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Papers of Sir John Kirk and Lady Helen Kirk.

Identifier: Acc.9942/1-65

Scope and Contents

Papers of Sir John Kirk GCMG KCB (1832-1922), physician, administrator, naturalist, photographer, and Lady Kirk, née Helen Cooke (d.1914).

John Kirk was born at Barry in Forfarshire in 1832. After qualifying as a doctor in 1854, he volunteered for medical service in the Crimea and subsequently became Dr. David Livingstone's chief assistant on his second Zambesi Expedition, 1858-1863. In 1866 Kirk was appointed Medical Officer and Vice-Consul of Zanzibar. He became Assistant Political Agent in 1868, Consul-General in 1873, and Political Agent in 1880. He retired from the consular service in 1887.

Kirk's period in Zanzibar coincided with the dramatic decline of the slave trade in East Africa, in which he played a prominent role, and with the extension of European interests into the interior. Upon his retirement to Sevenoaks he continued an active involvement in East Africa for some years. He was British Plenipotentiary at the Brussels Conference on the African Slave Trade, 1889-1890, a director of the Imperial British East Africa Company, and chairman of the government committee for the construction of the Uganda Railway. Moreover, he was frequently asked informally for advice on East African questions. He died in 1922.

Helen Cooke went to Zanzibar to marry John Kirk in 1867, and remained there until her children's education necessitated her to return to England in 1883. Throughout her time in Zanzibar she assisted her husband with his correspondence, and as a result certain political letters were addressed to her. Some of her personal letters and two of her diaries are also included in the collection. Lady Kirk died in 1914.


  • Creation: Circa 1856-circa 1973.


Conditions Governing Access

Normal access conditions apply. Parts 39, 45 and 50 were never available to the National Library of Scotland either for deposit or purchase, and are therefore not available for consultation.

Conditions Governing Use

Normal reproduction conditions apply, subject to any copyright restrictions.


62 Volumes

Language of Materials



Colonel Kirk, and subsequently Dr Foskett, arranged Sir John and Lady Kirk's papers and numbered some of them. These arrangements have now been superseded.

This inventory is based firmly on one composed by Dr Anne Thurston in 1982, when the material was still in private hands. The file numbering keeps to her file numbering, but files 39, 45 and 50 were never available to the National Library of Scotland either for deposit or purchase.

There is some variation between the contents of Dr Thurston's lists (especially as regards files 1-16) and the material now in the National Library of Scotland.

Custodial History

Upon his death, Sir John's papers were left to his son, Colonel J.W.C. Kirk. Colonel Kirk loaned them to Sir Reginald Coupland, Beit Professor of Colonial History at Oxford for the purpose of the preparation of a biography of John Kirk. The papers were returned to Colonel Kirk in the mid 1950s and a few scholars used them privately thereafter by his courtesy.

Colonel Kirk began transcribing his father's diaries and correspondence, and after his death, when the papers were inherited by his daughter, Mrs. Daphne Foskett, the transcription was continued by her husband, the Rt Rev. Dr Reginald Foskett. Foskett published letters and journals of Kirk, and much of this published material was then sold by Charles Sawyer in 1966. A number of letters to Kirk from David Livingstone and other well-known correspondents were sold at Sotheby's in the same year. Nineteen of these letters were purchased by the National Library of Scotland. Other letters were sold by John Wilson of Whitney in about 1979.

Dr Foskett was preparing Kirk's Zanzibar diaries for publication when he died in 1973, and for this purpose he had accumulated copies of Kirk's correspondence from various sources.

Mrs Foskett deposited much of her Kirk archive in the National Library of Scotland in 1989. After her death, this deposit and other Kirk papers which remained in her possession at her death were sold in 1998/1999 to the National Library of Scotland with the generous financial assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund and a grant from the Friends of the National Libraries.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Bought, 1999, D Foskett, Field Broughton. Previously held on deposit, 1989-1999.


Finlay, George. ‘The history of Greece from its conquest by the Crusaders to its conquest by the Turks, and of the Empire of Trebizond, 1204-1461’ (Edinburgh, 1851).

Coupland, Reginald. 'Kirk on the Zambesi' (1928).

Coupland, Reginald. 'East Africa and its invaders' (1938).

Coupland, Reginald. 'The exploitation of East Africa: the slave trade and the scramble' (1939).

Foskett, Reginald. "The Zambesi Doctors: David Livingstone's Letters to John Kirk, 1858-1872" (1964).

Foskett, Reginald. 'Zambesi Journal and Letters of Dr. John Kirk' (1965).
National Library of Scotland Catalogue of Manuscripts
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Repository Details

Part of the National Library of Scotland Archives and Manuscripts Division Repository

Archives and Manuscript Division
National Library of Scotland
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Edinburgh EH1 1EJ
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