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Newton's Libraries

Newton had three collections of books during his long life of study. The first was his stepfather's library of theological works; the second was a smaller but probably more formative group in Grantham; and the third, Newton's mature library, was begun in Cambridge as an undergraduate and transferred to London when he moved in 1696.


Newton's stepfather, the Rev. Barnabas Smith, was a graduate of Oxford University and died in 1653 when Newton was ten years old. Newton's mother had been living at her second husband's house and returned to Woolsthorpe (where Isaac had been left) on his death.

After Newton's own death in 1727, Smith's library of two or three hundred mostly theological books was still in Newton's bedroom at Woolsthorpe (Stukeley p16.) The books were on shelves he made himself, from deal wood (used to make boxes.) It is seems natural to assume that the books had been moved to Woolsthorpe as soon as Smith died. We can imagine how great an influence such a collection of books on one topic could exert over an introverted boy like Newton. His deep interest in theology from the 1660s until the end of his life may testify to this, and we might expect that he incorporated some of them in his mature library.


In 1655 Newton went to grammar school in Grantham and lodged with Clark, a local apothecary (``pharmacist''.) We know that he bought books by the classical authors Pindar and Ovid, and John Bate's Mysteries of Nature and Art which included recipes for some of the mechanical toys Newton built.

It also seems that he access to a collection of books owned by Clark, both during his stay in Grantham, and afterwards when he was forced back to Woolsthorpe by his mother. When he came to market in Grantham with a servant, ``Isaac generally left the man to manage the marketings, and retired instantly to Mr. Clark's garret, where he used to lodge, near where lay an old parcel of books of Mr. Clark's, which he entertained himself with, whilst it was time to go home again.'' (Stukeley p48.)

The mature library

Newton went to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1661. It seems unlikely that he brought more than a few books with him. His initial purchases followed the established Aristotlean curriculum, but his interest in the new world of the Mechanical Philosophy was fed by the booksellers (and librarians) of Cambridge.

From the late 1660s his visits to London gave him access to the large book trade in the capital, and in the 1670s his growing interest in alchemy depended on several books distributed only in manuscript. He also bought books on history and travel as he gathered data for his study of prophecy and ancient history.

Newton moved to London in 1696 and took his library with him. Sometime before 1700 he was joined by his niece, Catherine Barton, who came to be his housekeeper. Catherine was popular with prominent members of London literary society, especially Swift, and some of the books acquired during this period may in fact have been hers.

After Newton's death

When Newton died in 1727, John Huggins bought his library and a list was made of the books. This document is now in the British Museum. The books were also briefly mentioned in the inventory of Newton's house in St Martin's Street. The library passed to Dr. James Musgrave and a catalogue of his library was made c1760. This list is more detailed than the Huggins list, but includes some books which had not come from Newton.

The origin of the books was forgotten and many were sold at auction in 1920. In 1927 Richard de Villamil found the remainder at Barnsley Park in Gloucester. He also found the Musgrave Catalogue at the house, and the Huggins List in the British Museum. In Newton: the Man (reproduced by Newtonia), he published the Musgrave and Huggins Catalogues.

In 1943, the Pilgrim Trust bought the remaining books from the Wykeham - Musgrave family and presented them to Trinity College, where some of them had been 247 years before.

Harrison has subsequently published a comprehensive catalogue of Newton's library based on all available information, including an examination of the individual volumes where possible. Since Newton annotated many of his books, this is especially important. He also corrected several errors in Villamil's lists.

© 1994-2001 Andrew McNab. Back to