A guest post by Elisabeth Chaghafi
Large collections of books or manuscripts may be interesting for two reasons: the actual content of the items they contain, and also what they reveal about the collector who compiled them. The Folger’s Newdigate family collection of newsletters (Folger MS L.c.1-3950) is an excellent example of this. The inclusion of these newsletters in the Shakespeare’s World site has led to the transcription of a large portion of them, which in turn leads to a greater understanding of the collection as a whole. This collection is fascinating partly because of its sheer scale—well over 3,000 newsletters, most of them collected by Sir Richard Newdigate, 2nd baronet (1644-1710)—making it a fairly comprehensive archive of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century news. But the collection also contains quite a few clues about Newdigate himself and the ways in which he read and used his newsletters. Some of these traces of Newdigate’s news-reading habits (especially his underscorings) are easily overlooked. When the newsletters are studied in bulk, however, patterns emerge that allow modern readers to witness Newdigate’s strategies of gathering, comparing, and evaluating news from several manuscript and print sources.
To begin by stating the obvious: the second baronet Newdigate was clearly a particularly avid reader of news—something of a news junkie, in fact. He subscribed to different newsletters that covered both domestic and international news, including the popular Dyer newsletters. Dyer was the most successful commercial provider of scribal news and had subscribers who lived as far away as Ireland.1 There appear to be no Dyer newsletters in the collection dated after the second baronet’s death, however, which may be an indication that his son (also called Richard Newdigate) did not entirely share his father’s news-obsession and allowed the subscription to lapse. In addition to the newsletters that now make up the collection, Newdigate subscribed to printed gazettes (several newsletters have traces of offsetting that show the gazettes were often sent in the same packet, although only one of them, L.c.2360 (2), survives as part of the collection).
That Newdigate subscribed to multiple newsletters and gazettes might not be so very special, because the late 17th century was a news-hungry period, but Newdigate’s own annotations indicate that he not only used his newsletters and gazettes for his daily news fix but also carefully filed them away for future reference and sought to fill gaps in his collection in a quest for “completeness.” On L.c.420, for example, Newdigate wrote a note (later crossed out) that indicates the newsletter may at some point have been placed at the top of a box or bundle of newsletters: “News from Ian: 76/7 to Ian 77/8 but many wanting at first.” There are similar notes on several other letters, most of them in Newdigate’s handwriting.
L.c.79 contains a list of “Gazetts wanting”—though all number are crossed out, so Newdigate may eventually have managed to get hold of them after all. In a few cases, Newdigate left a note on newsletters that had arrived without the gazette (which apparently cost an extra twopence), as on L.c.2352, which has a note that reads: “2d overchardg no Gazet in it.” He also endorsed some newsletters with their dates (and in some cases the type of newsletter, such as D. N for “Dyer Newsletter” in the endorsement of L.c.3155) and instructed a servant, who signed his initials “I. S.” or “I.Sc.”, to go over old bundles and double-check them for newsletters that were out of sequence or missing—two of his notes survive on L.c.1513 and L.c.14 (b).2
While Newdigate’s system for archiving his newsletters suggests they were important to him and he was keen to collect and preserve them, this did not necessarily make him any more scrupulous about keeping them in a pristine state than the average person. This collection contains the usual account notes, calculations, and drafts of leases and legal agreements that the recipients of early modern letters routinely used address leaves for—some of them in Newdigate’s own hand, while others are in the hand of a person who also docqueted newsletters in preparation for filing (perhaps his secretary). On one of the earlier newsletters, sent in 1674, (L.c.107), Newdigate went even further and covered the entire address leaf in a draft for a letter to an unnamed person, instructing him to do something about the appalling state of disrepair that several highways had fallen into, “so that no Coach nor horse man or woman could passe without much Danger and Difficulty.”3
To one of the later newsletters (L.c.3156) he added the cryptic note “This they tore in the Nursery”—which makes slightly more sense if you bear in mind that the person who franked most of Newdigate’s non-Dyer newsletters from London (i.e. who exercised his privilege to send letters without postage, and thus saved Newdigate money), was an MP called William Stephens, who also happened to be his son-in-law. Thus, presumably the newsletter meant for Newdigate had accidentally been shredded by his own darling grandchildren, so he was forced to obtain another copy elsewhere!4 But Newdigate also occasionally used available space on newsletters to copy some poetry (Francis Quarles’ “My Sins are Like the haires upon my head” on the address leaf of L.c.192 and an elegy for the Earl of Rochester, who had died six months earlier, on L.c.1170), to make an—unsuccessful—attempt at turning his own name into an anagram, stumbling after “Grace and” (L.c.185) and memoranda to himself and others that had no obvious connection to the newsletters they were written on, such as a note to “Enquire for Mr Palmer Glover Leather seller at Mr Pelcoms a Milliner at the Golden Goat in Cheap side” (L.c.1329), or another one that shows Newdigate in pursuit of yet more sources of news in February 1695/6: “Mem let Iohn Merry enquire at Nuneaton ffor the News cald the Post boy & Flying post & borrow them at night. Sparrow may bring them up” (L.c.2589).
While we don’t know exactly who John Merry was, we do know that he was not the only person to keep Newdigate supplied with news. The newsletters contain references to a whole network of people whom Newdigate at some point employed to forward him newsletters, or sometimes copy them for him. For example, one newsletter in the collection (L.c.816) was originally addressed to a certain Ralph Hope in Warwick and subsequently redirected to Newdigate. This was not a one-off, however. The collection also contains a letter from Ralph Hope to a Mr Johnson (L.c.520) in which he outlines the reasons for a current dearth of news and refers to a gazette enclosed with the letter, suggesting Hope routinely acted as a news-agent. Additionally, the letter provides a clue that the note to Newdigate at the end of L.c.422, which is in the same handwriting, was also written by Ralph Hope—as were a number of the earlier newsletters in the collection, including, but not limited to L.c.230, which Newdigate endorsed “R. H Newes being a transcript of Sir Joseph Wiliamson.” Nevertheless, Newdigate was not always entirely happy with the service provided by Ralph Hope. One newsletter (L.c.114) contains several corrections in Newdigate’s hand (changing “Lord Vaughan” to “Arlington,” inserting words that the newswriter had apparently omitted and correcting “gagering” to “gathering”), followed by a reproachful note that reads: “Mr Hope Pray peruse this, & make sence of it if you can without the amendments above, & hereafter pray seal all the letters which you send to Your freind R N.” Ouch.
Richard Newdigate did not confine himself to adding snarky notes, memoranda, and bits of poetry to his newsletters, however. As his note to Ralph Hope indicates, Newdigate promptly amended errors. Thus he also corrected the date of L.c.10 (another one of Hope’s) from “ffeb the 2d” to “Ian: 31”; changed “yeild” to “yeilded” on L.c.2295; “the byeing” to “them by raising” on L.c.2386; “Buckingham shire” to “Bedford” on L.c.2584; and the misspelt place names “Torkey” and “Best” to “Turkey” and “Brest” respectively on L.c.2590.
Other notes reveal that Richard Newdigate was a critical reader of news as well as a pedantic one. In one case he questioned the newswriter’s ambiguous use of “here” in a news item, adding “qu. Where? at Vienna he meanes at London I suppose” (L.c.2352). At other times he responded skeptically to implausible stories, adding “qu very unlikely” to an unsupported report that a man was in the process of raising and clothing an entire regiment, all at his own expense (L.c.2575); sometimes he noted his intention to seek out more details about a story, as with a report involving a corrupt colonel in L.c.2427 (“Mem write Sir I K to know who is Corub Grubs Colonel & What becomes of this Affair”), or to find confirmation from an authoritative source. Next to a news item about the murder of a tax collector by an angry mob after a number of poor people had had their goods unlawfully seized because they were unable to pay their taxes (L.c.2585), Newdigate added the guarded comment: “This is very remarkeable, but I stay for a confirmation in the Gazet.” On a different occasion, however, when he was certain the newsletter was incorrect regarding Sir Nathan Wright’s appointment as knight of the shire for Warwickshire (L.c.2944) he did not hesitate to note his discontent and complain to the people responsible: “this a [sic] very great Untruth & so I have written the News writer Word RN.”
The letters also contain a large number of underlined passages and reader’s annotations in Newdigate’s handwriting that collectively reveal something about his reading habits as well as the kinds of news items that attracted his particular interest. One key interest that probably sounds familiar to a lot of modern news-readers was stories relating to crime: he underlined accounts of various murders and “self-murthers,” as well as robberies, assaults, and duels. For example, on a page from L.c.2375, Newdigate underlined and glossed “A Duell,” “An Assault,” “Duell.” He was also interested in news about lotteries and naval news, especially stories involving the capture or destruction of French ships, which he repeatedly glossed with notes such as “French losse” (e.g. on L.c.2289), “French prizes taken” or “French Misery” (L.c.2404), and he was keen to note instances of “French Treachery” (L.c.2377 and L.c.2589) or “Iacobite insolence” (L.c.2203 and L.c.2386).
A few of the newsletters not only contain underscoring and brief annotations by Newdigate, but also a summary note on the address leaf that compiled all of the news items he had highlighted in one place. Examples of such notes can be found on L.c.2110 and L.c.2152, the latter of which begins with the exciting news that the Earl of Portland may have found a way of stopping his hiccup by “laying the entralls of Lamb to his stomach” (warm entrails, as Newdigate later amended, perhaps thinking that detail might turn out to be important).
These summary notes suggest that Newdigate’s annotations and underlinings in the newsletters were not simply something he did habitually as part of the reading process, but that he actually wanted to preserve the most interesting pieces of information he had gleaned from the newsletters, so he would be able to refer to them again later. This can also be seen in L.c.2285, one of the most copiously underscored and annotated newsletters in the collection, dated 10 February 1693/4. The first page alone has four annotations by Newdigate (or five, depending on whether you consider “Englds Danger” part of the annotation on “French Insolence in H of Com” or not). What is striking about them is the peculiar way some of them are worded: “Baden Prince ill in Engld,” “Scot Dr dead this week,” and “Collonels New.” In all of these, as well as in “Highway men 3 seized” on the next page, Newdigate’s annotations are written in a format that brings the most important keywords to the front of the note, as you might in an index. L.c.2286, the next item in the collection is in fact a compilation of all the underlined bits of L.c.2285, with marginal glosses that are identical to Newdigate’s annotations (though “Englands Danger” has been dropped, perhaps because it was considered redundant).
While L.c.2286 is the only example of such a news digest in the Folger’s collection, and it is possible that Newdigate eventually abandoned the idea as too troublesome or not as useful as he had originally thought, the way in which Newdigate marked his newsletters after 1694 suggests that he continued to underline interesting passages with a view to later compilation. In L.c.2589, he labelled his annotations with alphabetical letters ranging from a-g, which only makes sense if he intended to write (or instruct someone else to write) an index or digest afterwards. On the second leaf of L.c.2379 (shown below) is a particularly good example of the style of annotation that gradually seems to have become Newdigate’s preferred format: a combination of underlining, numbering, and insertions that, when read in the correct sequence, became a lightly-condensed version of the news item in question. So for example, the second underlined news item on that particular page would have turned into “project by Doctor Chamberlaine to raise 2 Millions of money without burthening of the Subjects,” while in the last highlighted item on the page (continued along the margin), Newdigate’s version omits the gory detail of the two failed suicide attempts, arriving at just “Self Murther by a Stocking fframe knitter in Moore fields.”
Since this system of annotating would have required additional effort on Newdigate’s part, because he had to think about how to rephrase those news items and which words to insert as he was reading, it also only makes sense if either he or one of his servants at least intended to compile them into a news digest similar to L.c.2286 at a later point.
Collectively, Richard Newdigate’s many underlinings, annotations, and memoranda on his newsletters do two things. They provide a glimpse of the ways in which early modern readers in the late 17th and early 18th century obtained and consumed news as a commodity, and they also sketch out the picture of one particularly news-hungry individual: a newsy baronet who compiled and curated his own collection of news over the course of several decades. From his own notes, Newdigate emerges not only as an avid collector, but as a perceptive, critical reader who thought carefully about the news he consumed and preserved a healthy sense of skepticism even towards news he considered “remarkeable,” waiting for them to be confirmed through the gazette or through his private news network.
Elisabeth Chaghafi is based at Tübingen University. Her research mainly involves Edmund Spenser or book history (or both), but she also likes palaeography and moonlights as a researcher and moderator on Shakespeare’s World.
- On the address leaf of L.c.3395, the words “To Sr Richd Kenne” have been struck out, which points towards Sir Richard Kennedy, 4th baronet of Newtownmountkennedy (c. 1686-1710). Evidently Dyer’s list of subscribers was ordered by first name and the newswriter accidentally selected the wrong Sir Richard. For a detailed account of Dyer’s career see Alex Barber’s article “‘It is not easy what to say of our condition, much less to write it’: the continued importance of scribal news in the early 18th century.” Parliamentary History, v. 32, pt. 2 (2013), p. 293-316.
- “I. S.” may have been John Scott, whose name is written on the address leaf of L.c.1657. For other archiving methods see Heather Wolfe’s 2013 Collation post on Filing, seventeenth-century style.
- The letter is written on behalf of “my Master”—probably Newdigate’s father, the first baronet, who was still alive at the time. We can tell that this is the second Richard Newdigate’s handwriting, because it matches that of three signed letters in the Folger’s collection (), which he sent to his brother-in-law Sir Walter Bagot in 1676.
- The handwriting is less clearly identifiable as Newdigate’s than the other samples (although it looks similar to the somewhat shaky writing on L.c.2944), so an alternative explanation would be that the note was written by Stephens, who invoked the image of the newsletter being torn in the nursery by his children as a way of deflecting his father-in-law’s anger about the potential gap in his newsletter collection.