show this information. The first-fruit of this work was his Index to the Early Printed Books in the British Museum (London, 1898). In this the books were arranged geographically and chronologically: first by country, in the order in which printing spread; then within each country by town on the same basis, and within each town by printer, again chronologically. The Index achieved renown not only in Britain but overseas, and bibliographers from around the world frequently sought his opinion on doubtful points.
The success of the Index led to his being given permission to rearrange all the incunabula themselves according to the same scheme (they had not hitherto been separated but were interspersed among the ordinary books), and special bookcases in the Arch Room of the British Museum were glazed for this purpose. This was the first use of his 'order' for the physical arrangement of the books, and the arrangement is still used in major collections today.

Proctor's diary

Proctor kept a diary for the last four years of his life, and the surviving volumes (1, 2 and 4) are now in the British Library, volume 3 unfortunately being missing. In the diary we have a view of three overlapping worlds: his work at the British Museum, including all the contacts with other bibliographers; his life with Mother in Oxshott; and, later, the circle of members of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, usually referred to as 'Anti-Scrape'. Pervading all these is a sense of Proctor's unremitting energy and restlessness. Everything was done quickly, often impatiently, so much so that he sometimes injured himself with physical work. If something was possible, it was to be done now. He was frequently working into the early hours of the morning, and it is clear that he saw little distinction between his home life and his work. He was perhaps one of those lucky people for whom his work was his life.

William Morris

It would be no exaggeration to say that Proctor was besotted with Morris, whom he met in 1894, and copied him in many ways. Morris had started his own press, and this must have influenced Proctor when he decided to have his own Greek type cast. Morris (with the help of Eirikr Magnússon) had translated Icelandic sagas into English, and so Proctor learnt Icelandic and tried to do the same. Proctor had been a purchaser of Kelmscott Press books from the start, and he constantly tried, at whatever cost, to acquire books which he had missed previously, as well as all kinds of ephemera relating to the press. He also bought chintz in the Morris design 'Brer Rabbit', and used the sewing machine himself to make it into hangings. Sir Sydney Cockerell says that he did not have much taste and rather overdid it.
It was no doubt the Morris connexion that caused Proctor to join the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, of which Morris had been a founder. Once elected to the Committee he seldom missed their weekly meetings, which were always followed by an informal meal in a local restaurant.

Greek printing

Proctor was especially interested in the printing of Greek, and wrote a book on the subject, The Printing of Greek in the Fifteenth Century (Oxford, 1900). In due course he decided to have his own Greek type cast; he called it the 'Otter' type and based it on the type used in the 'Complutensian Polyglot', the edition of the Greek Bible which had been printed at Alcalá, in Spain, by Arnaldo Guillen de Brocar in about 1514. At the time of his death the edition of the Oresteia of Aeschylus was in the press, and further books were planned. After his death the type was used by A. W. Pollard for an edition of Homer's Odyssey in 1909. Many years later it was employed in an edition of The Four Gospels in the original Greek (1932), and there were some occasional uses subsequently. Some of the type survives at the St Bride Library in London. The type was one of a series of attempts during the late nineteenth century to revise the style of Greek type that had become prevalent in Britain, but in this case its large size meant that it would never have achieved widespread use.

Home life at Oxshott

On leaving Oxford Proctor initially lived with his mother in Wimbledon, but in the autumn of 1897 they moved to a house built specially for them at Oxshott. It is not known why they chose Oxshott. Proctor, being interested in monumental brasses, would inevitably have known of Stoke d'Abernon, of which parish Oxshott at that time formed part, because at that time one of its figure brasses was thought to be oldest in the country. It is therefore possible that he visited the place and liked the area, but this can be no more than speculation. That the village was tiny was undoubtedly part of its appeal. He named the house Midgarth, a name from Norse myth meaning Middle-Earth, which was presumably suggested by his interest in the Norse sagas. (The house, on the corner of Steel's Lane, no longer exists, having been demolished and replaced by Midgarth Close, a new development of several houses.)
It seems from the diary that home life was dominated by Mother, and yet she is a shadowy figure. Apart from her constant illnesses, despite which she seems willing to accompany her son on long walking holidays, we learn practically nothing about her. The two have the occasional argument, but clearly Proctor is devoted to her. Yet we are given no hint of her feelings. At Christmas, for example, there is no suggestion of festivities or presents, and Proctor simply goes for a long walk in the country. What did Mother think about this? She must have had a conventional upbringing and have found it strange.
The other recurrent domestic theme is servant problems: there were usually two maids, but at times the Proctors evidently found it difficult to retain them. They were however equally incapable of managing without them, so much so that at one point in their absence Mother goes to stay with her sister Rose.
The garden, which was very large, occupied much of Proctor's time and although he had help from a part-time gardener, Cuthbert, from Leatherhead, he did most of the work himself. There were flowers, fruit and vegetables, and a 'wilderness', and huge numbers of trees are referred to. Proctor spends much time picking fruit and making jam with the produce.
Oxshott was a tiny village in those days, so that neighbours were few, and they were mostly wealthy. When land had been first sold for building there were stipulations that only very large houses were to be built. Mrs Proctor visits some of the neighbours, but Proctor has little time for social occasions of any kind. We see Stoton, the schoolmaster, who enlists Proctor's help, presumably as one of the best educated of the community, as an overseer in the parish. They occasionally discuss parish business, such as rates. An attempt by the Rector of Stoke d'Abernon to involve Proctor in a proposed new church for Oxshott is met with an exclamation mark - and presumably refusal. The biggest threat is felt when adjacent land comes up for sale, and the Proctors take every step to protect their boundaries by acquiring extra land for themselves. Typically of those living in a 'select' area, Proctor complains about the increasing number of people travelling on his train.
Occasionally he goes with his mother on holiday, but even then there is little relaxation because they are usually walking holidays. The picture of Proctor struggling along the Devon coast lugging the large bag is hardly one of relaxation, and it exhausts his mother completely, so much so that one wonders why she was willing to go on such walking tours at all.

Political views

Proctor's admiration for Morris had imbued him with socialist principles which never left him. His views, though seldom expressed in the diary, are forthright and often vehement, and he disagreed with Pollard about many things. Throughout the Boer War, for example, we find him celebrating the Boer victories, rather than the British, and condemning the jubilations of the populace. His republican views also meant that he rejoiced at the death of any member of a royal family. This is especially the case with Queen Victoria, but she inconvenienced him even in death by being responsible for the closure of the British Museum on the following day.


The mystery surrounding Proctor's death will never be resolved. On 28 August 1903 he wrote out a sheet of 'wishes and bequests', and the following day he departed for the holiday in the Austrian Tyrol from which he was never to return. He knew the area well from previous walking holidays, and he wrote to his mother every day until 5 September. After this he would be out of contact with the post for some days, walking across country, and he warned his mother not to expect a letter for some time. By the time it was realized that he was missing it was therefore too late to search for him. It was assumed that he had slipped and fallen down a crevasse. Both Cockerell and another book-collector, George Dunn, always believed that he had committed suicide. Many years later Cockerell recalled the following conversation:
When he came to say good-bye to me at 16 Cliffords Inn I said 'Don't tumble down a crevasse'. He looked at me wistfully and answered 'Why?'
The entries in his diary certainly show that he was in a rather depressed state of mind. This was partly because of increased work, and disagreements with colleagues at the Museum, combined with the knowledge that his own sight, like Mother's, was failing. The fact that he wrote out a list of wishes and bequests the very day before going on holiday seems indicative. He could hardly have made a proper will in such circumstances, for in doing so he would have drawn attention to himself. On the other hand, he was reckless in walking alone over glaciers, and we know from his holiday diaries that he had had previous falls. Pollard refused to countenance the suggestion of suicide, but whether this was from genuine belief or from a desire to protect Proctor's reputation can also never be known. Perhaps he had simply ceased to care whether he lived or died.


J. H. Bowman, 'Robert Proctor's "Otter" Greek type', Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 9 no. 4 (1989), 381-98
J. H. Bowman (ed.), A Critical Edition of the Private Diaries of Robert Proctor: the life of a librarian in the British Museum (Lewiston, N.Y. & Lampeter, 2010)
J. F. Coakley, 'The Oxford University Press and Robert Proctor's Greek types', Matrix 13 (1993), 179-89
Martin Davies, 'Robert Proctor', in Nineteenth-Century British Book-Collectors and Bibliographers ed. William Baker and Kenneth Womack (Detroit & London, 1997) (Dictionary of Literary Biography; v. 184)
Barry C. Johnson, Lost in the Alps: a portrait of Robert Proctor the 'great bibliographer' and of his career in the British Museum (London, 1985)
Alfred W. Pollard, 'A great bibliographer', Wimbledon and Merton Annual (1903), 26-31
Alfred W. Pollard, 'Robert Proctor', The Library N.S. 5, no. 17 (1904), 1-34; repr. in Robert Proctor, Bibliographical Essays (London, 1905; repr. New York, 1969)
Alfred W. Pollard, 'Robert Proctor's work', The Library N.S. 5, no. 18 (1904), 192-205
Dennis E. Rhodes, 'Proctor, Robert George Collier (1868-1903)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 24 Feb. 2013]
Victor Scholderer, 'The private diary of Robert Proctor, The Library ser. 5, 5, no. 4 (1951), 261-9; with corrections in a letter by Sydney Cockerell, The Library ser. 5, 6, no. 3/4 (1951), 219

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