Robert Leslie Ellis was born in Bath on 25 August 1817.Footnote 1 His father, Francis Ellis (1772–1842), had held a position in the Admiralty, but resigned when he became the principal heir of his uncle Henry Ellis, formerly Governor of Nova Scotia, who on his death in 1806 left him £10,000 and extensive landholdings in Ireland and elsewhere.Footnote 2 Francis and his wife Mary, née Kilbee (1777–1847), had six children, of whom Robert, born in 1817, was the youngest.Footnote 3 The family lived in a succession of large houses in Bath, where Francis Ellis, a well-known local figure, was one of the founders of the Bath Literary and Scientific Institution, founded in 1823.Footnote 4 The Institution had a well-stocked library which took in both British and continental books and periodicals, and the teenaged Ellis frequented it regularly, reading avidly and conversing with the adult members, who included scholars and scientists of some distinction. His father involved himself in Ellis’s education and was himself a well-educated and inquiring man; his uncle had described him as ‘really a very deserving young man of uncommon abilities and possessed of more scientific and other knowledge than [one] could expect at his years.’Footnote 5 In an account of the Bath literati published in 1854, Francis Ellis was included in a list of ‘men with intelligent and well-informed minds’, and a later supplement stated that ‘Francis Ellis had an enlarged mind, was a good classic, a superior mathematician, and a generally well-informed man’.Footnote 6 Ellis’s library contained several hundred books in 1841, when an inventory was taken.Footnote 7

From the age of eight Robert Ellis received all his schooling at home.Footnote 8 His mathematical tutor was Thomas Stephens Davies, who taught Ellis until he left Bath for a post at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich in 1834. Davies, a well-known figure in the history of mathematics, is dealt with in June Barrow-Green’s chapter; little is known of his early years, but his surname is Welsh, and he told Ellis at one point that he ‘preferred Cambrian mathematics to Cambridge’ (10 June 1833). Ellis’s classical tutor was Hiram A.S. Johnston (1799–1867), a more obscure figure, probably of Scottish descent but born in Tenbury in Worcestershire, whose lessons continued until Ellis left for Trinity in 1836.Footnote 9 In addition he had tutors for French, German, fencing and riding. The progress of Ellis’s schooling can be followed through his diaries, which began on 27 May 1827, when he was nine (Fig. 1.1).

Fig. 1.1
figure 1

The inside cover and first page of Ellis’s first diary. (Reproduced by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge)

The text on the inside front cover runs as follows:

Journal of Robert Leslie Ellis, commenced 27 May 1827.

Why should my days sink to oblivion? & Fanny’s be preserved?

The Cave: The Cave was a partition from the bedroom of mamma in which were papa’s regulator & telescopes & great part of mamma’s books; a delightful place, frequented for the sake of the books.

As this suggests, the initial impulse to begin a diary seems to have been a competitive one.Footnote 10 Fanny herself preserved the diaries after Robert’s death in 1859, adding annotations and on occasion cutting pages out.Footnote 11 The, Cave, became a favourite place for reading; the ‘regulator’ was a clock used to keep other clocks in time. Francis Ellis also kept a telescope in the Cave, and brought it out to observe eclipses with his son.

The diary proper begins on page 1:

Sunday 27 May [MS annotation in pencil]: 10 years old E.F.A.Footnote 12

Down at ½ past six. Read Cuvier’s Theory of the Earth. 7 to half past, played with Mary Jane. Half past to eight and a half. Said catechism & Crosman.Footnote 13 Read the ‘Abridgment of the bible’.Footnote 14 8 – ¾ past, played. ¼ to 9 to 9, Breakfast. 9 to ½ past, Conversation with Fanny, Penelope & Mini. 9 ½ to 10 Read Cowper. 10 to ¼ to 11, read Dictionary of facts and knowledge.Footnote 15 ¼ to 11 to 11 dressed. 11 to 1 Church. 1 to 2, read Dictionary of facts and knowledge. 2 to 4 ¼ In the cave Whately.Footnote 16 In the cave 4 – 5 ½. Dinner. 5 to 6 read Whately & D[ictionary of K[knowledge]. 6 to 7 ½ Heard papa read Whately.

Weather cloudy. Whole day pretty well spent. (27 May 1827)

What makes this page atypical is that it was written on a Sunday; hence the lack of tutorial visits, the visit to church and, in all likelihood, the inclusion of Henry Crossman’s Introduction to the Knowledge of the Christian Religion. The other titles Ellis mentions (Whately on logic, encyclopedic dictionaries, and Cuvier’s Theory of the Earth) are fairly typical of his daily reading. Francis Ellis subscribed to Dionysius Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopedia, and Robert devoured each volume as it arrived.Footnote 17 On the following day, his classical and mathematical tutors both visited in the morning, for an hour each, and his French teacher (‘Mademoiselle’) also came; from 1830 he took German lessons from ‘Mr Reichel’.Footnote 18 There is a striking similarity between this timetable, which carried on during weekdays, and that of a Trinity undergraduate, who would have lectures on classics and mathematics in the morning. Many sons of wealthy fathers will have had classical tutoring, but the inclusion of mathematics is unusual, and might suggest that even at this early stage, Francis Ellis was planning to send his son to Cambridge.Footnote 19

The diary page also gives us a glimpse of Ellis’s family. Mary Jane was two years older than Robert, and died aged 16 in 1831: her nickname in the family was ‘Mini’ or ‘Minnie’.Footnote 20 Fanny (Everina Frances), the eldest child, was born in 1807 and the last to die, in 1865, the year before her second husband William Whewell, Master of Trinity. Penelope, the middle sister, was born in 1814 and married a clergyman. Robert’s elder brothers Francis (Frank) and Henry are not mentioned here, but were both away from home. Frank went to Rugby and Magdalene and then into the army without taking a degree; he died in London on 27 August 1843. Henry also went into the army, and was a lieutenant in the 60th Rifles, stationed in Windsor, when he cut his throat on 2 March 1841 after taking an overdose of opium.Footnote 21 This must be the ‘deplorable affair’ referred to by Alexander Gooden in a letter to his and Ellis’s friend Robert Jenkins on 21 March, in which he reports that Ellis ‘finds the best relief in applying himself to his scientific pursuits’.Footnote 22

Robert thus spent much of his early years in a largely female household. His eldest sister Fanny gave him drawing lesson; until her death in August 1831, his sister Mary Jane joined in some of his reading and was at times taught (and tested) by him. In his biographical memoir of Ellis, Harvey Goodwin remarked that because of this home education there might be observed in him a certain elderly sobriety of manner, not amounting to stiffness, but conveying the impression that he had been accustomed to converse with those older than himself, and standing out in marked contrast with that lively boyish freedom and gaiety which is especially the characteristic of the young men educated at the great public schools.Footnote 23

For a boy who had yet to celebrate his tenth birthday, Ellis’s reading was precocious. It included drama, novels and poetry, but consisted mostly of non-fiction, including French mathematical texts; his periods of home reading, often in the ‘Cave’, were interspersed with conversations with other family members; the final item illustrates his father’s involvement with Robert’s education. Not mentioned in this first diary page, but frequent later on, are references to walking and riding. Horses were hired from local stables, and the young Ellis often rode, solo or with others, in the countryside around Bath. Some routes became favourites, among them Weston Lane, which began near Ellis’s home and led out of the city. In the summer of 1832 he recorded that he ‘rode for half an hour on the Weston lane, a locality for which recollections of the elder days has given me an affection, undestroyed by familiarity. I love the Weston lane’ (24 June 1832). Rides in company were often taken on the steep downs near the city with his friends Sam and Lousada Barrow.Footnote 24

Ellis maintained cordial relations with Hiram Johnston, who taught him from 1825 to 1834; in the latter year he wrote:

Read Demosthenes with Mr Johnston, whom I think – & I say it now, because our separation is near – a fair scholar – & a very honourable man – & it’s not every body of whom one can say so much – & I will say also during nearly nine years our acquaintance has lasted – we have never had a single misunderstanding. (18 August 1834)

1 Classical Tuition

This reading of Demosthenes with Johnston belonged to the final stage of Ellis’s pre-Cambridge education, which had begun with Latin in 1825 and added Greek two years later. His diary contains several forthright comments on the authors he read. ‘I do not like Euripides so much as either Aeschylus or Sophocles. He is rather prosy & very unnatural’, he wrote on 28 November 1831. He had a particular dislike for Livy: ‘I do not like Livy. There is an offensive nationality [nationalism], which disgusts his reader in every line. He always remembers that he is one of the lords of the universe’ (5 July 1834). Herodotus, on the other hand, was a delight: ‘The style of this writer is delightful – so simple, so naïve so gentle & kind hearted. It was well remarked, that Herodotus is like an intelligent child’ (16 July 1834).

Some of Ellis’s comments are strikingly mature. In 1834 he declared,

Leslie states (Enc. Brit. Supp. Clim.) that climate depends on latitude and elevation alone, or at least that other causes produce insensible effects. This mode of mangling the facts to render the investigation purely mathematical involves three obvious errors. (23 May 1834)

In March 1831 he had noted,

Read Schlegel on the essence of Greek tragedy in the “Theatre of ye Greeks”. With a good deal of nonsense which sounds like materialism he shows a good deal likewise, of acuteness & gives a good account of the external necessity & the inward freedom so constantly shown in the Prometheus.Footnote 25 (27 March 1831)

He often compares Greek plays to those of Shakespeare and learns from the comparison; and this leads him at one point to comment that ‘I do not know why we talk of the Orestes or the Ion, and not of the Macbeth or the Othello, and yet, it seems affectation to drop the article’ (11 June 1834). In May 1832, he and Johnston read the description of the beacon fires signalling the fall of Troy at the beginning of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. Ellis commented, ‘It is rather confused but it indicates a custom of the heroic age which is not much noticed by writers on the subject’. At that point he was writing a dissertation on the heroic age in Greece, and on the previous day had commented that ‘An indication of the state of manners in any nation may be found in the treatment of the women. This I discussed as well as I could’ (16–17 May 1832).

Ellis’s interest in the non-literary aspects of the ancient world was fired by reading the work of the German scholar Arnold Heeren, which was recommended to him by Johnston in January 1831 while they were discussing Livy; Ellis read Heeren’s Manual of Ancient History in March and April.Footnote 26 He went on to read Heeren’s work on the Ethiopians:

I feel a great interest in this, the most distant nation of antiquity, in the people of whom the Greeks knew so little that they supposed them better than their fellow men. Obscurity has a great charm for me; the travels of the present day have left no fairy ground, no region which we may people with bright and golden images.Footnote 27 (11 April 1832)

Ellis several times mentioned how much he liked reading Heeren. This is significant as showing that he read outside the relatively narrow Cambridge curriculum, which was dominated by the tradition of minute linguistic study of texts, especially of Greek drama, established by Richard Porson (d.1808).Footnote 28 His interest, and perhaps Johnston’s too, in classical culture is reflected in a letter he wrote to his tutor when was aged 8:

Mr Johnstone. Mama had not got the English-Latin Dictionary, she told me it is no matter whether I write in latin [sic] or English. Stumbled today, my desk is injured, and my thumb and knee hurt. My sister has a bust of Diana, also one of Appollo [sic]; they are very like one another. I have a horse, who is made in plaster of Paris. His name is Mina, and he is a representation of him. Mina was the horse that ran at a great race in Russia. She also has a Hebe, Isaac Newton, Locke, Antinous, which Frank showed you, a Scot, and papa he lent her Fox. Goodbye Mr Johnstsone. Robert Leslie Ellis.Footnote 29

The area of Classics in which Ellis felt he was weakest was Latin and Greek composition, then a skill heavily emphasised in the Cambridge curriculum and the subject of several university prizes and medals.Footnote 30 Johnston had started him on ‘nonsense Sapphics’ (28 April 1829), after which he tried to write a dozen lines a day.Footnote 31 On 10 June he admitted that

I certainly was not born a poet & making verses is to me ‘labour & weariness of the spirit’ but of all the parts of my classical education, what I dread most is verse making.Footnote 32 (10 June 1829)

An interesting overlap between Ellis’s classical and mathematical tutoring came in 1832, when Davies asked him to translate into English a mathematical text written in Latin by the German mathematician Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi. As Ellis wrote in his diary, ‘Accepted contre gré’ [reluctantly] (13 November 1832). Later entries show that he very much regretted agreeing to do this; he worked on it for several months before handing it over to Davies, who later published it under his own name.Footnote 33

The comparison between classical and English writers referred to above reflects both the breadth of Ellis’s reading and his ability to reach across it for analysis. A nice example relates to an English writer who discussed classical literature, Francis Bacon:

[…] read Bacon’s most beautiful ‘Wisdom of the Ancients’. I wish that I could write as this great man, whose style reminds me more of the gorgeousness of Cicero than any author I remember. (3 November 1833)

Six years later he read The Advancement of Learning, and commented that

This is a noble work & which contains more splendid passages than any work I remember of this or indeed any author, excepting perhaps the second book ‘De fin. bon. & mal.’Footnote 34 (9 May 1839)

2 The World of the Bath Literati

The Bath Literary and Scientific Institution was the centre of intellectual life in Bath. Ellis’s diaries are full of his visits to the Institution, sometimes with his father but often alone, where he spent hours reading or engaged in conversation with members. A glimpse of the reading room can be seen in Ellis’s account of taking a walk on boggy ground: ‘I sunk into clay & was like the catalogue at the library, tied by the leg’ (10 September 1831). His sense of the Institution as a kind of second home is expressed in a reflective, retrospective diary entry of 1840:

I remember leaning out of one of the Institution’s windows that time & thinking of the many hours I had spent there. I seem still to feel the pressure of the stones against my hands: the calmness of that moment seems to have perpetuated the impression. The perfect calmness of introspective contemplation, of thought wholly dissevered from action, has a charm beyond most things: there is another kind of calmness which I have felt too, when the mind is steadily fixed on one object of pursuit, & feels it’s energies rise with the occasion – like the former it arises from the absence of discord between the thinking & willing parts of man. (2 May 1840)

The men Ellis met there included members of the aristocracy (Lord Camperdown and Lord Ashtown were often encountered), the local gentry, and members of the scientific elite. A notable example of the last category was the Bath-born geologist William Lonsdale (1794–1871), who had been appointed the first honorary curator of the Institution in 1825 and had donated a thousand geological specimens.Footnote 35 On 28 March 1829 Ellis looked at the catalogue raisonné of Lonsdale’s collection; on 9 April he

had a long conversation with Mr Lonsdale. He mentioned talking to Mr Walmesley and myself that wishing to ascertain whether the Kimmeridge clay passed between two beds I forget where, he sallied forth with his man carrying a pickaxe and he with a shovel! He said that all yellow clay had once been blue, but by exposure to the air the protoxide became the peroxide. He gave me a few directions to good localities for seeing the inferior oolite, white lias &c. (9 April 1829)

Later that year Lonsdale was appointed curator and librarian at the Geological Society in London, where Ellis met him in 1834. Lonsdale became a celebrated geologist, and gave considerable assistance to Darwin in the study of corals. When Ellis met him, he was eleven to Lonsdale’s 34 years. Another geological contact was with Thomas Joyce, a Trinity contemporary, who did not graduate but who gave lectures at the Institution. Ellis met him at the Institution but had mixed feelings about him; he was sceptical in advance of an article Joyce wrote about undergraduate life in Cambridge:

I see advertised today the new number of the Westminster review: he is the author of ‘College life at Cambridge’. I dare say he will be amusing, but he has seen only part of college life. In the first place he has not been through the course. In the second he mixed with but one kind of men. He will be eloquent on pulled fowls & biffins; but he knows nothing of life among the bachelors, of the apostles, of the saints of the Union of the boat clubs &c. He has never been present at the Saturnalia of the college year, at the degree time. A good deal might be made in a light style of all these.Footnote 36 (30 March 1841)

The Institution also ran a course of lectures on popular science, and Ellis attended these, often giving highly critical comments on their content and style.

Ellis’s friend and patron Colonel William Napier was also dubious about Joyce, whom he called ‘a kind of “polished Caliban”’ (14 October 1840). Napier (1785–1860) was a soldier, military historian (History of the Napoleonic War, 5 vols 1828–40), and controversial radical politician, knighted in 1848. He almost persuaded Ellis to stand for parliament for Bath, on a platform shared with the radical John Roebuck, MP for Bath 1832–47. In 1835 Ellis declared that Napier was ‘a man of great talent in some things – eloquent and energetical […] but his mind is not evenly poised […]. In short, he is an enthusiast, and for enthusiasm I have a feeling between pity and admiration’ (15 August 1835). Later he commented on ‘Mr Napier’s extreme forbearance and kindness’ (10 June 1839), and opined that ‘in spite of his faults, he is a fine fellow’ (28 April 1840). Napier had been very much struck by the fourteen-year old Ellis on their first encounter, exclaiming to his family, ‘Such a proud, bright, clever, beautiful boy’; after this he made a point of meeting Ellis whenever he visited Bath.Footnote 37

A rather different contact made via the Institution was with Sir Thomas Phillipps of Middle Hill at Broadway in Worcestershire. Phillipps was a self-confessed ‘vellomaniac’ who had assembled the largest private library in the world.Footnote 38 The manuscripts alone numbered over 60,000, the books over 50,000, and the library took up 16 of the 20 rooms in the house; in 1827 Phillipps had bought a nearby tower where he installed a printing press. Ellis spent several days at Middle Hill with his father, at Phillipps’ invitation, in late September 1830; he did not join the adults’ outings, but was allowed to browse and copy some of the manuscripts. The teenaged Ellis was already a scholar, who mixed with other scholars and for whom study was vital:

Read two hundred & twenty lines of the Nubes with Mr Johnston – & Lacroix by myself. I find that study, & I do study a little, is of the greatest use to me – my life would be a blank or nearly so without it. I wish I could give myself wholly up to it, & sit reading, as I am now writing, by the flickering light of a solitary lamp, ‘the world forgetting by the world forgot’. And if the vital spark were thus quenched before the time, so much perhaps the better, my euthanasia would be to die amongst my books, & quietly to give up the spirit which God has given to take again after a season.Footnote 39 (31 July 1834)

3 Ellis the Diarist

The phrase ‘Gratis to Subscribers’ treats the diary as a publicly available document; in other words, as a text that will have other readers than its author. This is a possibility that Ellis at times speculated about. Ellis’s relationship to his diaries is an interesting topic in its own right. His entries begin by recounting the events of each day, but later on he gives opinions of people and books and engages in intellectual and emotional reflection (Fig. 1.2).

Fig. 1.2
figure 2

Portrait of Ellis by his brother Frank, September 1831. (“Oh fond attempt to give a deathless lot/To man ignoble, born to be forgot &c &c”.) (The opening lines of William Cowper’s ‘On observing some names of little note recorded in the Biographica Britannica’. Ellis was very fond of Cowper: ‘Hackneyed at the oar’. What a fine expression. These are the peculiar merit of Cowper: these terse and significant expressions which I think not even Pope can rival. Indeed I wld draw the same distinction between Pope and Cowper in this respect as between Johnson’s weight and Bacon’s solidity’ (23 June 1834) This comment is characteristic of Ellis in its ability to look beyond single instances to make interesting comparisons). TCL, Add.Ms.a.82/3. (Reproduced by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge)

An early entry looks back over a considerable period: on 28 March 1828, Ellis listed ten achievements made since he had begun his diary about ten months earlier, beginning ‘1 I have done quadratics & cubes & begun logs.’ The first five were mathematical, the last three classical, but the other two were neither: ‘6 I have learnt to ride in doing which / 7 My notions of Topography have been improved.’ Ellis concluded: ‘In doing all which, particularly the 1st and 6th & 7th, I have been exceedingly happy. White pony & Legendre. Sands & bath & esplanade, all all [sic] made me happy’ (28 March 1828).Footnote 40 Later such reminiscences are usually much less happy, especially after the most profound blow Ellis suffered as a child, the death of his sister Mary Jane (‘Mini’) in August 1831. She was the closest of his siblings to him in age, and they often played and learned together. Later diaries are full of fatalism and gloom: ‘All change is evil. Life is all change.’ (28 January 1833). Along with this went a consciousness of time passing and a concern to compare past, present and future: ‘names born to be forgot’. Ellis often went back to old diaries to note anniversaries, while wondering if he would still be alive in a year’s time. This habit drew on the diaries as a retrospective database in which any current event could be compared with a record of the past, often several years back. Thus in writing to his friend John Grote in the early 1850s, Ellis remarked of a significant event ‘It is five years ago this day’.Footnote 41

During his undergraduate years at Trinity Ellis made some firm friends, in particular Richard Mate, Robert Jenkins, Tom Taylor and Alexander Gooden.Footnote 42 They visited each other’s rooms frequently and often went walking together, a favourite Cambridge form of exercise. Ellis valued these friendships, but reacted very strongly if he thought they were not being kept up. In October 1840 he wrote in his diary,

I had a letter of congratulations from Taylor dated Bishopwearmouth. I was tempted by it to reflect how much he has thrown away a very sincere regard I had for him. He was my first love at Cambridge & no man valued him more, or more willingly forgave his faults than I. Heartless I cannot think him; yet he throws a man aside like a sucked orange.Footnote 43 (10 October 1840)

The intensity of feeling revealed here (‘my first love’) is remarkable, and almost unparalleled in Ellis’s diaries. This theme of abandonment also marked Ellis’s relationship with his old tutor Hiram Johnston, whom he had liked and respected: in February 1841 he recorded a meeting with him:

poor devil…his health broken down and ruined. He has not used me well… We were intimate for eleven years, far more than half my life at the time we parted. He gave me up with perfect facility […] (20 February 1841)

A popular method of predicting the future in the 1830s was phrenological examination, in which a practitioner felt the subject’s skull with his hands and pronounced on his or her ‘bumps’.Footnote 44 On 5 September 1839, Ellis wrote that

I […] let my head be handled by James De Ville for fortune telling. The character he gave me, is very vague – but in many parts correct. He noticed my kindness of disposition – my irritability, my want of energy & self reliance – my sense of honour & justice. In other matters he was more vague & less lucky. But the unkindest cut of all, was ascribing to me matrimonial propensities.Footnote 45

It is easy to find disapproving references to mixed company in the diaries, though Ellis does at times acknowledge the good looks of particular women. Misogyny and appreciation of beauty combine in this entry:

Mr Lyte & his daughter – a very fine girl certainly – only eighteen – looking two & twenty […]. She will have £30000 […]. So it would not be a very bad speculation. Yet any man who succeeded in it, would probably have a life time of repentance. (4 December 1840)

Two years before, however, he had enjoyed dancing with a Cambridge beauty:

To Hopkins party. Had the honour and happiness of dancing with Miss Lorraine Skrine and two other stars of less magnitude. Apparently Mrs Hopkins provided her guests with partners, according to their University reputation – & so Miss Lorraine the great Cambridge belle was too good for Mate who went with me. After all one hears, I was surprised to find her a ladylike and an affectionate girl.Footnote 46 (30 November 1838)

One of Ellis’s occasional shafts of humour acknowledges female beauty. When someone pointed out to him ‘Miss Seppings, daughter of Sir Richard Seppings, the celebrated ship architect who invented the round stern. This tempted me to a mauvaise plaisanterie, which there is no occasion to record’ (17 April 1834).Footnote 47 More common is a gentle verbal wit: Johnston is referred to as ‘Jackspebble’; in a macaronic turn, Ellis writes that he ‘scribed an epistolam’; and in an interlingual pun, remarks that ‘Poeta nascitur non fit. I’m not fit to be a poet’ (2 April 1832).Footnote 48

4 Ellis at Cambridge

In June 1833, Ellis received a ‘very civil’ (9 June 1833) letter from the mathematician and Trinity College tutor George Peacock giving a long reading list and advising him to choose one of two private tutors for his final undergraduate year. Ellis immediately called on Henry Hayes, a retired clergyman who lived near the Ellises, and was informally examined in composition and the New Testament and given the certificate needed for admission to the college.Footnote 49 On 10 July, Peacock wrote again to inform Ellis that he had officially been entered at Trinity.

Peacock recommended that Ellis go to a private tutor before entering Trinity, and Ellis went to James Challis, who had lost his Trinity fellowship on marriage in 1831 and took pupils at his rural living in Cambridgeshire; in 1835 he was elected Plumian Professor of Astronomy. Challis sent Ellis a long reading list of 40–50 volumes, mostly classical (6 August 1834), and on 24 October 1834 Ellis began his course of study at Challis’s vicarage with two other pupils. On the following day Ellis found that ‘His plan is to begin at the beginning – not altogether a bad one’ (25 October 1834). This was the standard plan for college teaching, and necessitated by the ability range of undergraduates, but it meant that Ellis was often bored by the low level aimed at. After six weeks, he fell ill and went back home to Bath.

The prominence of classical reading in Challis’s syllabus reflected the first-year curriculum at Trinity, where Ellis attended a classical and a mathematical lecture every weekday in term. The second year changed the emphasis, and the college examinations were largely mathematical. This sequence was designed to provide a transition from the public-school classical curriculum to the Mathematical Tripos examination taken in a student’s eleventh term. Ellis, however, went up to Trinity already accomplished in both subjects. He kept up his classical reading for pleasure, but it also counted for something in the fellowship examination he sat in October 1840, which covered a wide range of subjects. The overlap in his classical and mathematical knowledge has already been mentioned; it recurred when he was involved with the Cambridge Mathematical Journal, which he supplied with Greek mottoes. Volume 1 bore an adage from Hesiod which translated as ‘half a loaf is better than a whole one’, perhaps alluding to the admission of short articles. The second and third volumes had mottoes from Plato’s Theaetetus, an epistemological dialogue. The fourth volume was edited by Ellis after the death of the original editor, his friend Duncan Gregory; Ellis supplied an apposite motto from Homer about a Greek warrior taking command of a contingent in the Trojan War after its original leader was killed.Footnote 50 In 1846 William Thomson asked Ellis to supply more mottoes, and Ellis suggested quotations from Homer, Hesiod and Pindar.Footnote 51

In February 1839 Ellis returned to Cambridge after an absence due to an attack of measles. He wrote in his diary:

[…] here I am again, with a little of that sickening feeling which comes over me from time to time, & which I can but ill describe, & with some degree of Manners[’] bitter dislike of Cambridge & of my own repugnance to the wrangler making process. There is but one place for me, & that I cannot obtain.Footnote 52 (8 February 1839)

For Ellis, then, the only escape from the intense competition in Cambridge mathematics was to come top: which he did. In January 1840 he sat the Mathematical Tripos and emerged triumphantly as Senior Wrangler, 300 marks ahead of his nearest rival Harvey Goodwin, who contributed a biographical memoir to the collection of Ellis’s papers published after his death.Footnote 53 He was said to have ‘beaten a paper’, that is, to have produced answers superior to those worked out by the examiners, who accordingly awarded him more than full marks.Footnote 54

In February 1840, fresh from his success in the Mathematical Tripos, Ellis took stock of his future prospects:

I have been thinking a good deal about my plans – the present is a critical moment. There is no use to stay thumin emon ketedwn [eating my heart out] doing nothing at home. If I get my fellowship in September, a couple of months after I ought to begin law – but to it I feel increasing aversion. I begin to understand how men go into the church as a matter of convenience. If I did so, under the actual circumstances of the college – everything it can give lies before me. I should be a tutor before I should have got my first brief, on the other hypothesis. I think I could make a really good tutor, private & public, doubt if I could a lawyer, & I am sure it wd not suit me. Besides I look to being an old bachelor, so no place is better than Trinity. But there are weighty objections – positive and negative. (28 February 1840)

On the next day, depression overtook him, as so often:

I have no intention of being idle. I could not bear to be so, yet I feel crushed & for the present at least, ambition is dead. I am sick of many griefs. Four or five years ago, I thought a senior wrangler would look to being either Lord chancellor or archbishop of Canterbury – now I feel like some sick brute who would fain leave the herd to go into a corner to die. (29 February 1840)

In the same year Ellis was elected to a Trinity fellowship, which he held till 1849; it lapsed because he was not ordained. His legal ambitions faded as he realised that he was not cut out to be a barrister. On the other hand, he retained a strong interest in the philosophy of law, and became very keen to succeed to the Regius Chair of Civil Law.Footnote 55 But when this became available in 1847 it went to Henry Sumner Maine, later famous for his work on status and contract.

5 Conclusion

Ellis’s diaries give us a richly detailed insight into his education. He was fortunate in his family situation and in his teachers. Francis Ellis was able to afford regular tutoring for his youngest child, and it is clear that Robert was treated differently from his siblings. His sisters had tutors for ‘accomplishments’, the knowledge needed for girls to move comfortably in society and with luck to attract husbands; his eldest brother Henry went into the army, while Frank went to Rugby, to Cambridge, then into the army without graduating. Robert was precociously intellectually talented, and his father responded by hiring tutors for him early on. We do not know why he did not send him to a public school, but private tutoring was not uncommon in families who could afford it. Of the intake in Ellis’s year at Trinity, 1836, information on previous schooling survives only for about a third of his coevals. Of these, about two thirds had been to public schools and a third to private schools or tutors; in the case where no information is given in the Trinity College admissions register, it is perhaps more likely that they were tutored.

Robert Ellis learned from a variety of sources. Both his tutors were clearly informed and competent, but he also had access to his father’s library and to that of the Bath Institution, and also to conversation with educated men there who treated him as an intellectual equal. The Institution also put on a series of public lectures that Ellis attended, as we can see from the sometimes scathing comments in his diaries. Most of these lectures were on scientific topics, as was common in the period, and as we have seen, Francis Ellis’s first hiring was of a mathematical tutor. It may be that he at first thought of schooling his son in Classics himself, before deciding to hire a separate classical tutor. Hiram Johnston’s visits to the Ellis household took place almost daily, unlike those of Thomas Davies; the difference may simply reflect the teaching practices of the two men, since the cost of hiring them is unlikely to have a significant factor in Francis Ellis’s planning.

As we have seen, Ellis’s lessons followed a pattern that anticipated what he found at Trinity, with parallel teaching in Classics and mathematics. Many wealthy families will have provided classical tutoring for sons, but mathematics was less commonly taught, and it may be that Francis’s known interests in science encouraged him to provide both. The first- year curriculum at Trinity was weighted toward Classics, reflecting the previous experience of most freshmen; it was in the second year that mathematics dominated. This explains the otherwise surprising fact that most of the reading list sent to Ellis by his private tutor, the mathematician James Challis, was classical rather than mathematical. When Ellis was in his final year as an undergraduate, he clearly spent most of his time on mathematics, but occasional references show that he kept up his classical reading. Had he decided to go on to the Classical Tripos in 1840 after graduating as Senior Wrangler, he would probably have been in the first class. There was however no incentive for him to subject himself to yet another trial of intellectual strength, and there is no suggestion in his diaries that he considered doing so. Classical knowledge, whether of textual minutiae in the Cambridge style or of the broader historical questions discussed at Oxford and which he enjoyed so much finding in the work of Arnold Heeren – all these were part of the cultural capital of an educated gentleman. Mathematics provided higher and more intellectual challenges. Yet Ellis retained an interest in a wide range of subjects, as can be seen from the writings reprinted in Walton’s posthumous collection. It is that which justifies his posthumous reputation as not just a mathematician, but also a polymath.Footnote 56