Notes Rec. (2014)68, 261–278 doi:10.1098/rsnr.2014.0012 Publishedonline18 June2014 THOMAS BIRCH’S ‘WEEKLY LETTER’ (1741–66): CORRESPONDENCE AND HISTORY IN THE MID-EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY ROYAL SOCIETY by MARKMAN ELLIS* Department of English, Queen Mary University of London, Mile End, LondonE14NS, UK Thomas Birch (1705–66), Secretary of the Royal Society from 1752 to 1765, and Philip Yorke, second Earl of Hardwicke (1720–90), wrote a ‘Weekly Letter’ from 1741 to 1766, an unpublished correspondence of 680 letters now housed in the British Library (Additional Mss 35396–400). The article examines the dimensions and purposes of this correspondence, an important conduit of information for the inﬂuential coterie of the ‘Hardwicke circle’ gathered around Yorke in the Royal Society. It explores the writers’ self-conception of the correspondence, which was expressed in deliberately archaic categories of seventeenth-century news exchange, such as the newsletter, aviso and a-la- main. It shows how the letter writers negotiated their difference in status through the discourse of friendship, and concludes that the ‘Weekly Letter’ constituted for the correspondents a form of private knowledge, restricted in circulation to their discrete group, and as such unlike the open and networked model of Enlightenment science.
262 M. Ellis intotheactivitiesandinterests’ofYorke’s‘Hardwickecircle’intheRoyalSociety,acoterie who held high ofﬁce in, and inﬂuenced the proceedings of, that institution.4 However, despite this scholarly interest, the ‘Weekly Letter’ has not in itself been the subject of extended analysis. This article explores how Birch and Yorke understood their own correspondence, examining how they described its activities through a series of commanding metaphors and historical analogies. It shows how they adapted inherited forms of correspondence to negotiate the problem of scientiﬁc communication in the polite world between persons of different status.
Birch’s ‘Weekly Letter’ 263 dependent on wealth or birth. Birch and Yorke, the cleric and the nobleman, repeatedly reiterate the polite and equal reciprocity of their exchange, but also continually confront the irreconcilably different worlds of wealth, status and privilege that they inhabit.
264 M. Ellis the ‘Weekly Letter’, Goldgar argues that the functions of the newsletter (nouvelles litte´raires) had been taken over by the journal, a printed periodical offering a summary of news and publications. ‘Although literary journals did not necessarily solve the problem of the need to exchange news, they greatly supplemented and indeed in some ways replaced the commerce de lettres as a means of disseminating information quickly.’14 Within these conceptions of the commerce de lettres and the newsletter are signiﬁcantly differentmodelsofscientiﬁccommunication.InGoldgar’sterms,anewsletterisundertaken within the bonds of service, either mercenary or feudal, whereas a commerce de lettres follows the egalitarian model of reciprocal obligation. As a form of communication, the commerce de lettres is essentially open and networked: although letters are sent to named individuals, it is expected that they will be shared by other scholars, such as members or fellows of learned societies. In the case of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, one of the ﬁrst two Secretaries of the Society (from 1660 to 1677), had formalized the role of correspondence as a method of collecting and evaluating scientiﬁc information. He further established the letter archive to preserve and collate the correspondence, making it available to such Fellows as wished to consult it. A selected portion of the correspondence was thereafter disseminated publicly through their publication in print in the Philosophical Transactions. The Royal Society became an ‘intellectual clearing house’ for scientiﬁc information.15 Michael Hunter has stressed ‘the real effectiveness of this correspondence as an agency for the promotion of the new philosophy throughout Europe’.16 As Secretary to the Royal Society from 1752 to 1765, Birch was at the hub of its scientiﬁc communications. Even before rising to that role, an early achievement of his career was his employment in 1740–41 by the Society to organize its uncatalogued early papers and letters, so that they might be both preserved and consulted.17 Birch, in short, was unusually well versed in the use of correspondence to facilitate scientiﬁc communication. By contrast, the manuscript newsletter, as practised by the Secretaries of State, was distinct for the closed and even secret nature of its intelligence, available only to a discrete coterie, who were charged with keeping this information secret. The ‘Weekly Letter’ between Birch and Yorke was similarly closed and secretive, available only to Yorke’s Hardwicke circle.
Birch’s ‘Weekly Letter’ 265 Figure1.PortraitofThomasBirch(1737)byJamesWills(d.1777),oiloncanvas(91.8 71.2cm).(TheRoyal Society:imageno.RS.9643.CopyrightqTheRoyalSociety.)(Onlineversionincolour.) Birch had an important role in Royal Society reforms from the early 1740s, a period of reorganization and transition.18 Under Yorke’s patronage Birch rose to prominence in the metropolitan intellectual elite, as Secretary of the Society (1752–65) and as a foundation Trustee of the British Museum, among other positions. Birch undertook, when Secretary, a reform of the process by which correspondence was assessed and validated by the Society for publication, by instituting a Committee of Papers in 1752, effectively introducing a form of peer review.19 He published his most widely cited work, The History of the Royal Society, in 1756.20 During this period he also found preferment in the church, through the inﬂuence of Sir Philip Yorke, acquiring a series of inﬂuential and rich livings in London that provided him with the time and income to pursue literary and historical work.
266 M. Ellis man of some literary ambition, both as a historian and as a satirist; in the coming years he further developed interests in landscape gardening, architecture, natural philosophy and scientiﬁc institutions. The Yorkes had a close and affectionate marriage and spent long periods together at Wrest in summer, where they entertained themselves with reading, outings and historical jeux d’esprit.
268 M. Ellis preferment and ejection from ofﬁce; and the business of the forthcoming parliamentary session. The term ‘literary’, as used by Birch and Yorke, covered a wide range of intellectual activities, reﬂecting the etymological sense of the term in writing, study and learning. Birch was especially interested in giving notice of current and future publications, including those in preparation and in the press. Among these, he noted especially works of history, divinity and natural philosophy, but he also noted the publication of, and commented on, novels, plays and other entertainments. Controversial literature, especially pamphlets, periodical essays and newspapers, were eagerly followed.
Birch’s ‘Weekly Letter’ 269 Chancellor, aswell asabout ‘literary’matters. Yorke repeatedlycommented onthebalance between the two, perceiving the balance of topics in the letteras an index to the balance of eventsintheworld.Writingin1748(aftertheendoftheWaroftheAustrianSuccession)he noted:‘IseeyouarealmostwhollyconﬁnedtoliteraryNews,whichisagoodsymptomasit portends quiet times.’41 In 1750 Birch complimented Yorke on the balance achieved in his letters: ‘so agreable a Melange of the domestic History of Wrest, your own Excursions, & foreign intelligence.’42 In August 1753 Yorke commented that the balance had swung too far in the direction of literary news: ‘this Summer’, he said, had been ‘rather barren of News, owing in a great measure to the Scarcity of that Commodity, & yet Commercial Intelligence & the Bustle of Elections, might (one should imagine) afford you some political Articles.’43 Admitting the justness of his remark, Birch commented: ‘my late Letters have not abounded in articles of Intelligence: nor am I able to obviate the Objection at a time, which affords nothing else than eternal Echo’s from all parts of Abuse upon the Jews, & those, who voted for them.’44 Birch excused himself from reporting politics at that juncture, pleading that public debate in that season was almost wholly given over to the bad-tempered controversy on the Jewish Naturalization Act (26Geo.II. cap.26), a debate he found shrill and unenlightening.
270 M. Ellis The steady rhythm of the ‘Weekly Letter’, and the mix of political and literary news, invited metaphors of the newspaper, and along with that, analogies between Birch and the role of journalist or newsmonger—as if he were a low and vulgar ‘hack’. Birch described his own labours, with self-deprecating irony, as the ‘the Industry of a dull Gazetteer’— one who writes in a gazette, a journalist.56 Birch’s location in London, the centre of the news business and the state intelligence apparatus, invited this comparison: it was described as his ‘station of Intelligence’ by Yorke,57 and by Birch as the ‘Centre of News’58 and, in a more commercial register, ‘this great Mart of public Intelligence’.59 The rare occasions when Birch and Yorke referred to the ‘Republic of Letters’ were similarly marked by a pessimistic irony about the world of learning: it was ‘a State’, Birch said, ‘which is never like to enjoy a thorough Tranquility, while the Appetite for Fame or Bread urges its members to constant Hostilities.’60 Rather than a free and equal exchange of information, Birch found in the Republic of Letters vituperative, mercenary and pedantic conﬂict.