Student’s uncommon efforts uncover scholarly gem

A University of Sussex student who discovered a "treasure trove" of historical research  locked away on a computer for 20 years has this week published the complete work online.

Kris Grint, who is studying for a doctorate in Intellectual History, played detective to track down the "lost" research of Canadian academic Robert Fenn, who died before he could publish more than a decade's work on the 18th-century Scottish philosopher and radical thinker James Mill.

Now the research student has published the late Professor Fenn's typescript on a special website, revealing how Mill shaped the ideas that were to influence a generation of radical thinkers, including his son John Stuart Mill

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 were all subjects close to the heart of James Mill, one of the most influential yet relatively unsung fathers of radical politics. He shared his scholarly thoughts on these and other topics in a series of manuscript volumes - the common place books - spanning the period 1806 until the mid 1820s.

It is these books - five thick ledgers consisting of over 200 scrap items each, equating to about 1,200 pages of typescript - which Toronto University academic Professor Fenn spent a decade transcribing before his death. Now the results of his work will be available for all to study online.

Kris began his research - funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council - in 2008. Having found excerpts from Fenn's transcripts in the Mill archive in the London Library, Kris traced Professor Fenn's widow, then his literary executor Larry Johnston, who lived out in the wilds of Ontario. Kris had to talk Larry through the delicate operation of starting up Fenn's computer after it had lain idle for 15 years, and then extracting Fenn's valuable work.

The computer material was converted into online text made up to standards set by the Text Encoding Initiative  and is hosted by the University of Sussex's Centre for Intellectual History.

Kris was delighted with the find. He says: "I'd been looking at the original manuscripts in the London Library and at 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. Work on James Mill is not really very common, primarily because he's eclipsed in history by the more-famous Bentham (with whom he developed Utilitarianism as a political philosophy) and especially his son John Stuart Mill (the famous British political economist and philosopher). Because of this, Robert Fenn's work on the manuscripts was well known amongst the small circle of scholars interested in James Mill, but the transcript itself took on something of a 'holy grail' - 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.

"But 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."

Studying the transcripts also allowed Kris to build a more personal picture of James Mill that is at odds with his public persona. The common place books, which were never intended for publication, reveal a philosopher even more radical in thought than originally envisaged. They also reveal peculiar aspects of Mill's character, such as his voracious reading of the romantic poetry of the era.

Notes for Editors


For the electronic edition of James Mill's Common Place Books see:

Four of the common place books are held in the archive of the AHRC project's collaborative partner, the London Library, whilst the fifth, which is not yet part of this electronic edition, is in the Mill-Taylor collection at the British Library of Political and Economic Science (at LSE). The electronic edition is based entirely on the typescript by the late Professor Robert A. Fenn of the University of Toronto, who spent over a decade painstakingly transcribing the common place books.

The project is profoundly grateful to Mrs. Julia Fenn and Larry Johnston for their assistance in procuring the Fenn typescript.

The Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC): Each year the AHRC provides approximately £112 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from languages and law, archaeology and English literature to design and creative and performing arts. In any one year, the AHRC makes approximately 700 research awards and around 1,350 postgraduate awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.

Kris Grint on James Mill

One way in that Mill remains relevant today is in the radicalism of his ideas, which portray him as distinctly ahead of his time. Within the manuscripts and in Mill's published writings we see him championing causes like reform of the law of libel to protect journalists and promote freedom of speech, which of course is a debate that resonates with events current.

Mill was also committed to political reform, particularly that which would see the voting franchise extended and the influence of the hereditary House of Lords either curtailed or removed. He would no doubt be puzzled that today, 200 years on, the institution still has such peerages!

To some scholars Mill's importance lays in the fact that he was a pioneer of 'the art of revolution', that is the orchestrating of resistance to the state through propaganda in such a way that the government sees no option but to assent to reforms, for fear of instigating a full-blown revolution otherwise.

The scholarly addition of a complete transcript of his common place books will contribute to an understanding of Mill's complicated relationship with Bentham, and his role in defending "Benthamism" during subsequent decades. And it will throw some light on the transformation of utilitarianism from being a religious theory to being strongly anti-religious.

Kris Grint on putting original documents online for historical research

I think it's essential for this to happen for two reasons. Original documents that are hitherto unseen by researchers can of course open up vast new plains in research. When I finish my DPhil I expect to have, to a degree, rewritten a vast amount of Mill's intellectual history, purely because I have had access to his manuscripts.

Digitisation is clearly the most efficient way of extending access to such documents and instigating research into new topics (or reinvigorating existing ones).

Secondly, we need to sustain interest in the humanities at a time when the political situation dictates that budgets for such study need to be cut. By making original documents available online and also making them 'open access' to everyone (like we have done at Sussex with James Mill and previously with Isaac Newton) we can demonstrate a commitment to promoting our discipline by making historical documents of great significance available to inquiring minds the world over.

What is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism as delineated by Jeremy Bentham was basically an ethical maxim that justified actions based on how useful they were. It is more succinctly conveyed as a system for providing 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people'. In my period of study, 1806ish to 1832, Utilitarianism is the underlying doctrine subscribed to by a group of political thinkers dubbed the Philosophic Radicals, of which James Mill was a principal member.

The Philosophic Radicals used utilitarian thinking as the basis of their theory of representative government and to lobby for democratic reforms such as the expansion of the electoral franchise. Whilst not responsible for the more general public agitation in Britain during this period (such as the Peterloo massacre in 1819), the group did give an element of doctrinal solidity to radical politics, and in this sense can be regarded as a vital component of the successful passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832. Utilitarian thinking was also highly influential in legal and penal reform, education and the abolition of the slave trade.

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune, Jacqui Bealing and Daniëlle Treanor. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email:

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Last updated: Thursday, 9 December 2010