1 Introduction

The second half of this volume consists of transcriptions selected for the most part from those papers of Robert Leslie Ellis that are preserved in Trinity College Library in Cambridge. These papers do not form a discrete archive, rather they comprise a survival, or more accurately several separate survivals, among the papers of the great mid-century Master of the College, William Whewell. Whewell had married Ellis’s sister Everina Frances, widow of Sir Gilbert Affleck, in 1858. It is surely through this close family connection that the papers of the two brothers-in-law became so entwined. The importance of Whewell’s own papers may have played a hand in long-term preservation of Ellis’s literary remains, whilst Whewell’s position as Master of Trinity made the College’s Wren Library a safe repository for the large archive he left on his death, including the Ellis material he had inherited from his second wife.

2 Provenance and Archival History

While the amalgamation of the Ellis material with the Whewell papers may well have contributed to its preservation, it also had the unforeseen consequence of hiding its existence and obscuring its content. This was presumably not the intention of Lady Affleck, who acted as guardian and promoter of her brother’s memory. An early glimpse of her as keeper of the flame can be seen in the letter dedicated to her published in William Walton’s edition of Ellis’ Mathematical and Other Writing, in which the editor thanks her for her assistance in lending him unpublished material for inclusion in the volume, speaking of

All the manuscripts entrusted to me by you, classical, philological, botanical and mathematical, works of a more elaborate nature, I have not hesitated to include in this volume from a conviction that they will be of interest to many readers and from an impression, grounded on internal evidence, that the probability of their publication may have been contemplated by the author.Footnote 1

Though after Ellis’s death Lady Affleck was in possession of much of his surviving writings, they did not all pass to her at the same time or by the same means. The first class of her brother’s manuscripts was hers during her lifetime, comprising the 200 or so letters from Ellis she gradually accumulated week after week as their correspondence grew. The second was made up of the materials that she inherited on his death, the papers and academic notes alluded to by Walton and the series of diaries kept by her brother in his youth and early manhood. Ellis’s friend and neighbour John Grote may have had a hand in their transmission, as a note survives in which Walton talks of items that Grote had given him for possible inclusion in his volume of Ellis’s papers, which appears to refer to some of the material that is now in the Wren.Footnote 2 The nineteenth-century custom of returning the letters of a deceased individual to their next of kin ensured that a third class, consisting of a number of letters sent by Ellis to his friends, also came into Lady Affleck’s hands after he died. There is a fourth, smaller class of Ellis document in Whewell’s papers. Like so many in that era, Whewell’s first wife Cordelia assembled a collection of autographs which are preserved among her husband’s papers. Ellis too is represented here. Though all four classes of document originate from the hand of Ellis, provenance in each case is subtly different.

Lady Affleck predeceased Whewell by just a year and her papers presumably remained in Trinity Lodge until the Master’s passing. Hence it is not surprising that when Whewell’s papers were removed to the Library not only were his wife’s papers transferred with them, but those family papers that she had accumulated during her lifetime, including the papers of Ellis and also those of his father, Francis Ellis, and his great-uncle Henry Ellis, who had been Governor of Georgia and Nova Scotia. Such was Whewell’s importance at the time that immediate plans were made to make something of the literary remains. After a few abortive attempts to find an editor, the task fell to Isaac Todhunter, who undertook to produce a two-volume memoir consisting of a volume of biography and another of selections from his correspondence. As part of the process of compiling these volumes, Todhunter made a brief catalogue of the Whewell papers. His conscientious approach to the task gives us some idea of the way in which the papers were preserved in Trinity, as his catalogue describes how he found them in a number of large containers described variously as ‘Tin Box’ (presumably a proprietary deed box), two ‘Tea Chests’, one containing correspondence arranged alphabetically by correspondent, a ‘Wooden Box’ etc. However, beyond extremely brief descriptions of the content of each box, the catalogue soon becomes a chronological list of letters from correspondents and, while recording a few letters Whewell received from Ellis, gives no indication of the presence of Ellis’s own papers amongst the larger mass of the Whewell archive. Though of course it was the Master and not Ellis in whom Todhunter’s interest lay.

The catalogues that were made of the Whewell papers in the twentieth century allow the gradual emergence of Ellis’s papers from the greater mass around them, though details are few. A mid-century index draws our attention to a box in Class R of the Wren Library (a class containing anything from Newton letters to Pali manuscripts) which contained, inter alia, personal correspondence of Lady Affleck, correspondence of various members of the Ellis family and poems and translations by Ellis himself. In 1961 the historian of science Walter F. Cannon visited the library and left behind a list – the results of what he described as a cursory inspection – essentially of the previously uncatalogued Whewell material [O.15.50]. Here in ‘Box B’ we find Ellis’s letters to his sister, various notebooks by him, including one on Chinese characters, poetry and translations by Ellis and some elementary exercises on probability. Though admittedly brief, this was the most detailed description of the Ellis material produced in the century after his death.

At some time after Cannon’s visit, and perhaps as a result of it, much of the Whewell papers and the Ellis material amongst them were decanted from the tin boxes and wooden trunks into archival boxes, and introduced to the various additional manuscript series which are still home to much of the library’s archival resources. Reflecting the different caches of Ellis papers that I have alluded to, the Ellis material is not confined to a discrete section within these series, but it is divided into three separate groups of papers. Three boxes with the references Add.ms.a.79, 81 and 82 contain mostly letters to his sister and juvenile diaries; Add.ms.c.67 contains amongst other items Ellis’s letters to Whewell, William Walton and Duncan F. Gregory, and Add.mss.a.218–222 contain for the most part the notebooks and diaries from Ellis’s undergraduate days and later. This arrangement of the material persists today though for the sake of description here, I have divided the material into three classes: diaries, correspondence and notebooks with loose notes.

3 The Diaries

As we have seen, for large periods of his life Ellis was a conscientious diarist, especially in his youth and early adulthood. The surviving series begins in 1827 and peters out in 1845. There are gaps, often explained in the diaries themselves, thus he reports a ‘scarcely-interrupted interval of 14 months’ between his last journal entry of 1834 and New Year’s Day 1836, indicating that the lacuna we perceive was of Ellis’s own making and not the result of later calamity, while in 1838 he explains that some pages were lost in error to firelighting: ‘Days departed have ended up in smoke’ is his poetic comment. Despite such losses the survival of the diaries is far from sporadic, with series of consecutive volumes giving us an unbroken record of large portions of Ellis’s life. Occasionally, diary pages left blank have been used for entries of a later date, so for example, Ellis returned to the diary originally used for 10–25 September 1827 to record his life in the period 23–30 April 1829.

Even the earliest journals provide a record of daily events and of reading which, as he grows older becomes gradually more sophisticated. Forty-one soft-backed juvenile journals form a sequence beginning on 27 May 1827, when Ellis was only 9, and run until 1834. Though initially quite simply constructed, these youthful writings not only give us a sense of how disciplined a boy he was, but also offer insight into the curriculum of a privately-educated individual.Footnote 3 They give evidence of the development of his critical faculties and an increasing interest in current affairs as he ages, though this was not always apparent to Ellis who wrote in 1832:

I have been looking over some journals which I wrote between two and three years ago. They are more like than I had thought to those that I write now. Yet surely I have grown older since then. (28 January 1832)

Notwithstanding this comment, the diary format does allow him to record more autobiographical information and – like teenage diaries everywhere – offer more opportunities for this type of introspection. One notable example of this is the short diary from August 1835 written at a time when Ellis was not regularly keeping his diary, where he clearly felt the need to commit his inner thoughts to paper. It is this volume that he obliquely refers to in his comment above.

Ellis next picked up his pen to diarise on 1 January 1836 at a time that is clearly important to his academic development. Though he continues for only two volumes before breaking off again on 27th May of that year, there is much here relating to his studies in the months before coming up to Cambridge in the following Michaelmas Term. He is clearly growing in confidence, as at one point we can see he is not only reading Aeschylus’ The Suppliants, but daring to disagree with his tutor on how to construe a passage in it. His reading of both Mathematics and Classics with his private tutors seems rather impressive, even by the standards of the age, and he takes time to make general criticisms as well as document his reading – ‘it is amazing how little there is in [Seneca], only words’, while The Bacchae is ‘a difficult’ and an ’odd, unpleasant play’ (29 February 1836).

Unfortunately, diaries for the undergraduate period survive only sporadically. His first terms are not recorded and, when the diaries begin again in November 1838, Ellis is soon apologising for not journalising more regularly. This is also the period when some diaries were given to the fire. However much we may regret this lacuna, the extant diaries do tell us a great deal about Ellis’s Cambridge life, and record the critical opinions of established Cambridge institutions of an intelligent young man. Like his earlier journals, his reading is well documented and his opinions of the authors made clear, though the shape of the Cambridge course has by this time steered him more towards mathematics. His tutors, lecturers and coaches appear regularly, Peacock, Challis, Hopkins and Blakesley amongst them, as do numerous friends including William Walton, Richard Pike Mate, Duncan Farquharson Gregory and Alexander Chisholm Gooden. Ellis’s lack of self-confidence looms large at times, especially as the trial of the tripos closes in and though he hates the ‘wrangler-making process’, ranking pervades the diaries. Diffidence aside, at one point he records Hopkins’ belief that he would be Senior Wrangler. In short, they cover the subjects we would expect from a reading man of the period – compare for example the letters of his friend and contemporary Gooden – but such detailed sources are not so common that we should disregard the diaries as an important general source for the history of mid-nineteenth-century Cambridge, as well as a useful autobiographical one.Footnote 4

4 Correspondence

For reasons relating to their provenance outlined above, much of the Ellis correspondence preserved in Trinity consists of outgoing mail as opposed to those letters that he received. Indeed, for a man who was very much at the centre of intellectual life in Cambridge and who for the latter part of his life relied on correspondence to maintain his academic interests, the count of incoming letters is extremely disappointing. James Spedding tops the poll with 3 letters sent to Ellis between 1848 and 1856. In contrast to this, out letters, particularly those to his sister, are voluminous.

There are just under 200 letters to Lady Affleck, more than half of which are undated – those that Ellis chose to date running from 1840 to the last year of his life. Most are in Ellis’s own hand, but some are the product of dictation, which was clearly his preferred method when his illness was at its worse. The letters are for the most part more mature productions than the diaries and the nature of their narrative differs, being very much the letters of a brother to a sister they contain a good deal that is autobiographical. They thus form an excellent adjunct to the diaries. In addition to giving us parallel insights, they fill the void for nearly two decades of his adult life when such records do not survive. In them we find him diffident as he decides against trying for membership of the Athenaeum for fear of rejection, raging, as he storms at his nurse for causing him pain in the night, answering questions on mathematical teaching in Cambridge for the 1851 Commission and stranded at San Remo in 1849 by the attack of rheumatic fever that changed his life forever.

Correspondence with Ellis’s intellectual contacts is also far better represented by outgoing letters than those which Ellis received. There are nearly 80 to William Walton, about 20 to Whewell and three to Duncan Gregory. The letters to Walton in particular document a long friendship and shared interest in areas of mathematics, though the shadow of Ellis’s illness is ever-present after San Remo. Numerous mathematical problems are described in them and subjects also reflect Ellis’s published works from probability to bees’ cells. Hydrostatics and the forms of ellipses, subjects which feature prominently in Walton’s publications, are also subjects strongly represented and show Ellis in the role of critic and advisor. Indeed, while we know that his friends were keen to stimulate his mental faculties while he lay sick by sending him mathematical problems that they thought particularly interesting, there is also evidence in his correspondence that they sought out his advice on material they wished to publish. One surviving example of his interactions with other mathematicians can be seen in two letters of the mid-1850s from Augustus De Morgan on the four-colour problem and angles in spherical triangles. It is hard to read these without realising they are the vestige of a longer, possibly much longer, correspondence. One which for the most part appears to have been lost.

Given the nature of correspondence it is unsurprising that some letters from Ellis can be found in the archives of correspondents whose papers are held elsewhere than Trinity. There is a large cache of letters to Ellis’s erstwhile political patron William Napier in the Bodleian Library.Footnote 5 Thirty letters from Ellis to Lord Kelvin are held by Cambridge University Library;Footnote 6 letters to James Forbes are deposited in the library of St Andrews University;Footnote 7 and those to C.B. Marlay are in Nottingham University Library.Footnote 8 This is surely not a comprehensive list.

5 Notebooks and Miscellaneous Notes

The third section of Ellis material, which I have called notebooks and miscellaneous notes, is something of a mixed bag, grouping together various items created for different purposes which nuance their content. There is much here that is not original, including notes of university lectures, some that is juvenile such as school exercise books, but also the occasional piece of original work.

Four exercise books that appear to date from Ellis’s schooldays contain translations into Latin and Greek. More numerous are course notes from his time as an undergraduate. Two volumes of notes on Herodotus’ Histories and Tacitus date from his year as a freshman, reflecting first-year college instruction where both were the subject of a course of lectures and examination. The content consists of short contextual and philological comments, suggesting that the class worked through the set books line-by-line with the lecturer. The individual lectures are numbered and, given Ellis’s diligence, probably give a good representation of the ideas that the lecturer was trying to impart to his pupils. The notebooks on Dugald Stewart’s Outlines of Moral Philosophy and Paley’s Natural Theology most probably date from his second year for similar reasons to those on the classical historians. While these volumes give us a glimpse into the lecture room and partially record the process of the Trinity undergraduate – and an excellent one at that – much of the intellectual content is the work of others.

Mathematical notebooks, with a preponderance of material on calculus, also survive, mostly presumably from his second and third years when the Cambridge course took a decidedly mathematical turn. The notes are arranged by topic: half a volume is dedicated to optics while a number of proofs on probability are grouped together. Headings such as ‘Herschel’s Theorem’, ‘Jupiter’s Satellites’, ‘Perturbation in Longitude’ and ‘Cavendish’s Problem’ help the reader navigate the contents. Many volumes have texts beginning both at front and back, a common student practice saving both paper and pence, but one which may fox the unwary reader. Additionally there are also mathematical notebooks from his post student days. A volume of problems prepared either for College or University examinations survives, probably dating from the mid-1840s when Ellis was Moderator in 1844 and Examiner in 1845, though he may, of course, have been preparing them for the use of one of his mathematical colleagues. Occasionally the mathematical notebooks give up some original mathematical work by Ellis which he signs ‘RLE’ to distinguish it from the surrounding material.

A number of notebooks survive from Ellis’s years as a young Fellow of Trinity. An English translation of the Institutes of Gaius begun in January 1845, towards the end of James Geldart’s long tenure of the Regius Chair of Civil Law for which Ellis had aspirations, fills several volumes. The first published translation of this work into English dates from 1854, so it may be Ellis’s original work. Whewell certainly consulted him on the subject of Roman Law for the second edition of The Elements of Morality, Including Polity.Footnote 9 More interesting, perhaps, is an account of the conduct of the examination for the Mathematical Tripos when Ellis was one of the examiners.Footnote 10 The remainder of the notebooks concern subjects less closely related to the Cambridge curriculum, but of interest to Ellis. Unsurprisingly, three volumes of notes on Bacon survive, the volume from 1836 confirming his early interest in his work.Footnote 11 Further subjects to which Ellis dedicated notebooks include French history from the reign of Louis XIV to the fall of Napoleon, ancient Greek metrology, comparative philology, card games and Chinese characters. In addition to the notebooks, a small bundle of loose notes, mostly single sheets or bifolia, survives. It is so miscellaneous that it is surely not a natural grouping, but among the various jottings and maps illustrating historical scenarios are a note on the four-colour problem, produced presumably in relation to the correspondence with De Morgan on the subject; an ‘Illustration of ‘the law of international value”; and a substantial list of errors in the 5th edition of Whewell’s Mechanics.

6 Concluding Remarks

Though for much of the period after his death the Ellis papers languished in a barely-accessible state, it is difficult to make the case that this adversely reflected his reputation. The analytical history of science based on archival resources essentially did not exist as a recognisable discipline until the latter part of the twentieth century. True, Whewell himself had two Victorian biographers, Todhunter and Mrs Stair Douglas, but though they published copious amounts of archival material in their work, they did not commit to it too much academic scrutiny. Secondly, Ellis’s published works, especially on the subject of probability, were indeed well known and used by subsequent writers decades after his death: John Venn (1866), Maynard Keynes (1921) and Georg Henrik von Wright (1941) all knew his work on probability and inductive logic and accorded it the highest praise.Footnote 12 The fact that Cannon had to construct his own catalogue of a large portion of the Whewell papers when he visited Trinity in the early 1960s is indicative of the changing needs of the scholar driven by changes in scholarly method and the tendency of libraries to be a step behind. The developing interest in the history and philosophy of science and mathematics, their teaching and practice and the networks involved in the dissemination of ideas have shown the value of the papers of individuals such as Ellis.

For the student of pedagogy in the mid-nineteenth century there is much useful material in the Ellis papers, as Christopher Stray’s chapter ably demonstrates. While it must be remembered that he was an exceptional pupil, notes of his reading and descriptions of his interaction with his tutors document an example of private education of the period. And although his early years at Trinity are not covered by his surviving diaries, his lecture notes give us evidence of the content and nature of the Cambridge curriculum as viewed by Trinity tutors. When he returns to keeping a diary, his life as a contender for the Senior Wranglership and early life as a Cambridge BA is documented. Taken with other contemporary and near-contemporary sources such as the letters of Alexander Chisholm Gooden and Bristed’s Five Years in an English University, they consolidate our insight into Cambridge and Trinity of the time.Footnote 13

One thing remains to be said. In section 8.2 above I quoted Walton reporting the fact that he unhesitatingly included material loaned to him by Lady Affleck in his volume of collected papers by Ellis. There appear to be seven papers in the volume that had not been previously printed. However, finished manuscripts of none of these pieces survive amongst the papers in Trinity College Library. Lady Affleck died two years after the publication of this volume, but perhaps there was such a delay in returning the manuscripts to her that she died before this could happen. Whatever the cause, it does suggest that there may be further Ellis manuscripts waiting to be rediscovered.