The Portsmouth Papers

In 1872, the 5th Earl of Portsmouth generously decided to donate the scientific papers in his possession to Cambridge University in order ‘to advance the interests of science by placing these Papers at the service of the University’, although he stated that he wished to keep the personal papers. A committee was set up and the scientists John Couch Adams and George Stokes were given the task of sorting through the scientific papers, which together with the ‘non-scientific’ manuscripts were taken to Cambridge for easier inspection. H.R. Luard, a medievalist and University administrator, and G.D. Liveing, Professor of Chemistry, were deputed to analyse the theological and alchemical papers. The inspection and classification of the entire archive took much longer than had been envisaged, and a Catalogue of the papers only appeared in 1888.[1] To an unavoidable extent, Adams and Stokes divided up the scientific papers according to the classifications prevalent in late nineteenth century science, and by rearranging the archive according to those classifications, the committee inevitably destroyed a host of clues which might have suggested how various manuscripts interrelated.

The report stated that many of the papers ‘were found to be in great confusion -- mathematical notes being often inserted in the middle of theological treatises, and even numbered leaves of MSS having got out of order’.[2] Apart from Newton himself, some of the blame for the disordered state of large parts of the archive can probably be laid at the feet of Conduitt, although others almost certainly failed to leave manuscripts in the state in which they had found them. It may well be, however, that some of the juxtapositions -- of theology and mathematics, for instance -- which appeared ‘disorderly’ to nineteenth-century academic minds in fact made perfectly good sense to Newton. In the catalogue, papers were split up into ‘Mathematics’, ‘Chemistry’, ‘Chronology’, ‘History’, ‘Miscellaneous Papers, chiefly on theological subjects’, ‘Letters’, ‘Books’, ‘Miscellaneous Papers’, ‘Correspondence’ and smaller sections dealing with personal material. Papers deemed to be ‘alchemical’ as opposed to ‘chemical’ (a distinction Newton himself would almost certainly not have recognised) nonetheless appeared under the heading of ‘Chemistry’, but these, along with ‘five parcels containing transcriptions from various alchemical authors in Newton’s handwriting’ and two other ‘packets’ with alchemical notes and recipes were returned to Hurstbourne as being ‘of very little interest in themselves’. Liveing was flummoxed by the vast array of alchemical transcriptions and concluded that Newton had ’striven in vain to trace a connected system in the processes described’ by these writers.[3]

Along with the papers relating to Newton’s service at the Mint (from 1696 to his death in 1727), the items catalogued under the headings of ‘Chronology’, ‘History’ and ‘Theology’ were also returned to Hurstbourne. The ‘Chronological’ material consisted mainly of eighteenth century work while the ‘Historical’ manuscripts were almost entirely composed of papers concerned with Newton’s defence of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge in the spring of 1687 when James II attempted (unsuccessfully) to enforce the conferral of an MA on a Roman Catholic friar, Alban Francis, without his having to take the statutory oath abjuring ‘popery’. Luard added three other items to this section, namely ‘Egyptian mythology’, ‘Original of Monarchies’ and some ‘Antiquarian fragments’. Under ‘Miscellaneous papers, chiefly on theological subjects’ he included chronological material as well as apocalyptic treatises, material relating to the important essay ‘Paradoxical questions concerning the morals and actions of Athanasius’, and notes for and drafts of the ‘Theologiæ Gentilis Origines Philosophicæ’. Like many others who have commented on Newton’s extraordinary theological treatises, Luard noted that they appeared to be prepared for the press, although given the presence of multiple drafts and the lack of any evidence of their subsequent publication, he somewhat perversely argued that they were composed ‘apparently from the mere love of writing. His power of writing a beautiful hand was evidently a snare to him’.[4] Although Louis Trenchard More was granted access to the Hurstbourne papers in the late 1920s in preparation for his 1934 biography, little or no attention was paid to their existence until they were sold at Sotheby’s in July 1936.

Continue reading about the sale of the Portsmouth Papers at Sotheby’s in 1936

[1] A Catalogue of the Portsmouth Collection of Books and Papers written by or belonging to Sir Isaac Newton, the Scientific Part of which has been Presented by the Earl of Portsmouth to the University of Cambridge, drawn up by the Syndicate appointed 6th November 1872 (Cambridge, 1888).

[2] Catalogue of the Portsmouth Collection, x-xi.

[3] Catalogue of the Portsmouth Collection, 11 and xix.

[4] Catalogue of the Portsmouth Collection, 25 and 31.

© 2024 The Newton Project

Professor Rob Iliffe
Director, AHRC Newton Papers Project

Scott Mandelbrote,
Fellow & Perne librarian, Peterhouse, Cambridge

Faculty of History, George Street, Oxford, OX1 2RL -

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