Dr. Williams' Library, Non-Conformist Collection
Dr. Williams’ Library, located in London, England at 14 Gordon Square, has the largest and best collection of English Nonconformist material in the world. The library owes its origins to the rambling 18-page will of Dr. Daniel Williams made in 1711 and proved in 1716. Dr. Williams’ estate was valued at 50,000 pounds (probably acquired at the death of his first wife). His books were left to his trustees in hopes that it would become “the compleatest library in London”. In 1699, Dr. Williams purchased the library of Dr. William Bates. Dr. Williams added to the collection and this became the core collection of the library. He did not leave an endowment for the library, however, and the trustees collected funds from wealthy Dissenters (there were quite a number at the time) and erected the building in Red Cross Street that housed the collection for a number of years. In 1729, the trustees appointed a librarian and caretaker to assist with the care of the books. In 1736, Dr. Williams’ building became the headquarters for the dissenting Londoners and remained so for 100 years. Some 50,000 Nonconformist births were recorded there prior to the compulsory law requiring registration of births, marriages and deaths in 1836. In 1805, an order was obtained from the Court of Chancery allowing 50 pounds to be spent annually on the library. Through the years, the Library has been threatened with closure but it has survived, and the book collection continues to grow. It is an important library for Nonconformist research.
Dr. Daniel Williams was born about 1643 at or in Wrexham, Denbighshire in Wales. His family was probably well connected. The English Civil War had just begun. Their sympathies were with Parliament and Presbytery. There was a Puritan school in the area and Quakers visited the neighborhood. When he was about 20 years of age, he became a Presbyterian preacher. The difficulties of the time took Daniel to Ireland. He became a domestic chaplain to the Countess of Meath. He preached for a time in Drogheda and in Dublin. In 1675, he married the widowed sister of the Countess of Meath. In 1687, he went to London and soon became a leader of the Nonconformists there. By the 1690s he was in trouble, and his enemies charged him with immorality. He was cleared by a formidable jury of 60 London ministers. Daniel’s wife died in 1698 and three years later he married another widow, Jane Barkstead. He continued to support Nonconformist causes. In 1709, as his health began to fail, he was made a D.D. by Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities. He died on 16 January 1716, in his early 70s. There is lengthy biographical sketch of him in the Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 61.
The Family History Library has eight volumes of the catalogue of books in the Dr. Williams’ Library. Their call numbers are Q943.1/L1 A3d and 942.1/L1 A3dr. The catalogues take the collection up to 1970. The registers of births was closed in 1837 and transferred to the Register General in 1840 and is now among the Nonconformist records at the National Archives. The Family History Library has microfilmed the records and they have been extracted. The catalog entry for these records are somewhat confusing. There is an index to the certificates as well as abstracts and the certificates. The abstract shows the number of the certificate, the child’s name, when registered, the parents’ names, witnesses, and the time of birth. The certificates show where the birth took place as well as the information in the abstract. The volumes of the certificates are arranged alphabetically, as follows:
- Volume A: Those births recorded before the registers were started, some of the entries are births in 1716 and 1717
- Volume B: From March 28, 1739 to May 1792
- Volume C: From 1792-1805
- Volume D: From May 29, 1805 to April 15, 1812
- Volume E: From April 16, 1812 to December 3, 1816
- Volume F: From January 3, 1817 to September 29, 1820
- Volume G: From 1820-1824
- Index: Film Number 1482452