On the wikipedia page for the polymath John Michell, it gives a description of him. The source for this description is “Cole MSS XXXIII, 156, British Library.” According to this article on Harvard’s website (footnote 7), the original source for this description was a four-part article in the Yorkshire Physics News, in issues 17-20, published in January, April, and October 2000, and January 2001 respectively. They give a web address for the article, but no doi and the link is broken. I cannot find the article. *UPDATE: Here is the Wayback Machine article of it.

The description is as follows:

‘John Michell, BD is a little short Man, of a black Complexion, and fat; but having no Acquaintance with him, can say little of him. I think he had the care of St. Botolph’s Church [Cambridge], while he continued Fellow of Queens’ College, where he was esteemed a very ingenious Man, and an excellent Philosopher. He has published some things in that way, on the Magnet and Electricity.’

I ran it through ChatGPT to break it down for me. It said Cole refers to the collection name, “MSS” refers to manuscripts, aka written documents, the 33 refers to a volume number or part of the collection. Then, it said the 156 “likely” refers to a specific page, folio, or item number.

This led me to the INDEX TO THE COLE MANUSCRIPTS. And, I THINK I found it, but I am not sure, because the 33 refers to the page number. About midway down this page, it says in MSS number 5834.156, there is an account of Woodwardian professors between 1731 and 1764, a position Michell held in 1762. So, it would appear like this is the location: British Library MSS 5834.

But, where is that? I tried looking for that number online, and I found nothing. I found an ostracon (potsherd) 5834, but that doesn’t appear to be related. The Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450-1700 does include MSS numbers 5000-5999, but it skips 5834, maybe because these manuscripts are AFTER 1700? But if that’s the case, where would 5834 be? Are these only the digitized records, or is this a catalogue of all records?

I did find a Google Book online, an index similar to the Archive.org book. On page 82, at the bottom right it has the same listing for the account of Woowardian professors, but it confirms 156 is a page number.

I suspect there is no online location for this document, which is a bummer, because without it or the original Yorkshire Philosophical Society’s articles, we have no idea who gave this description or when they gave it, only that it was a contemporary.

So, my question is, is this the location we’re looking for? Is the only way to access it to go to the British National Library? And, finally, does anyone know anything else about MSS 5834? Can anyone even find a description of it anywhere?

  • 7
    You might have to wait until the British Library has fully recovered from the cyber-attack that disrupted its online services last year.
    – Steve Bird
    Feb 17 at 11:50
  • 1
    @justCal I have come across that full text before, but no one ever seems to explain who is the one writing that. At the very least, this gives a title for the article, which leads to me the Wayback version of the Yorkshire Physics News article. I'll update the question. Feb 17 at 15:28
  • 1
    @justCal That makes a lot of sense. That's why they never specify who wrote it, just that it was a contemporary diary. It's probably because it's Cole's diary. Thank you for that. Still, if it's a diary, I imagine it's dated then, so it would be cool to know when the entry was made, at least roughly. Feb 17 at 15:40
  • 2
    A Jstor article about the manuscripts can be found here
    – justCal
    Feb 17 at 15:44
  • 1
    @justCal That was interesting. Only one mention was made of a diary, and it said it was kept between 1765-1770, but the number assigned it is one off. The source description it gives is "BL Add. MS 5835". Feb 17 at 17:18

1 Answer 1


"Cole MSS XXXIII" means the 33rd volume of William Cole's manuscript collection. This was a series of handwritten volumes kept throughout his life, in which he included his own original thoughts and observations, copies of his correspondence, and transcripts of other writings of interest he came across. They were bequeathed to the British Museum upon his death, and transferred to the British Library once that was split off from the BM collection in the 1970s. The "Additional Manuscripts 5834" reference (however formatted) was the BM's series for any manuscripts that they acquired beyond the major series of bequests (Cotton, Harley, Sloane, etc.).

From nearby references in your CELM link, it's likely that volume 33 is physically similar to the others, like:

Add. MS 5831 A folio volume of antiquarian collections, in a single neat hand, 236 leaves, in half-morocco. In the hand of the Rev. William Cole, FSA (1714-82), antiquary (Volume XXX of the Cole Collection). Mid-18th century.

Sadly, the British Library manuscript catalogue is not online right now. It may have more information about the physical condition of this particular volume. At the time of writing, it's possible in principle to travel to the British Library and ask to see it - information from the BL will be the most up-to-date on how to do that in practice. Some other libraries and archives claim to have microfilm copies of some of the Cole volumes, but I haven't found any that claim to have this one.

The Dictionary of National Biography (1885-1900 edition) says:

Cole's chief literary monument, however, is the magnificent collection of manuscripts, extending to nearly a hundred folio volumes, in his own handwriting, which are deposited in the British Museum. He began to form this vast collection while at college, beginning with fifteen volumes, which he kept in a lock-up case in the university library, where he examined every book likely to yield information suitable to his purpose, besides transcribing many manuscript lists and records. The principal interval from this labour was during his residence at Bletchley (1752-67), but even there, with the aid of his own books and those he could borrow from his neighbours, he proceeded with his great undertaking, and on his frequent journeys he added to his topographical collections, illustrating them with neat copies of armorial bearings and rough but faithful drawings of churches and other buildings. At Waterbeach and Milton, where he was within an easy distance of Cambridge, he resumed his labour of love with renewed ardour, and in addition to dry historical matters, he carefully transcribed all his literary correspondence, and minutely chronicled all the anecdotes he heard respecting his contemporaries at the university.

So it is surely a folio volume and handwritten by Cole himself. "Half-morocco" means that there is leather on the spine and on the corners. Effectively, the entire collection is a diary, but in the broadest sense of a personal record of experiences rather than a simple record of the tasks of the day. The text is all handwritten by Cole, but some of the contents are excerpts or quotations from other authors. Three of the volumes are Cole's own index to the rest.

The passage regarding John Michell is very likely Cole's own. Looking at the context might give more detail on when it was written, and so on.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.