Two Letters from Frederick Hockley by Dan Harms

The following letters, from the archives at Trinity College, Cambridge, describe the nineteenth-century mystic Frederick Hockley’s minor role in a major scholarly controversy at the time.  A full description of the events can be found in D. A. Winstanley’s “Halliwell Phillipps and Trinity College Library,” published in The Library:  A Quarterly Journal of Bibliography 5.2 (1948), with subsequent commentary provided in Martin Spevack’s biography James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps: The Life and Works of the Shakespearean Scholar and Bookman.  A brief description should suffice for our purposes here.

James Orchard Halliwell (1820-1889), later Halliwell-Phillipps, was a noted scholar of Shakespeare and British folklore of the nineteenth century, with many publications to his credit.  He is perhaps best known among occultists today for his editing of The Private Diary of Dr. John Dee, and the Catalogue of His Library of Manuscripts… (1842).  His accomplishments as a scholar, his membership in the Royal Society, and accolades from many corners was despite a rocky start in the world of scholarship.

Halliwell matriculated at Trinity College in 1837, moving to Jesus College the following year.  He proved to be quite the bibliophile, both in his engagement with the libraries’ contents and in his personal collection of manuscripts.  In 1840, Halliwell fell in with dissolute friends, and was forced to leave Cambridge and to sell his collection of manuscripts to meet his debts.  Some of these were sold at Sotheby’s to the bookseller Thomas Rodd (1796-1849), and thence to the British Museum in 1843.  In the year following this final sale, it was revealed that many of these manuscripts came from the collection of Trinity College, Cambridge.  Halliwell was identified as a likely culprit, and he mounted an impassioned defense of himself, aided by his many friends in the scholarly community.

To defend himself, Halliwell stated that he might have bought the manuscripts through the bookseller John Denley, who had died in 1842.  This led Halliwell to contact Denley’s family and obtain copies of the bookseller’s catalogue, as well as writing letters and a pamphlet, Statement in Answer to Reports which have been Spread against Mr. James Orchard Halliwell, to defend himself.   The two publications that seem to have attracted Hockley’s attention were a letter printed in the Times on November 13, 1845 and the Statement.

In the Times, Halliwell made this comment regarding a Denley manuscript:

In this statement I gave my reasons for believing that I bought the manuscripts in question of Mr. Denley, the bookseller.  Since its appearance, a gentleman has sent me a volume of old catalogues of Denley’s, in which, among many other manuscripts of the class of those in question, I find the following article: –

“An ancient calendar, on vellum, with capitals illuminated, 1463; qualities of the signs and dispositions of the planets;  the planetary hours; the seven planets and their properties; of the signs and planets & c. 1l. 1s.”

This appears to me, and to others well capable of judging, to be sufficiently well identified with the manuscript described by the Master of Trinity as “Tabula Eclipsium Solis ab. A.D. 1415 – 1462, Lunae ab. A. D. 1496 – 1462, Pharibus earum depictis: Tractatus de Effeca Lunae in duodecim Signis.  Tractatus de Domibus Planetarum.”  We have here dates and particulars which it is hardly possible to mistake.

In his pamphlet, Halliwell brought up Denley once again:

On the 4th of March, he [Halliwell] again visited the | son of Mr. Denley, from whom he ascertained that his father’s | last catalogue was not printed later than 1835.  Mr. Denley’s son also lent Mr. Halliwell one of his father’s catalogues of printed books (interspersed among which are a few MSS.) and a fragment of one of his father’s catalogues of MSS.:  the MSS. mentioned in these catalogues are in general so badly described that it would be almost impossible to identify them.  The following articles among others are thus introduced:

In the Catalogue of Printed Books

  1. Four curious and very ancient Astrological and Medical MSS. on vellum, 14s.

In the Catalogue of MSS.

  1. Quantity of MSS., some curious, L1.
  2. An ancient MS. on Metaphysics and Astronomy, curious pen and ink drawings, 14s.
  3. A collection of Astrological manuscripts, 4 vols., L2.
  4. Curious Astrological manuscript, in Latin, finely written, sewed, 6s.
  5. Elements of Geometry, an original MS, with a number of drawings, 13s.
  6. Tables of Solar and Lunar Equations, & c., beautifully written, half bound, 15s.
  7. Curious MS. on Arts and Sciences, drawings, 7s. 6d.
  8. Mathematical MS., half bound, 8s.

Though some of these titles might appear to apply to some of the MSS. in question, yet it will be evident to every one that they are so vaguely described that it is impossible to identify them.  On this occasion, however, Mr. Denley’s son repeated his former statement that he had a recollection of having seen the MS. of “Theophilus de Arte Pingendi” either in one of his father’s catalogues or in his father’s shop; he having felt interested as an artist on the subject on which it treated; he also suggested to Mr. Halliwell the possibility of finding copies of his father’s catalogues by tracing out the printers who had printed them, and Mr. Halliwell spent some considerable time in following out this suggestion, but without any satisfactory result. (pp. 20-21)

The controversy seems to have placed the late Denley under some fire, as this letter from “F. S. A.” published by the Times on November 17 seems to indicate:

I was conversant with the collection of books in possession of Denley the bookseller… and I can testify to the curiosity of, as well as the confusion in which that bookseller’s collections always were.  He had most extraordinary things stowed away, and I should think unknown to himself at times.  Myself and my friends are in possession of some curious and unique volumes and pamphlets procured at his sale, where I myself saw a quarto manuscript of the 12th century, in fine condition, knocked down for half-a-crown, and the other lots were so confused, and such mere dirty packages, that many remarkable things were among them.

It seems to be in response to Halliwell’s sweeping statements of Denley’s lack of knowledge of the book trade that Hockley was spurred into action.

As it turned out, given the state of record-keeping at the Trinity College Library at the time, no allegations could be proven against Halliwell.  On June 12 of 1846, Halliwell was informed that he could reapply for admission to the Reading Room, and his scholarly career resumed again.  Trinity College and the British Museum became involved in legal wrangling over the manuscripts’ ownership, with the works eventually remaining at the British Museum.   One can only wonder how Hockley’s statements might have affected the case if they had received a broader circulation.

These two letters include one to Sir Henry Ellis, Principal Librarian at the British Museum at the time, and F. J. Fuller, the solicitor representing Trinity College in this matter.  I have attempted to render the text as accurately as possible, including abbreviations, mistakes, and the like.

The letters are significant in at least two areas.  First, they shed light on the relationship between Denley and Hockley, revealing it to be deep and significant to the young employee.  Second, they establish that Hockley spent some time in Birmingham, which might fill one of the gaps that Hamill has noted in our knowledge of Hockley.  The city is also close to the town of Sidemore, where Elizabeth Troth, whom Hockley claimed in his first article in the Zoist to have cured of headache via mesmerism, lived.1)Reprinted in Hamill, pp. 179-81.

The first letter is accompanied by what appears to be a contemporary transcription of its contents.  At times, the transcription adds wording not present in the original.  Whether these changes reflect clarifications made by Hockley at a later time, or if they are interpolations of the transcriber, is unknown.  As such, they are presented in footnotes below.

Thanks are due to The Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge for allowing publication of these letters, and to Phil Legard for his insightful comments.


Sir Henry Ellis

British Museum

Birm. 22. Dec 1845



Allow me most respectfully to apologize for taking the liberty of addressing you upon this subject, but having read by accident some days after its publication Mr. J. O. Halliwells address to the Editor of “The Times” I was induced immediately to reply to it by letter of which the following is a copy.


Birm. 20 Nov. 1845

To the Editor of the Times,


Sir, observing in the Times of the 152)Should be the 13th. inst. a letter from J. O. Halliwell in which he endeavours to identify the Latin MSS, Tabula Elipsum folio 14153)Transcription has 1815. & c.  / claimed by / Trinity College, with the early English MS. formerly in part 2 of Denley’s Catalogue, I beg to state I had the latter MS. from my late friend Mr. Denley in 1829 & it is now in the possession of John Onions esq. of this Town, It consists as described in the Catalge of an Antient Calendar on Vellum with small illuminated capitals 1463 and some MS. on paper in very Early English upon the qualities & dispositions of the planets & c.  Signs of the Zodiac & c. and does not contain any allusion even to Eclipses.

I am further in a position to assess that I do not believe the Latin MS. above mentd were ever in Mr. Denleys possession & certainly not within the last 20 years, nor can I for a moment conceive how Mr. Halliwell or “others well capable of Judging” could suppose that Mr. Denley an old & judicious Bookseller would Commit Such an obvious absurdity as to give in his Catalogue an English description of a Latin MS.

I am & c.

Fred. Hockley

I have enclosed my address for Mr. Halliwell if he should require it.”


This letter however I believe was not inserted tho’ several long and some apparently irrelevant communications appeared in its columns, Since then a friend having forwarded me a copy of Mr. Halliwell’s Statement.  I have been induced to offer the following Remarks.  Having known Mr. Denley above 20 years & for the last 14 or 15 years of his life upon the most intimate terms of friendship with him, I possessed during that time a more accurate knowledge of his books than any member of his family (As my friend Mr. Denley4)John Denley, the bookseller’s son can testify) places me in a position to give a positive Contradiction to Mr. Halliwell’s Assertion Still not wishing to do Mr. Halliwell an Injustice I being unable from my Distance from London of personally inspecting the MSS. in dispute, I beg to state that Mr. Denley in all his early purchases / & if the MS. in question was seen in his possession it must have been one of them / inserted his book-mark the letters of the alphabet at the end of the book at the Top corner of the fly leaf or at the inner5)This word has been inserted. Corner of the Cover [inserted picture of pages] in very distinct & legible characters several of which are now before me.

Since his large Sale in 1830 Mr. Denley made scarce any purchases except a single volume or so from an Itinerant bookseller & certainly no astrological MS. since that period as he would have immediately shewn it to me besides Mr. Denley whatever his eccentricities may have been was a good Judge of book rarities & in his Catalogue gave the best description6)Inserted in the accompanying transcription:  however vague they may appear. in His passage he could but of the MS. that not possess a descriptive title he of course did not make one.

As page 20 of the Statement Mr. Halliwell gives an Extract from Denleys Catalogue as being probably some of the MSS. in question mentioned on page 9.

Now No. 33 I remember perfectly well & am quite certain is no part of the MS.7)Inserted in the transcription:  mentioned in. page 9

41. were some loose paper upon Astrology, charms & c. a portion of them in my own handwriting

54 speaks for itself & was in English

62 were 4 vols. in English well written by Mr. Bishop the master of Sir Jn. Cass’s [transcription: Cuss’s] School about 1780-90.

84 A Latin MS. without title or date

104 was a MS not 50 years old.

170 A modern MS. formerly belonging to a Mr. Lambert & I believe written by Mr. Bishop / or some of his pupils

With regard to my friend Mr Jn. Denley’s / see Statement p. 21 / I cannot conceive as he has no knowledge of Latin which interest he could take in an old Latin MS. of Philosophy which I am quite positive never appeared in his Fathers Catalogue, tho’8)Inserted in the transcriptIon:  very and indeed. most probably he read Raspes’9)Inserted in the transcription:  Critical.  Essay on / painting which contains Theophilus’s work and was No. 4731 of part 4 of his father’s Catalogue & in the shop at the time Mr. Jon Denley Commenced his professional Studies

I have the honor to be


Your Ms. Obed. Servt.

Fred Hockley

[Transcription adds:

At James Christie’s Esq,

Official Assignee




7 Waterloo St. Birmg.

22nd Jan 1846



I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your favor of the 20th msg. with respect to the MSS. in question my knowledge is rather negative believing as I do, that they never formed a portion of my late friend Mr. Denleys stock, & that consequently I cannot have seen them.  I have however herewith forwarded you a copy of a letter addressed by me to Sir Henry Ellis which will I believe put you in possession of all I know upon the subject tho’ at the request of Sir Frederick Madden I am endeavouring to collect some further data concerning Denley’s Catg.

Your letter is marked Confidential & if Counsel if its you wish shall remain strictly so, On my own part any information however slight I can give is equally at the service of Mr. Halliwell, for whose Archaeological labors I have the greatest respect, or any other Gentleman Interested.

I am


Your most obedient Servt.

Fred Hockley


F.J. Fuller


Carlton Chambers

Regent Street


Notes   [ + ]

1. Reprinted in Hamill, pp. 179-81.
2. Should be the 13th.
3. Transcription has 1815.
4. John Denley, the bookseller’s son
5. This word has been inserted.
6. Inserted in the accompanying transcription:  however vague they may appear.
7. Inserted in the transcription:  mentioned in.
8. Inserted in the transcriptIon:  very and indeed.
9. Inserted in the transcription:  Critical.