Reference numberHS
Alternative reference numberJH/A, JFWH
TitleCorrespondence of Sir John Frederick William Herschel
CreatorHerschel; Sir; John Frederick William (1792-1871); British mathematician; astronomer
DescriptionThe correspondence of Sir John Frederick William Herschel, from a larger collection of papers at Observatory House Slough.

The collection comprises three main groups of documents.

The first is 19 volumes of manuscript letters sent to Herschel, with drafts of his replies (HS 1-19) This includes letters from Charles Rigobert Marie Bonne (25 June 1771-23 November 1829) in vol 4 (HS/4) and Augustus de Morgan in vol 6 (HS/6).

There follow 16 volumes of copy letters from Herschel (HS 20-24). These are apparently constructed from Herschel's original letters brought together by a son, Col. John Herschel R.E. for a proposed biography and then returned to their original owners. The biography was never produced. There is some duplication between these versions of finished letters and the rough versions of the same in HS 1-19. The letters are arranged in chronological order in a continual sequence across the volumes.

The third group comprises five boxes of unbound manuscript material and 7 previously unbound letter copy books now combined into one volume (HS 25-B28). This material comprises:
HS 25, (1 volume and 2 boxes): further copies of letters from Herschel. The letters in HS 25 do not appear to be duplicated in the volumes of copies 20-24 though they cover overlapping periods. The volume is arranged chronologically and includes letters from 1830-1847 (with two letters from 1870). The boxes contain unbound manuscript material arranged in groups by correspondent.
HS 26, (1 box): groups of original letters on particular topics, such as Herschel's involvement in W H F Talbot's photography patent disputes, The British Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Telescope Glass Committee
HS 27, (1 box): groups of original letters on particular topics, such as Herschel and Charles Babbage's disagreements with Humphry Davy and James South after Babbage's unsuccessful nomination for the position as Secretary of the Royal Society, Babbage's calculating machine, the British Museum and publication of 'Fauna antiqua sivalensis'
HS 28, (1 box): information on the copying project including listings of the copies made
Extent10,600 + letters
Physical description35 volumes and 5 boxes
ArrangementVols 1-19 contain letters to Herschel, with some of his replies, arranged alphabetically. The volumes were disbound in 2023 as part of a conservation and digitisation project and each volume is now split into two archival boxes, with letters in folders of 10 letters. Oversized letters are kept in a separate box at the end of the sequence.

Vols 20-24 are arranged chronologically and vol 25 is a separate but overlapping chronological run for 1830-1846 (with two additional letters from 1870).

Boxes 25-28 include information on the project by Col. Herschel to copy his father's letters, and letters on particular topics. NOTE THAT THERE IS A VOLUME AND TWO BOXES NUMBERED '25', the volume labelled 25 comprises previously unbound letter copy books bound into a single volume which does not fit into the chronoloical arrangement of copy letter volumes 20-24, it forms a separate but concurrent chronological sequence. The boxed letters are grouped according to recipient.
Finding aidsCalendar of the Correspondence of Sir John Herschel edited by Michael J Crowe, David R Dyck and James R Kevin (Cambridge University Press, 1998). References in this volume to HS.25.8-15 correspond to boxes labelled HS.25.1-2 and HS.25.3-8; HS.25.1-7 corresponds with the volume HS 25 which comprises 7 copy books bound into 1 volume.

Crowe's Calendar of the Correspondence of Sir John Herschel searchable online at, this catalogue content is also available through the Epsilon correspondence resource

Unpublished calendar by R.K. Bluhm made in 1958.
Access statusOpen
Administrative historyBorn 7 March 1792, only child of William Herschel and Mary Baldwin Pitt, widow of a prosperous merchant. After Eton and Dr Gretton's private school at Hitcham and private tutoring in mathematics, John entered St. John's College, University of Cambridge in 1809, where his exceptional abilities were revealed. Became founding member and first president of the Analytical Society to promote study of continental mathematics at Cambridge. Other members were Charles Babbage (1792-1871), George Peacock (1791-18580 and William Whewell (1791-1866). In 1813 he became Senior Wrangler and First Smith's Prizeman, was elected to the Royal Society, and became a Fellow of St John's College. He planned for a career in law, entering Lincoln's Inn in 1814, but in 1815 returned to Cambridge as sub-lector, though he found instructing undergraduates not to his liking. In 1816 he began to study astronomy, and left Cambridge to continue his father's observations. By 1820 astronomy had become his chief concern in science. He founded the Astronomical Society in that year, which in 1831 became the Royal Astronomical Society, becoming its President in 1827, 1839 and 1847. He took up the observation of double stars in collaboration with James South, their first catalogue being awarded the Lalande Prize of the French Academy and a gold medal from the Astronomical Society. His most important contribution to physics in the 1820s was his article 'Light' in 1827. From 1824 to 1827 he became Secretary of the Royal Society, an ideal choice both because of his effectiveness as a correspondent and because he knew personally many leading continental scientists through trips made during the 1820s. His contribution to the philosophy of science was in the publication of his much translated 'Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy', which deeply influenced Charles Darwin and Willliam Whewell. and his 'Treatise on Astronomy' in 1833, a highly successful presentation for the educated public. From 1834 to 1838 he was at the Cape of Good Hope with his family, involved in the detailed survey of the southern celestial hemisphere. In 1839 he made contributions to the development of photographic techniques, for which he was awarded the Royal Medal in 1840. He continued to make contributions to the philosophy of science, with his reviews of Whewell's publications, his role in John Stuart Mill's famous 'System of Logic' of 1842 and his review of Quetelet's 'Theory of Probabilities'. Herschel also became involved in the discovery and arbitration of the controversy over the discovery of Neptune in 1846. In 1849 he published his authoritative 'Outlines of Astronomy', which like his earlier writings had concentrated on the two questions central to his father's researches - what is the structure of the Milky Way and what is the nature of nebulae. The great esteem in which he was held was shown by the honours and positions offered to him, including the Royal Society's Copley Medal for his Cape 'Results' in 1847 and an obelisk erected on the site in South Africa where his telescope had stood. He was Master of the Mint from 1850 to 1854, then returned to writing, publishing 'Meteorology', 'Physical Geography' and 'Telescope' originally as articles and then by 1861 as substantial books. During the last 6 years of his life he compiled a catalogue of all known double and multiple star systems, which appeared posthumously in 1874 with final editing by Charles Pritchard and Robert Main. Herschel died on 11 May 1871, being buried in Westminster Abbey next to the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton.
He had 12 children by Margaret Brodie Stewart, whom he married in 1829. His achievements were recognised with a knighthood in 1831, raised to a baronetcy in 1838.
Related materialHarry Ransom Humanities Research Center Library,University of Texas at Austin, correspondence and papers 1809-1853; Royal Astronomical Society Library, correspondence and papers 1816-1871; Houghton Library, University of Harvard, correspondence, notebooks and papers 1810-1866; St John's College Library, University of Cambridge, manuscripts of published articles; Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, University of Cambridge, poems and papers, correspondence with Sir George Airy 1835-1870, letters to Sir George Stokes 1828-1870; Trinity College Library, University of Cambridge, 137 letters to William Whewell 1817-1871; Science Museum Library, notebook, letters to Fox Talbot 1839-1868; Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford, correspondence and papers relating to photography 1840-1842; Special Collections and Western Manuscripts, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, correspondence with Mary Somerville 1826-1871; Royal Institution, 50 letters to John Tyndall; Public Record Office, letters to Sir Edward Sabine 1838-1852; Geological Society of London, letters to Sir Richard Murchison 1829-1864; Library and Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, letters to Sir William Hooker 1843-1848; British Geological Survey Library, geological notebook relating to the Isle of Wight; Manuscripts section, National Maritime Museum, visitors book, and correspondence, accounts and papers 1832-1866; Manuscript Collections, British Library, notes on chemistry and acoustics, letters from Caroline Herschel 1822-1848, correspondence with Charles Babbage 1819-1870; St Andrews University Library, 39 letters to James Forbes 1832-1859; Trinity College Dublin, 41 letters to Sir William Rowan, 1833-1865; Special Collections, Edinburgh University Library, 19 letters to Sir R Murchison 1838-1852; American Philosophical Society Library, letters to Sir Charles Lyell 1836-1868, 17 letters to Admiral WH Smyth 1827-1838; University of Cape Town Libraries, correspondence and papers relating to education in Cape Colony 1830-1838; Herschel Letters at Royal Society are available on microfilm from University Publications of America
Fellows associated with this archive
NA8238Herschel; Sir; John Frederick William (1792 - 1871); astronomer1792 - 1871
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