Cataloguing manuscripts can be great fun, but if the author’s handwriting is bad, it can become a form of exquisite torture. Such is the case with Prince Augustus Frederick, sixth son of George III, Duke of Sussex and President of the Royal Society from 1830-38, whose penmanship frequently leaves a lot to be desired. But once you get your eye in, some wonderful details emerge from the squiggles…

Portrait of Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, by Thomas Phillips, ca. 1838

I am spending three weeks at the Royal Society doing some voluntary cataloguing, as part of my preparation for beginning a Masters in Archives and Records Management at UCL this autumn. The collection I was asked to work on initially is a set of 24 letters sent from and to the Duke of Sussex in his capacity of Royal Society President.

I started full of enthusiasm, but very quickly became bogged down, finding the Duke’s handwriting almost completely incomprehensible. Having little experience with early 19th century manuscripts, initially I thought the problem was simply my lack of skill – and no doubt this is partly the issue.  But having found no problem reading the correspondence from others which is also included in this file, I have concluded that the Duke is as least as much to blame as me. I now have a great deal of sympathy for John George Children who, as Secretary of the Society at the time, was the recipient of most of the letters I am cataloguing.

Sometimes individual words or phrases leap out of letters which otherwise I find indecipherable. This is particularly tantalising when the phrase is “No doubt Mr Faraday ought to be one of the Gentlemen…”, which appears in a letter from November 1832.  My suspicion is that this may be the Duke’s suggestion for who should be awarded that year’s Copley Medal; Michael Faraday did indeed receive the Medal in 1832 for his work on electromagnetism. Later in the same letter the Duke appears to describe Captain Beaufort (presumably Francis Beaufort, the naval hydrographer and creator of the eponymous wind force scale) as “an annoyance”, but I have not been able to decipher why.

I have made much more headway on other letters, which cover diverse subjects including a possible contribution from the Society for the proposed monument to Sir Walter Scott (the Duke is dead against any donation); wrangling over the allocation of rooms newly transferred from the Government to the Royal Society and other learned societies – presumably these were extra rooms in the Society’s then home, Somerset House (Children has to smooth the Duke’s ruffled feathers, as the latter believes that the offices in question have been put at his personal disposal for assigning as he sees fit – and this does not accord with the Royal Society Council’s view of things); the sale of the Arundel Manuscripts to the British Museum; and a visit from the newly-appointed Astronomer Royal, George Airy.

Many of the Duke’s letters are written from Ranton Abbey, the home of the Earl of Lichfield, which the Duke is visiting, apparently for his health and for hunting. A little web research informs me that Thomas Anson, 1st Earl of Lichfield, was to suffer a financial collapse in 1842, brought on by gambling and excessive hospitality at Ranton and his other property, Shugborough Hall. Perhaps the Duke played a small part in this!

One sequence of letters deals with the unfortunate case of John Herapath. Mr Herapath writes an overwrought, and probably ill-advised, letter to the Duke seeking “scientific justice” after having had a paper blackballed by the Society. He infers bad faith from members of the Council and asks the Duke to intervene to help him exonerate himself from the “odium” which has been thrown upon him. Unsurprisingly, the Duke wants no involvement in the business and Children intriguingly suggests that “[t]he moment which Mr Herapath has chosen to open his battery seems very indicative of some secret machinations …” He duly sends a terse reply to Herapath on the Duke’s behalf, giving him very short shrift indeed.

John Herapath was never published in the Philosophical Transactions, and never became a Fellow, but his ideas were published elsewhere and he is now acknowledged as a pioneer in the kinetic theory of gases.

All in all there is a good deal of interesting material here – and more to be had once someone with better palaeography skills than me has examined the letters. I have one more week at the Society and have now moved on to a set of papers submitted to the Society in the late 17th century. I shall try to find time to report back before I leave

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