Frederic Madden, born in Portsmouth in February 1801, was the kind of scholar normally associated with the Elizabethans. Though he attended Magdalen Hall, Oxford, family circumstances meant he had to earn his own living, and so he was prevented from taking a degree. To make up for this, perhaps, he educated himself — he took private lessons in Hebrew, and taught himself Syriac, while along the way he became fluent in several classical and European languages, including Anglo-Saxon.
In 1824, he landed an interesting job, as copyist to Sir Henry Petrie, keeper of the Tower records. His ambition, however, was a post at the British Museum. He tried for a job in the librarian there in 1826, and was turned down, but then he got a temporary position as a temporary cataloguer. This was his foot in the door. In February 1828 he was given the job of assistant keeper in the department of manuscripts, and was promoted to keeper in July 1837.
Once established, he turned the old institution upside down. He instituted regular cataloguing — a terrific and ongoing job, as he was also acquired on a grand scale. Following the end of the Napoleonic wars, the market was flooded with manuscripts, and Madden took full advantage of this to double the size of the Museum collection.
Madden was a great curator, too. Many of the acquisitions were in a poor state, and so he set up a system for conservation and binding. And, in true curatorial fashion, he disapproved of the fashion for putting manuscripts on public display. Naturally, then, the new trade of photography was ideal for him. In 1856 he set up a museum studio, where a photographer (Roger Fenton) was set to the task of making facsimiles.
His single-mindedness and obstinacy earned him enemies within the Museum. One, the principal librarian, Sir Henry Ellis, was tartly described by Madden in his journal as 'always an ass; always a bully; always a time-serving, lick-spittle booby and blockhead.' He accused Ellis as being the 'slave' of Sir Anthony Panizzi, the keeper of printed books, who united in himself, according to Madden, 'all the villainy, cunning, fraud and diabolical qualities of both Richelieu and Mazarin.'
A great pity, as the quarrelling overshadowed what the Oxford Dictionary of Biography calls a "deserved reputation as a giant of Victorian scholarship."
Read about all this, plus Madden's surprisingly racy social life, in the story by Michael Borrie