One of the most entertaining set of letters in Sir Hans Sloane’s correspondence was written by William Derham (1657-1735), the rector at Upminster in Essex and an enthusiastic member of the Royal Society. Derham’s letters to him are so lively that you get a good impression of their shared business and scientific interests–including, it seems, ghosts.
Sloane and Derham began to correspond around 1698 and continued until shortly before Derham’s death in 1735. Since Derham’s clerical duties frequently prevented him from attending Royal Society meetings, Derham sent his natural history observations to Sloane to be read at Society meetings (Lisa Smith has discussed Derham’s activities in not one but two previous posts). This is especially true for the period during which Sloane was Secretary of the Society, between 1693 and 1713. Derham wrote to Sloane with observations of the weather; details of his experiments on the speed of sound; and astronomical observations.
Perhaps the living of Upminster did not pay well, or perhaps Derham was just happy to do his friend a favour, but in 1705 it appears that alongside his clerical duties Derham also agreed to be an agent for Sloane in the purchase and management of a farm in a village Derham calls “Orset” (present-day Orsett, south east of Upminster).
The details of the property management letters are fascinating, not only because it shows the social and business connections forged between members of the Royal Society, but also because it suggests how Sloane increased his estate by investing in land. Exactly how Sloane financed his museum is still not known–his medical practice, sugar plantation, hot chocolate recipe, eye remedy, and property buying must all have contributed.
But my favourite Derham letter is that of 13 December 1708. Derham wrote excitedly to Sloane with an “odd story” concerning Sloane’s farm tenants who:
[R]eceive disturbances constantly every night by great rumbling in the chambers, dashing the Doors open, & shutting them wth [damaged], that the woman’s Spinning-wheel (standing by her [bed]-side in the room they ly) is whirled about as if they spun, yt the warming-pan hanging by her bed-side is rattled & rung, that a woman who lay in one of the Chambres lately had the clothes pulled off her bed perpetually, & putting out her hand to pull them on, she felt a cold hand take her by her hand.
Derham’s story, which he has had second-hand from a neighbour, is rather breathlessly related. And indeed, the details of the spinning-wheel operating of its own accord, and of the bed clothes being pulled off by a cold hand during the night, are pretty spooky. But it seems that Derham’s curiosity has been aroused rather than his fear. He encouraged Sloane:
“You being a curious man, I wish you would come, & we would go, & ly there a night.”
True to their Royal Society philosophy, Derham proposes that they spend the night in the farm so that they might observe the events and collect evidence. It is a delightful suggestion from Derham, but we do not know whether Sloane ever took him up on his offer!