In search of Richard Waller’s library

Portrait of Richard Waller

Portrait of Richard Waller by Thomas Murray (c) Royal Society

For some time I have been interested in Richard Waller (d. 1715), a fellow of the Royal Society who served as Secretary and also as Vice-President under Newton’s presidency. He was an accomplished draughtsman – his botanical drawings can be found at the Royal Society, and his fossil drawings were recently rediscovered together with his friend, Robert Hooke’s drawings in the British Library.  When Hooke died in 1703, his papers were entrusted to Waller, and parts of them were edited by Waller and published as Hooke’s Posthumous Works (1705). Waller is known to have had an extensive library, and often shared reading material with Hooke.

In 1685, Waller married Anne Blackwell (1669-1744), a daughter of the Bristol vintner Jonathan Blackwell (d. 1676), known for the construction of the Christmas Steps in that city. None of Waller’s children survived to adulthood. Waller’s estate, including the library and a house in Northaw, Hertfordshire, passed to his widow Anne, who in turn left everything to her younger brother, Jonathan Blackwell, who was also an FRS (nominated by Waller, though there is no evidence that he was scientifically active).

The gardener’s son

This younger Jonathan Blackwell (1671-1754) never married, but later in life adopted his neighbour’s (the widow of Sir William Leman (d. 1741) of Northaw) gardener’s son, Samuel Killican, when the gardener died. Blackwell left everything to Killican on condition that he assumed the name of Blackwell when he came of age. Blackwell died in May 1754; according to the Gentleman’s Magazine, he had left a fortune of £200,000. After a lawsuit by George Parker, the second Earl of Macclesfield (Parker’s first wife was Blackwell’s niece, Mary Lane, namely daughter of Elizabeth Blackwell and Ralph Lane FRS, (also nominated by Waller)) and President of Royal Society, challenging the will in vain, a private bill was passed through parliament in 1755 and the gardener’s son became Samuel Blackwell (c. 1733-1785). He soon quit Hertfordshire and purchased properties in Gloucestershire, William Strip Park and then Ampney Crucis. In 1760, he married Anne Lennox Dutton (c. 1740-1821), daughter of James Lenox Dutton and Jane Bond, and elder sister of the first Baron Sherborne, James Naper Dutton.  Samuel Blackwell became colonel of the Northern Battalion of the Gloucestershire Milita and MP for Cirencester (1774 to 1785).

Samuel Blackwell’s estate

I assume that Samuel Blackwell’s estate was passed down the male line. His grandson, George Graham, married Elizabeth Emma Eardley Wilmot (1810-91), eldest daughter of Sir John Eardley Wilmot, Bart, MP for North Warwickshire, in 1829. George Graham Blackwell dropped dead at the age of 37 in 1838, 30th of March. It was reported in Gentleman’s Magazine (May 1838) that “Mr Blackwell was in good health on the previous day, and was taken ill while hunting with Lord Moreton’s hounds.”  In February 1839, “The whole of the valuable and extensive library” of Ampney Park, “the property of the late G. G. Blackwell, Esquire, Deceased” and “consisting upwards of 3000 volumes” was auctioned by one Mr Jefferies (better known for trading in cattle and agricultural goods in the area), at the King’s Head in Cirencester. From the auction catalogue (a copy has happily survived in Wiltshire and Swindon Archives), we know the library contained many scientific publications from Waller’s lifetime and before. Given that there appears to be no member of the Blackwell family that showed any active interest in scientific topics, it is safe to assume that these books were from Waller’s library.

The trail went cold at this point, however. I have been unable to locate any books that could be established as coming from Richard Waller’s library, apart from the books he donated to the Royal Society Library. There may be some rare books collections that have books with his inscription, “Ric: Waller”, but this kind of information on provenance is not always catalogued, especially if the name is not so well known as Isaac Newton or Robert Hooke.

A recent discovery

So imagine my surprise and delight, when I received an email, saying that a family had a copy of John Bate’s The Mysteries of Nature and Art with an inscription, “Ric: Waller”, and it turned out that it also had a bookplate of one “Samuel Blackwell.” The family has given me kind permission to photograph Waller’s signature and the bookplate.

Richard Waller's Signature

Richard Waller’s Signature

Samuel Blackwell's bookplate

Samuel Blackwell’s bookplate

This communication has inspired me to make a plea: if anybody has come across a book published before 1715 that bears this bookplate or inscription, I would be very grateful to hear about it.

There is of course the possibility that the auction at Cirencester did not go so well and some of the books were kept by the family, or that some books had earlier been transferred to other branches of the Waller-Blackwell family tree.  George Graham Blackwell’s descendants include Kari and Elizabeth Emma Blackwell, both born in Norway and step-daughters of William Duppa Crotch, the naturalist.  Waller’s sister Elizabeth married Alexander Pitfield (1659-1728, and another FRS!), whose descendants include, among others, Horace William Pitt-Rivers and Felton Lionel Hervey. It is also possible that most of the books were dispersed in 1839, but remain in private collections around Cirencester.

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14 Responses to In search of Richard Waller’s library

  1. ameroos says:

    Happy to hear your search has borne some fruit! I will show this to some archivists so they can keep an eye out for you.

  2. sk111 says:

    Thanks AnneMarie! much appreciated.

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  4. siskg1 says:

    I am currently cataloguing a copy of John Locke’s “An essay concerning humane understanding”, published in 1694, now in Cardiff University Library’s rare books collection. It has Samuel Blackwell’s bookplate on the front pastedown along with Jonathan Blackwell’s signature on the free endpaper and “Cirencester” in pencil below. Although it does not have Richard Waller’s signature, I thought you might be interested to hear where another book from the auction has ended up. Ken Gibb, SCOLAR, Cardiff University

  5. sk111 says:

    Dear Ken, Thank you so very much for letting me know about this copy. It is wonderful to know that some of the books have survived! best wishes, Sachiko

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  7. Joanne Dearcopp says:

    I have a folio book “An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces to the Grand Tartar Cham emperor of China” published 1669 London with the exact same bookplate Samuel Blackwell. There is an appendix that includes chapter and engravings on: A recitation of some rarities found in China, 4) mountains and stupendous prodigies of nature, 5) lakes, rivers and springs 6) plants, 7) strange beasts and animals, 8) fowls 9) fish 10) serpents 11) stones and minerals. This book being the earliest first-hand account of observed China, it could very well have originally been in Waller’s library and inherited by Blackwell. What do you think?

    • sk111 says:

      Dear Joanne, Thank you so much for sharing this information with me. This is very interesting and intriguing. Walller’s friend Hooke and others in the early Royal Society had a keen interest in China, as well as in natural history. So I feel that it is very likely to have been Waller’s copy – I do not yet have a sense of how frequently Waller inscribed his copies. The Blackwell auction catalogue has an entry, ‘history of China’, but this is too vague (a problem in general with this auction catalogue) to pin it down precisely. The book may have left the library earlier, or may have been in one of the lots that only records that there was a number of books in the lot. I’d be interested to know if there are any annotations anywhere in your copy. Waller has a fine calligraphic hand; his friend Hooke had a smaller and scrawly handwriting. Thank you again for this communication. Much appreciated.

  8. Joanne Dearcopp says:

    I don’t think there are any annotations but I will look more carefully and reply again. Am curious, what is your interest in locating books from Richard Waller’s library?

    • sk111 says:

      I am a historian of science, and am interested in understanding the intellectual world of 17th-century European scientific figures, especially some minor ones. Identifying the content of Waller’s library forms part of this research. Traces of reading (e.g. annotations) a book would also be helpful for understanding how books were read and used in the period. There is also an outside chance that some of Hooke’s original manuscripts are among the books dispersed in the 19th century, because Waller was entrusted with Hooke’s scientific papers after Hooke’s death (and not all of them have been located yet).


  9. Joanne Dearcopp says:

    Dear Sachiko,

    Thanks for your interesting answer to my question. I’ve examined the book and do not find any markings. Too bad. Good luck with your research.

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  11. Heidi says:

    Hi there

    This is all very interesting as I have recently started off on a voyage of family history exploration and have recently discovered I am a direct descendant of Mr Samuel Blackwell.

    We are a fairly humble family so to discover that just a few generations ago our ancestors were rolling in immense wealth is astonishing to say the least.

    Thank you for your research and your interest in these people!


  12. sk111 says:

    Dear Heidi, Thank you for getting in touch. I am happy to send you the family tree of the Blackwells I had worked out some time ago. Best wishes, Sachiko

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