THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

24 March 2014

Meet the Benthams: an extraordinary Georgian family

The British Library has joined the Transcribe Bentham initiative, and needs your help to uncover the secret life of Jeremy Bentham, philosopher, reformer, and Georgian gentleman.  Transcribe Bentham, an online scholarly crowdsourcing project, invites members of the public to explore and transcribe the manuscripts of Jeremy Bentham.  Since its launch in 2010, Transcribe Bentham’s online volunteers have made important discoveries in UCL’s collection of digitised Bentham manuscripts, for instance in relation to his most famous invention—the Panopticon prison.

The British Library is digitising its own collection of Bentham papers and these are now being made available on Transcribe Bentham to complement UCL’s own on-going digitisation programme, virtually reuniting the two Bentham collections for the first time since Bentham’s death.  Volunteers do not need any specialist equipment or expert knowledge to begin participating—just a willingness to get to grips with 18th and 19th century handwriting and to type what they read into a text box using a specially-adapted transcription toolbar.  

  Bentham 33537_294_001
NocPseudo-Voltaire (John Lind) to Jeremy Bentham, sent in 1774 (British Library Add MS 33537 f.294r)

Whilst the UCL collection contains mainly philosophical writings, in the British Library collection there is potential to uncover Bentham’s more personal side, as it contains thousands of letters.  Bentham was described by Jose del Valle, the Guatemalan politician, as the ‘Legislator of the world’ and such a title is certainly justified by the sheer number of nationally and internationally important figures with whom he corresponded.  Within the British Library’s collection are letters from the French general Lafayette, the English abolitionist William Wilberforce, and Alexander I, Emperor of Russia.  But the collection also contains a great deal of personal correspondence, and volunteers will encounter Jeremy’s extended family: his mother, Alicia; his step-mother, Sarah; his brother, Samuel, the renowned naval architect; his step-brother Charles Abbot, later 1st Baron Colchester, Speaker of the House of Commons; his nephew George, the famous botanist; and the patriarch of the family, Jeremiah Bentham.  There is even a letter from Jeremiah to Jeremy’s headmaster at Westminster School, complaining about the alleged plundering of his son’s book case by some older ‘lads’.  

   Bentham 33537_037_001

Jeremiah Bentham’s letter to Mr Cooper, complaining about the theft of little Jeremy’s school books (British Library Add MS 33537 f. 37r)  Noc

Because some of this correspondence has not been read since its original composition, discoveries made by volunteers have the potential to fundamentally shape and illuminate our understanding of Bentham’s life and relationships (the definitive biography of Bentham still remains unwritten).  Once completed, transcripts are presented alongside the original manuscript image in a digital repository, freely accessible to anyone interested in researching Bentham.  In addition, any volunteers who produce transcripts that are subsequently used in the new edition of Bentham’s Collected Works, currently being prepared by the Bentham Project at UCL and published by Oxford University Press, will receive full credit for their contribution in the particular volume’s acknowledgements.


Kris Grint
Research Associate, Bentham Project, Faculty of Laws, UCL   Cc-by

Visit the Transcribe Bentham  Transcription Desk today

Follow Transcribe Bentham on Twitter @TranscriBentham

Further reading:

Jeremy Bentham, Selected Writings, ed. by Stephen Engelmann (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011)

Philip Schofield, Bentham: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Continuum, 2009)

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