Roger Henry Ellis (1910-1998)
Archivist and conservator, Roger Henry Ellis specialized in historic British manuscripts. Born in Nottinghamshire, England on June 9, 1910, he studied Classics at King’s College, Cambridge University. In 1934 Ellis began working at the Public Records Office (PRO, today the National Archives of the United Kingdom), where he studied document repair under noted archivist and Principal Assistant Keeper at the PRO, Sir Hilary Jenkinson. During World War II, he served in the British Army with the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.
The Allied invasion of Italy in July 1943 threatened the written records of centuries of Italian history with destruction from bombs, shellfire, and looting. Whole collections of fragile ecclesiastic and historic manuscripts were trapped beneath piles of rubble. At the suggestion of Monuments Man Lt. Col. Sir Leonard Woolley, Archaeological Advisor to the War Office, Sir Hilary Jenkinson was recruited as Archives Advisor to the War Office. Jenkinson composed extensive lists of Italian archives both public and private, as well as conservation handbooks for the use of Monuments Men in the field. Within months, he recommended Ellis, his protégé at the PRO, for service with the MFAA. Ellis was assigned to British Eighth Army in May 1944 along with American MFAA Officer Lt. Col. Norman Newton. Armed with Jenkinson’s lists, Ellis and Newton followed Eighth Army’s progression northward from Lazio through Umbria and into Tuscany, conducting early inspections and making arrangements for first-aid repair. Ellis located priceless fifteenth- and sixteenth-century archives in churches, villas, and remote towns, all repositories for relocated and looted archives.
On August 3, 1944, on direct orders from Adolf Hitler, German forces destroyed the five main bridges in Florence, sparing only the Ponte Vecchio, the Führer’s favorite. The destruction of the bridges was a calculated move intended to impede the Allied advance. While it caused massive damage to the city’s great medieval towers, it had little impact on delaying the Allies’ progress. Ellis was permitted into the city for a matter of hours on August 12, 1944, becoming the first Monuments Man to enter Florence. He made quick inspections of the major churches and monuments on the south side of the Arno River, including the Brancacci Chapel at Santa Maria del Carmine, home of Masaccio’s famous fifteenth-century frescoes, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden and The Tribute Money.
Ellis returned to Florence within a few weeks to assist with recovery efforts at the library of the Colombaria Society, which held codices, incunabula, manuscripts, and books detailing the early history of Florence. A combination of explosions, fire, and rain damaged much of the library’s collection. Together with Dr. Gustavo Bonaventura, specialist of the Istituto di Patologia del Libre, Ellis worked to straighten bindings and smooth pages, removing dust and fragments, separating damp pages with dry paper, and standing books up to dry. In Dr. Bonaventura’s final report, he stated that the team was able to save 177 of 543 manuscripts. Excavations of the library’s rubble recovered most of the incunabula and codices.
Following his successes in Italy, Ellis was involved in MFAA operations at headquarters in London as well as in Munich, Germany. He returned to England in late 1945, working as a lecturer at University College London and the London School of Printing. In 1957 he began a fifteen-year career as Secretary of the Historic Manuscripts Commission (HMC). During this time, he established the Commission as a separate office independent from the PRO. He secured new offices, enlarged the staff, increased publications, and revised and expanded the Commission’s royal warrant. Ellis also increased the influence of the HMC by expanding the National Register of Archives, commissioning a survey of the papers of nineteenth-century Prime Ministers, and planning a 1969 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Upon his retirement from the HMC in 1972, Ellis returned to the PRO as a volunteer. His resulting research produced a complete catalogue of medieval seals which was published in three volumes between 1978 and 1986.
Ellis was President and Fellow of the Society of Archivists, Chairman of the sub-committee on the export of manuscripts of the British Records Association, Treasurer of the Friends of the National Libraries, member of the International Committee on Sigillography, and served on the Council of the Royal Historical Society. In 1997, he unveiled a plaque in honor of Sir Hilary Jenkinson, his mentor and friend, at Jenkinson’s home in Horsham, England.
Roger Ellis died in London on March 19, 1998.
Photo courtesy of the Walter Gleason Collection, The Monuments Men Foundation Collection, The National WWII Museum, New Orleans, LA.