The British Museum's collections, £16.99
Sir Henry Ellis before a Parliamentary Committee, a caricature
England, AD 1833
From McLeans monthly sheet of caricatures (no. 41)
In 1833 the Trustees asked for the usual annual sum of money from the British Parliament for the running of the British Museum. The sum requested was £16,000.
Richard Cobbett, Member of Parliament for Oldham in Lancashire, was enraged. He argued that the money should be spent instead in helping the Lancashire cotton-weavers, who were living in great poverty. He was especially angry about the sum of £1,000 which had been set aside to buy 'cases of dead insects' for the Museum.
Cobbett believed that British Museum officials gave jobs at the Museum to members of their families. Finally, he demanded to know whether the maids at the Museum were 'daughters of the heads of the establishment'. These remarks led a cartoonist to draw this imaginary scene. In it the Principal Librarian of the Museum, Sir Henry Ellis, appears before a Parliamentary Committee to answer Cobbett's accusations. Behind him are the elderly (and very disapproving) Museum maids.
Sir Henry Ellis, Principal Librarian (1827-1856), was an easy man to draw. He was short and plump and wore round spectacles. His views on access to the Museum were old-fashioned. He once wrote to a newspaper stating that the British Museum had many purposes, among which '... the merely popular one of ... amusement and instruction is by no means the chief'.