Brighton student turns detective to trace lost historical archive

Posted On 23 Nov 2010 at 2:16 pm

A Sussex University student turned detective to track down a lost archive of valuable research material.

Kris Gint, who is studying for a doctorate in intellectual history at the university’s Falmer campus, discovered the historical research on a computer where it had been locked away for 20 years.

Mr Gint has now published the complete work online on a dedicated website.

He traced the lost work by Robert Fenn, a Canadian academic who had spent more than ten years researching, transcribing and checking unpublished volumes by a leading 19th century philosopher.

The five manuscript volumes were handwritten by the Scottish radical thinker James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill.

The commonplace books show how Mill shaped the ideas that were to affect a generation of philosophers and radical thinkers, including his influential son.

These ideas include the importance of dissent, the abolition of slavery, freedom of the press, the extension of the vote and an end to the House of Lords.

Professor Fenn, an academic at Toronto University, died before he could publish his vast work based on the volumes written by Mill from 1806 to the mid 1820s.

Now the results of his work will be available for anyone to study online.

Pages from one of James Mills's commonplace books

Mr Gint began work on the research in 2008 with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

After finding excerpts from the transcripts in the Mill archive in the London Library, he tracked down Professor Fenn’s literary executor in the wilds of Ontario.

Mr Gint talked him through the delicate operation of extracting Professor Fenn’s valuable work from his computer, which had lain idle for 15 years.

He said: “I’d been looking at the original manuscripts in the London Library and at the LSE and was convinced that transcribing the material from scratch would take me absolutely years as Mill’s original hand is extremely hard to read.

“I was of course very excited when the material from Canada came through and I realised it was complete.

“I think it’s definitely a lost treasure. Some academics I contacted had seen it, some had early drafts of it in their possession, but no one knew if Fenn had actually finished the work before he died and, if so, where a completed version of it might be.

“What was exceptional about the typescript is the level of detail Fenn had put in to the research.

“He had checked every single citation of other books Mill made to ensure it was correct and provided an updated, scholarly reference.

“He had provided editorial notes for each chapter and he had translated the material that was in Greek, Latin and French into English.

“The amount of work done was incredible.”

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