Cider Musings

The Curious case of the Hartlib Papers

Samuel Hartlib 1600 - 10th March 1662 was a great but mainly forgotten intelligencier of the 17th C, with links throughout England Europe and Americas with scientists, philosophers, alchemists etc. but who died in poverty, his pension from Cromwell in arrears after Charles 1 was back on the throne. His wife preceding him by a couple of years. Although having 6 children he appears to be succeeded by his daughter Nan who was also impoverished. 


He left a vast collection of papers and notes at his death were purchased by his friend English Royalist politician William Brereton, and taken to Brereton Hall, his father’s Cheshire estate.

The papers were organised by English academic John Worthington in 1867, himself a Hartlib correspondent. Some were distributed by Worthington. When he had finished, the papers were bundled and stored in a Brereton closet in 2 two trunks, over 25,000 papers and notes still together where they apparently lay undisturbed and “lost” to the world for 271 years. These include 70 papers relating to cider.

Lord Brereton, was a mathematician and became one of the founding members of the Royal Society. William was succeeded by two sons but, after they died childless in 1722, the title of Brereton title became extinct.  


Brereton Hall and the Hartlib papers reverted to Jane Brereton, granddaughter of the first Lord Brereton who built the house, and to her descendants. 


The house was sold to Manchester industrialist and cotton mill owner John Howard in 1817, the papers apparently still undisturbed even though he conducted a complete renovation in 1829! The Hall comprises of 12 bedrooms, 10 bath or shower rooms, four reception rooms, a billiards room, huge conservatory (replacing the original middle spine of the original 'E' floor plan, ( luckily the papers were not there!))  and a whole wing of garden rooms and offices, so probably 2 trunks could be overlooked!

In 1838 Robert Vaughan, a professor of history at University College of London, published The Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and the State of Europe During the Early Part of the Reign of Louis XIV . This is a collection of 302 personal letters, to or from Pell. Pell was an English mathematician and founder member of the Royal Society. Twenty-four of these are between Pell and Hartlib and would have originally been part of the Hartlib Papers but are among those pulled out by Worthington, in this case given to Pell. According to Turnbull, this was done by Worthington for several Hartlib correspondents who requested Hartlib papers involving their own persons including Milton, and himself.  


 In 1920, Professor of Literature, George Turnbull, then at the University of Liverpool, became interested in Hartlib through his work regarding Milton and published a small book on him. In 1922 Turnbull became professor at Sheffield University. 

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Because of his book on Hartlib, a London solicitor phoned Turnbull at Sheffield in 1933 and said he had "68 bundles" sitting in his office! Apparently the papers were turned over by Mr Norman Howard McLean who came to live at Brereton Hall that year, he was a distant relative of the original Breretons. Luckily; as the house was subsequently run as a girls boarding school and afterwards by a Hi Tech entrepreneur who made his fortune from Mortal Kombat, and who built a music recording studio and lived a high life there! 

Turnbull retrieved the papers and studied them in his home from 1933 until his death in 1961.  In 1960 Professor of History Hugh Trevor-Roper commented, “How appropriate that the tireless prophet and formulator of such reform disappeared from the historical record after his death until the mid-nineteenth century and that his massive archive should have lain hidden till our own time.”

After Turnbull’s death his wife donated the Hartlib Papers to Sheffield University in 1963. These have been digitised and are now freely available on line for study.


A treasure trove of information on the scale of, if not bigger than Samuel Pepys Diary. Online here