Record

Reference numberMS/769
LevelSubFonds
TitleRoyal Society administrative correspondence of Walter White, Assistant Secretary
Date1853-1885
DescriptionLetters from various scientists to Walter White, Assistant Secretary of the Royal Society. With occasional material addressed to Charles Richard Weld and others. Usually on Royal Society business.

The archive correspondence can be characterized as the routine treatment of important events. In 1863, for example, Richard Owen wrote to White with brief instructions for his paper describing the feathered dinosaur archaeopteryx. Occasionally the letters are more significant for the Society's history. In an extended note of 1865, ex Royal Society President the Earl of Rosse 'a plain well-grown man, farmer like in appearance' discussed the merits of signing an election certificate for Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). 'My opinion...was that it would be better to take the broad view and to elect men of great abillity...so as to strengthen the Society in carrying out, in the largest sense, its great object, that of improving natural science'. Tennyson was duly elected, an event which must have pleased White. The assistant secretary had become friendly with the Poet Laureate in the 1850s and White's published diary left a vivid picture of Tennyson reading aloud his Arthurian romances in the offices of the Royal Society.
Extent117 items [1 MS Box, Small]
Access statusOpen
Administrative historyWalter White is an interesting example of the 19th century self-improver. A furniture maker with literary aspirations, White would eventually become acquainted with figures such as Lord Tennyson and Sir Charles Wheatstone thanks to his fervour for education and association with the Royal Society. White served the Society for over 40 years, rising to the post of Assistant Secretary.

Eldest son of John White an upholsterer and cabinet maker, in early life he was a manual worker, making wardrobes and bookcases. Educated at two local private schools, he left school at fourteen to work alongside his father. In 1830 he went to Derbyshire, where he married Maria Hamilton. Dissatisfied with his life, he sailed with his wife, daughter and three sons to New York in 1834 to try his luck in America. He found the cold winters hard to cope with, and his daughter died. He returned to England without making his fortune and in that decade he led a precarious existence, publishing essays and poetry in his spare time, working as secretary to Joseph Mainzer, a music teacher. When Mainzer went to Edinburgh as a candidate for the chair of music at the university there, he met many learned and self educated men, and attended lectures given by James Simpson to the working classes. Simpson introduced him to Charles Weld, assistant secretary to the Royal Society, who offered him the post of the Royal Society's sub-librarian, where he began work on 19 April 1844 at an annual salary or £80. 'Have now been one month in my situation' he wrote in 1844, 'should like the occupation better if it were more intellectual'. He was responsible for the compilation of a catalogue of contents of all natural science periodicals in the Library, published in 1867, which was the first of the series which eventually covered the century from 1800-1900.

'The Journals of Walter White' (London, 1898) chronicle his grass-roots level view of the most important scientists of the 19th century. Soon after his appointment, White was conversing with the likes of Michael Faraday. Amusingly, he was present when the Society's original Newton telescope was processed through the streets of Grantham by local Grammar School boys as the statue of the great scientist was inaugurated in the town.

He resigned his post in 1884 due to age and ill health, with a life pension of £350, equivalent of his current salary in recognition of his valuable service to the Royal Society.
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