My favourite historical source: a nearly illegible handwritten diary, kept by a mostly forgotten character from the history of science. The diary is in the Royal Society archives, and it belonged to Sir Charles Blagden: physician, chemist, Royal Society Secretary, and good friend of its longstanding President, Sir Joseph Banks. He kept it from the 1780s to 1820 – thousands of pages of copious daily entries comprising a behind-the-scenes account of science over forty years. Here, I’d like to tell you a bit about Blagden’s diary – why it’s interesting, how it can be at times mystifying and even a little maddening, but also what makes it a uniquely rich and fascinating window on the past.

In the era of Google Books, manuscripts retain that thrill of uniqueness, the magic of the unexpected. Catalogues can help lead you to an interesting-looking source, but often until you have the thing on the desk in front of you, you’ll be unable to know what it’s like, and if – and how – you might use it. So it was with some curiosity one summer afternoon three years ago that I ordered up Charles Blagden’s diary in the Royal Society Library. I was hoping Blagden might be able to provide the inside story about British science during the Joseph Banks years. In particular, I wondered if his diary might be useful for my research on the movement of scientific information around 1800, as Blagden seemed to have been heavily involved in keeping up communications between the Royal Society and the French during the Napoleonic wars.

The diary (or at least one of its seven volumes) soon appeared – the Royal Society archives are a model of quiet efficiency. I opened it up, and instantly discovered why it hasn’t seen much use as a historical source. The handwriting is truly horrifying! It’s also tiny – Blagden didn’t like to waste paper. Making it worse was a cloud of opaque references to various events and mysterious unknown personages (who is “B.D.”? Who is “Lady P.”?). After I had been struggling for a while, Librarian Keith Moore wandered over. “Blagden’s Diary?” he said cheerfully, “you must be mad!”


Charles Blagden’s diary entry for 18 July 1805 (Royal Society Archives CB/3/4)


I think it was meant as a compliment. Keith is a fellow enthusiast for the diary (there are one or two of us out there, at least). It can be a forbiddingly cryptic document, but with a little detective work it’s clear it offers a wonderfully-detailed picture of what it was like to be a “gentleman of science” in late-Georgian London, and reveals all kinds of connections between the Royal Society and politicians, aristocrats, diplomats, and foreign scientific communities. Most manuscripts just give you a fragment of a larger picture; Blagden’s diary has a narrative all its own – it’s a window on an entire world.

But what’s it actually like? Well, let’s see what Blagden was doing in July, 1805 – incidentally, the month in which the story in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace opens. It’s Thursday 18th July, and Blagden is considering taking a scientific trip to Germany (a plan later scuppered by Napoleon’s war with Austria and Russia). He spends the morning in the library at Joseph Banks’s house (one of his favorite haunts), goes to a Council meeting of the Royal Society (hearing some talk about the newly-discovered metal Iridium), and then dines in style at the Earl of Cholmondeley’s, where there is much discussion of politics, war, and diplomacy. It’s a pretty typical day for him, combining scientific socializing with hobnobbing with aristocrats and the diplomat Robert Adair, and extensive discussions of politics and foreign news. You’ll see from the links that most of the people mentioned have since achieved that measure of eternal fame – possession of a Wikipedia entry! Here are his words:

“Went to Sir JB’s. Met there a German veterinary surgeon going to France. Talked with the Ch de Bournon a little. Read BD’s letter to Sir JB. Read letter from Brother Hale with account of Mr Lewis illness & wrote to Mr Lewis. Attended Council of Royal Society. Read to Hatchett and then to Mr Cav. [Henry Cavendish] the part of BD’s letter respecting muriatic acid. Cav. seemed to think little of it. On the whole Cav. civiler than usual. Banks seemed vexed when I said I should go to Germany, but promised letter to Humboldt. Hatchett promised letters also. Wollaston confirmed that Iridium the same as Descotils’ metal. Dined at Ld Cholmondeley’s. Met Dr Brown, found he was to take care of Ds of York. Pompous, decisive, but no friend of character or information. … He is persuaded that Emperor of Germany will not go to war with Bon. [Bonaparte], but Adair took me aside & said, that he was persuaded the Emperor had signed a conditional treaty with us, like that of Russia, namely a menacing negotiation, which could come to nothing so he and Brown persuaded that peace would not be made; the latter opining as his reason the encroachments of Bon. in Italy. Adair is persuaded that Starhemberg goes to be minister at Vienna: Hardenberg asked Windham, why he did not quit Fox & join with Pitt to make a party against Bon. Adair confirmed that Fox & Grenville perfectly agreed with respect to peace. … Dull cloudy morning, afterwards much sun.”

Well I did warn you it was cryptic! In fact, I never did crack the diary that first summer. There were plenty of other, easier sources I needed to look at, and it wasn’t clear what I could get out of the daily scribblings of one man of science few people had ever heard of. Only when I returned a year later for a longer stay did I start to get a feel for what the diary was all about. In my work I’m interested in reconstructing the different ways people generated, transmitted and used scientific information around 1800, and Blagden’s Diary is – it turned out – a way to look over the shoulder of someone engaged in precisely these things.


Engraving of a pen-and-ink drawing of Sir Charles Blagden (artist unknown. Royal Society IM/000401)


Blagden is one of those key behind-the-scenes figures from the history of science: more of an organizer and communicator than a creator of original research (although he had earlier done some painful work on the physiology of human exposure to high temperatures). Blagden was the key broker between British and French science around 1800, and he always made an effort to sniff out what was new and interesting in science on both sides of the English Channel. And not only did the diary have traces of this work all through it, but, I eventually came to realize, the diary was actually itself a tool for dealing with information – his technology for storing, processing, and retrieving information he had from various sources.

When I returned to the Royal Society last year, and started using the diary in combination with Blagden’s letters (also in the Royal Society archives) it finally began to give up some of its secrets about how scientific communication was carried on between London and Paris during the Napoleonic blockade, when Britain was cut off from the Continent. Lots of the mysterious names began to mean something. A “Mr Monroe,” turned out to be James Monroe, the future fifth President of the United States. Monroe was at the time the American Ambassador in London, and Blagden was using him to get scientific letters, journals, and books shipped to France via American diplomatic channels! Information was also smuggled over through connections with London bankers, or taken across in prisoner-of-war exchange ships (Banks and Blagden having first persuaded the British government to allow this communication with the enemy). The diary naturally features Blagden’s repeated interactions with a host of scientific figures like Henry Cavendish, Humphry Davy (whom Blagden considered rather overrated), Nevil Maskelyne, Count Rumford, and the great French savants Laplace, Cuvier, and Berthollet. The most ubiquitous figure is Sir Joseph Banks, with whom Blagden was especially close (he spent a few hours each day in Sir Joseph’s magnificent library – “Went to Sir JB’s” is perhaps the diary’s most common refrain). Other individuals who turn up include Blagden’s friend Charles Grey (foreign secretary, later Prime Minster, but perhaps now most famous for Earl Grey tea), and even Napoleon, whom Blagden met several times while in Paris during the Peace of Amiens in 1802.

Our modern, post-Romantic view of a diary is of a deeply personal record – a private document, confession, and means to self-knowledge. Blagden’s diary isn’t like that – Blagden may have lived through the Romantic era, but he was essentially a man of the 18th century, of the London of Samuel Johnson and the Edinburgh of the Scottish Enlightenment (where he did his medical degree). His diary reflects that. It’s a mechanism for giving order not to his inner life but to his social existence: a record for him to refer back to later for information on where he went, who he saw, what he said to them, and what they said to him.

He comes across as a rational, calculating information-broker, a little stuffy, a social climber; certainly not as likable as that other inveterate diary-writer, Samuel Pepys (who, however, only kept his diary for a mere 9 years!). Blagden never married, and we get little of his personal life. The one exception is his longrunning interest in Marie-Anne Lavoisier, the widow of the great chemist executed during the French Revolution. Blagden pursued Madame Lavoisier when he was in France during the Peace of Amiens in 1802, but afterwards, stuck in Britain because of the war with France, Blagden was mortified to discover that she had instead married the loyalist American man of science Count Rumford, with whom Blagden had a rather uneasy friendship. But Blagden had the last laugh. As he learned (with evident pleasure) from his contacts in France, the marriage did not go well.

Madame Lavoisier aside, the diary is mostly filled with information about the three things Blagden loved to talk about: science, politics, and foreign events. He wasn’t a womanizer like Pepys, nor did he spill much ink agonizing about his health (another preoccupation of Pepys’s diary, and also of Robert Hooke’s). He mostly wrote about people, and especially about conversations and information exchanged with them. (If Joseph Banks had asked him what the two men had talked about on the same date six years previously, Blagden could have told him after a quick check.) This makes the diary a great resource for historians – and not just historians of science – because we learn less about Blagden’s personal concerns (which might be interesting, but not that interesting) and more about the culture and society he moved in. Some things are missing, of course. In all the pages I’ve seen, not once does Blagden give away what he had for breakfast, lunch, or dinner (yet every day he recorded a sentence or two describing the weather). And Blagden must have constantly crossed paths with men and women of a lower social class than himself – especially domestic servants – yet these people are (as far as I can tell) totally absent from the diary’s pages, because Blagden saw no value in recording interactions with them. It’s very also much a man’s world, in which women seem only occasionally to appear, with Blagden the clubbable bachelor and man of science at the centre of it all. You can almost smell the snuff, leather armchairs, and port wine.

Hopefully, one day the Royal Society will be able to run a project to transcribe this unique source, thus removing the barrier of Blagden’s handwriting and opening it up to a wider community of scholars and a broader interested public. The ideal way to present it would be an annotated online edition – a bit like what’s been done for the diary of the novelist and political writer William Godwin. Publishing the diary online would also allow it to be released in real time, with pages added as they’re transcribed, so that scholars with different kinds of expertise could contribute to identifying particular obscure names and references. Blagden doesn’t have the pre-existing community of interest around him that Godwin does, but on the other hand the content of his diary is a lot richer (Godwin’s entries are exceedingly terse). A good comparison would be with Robert Hooke’s diary, which offers a similar kind of day-to-day perspective on Royal Society life from the 17th century.

Some people are interesting to historians because they were famous and important in their own day; others – like the obscure Italian miller Menocchio, or the terrifyingly ordinary 18th-century clergyman Parson Woodforde (another diarist) – because a unique manuscript source on them happens to survive that makes their life a gateway to something essential about a particular place and time in the past. Blagden is a little bit of both. He brushed shoulders with a lot of important people, and he was one of the central figures in the life of the Royal Society for forty years. Yet it’s really the survival of his diary that makes him a unique witness to the scientific world of his time. I just wish Blagden could have realized this, and beautified his handwriting accordingly.


Comments are closed.