Thomas Hollis, 1720-1774

From Book Owners Online

Thomas HOLLIS 1720-1774

Biographical Note

Thomas Hollis was a political propagandist, philanthropist and Dissenter, known for his decade-long project of donating thousands of books - his "Library of Liberty" - to libraries across Europe and the United States, particularly Harvard, which his great uncle Thomas Hollis (1659-1731) had also donated to. He was born to Thomas Hollis in London, and took chambers in Lincoln's Inn, without reading law, from 1740-1748. He toured Europe in 1748-9 and 1750-53, partly with his friend and heir Thomas Brand, later Thomas Brand Hollis.

Unusually for English gentlemen of his time, he was an Old Whig republican who supported the American Bill of Rights. He had an interest in antiquities, particularly medals, was a patron of several artists, and was an active member of the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufacture and Commerce, as well as the Society of Antiquaries. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1757. He was involved in the publication and reprinting of over thirty books, mostly in partnership with the bookseller Andrew Millar.


The books that he donated heavily featured subversive 17th century writers on political freedom, especially Henry Neville's Plato redivivus, Locke's Letters concerning toleration and Two treatises of government, John Toland's The life of John Milton and tracts by Marchmont Nedham and Philip Sidney. They also often included Sharpe's Origin of the Greek Tongue and Origin of the Latin Tongue and John Wallis' Ioannis Walisii Grammatica linguae Anglicanae. Bond suggests that these systematic book donations began in 1754, while a letter from Hollis to Andrew Eliot in May 1769 suggests they began in 1756 and ended in about 1770, with his retirement to Dorset.

Thomas Brand Hollis inherited his library and, on Brand Hollis' death, his friend Reverend John Disney inherited Brand Hollis' library. John Disney's son (also John Disney) sold the Hollis-Brand-Disney effects at auction shortly after his father's death, in April and March 1817 at Sotheby's in London. The book and print auction, which ran 8 days from April 22 1817-April 30 1817, comprised 1564 lots of books and tract collections, with the eighth day taken up entirely with the sale of prints. The extent of Hollis' own library is unknown, especially as Thomas Brand Hollis shared his interest in republicanism. However, from Hollis' diary, memoirs and manuscript additions marked on the catalogue we can see that he collected the work of republican and libertarian English writers. The joint library at auction has subject themes of antiquities, especially coins; government and politics; religion (especially Dissenting religion); books on and from North America; and history (especially Dissenting history, and the English Civil War and Protectorate). There is also a large collection of Milton's works that is likely Hollis'.

Characteristic Markings

Hollis had some of his own books bound in red morocco - for example, Numismaticus Musei Lefroyani, 1763, lot 246; several of Locke's works, lots 783-787; a bound collection of tracts on Archbishop Secker and opposition to bishops in America, lot 142. Several also bear his custom gilt stamps. They appear to largely be the books of his 'Library of Liberty': books and collections of tracts on freedom, resistance to what he saw as governmental and religious tyranny, and the English language. Even in his own library he made manuscript additions on some books, and this is marked in the Hollis-Brand-Disney catalogue - e.g. Vindiciae contra Tyrannos (1519), lot 210; "Sixteen tracts on the MILITIA" (1757-8), lot 839.

Hollis' donations were mostly anonymous, save the bulk of his donations to Harvard College. However, many are identifiable by their distinctive bindings, which Bond describes in detail: often red morocco, with a green bookmark ribbon and distinctive gilt emblem stamps, often repeated as smokeprints on the flyleaves. They also often hold an inscription, which with some variations reads "An Englishman, a Lover of Liberty, Citizen of the World, is desirous of having the honor to present this book to…". These gilt emblem stamps were commissioned between 1758 to early 1759, before which only distinctive arrangements of generic stamps, mottoes and inscriptions can readily identify Hollis gifts. He also recorded some of his gifts in his Diary, which is available online in manuscript and transcript.


  • A catalogue of the very valuable and highly interesting united libraries of Thomas Hollis, Esq. and Thomas Brand Hollis, Esq. Including likewise the Theological and Political Library of the late Rev. John Disney… 1817. A facsimile is printed from p5 in Seamus Deane and A. N. L. Munby (eds.), Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons, Volume 8: Politicians (London: 1973).
  • Bonwick, Colin. "Hollis, Thomas (1720–1774), political propagandist." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 3 January 2008.
  • Bond, William H., "Thomas Hollis of Lincoln's Inn: a whig and his books" (Cambridge: CUP, 1990)
  • Bond, William H., and Thomas Hollis, “Letters from Thomas Hollis of Lincoln’s Inn to Andrew Eliot,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 99 (1987): 135.
  • Blackburne, Francis, Memoirs of Thomas Hollis, Esq. F.R. and A.S.S. (London: printed [by J. Nichols], 1780.)
  • Leu, Urs B. “The Hollis-Collections in Switzerland: An Attempt to Disseminate Political and Religious Freedom through Books in the 18th Century.” Zwingliana 38 (September 2011): 153-73.
  • Reddick, Allen. “By Deeds of Stealth: English Books Abroad in the Mid-Eighteenth Century.” In Fashioning England and the English: Literature, Nation, Gender, edited by Rahel Orgis and Matthias Heim, 121-145. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018.
  • Robbins, Caroline. “The Strenuous Whig: Thomas Hollis of Lincoln’s Inn.” The William and Mary Quarterly 7, no. 3 (1950): 406–53.
  • Rogers, Jim. ‘'Feature by feature': Image, Identity and Collaboration in Thomas Hollis' Gifts to Scotland.’ Unpublished MA dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 2022.
  • Utz, Hans. (1959) “Thomas Hollis's Bequest to the library of Berne.” English Studies 40/1-6: 215-224.