Fonds CLIF - Papers of W. K. Clifford

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Reference code



Papers of W. K. Clifford


  • 1860s-1970s (Creation)

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Extent and medium

5 boxes

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Name of creator


Biographical history

During his short life William Kingdon Clifford made significant contributions to various areas of mathematics, especially geometry, and through his many public lectures and writings he was a prominent participant in the intellectual debates of his age, particularly as a supporter and populariser of scientific thinking and as an opponent of religious dogma. He was born at Exeter in 1845, the son of a bookseller, and educated at King’s College, London, and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was elected to a fellowship in 1868. In 1870 he travelled to the Mediterranean with an expedition from the Royal Astronomical Society to view a solar eclipse, and the next year he exchanged his fellowship for the chair of applied mathematics at University College, London. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1874. In 1875 he married Lucy Lane, later a writer, with whom he had two daughters, but in 1876 he experienced the first symptoms of the lung disease which was to trouble the remainder of his life. Attempts were made to restore his health by foreign travel, but these were of only temporary effect, and he died at Madeira in 1879, aged just thirty-three.

Archival history

The original preservation of Clifford’s papers was the work of his widow, who also collected various obituaries and reviews of her husband’s work and recovered from Frederick Pollock some letters written to him by his friend (A3/1–10, A4/1–11, A4/13, and A5/2). Some of these letters had been used by Pollock in preparing his introduction to Clifford’s Lectures and Essays (1879), but other letters referred to in that work appear not to have survived. At some point the papers were sorted into envelopes by Clifford’s younger daughter Margaret, an arrangement which substantially survives. It is unclear whether this was done while Lucy Clifford was still alive or in the short period between her death in 1929 and that of Margaret in 1932. The papers afterwards passed into the custody of Clifford’s elder daughter Ethel, Lady Dilke. According to Fisher Dilke, Lady Dilke’s grandson:

‘Ethel died in 1959, but her house, Lepe Point near Exbury, Hampshire, remained in partial ownership of my parents Christopher [Wentworth] Dilke and Alice Mary Dilke until the lease ran out in 1965. My mother found the box containing the papers. Later, when she was looking for a piece of jewellery that her mother-in-law Ethel Dilke had left her, she found a locked jewel case with a missing key. She took the case to a jeweller, who broke it open. Instead of jewellery, the case contained the returned letters from WKC to Sir Frederick Pollock, including the letter that WKC wrote twenty minutes or so before he died.’

In 1965 the papers moved with the Dilkes to Valehouse (or Vale House) Farm, near Whitchurch Canonicorum in Dorset, and as a result they were occasionally referred to as the Valehouse Collection. For three or four years they were deposited in a bank in Beaminster, and during this time a list of the contents of the several packets was compiled by Mrs Dilke, who also added a few other items of interest (G1). Afterwards, however, they were kept in Mrs Dilke’s own study. When Christopher Dilke died in 1987 ownership of the papers descended to his son Fisher, who transferred them to his own house in London in 1995. At this time the box contained, besides the items described in the present catalogue, various papers relating to Lucy Clifford, including letters to her from Henry James and other important literary figures. These were subsequently separated from her husband’s papers and sold at auction. The remaining items were given to Trinity in 2008 by Fisher Dilke, who desired that the name of his mother should also be associated with the donation.

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Content and structure area

Scope and content

The collection includes letters written by Clifford to friends and relatives, notebooks kept by him, and various items relating to his lectures and writings, including manuscript drafts, proofs, printed syllabuses, and pamphlets. There are also some photographs. The items added after Clifford’s death include correspondence about him, obituaries, reviews of posthumous publications, and papers relating to the public testimonial organised in his name.

Appraisal, destruction and scheduling


System of arrangement

The present arrangement of the papers is derived from the list prepared by Mrs Dilke, the main alterations being the provision of numbers for individual items and the introduction of a few subdivisions. The photographs catalogued under D2 are not mentioned in the list, but they were accompanied by a label marked ‘D’, which presumably indicates that they were kept in that packet.

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      Related units of description

      This Library also holds letters from Clifford to Henry Sidgwick (Add. MS c. 93/73), Henry Jackson (Add. MS c. 27/46), Arthur Cayley (with a specimen of Clifford’s signature and an engraving of him) (Adv. Album 2/18), and Lord Houghton (HOUG 1/28, 30/8–9, 231/259). Four papers read by Clifford to the Parallelepiped Society were copied by him into the Society’s record books (O.11.6).

      Related descriptions

      Notes area



      Alice: Alice Pollock
      Edie: Edith Mary Clifford
      Fred: Frederick Pollock
      Georgie: Georgina Pollock
      Hughie: William Hugh Spottiswoode
      Kitty: Frances Kate Clifford
      Lucy: Lucy Clifford
      Margaret: Alice Margaret Clifford
      Milady: Lady (Juliet) Pollock
      Minnie: Minnie Rosalla Clifford
      Walter: Walter Herries Pollock
      Willi: William Kingdon Clifford

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      Dates of creation revision deletion

      This catalogue was compiled by A. C. Green in 2009, and revised by him in 2016.




          Accession area