Amongst the surviving personal papers are those of Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal, those of Joseph Banks who was a commissioners from 1778–1820 in his capacity as President of the Royal Society and and those of Viscount Barrington.
The papers held at the Royal Society and the Admiralty were brought together at Greenwich in 1840, since which time they have been referred to as the Papers of the Board of Longitude. Today, they are housed as part of the archives of the Royal Greenwich Observatory at the University Library in Cambridge.
In his 1841 Report to the Board of Visitors, the Astronomer Royal, George Airy wrote:
‘Having, ascertained that the Manuscripts of the late Board of Longitude were separated, some being in the custody of the Admiralty, and the others in that of the Royal Society, I had the honour of representing to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty and the President of the Royal Society respectively, the great inconvenience of this separation, and of suggesting that it would be advantageous that the whole should be lodged at the Royal Observatory. In consequence of these applications, the whole of the Board of Longitude papers have been transferred hither; and Mr. Main, my First Assistant, is now engaged, at leisure times, in taking a list of them, in preparation for a complete arrangement of the whole.’
Airy’s correspondence with the Admiralty and the Royal Society (RGO6/1/64–91) indicates a key fact was omitted from what he told the Visitors. His priority was to see the manuscripts brought together, rather than that they should necessarily be brought together at Greenwich. In his early correspondence, he suggested that the records held at the Admiralty could be transferred to the Royal Society, or that those of the Royal Society transferred to the Admiralty or that both sets of records could be transferred to Greenwich. Beaufort at the Admiralty thought Airy’s suggestion was very wise and got permission for those at the Admiralty to be transferred to Greenwich. Since the Royal Society was also happy with such an arrangement, all the records were in due course, transferred to Greenwich, arriving there in December 1840. We know from the correspondence that the documents from the Admiralty arrived in the chest in which they had been stored and that those from the Royal Society arrived in three large paper parcels. What we don't know from the correspondence are any details of exactly what the parcels or the chest contained.
Airy’s 1841 statement to the Visitors that
‘the Manuscripts of the late Board of Longitude were separated, some being in the custody of the Admiralty, and the others in that of the Royal Society’,
can be read in two different ways: either they were divided up between the two organisations on the Board's demise, or that the records had simply been retained in the hands of those who had last accessed them as working documents. The second scenario seems the most likely. What is intriguing is that although Airy was very keen to unite the manuscripts and preserve them for posterity, he does not appear to have made or preserved any sort of list identifying which parts of the records came from which organisation or the manner in which they had been organised prior to their arrival at Greenwich. His apparent failure to see the significance of creating such a list has made it considerably harder to understand how the business and records of the Board were historically organised.
It could be surmised that the records that came from the Royal Society had either been in the possession of its President (who prior to 1818 often chaired the meetings of the Board) or had been in the possession of George Gilpin who was the Society’s secretary and also secretary to the Board of Longitude from 1798–1810. Those documents that came from the Admiralty might well have been there either because it was the Admiralty that had provided the secretary to the Board, or because from 1818, a representative of the Admiralty was always present at the meetings of the Board and always chaired them. The Admiralty is also likely to have been in possession of at least some of the financial and other documents such as petitions. What we do know for certain, is that the minutes were not all kept in the same place.
In his 1842 Report, Airy wrote:
‘In the last Report I stated to the Board, that the whole of the manuscript papers (as far as is known) of the late Board of Longitude, has been collected at the Royal Observatory, and that Mr. Main, my first assistant, was engaged occasionally in arranging them. The pressure of business during the past year has prevented the completion of this arrangement, although the first sorting out and cataloguing is very nearly finished. I am happy to state, that in bringing together the two great parcels, the whole of the Minutes of the Board of Longitude have been found; and these, as most precious documents relating to the scientific history of the country, I have at once placed in the Safe-room of the Observatory [which was fireproof].’
In 1843, Airy reported that no further progress had been made in sorting the papers. They were not mentioned in the 1844 Report, but in his 1845 Report, Airy stated:
‘The manuscripts of the Board of Longitude have been put in order by Mr. Main; and I propose, when opportunity offers, to take measures for binding them‘.
The opportunity did not arise for over ten years, due to a combination of pressures of other work and a shortage of storage space. In his 1858 Report, Airy was finally able to tell the Visitors that:
‘The papers of the Board of Longitude are now finally stitched into books, in the arrangement in which we usually send our manuscripts to the book-binder. They will probably form one of the most curious collections of the results of scientific enterprise, both normal and abnormal, which exists.’
Although Airy states that it was Main who organised the papers, what is not clear is what involvement if any Airy had in deciding the way in which they should be organised. Whilst Airy managed to unite at Greenwich what might be regarded as the ‘official archive‘, he was mistaken in believing that he had obtained all the papers of the Board of Longitude.
In 1970, Eric Forbes published extracted the index from each of the volumes and published the index of all 68 volumes in a series of thee articles in the Journal for the History of Astronomy:
Index of the Board of Longitude Papers at the Royal Greenwich Observatory Part I (Vol. 1, p.169, 1970)
Index of the Board of Longitude Papers at the Royal Greenwich Observatory Part 2 (Vol. 2, p.58, 1971)
Index of the Board of Longitude Papers at the Royal Greenwich Observatory Part 3 (Vol. 2, p.133, 1971)
The 68 volumes still exist in their original bindings and today are kept as part of the Observatory archives at the Cambridge University Library (RGO/14). Each volume begins with an index in Airy’s hand, together with his notes to the binder. It is perhaps this input from Airy that has lead some commentators to mistakenly believe that it was Airy who himself who organised the papers. In the 2010s, the volumes were digitised in their entirety and can be accessed through the Cambridge digital Library.
Catalogue of the Papers of the Board of Longitude (RGO14)
Digitised Papers of the Board of Longitude (Cambridge Digital Library)
Two relevant volumes are held at the National Archives.
ADM7/684: Compilations of minutes and orders relating to Board of Longitude (1713–1775)
ADM49/65: Papers relating to Longitude (1763–1819)
A considerable amount of material (including rough minutes of the Board) was accumulated by Banks, but was retained by him rather than the Royal Society. These document did however end up in the Society’s archives many years later after being presented by Earl Baldwin of Bewdley in 1938. They are preserved at the Society in MM7 and MM8.
MM7/MM8 and other related material at the Royal Society
Isaac Newton was president of the Royal Society when the first of the Longitude Acts was passed in 1714. Amongst his papers at Cambridge, are several relating to the passing of the Act and the work of the Board. All have been digitised and can be accessed through the Cambridge Digital Library.
Newton’s papers on finding the longitude at sea (MS Add.3972)
Another important set of papers are those belonging to William Wildman, Viscount Barrington who was Treasurer to the British Navy and a Commissioner of Longitude from 1762–1765. His papers relating to the Board have been digitised and can be accessed through the Cambridge Digital Library.
National Maritime Museum MS/BGM: The Barrington Papers (1762–1765)
When Maskelyne died, his widow only left behind at the Observatory those of his manuscript documents that related directly to the work of the Observatory. Many papers were retained by the familly and some of these were subsequently donated to the Observatory in 1911 by his descendents. Other papers came from the family at a later date and are preserved at the National Maritime Museum. Both sets of later papers include some relating to the Board of Longitude. Other papers relating to the management of the production of the Nautical Almanac on behalf of the Board of Longitude are of great significance and are preserved amongst Maskelyne’s papers in the Observatory archive (RGO4/324&325). Their class mark suggests that they were only added to this particular collection after 1975 and their history within the archive is currently under investigation. None of Pond’s papers relating to the production of the Nautical Almanac are known to survive.
In 2011, those of Maskelyne’s papers that were deemed relevant to the Discovery of Longitude have been digitised and can be accessed through the Cambridge Digital Library.
National Maritime Museum MS/MSK
The image of the index page (RGO14/1/1) at the start of the first volume of the papers of the Board of Longitude is reproduced courtesy of Cambridge Digital Library is more compressed than the original and has been reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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