Introduction to the 1978 Catalogue of the Archives and Manuscripts by J. A. Bennett

Introduction to the 1978 Catalogue of the Archives and Manuscripts of the RAS by J. A. Bennett


This list of the contents of the manuscript archives of the Royal Astronomical Society is the result of a project to form a coherent and useful collection from the Society’s scattered and little-known manuscripts, a collection properly arranged and housed and available to scholars. Since the collection is quite large, those who use this list must regard it in the context of an attempt, limited to two years, to establish a working archive, rather than to calendar all the papers according to the best archival traditions – a notoriously slow process. All the Society’s manuscripts up to 1940, in so far as they could be located, have been covered, but in varying degrees of detail according to what has been seen as their relative importance.

The collection has been divided into three sections. First there is the Society’s general correspondence – mainly incoming letters, written to the officers or the assistant secretary. The correspondence stretches back to the Society’s foundation in 1820, and has been denoted ‘RAS LETTERS’. Secondly there are manuscripts that have been generated by the Society in the course of its ordinary activity – minute books, register books, papers relating to eclipse expeditions, etc. These are denoted ‘RAS PAPERS’. The third section comprises manuscripts that have come to the Society in some other way, often given by the author or the author’s relatives, sometimes donated as gifts by their owners, or occasionally purchased. These are denoted ‘RAS MSS’.


To find an appropriate treatment of the first section, RAS LETTERS, presented considerable problems. The collection is so large that a complete list was impossible, and a fair proportion of the letters are of relatively small significance. Yet there is also a great deal of interesting and valuable material whose existence ought to be made known. A list selected solely on personal judgment would be of very limited value to a potential reader. The course adopted was first to arrange all the letters by year, from 1820 to 1940, and alphabetically by correspondents within each year. A list was then made of letters in the years 1820 to 1900 from correspondents who appear in J. C. Poggendorff, Biographisch-literarisches handwörterbuch zur geschichte der exacten wissenschaften, vols 1–4 (Leipzig, 1863–1904). Although still arbitrary to some extent, this treatment has several advantages. If a reader is interested in a correspondent who appears in Poggendorff (a work which will generally be accessible to him), and this will surely usually be the case, he will know that if any letters exist they are on the list. Because of the alphabetical arrangement, he can also locate the letters of others by searching the correspondence in appropriate years. Although the overall importance of the collection is obvious, inclusion on the list does not, of course, guarantee the importance of an individual letter. The great advantage, however, is that the criteria for selection are known.

Names are generally given as they appear in Poggendorff, who also provides cross-references, which are generally omitted here. An entry such as 82, 6 indicates that there are six letters from the correspondent in question in 1882.

Because of the limitations on time, only the nineteenth-century letters have been indexed in this way, and only vols 1–4 of Poggendorff (covering the period up to 1904) have been used. In a few cases there are letters from correspondents who appear only in vol. 5 and in any future listing it should be remembered that they are not entered here. Several exceptions have been made for correspondents who appear only in vol. 5 on account of the number of their letters before 1901.

Letters written on behalf of institutions, even those signed by correspondents on the list, are filed under the institution and are not listed; such letters usually concern publications. For the years up to 1865 letters from institutions concerning the presentation and exchange of publications (almost entirely formal letters of thanks or presentation) are in folders separate from the alphabetical arrangement.

The bulk of the papers under RAS MSS have formed 35 individual collections: Baily, Baxendell, Bernaerts, etc. Other items were included as Additional MSS and numbered RAS MSS Add. 1, 2, 3, etc. No particular significance was given to the order of RAS MSS Add. or that of RAS PAPERS, which were numbered in a similar way, although related entries will often be found together. Surviving collections of papers submitted to the Society were preserved as found and included among RAS PAPERS (see 18–35); individual manuscript tracts, however, were placed with RAS MSS, even if a paper had been published by the Society. In the lists of both these sections titles taken from the manuscripts themselves are given if they seemed appropriate, but quotation marks are not generally used.

Where a collection of correspondence is said to ‘include’ certain letters, this should be taken to mean that other letters are not listed and that the importance of the correspondent has been a significant factor in the selection. In general the individual collections under RAS MSS have been listed in varying degrees of detail. The Herschel Archive, the largest and most important of the individual collections, is treated in a separate appendix. Here greater detail is also intended to facilitate the use of the microfilm of the Herschel papers.

A small number of MSS included in the separately catalogued Grove-Hills Library have not been included in the list of RAS MSS Add., and possibly there are a few manuscript items entered in the general catalogue of the Library that have not been identified as such.

Three collections have been excluded in the choice of 1940 as the cut-off date for this project: the later general correspondence, papers concerning the Norman Lockyer Observatory (formerly the Hill Observatory), and papers of W. H. Steavenson. The latter two collections straddle 1940. In the case of Steavenson’s papers a list of contents has been prepared by Dr D. W. Dewhirst and is kept with the collection.


Examples of correct forms of citation of the manuscripts:

RAS LETTERS 1858, G. B. Airy, 14 Nov.


RAS MSS Baily 8.2, } followed by page, folio or letter number as appropriate.

RAS MSS Add. 59, }



Mem. Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society

MN Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

n.d. no date

p.m. post-mark