Sir Frank Chalton Francis has been described as the most significant figure of the 20th century in the British Museum’s collection of printed books.
He was born in Liverpool on 5th October 1901, the only child of Frank William Francis, a provision broker, and his wife Elizabeth, née Chalton. At the time of his birth the family lived at 34 Blantyre Road L15, moving by the time of the 1911 census to 66 Gorsedale Road L18. He was educated at the Liverpool Institute and Liverpool University, undertaking post-graduate studies at Emmanuel College, Cambridge from 1923 to 1925, where he specialised in early Greek philosophy.
He taught at Holyhead County School for year before joining the British Museum in 1926, the start of an association which was to last over 40 years. He began as an assistant keeper in the department of printed books, soon becoming the museum’s leading expert in Scandinavian languages. His early work marked him as a skilled bibliographer, recognised in 1936 when he was appointed editor The Library, the journal of the Bibliographical Society, later being appointed the society’s secretary and president in 1964. In 1959 he was appointed director and principal librarian of the British Museum. He ensured the development of new galleries, including the Duveen, which from 1962 housed the Elgin Marbles. It should be noted that it was during his stewardship that schoolboys knocked a leg off one of the Elgin Marbles, a fact kept secret for many years lest it would lend weight to the claims that they should be returned to Greece.
He brought in important organisational changes, being largely responsible for the British Museum Act of 1963 which gave the Natural History Museum complete independence from the British Museum. Whilst he was not able to engineer the splitting of the library from the rest of the museum he did develop plans for a new building which after his retirement came to fruition as the British Library. He was also one of those who championed the use of computers in bibliography.
Appointed CB in 1968 and knighted in 1970, her received a host of honours from academic establishments across the globe. He retired in 1968 and moved to Buckinghamshire, where he died aged 87 on 15th September 1988.
In 1927 he married Katrina McClennon in Liverpool, the couple having two sons and one daughter.
The Francis' home at the time of Frank's birth in 1901
The Francis' family home in 1911
© Liverpool Footprints