The Biggar Collection

Henry Percival Biggar (1872-1938) was responsible for the early development of the Canadian collections at the IHR during the 1920s and 1930s. The son of Irish immigrants, Biggar was born in Carrying Place, Ontario and educated at the Upper Canada College and the University of Toronto before becoming an archivist at the Public Archives of Canada in Ottawa. While in Europe he received a doctorate in history at Oxford and published several titles on European exploration in North America including The voyages of the Cabots (Paris, 1903), The Voyages of Jacques Cartier (Ottawa, 1924) and The Works of Samuel de Champlain (Toronto, 1922-1936).

Biggar was central to the acquisition campaign for the Public Archives and later participated in the organization of historical manuscripts in the national collection, a project he wrote about at length in the first two volumes of the Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research. From 1905 he served as the European representative of the Department of Canadian Archives, a position he occupied until his death in 1938. He was instrumental in the founding of the Canadian Historical Society in 1922 and served as its first secretary. As secretary he oversaw the transcription of important manuscripts relevant to the early history of Canada held in Parisian and London archives for deposition in the Public Archives of Canada. In this role he also secured many important donations for the society, including the Dartmouth Papers in 1923. Biggar was an activist for Canadian and imperial charities in the capital, serving as the National Commissioner of the Canadian Red Cross Society during the early years of the Depression. He was also involved in the organization of the early Anglo-American conferences held at the IHR in the 1920s and 1930s. As such, he was a tireless campaigner for North American studies in London.

From 1921 onwards Biggar donated books from his personal library to the IHR. As such, the strengths of the Canadian collections reflect his research interests in the areas of early European exploration of North America and the history of New France before the British conquest of 1759/60. Biggar’s largest donations of books and pamphlets arrived in the IHR over the course of the summer of 1926 and the winter of 1927. These donations, amounting to over 540 items, were purchased from Biggar’s collection by his colleagues and other notable Canadians living in London including Sir Alexander Whitehead and two other men, one Mr. McLaren and one Mr. Sale.  In 1938, the IHR library committee valued the Biggar Library, then consisting of 562 volumes and 256 pamphlets, at £950. This total did not take into account the 50 unnamed books on North American Indian culture and Canadian geology or the 100s of pamphlets all of which had been transferred to the University of London library in 1936. Biggar was also instrumental in establishing the Canadian Lectureship Fund in order to grow the library’s Canadian collection.

Provenance in the Biggar collection

  • A presentation copy of Joseph-Guillaume Barthe’s (1816-1893) Le Canada Reconquis par la France (Paris, 1855) presented to the French illustrator and student of Delacroix, Maurice Sand (1823-1889) includes a letter from the author bound among the front flyleaves of the book. It is dated Quebec, 15 September 1867 and discusses a meeting between Barthe and Sand in Paris in 1861 and an overview of the book.La Canada Reconquis par la France argues for renewed French immigration to Quebec in order to rejuvenate French Canadian language and culture. [1]
  • The first volume of the IHR copy of Etienne Michel Faillon’s Histoire de la Colonie Francaise in Canada contains a long citation from the work in Biggar’s hand. It also contains a letter, bound among the front leaves, with information about the book.
  • The library holds several books purchased by Biggar during his time as a student in Paris in the 1880s. Biggar recorded the location and year of purchase on the front flyleaves of many of these books including Leon Deschamps’s Un colonisateur du Temps de Richelieu, Isaac de Razilly (Paris, 1887) and Pierre Boucher’s Canada in the Seventeenth Century (Montreal, 1883).

[1] For more information on Barthe see the Dictionary of Canadian Biography

By Benjamin Bankhurst (IHR)