Historian Russell Newton shares his story of how a letter from the National Trust led him to discover his family links with Isaac Newton
Fifteen years ago, in May 1999, I received a letter from the National Trust at Woolsthorpe manor, the ancestral manor home of Isaac Newton. They asked if I would like to attend an open day they were holding for Isaac’s relatives. The volunteers for the National Trust at Woolsthorpe had seen a letter in the Times newspaper from Dick Newton – claiming to be one of his living relatives – and complaining that the newly-made Baroness Margaret Thatcher was allowed to use Isaac as a supporter on her newly-granted coat of arms. His indignant letter aroused the interest of the volunteers who wondered how many other living relatives there were, and could they be traced?
I filed the letter away and did not reply. I was sure that I was not related. We had our own family story, handed to me by my father from his father – Arthur Oscar Newton – who always said that we were descendants of Isaac’s or something similar. My grandfather died when I was young and my own father – Dean Arthur Newton – showed no interest in genealogy. A rift in Arthur’s family meant that I had no contact with any of the family on his side.
However in 1997 I decided to investigate his claim a little. This was before the internet took off and some preliminary searching showed that Isaac had no children and so we could not be descendants. That seemed to be that, I recognised that he may have had uncles, but searching was not going to be easy, and after all 1642 (when he was born) was a very long way off. So when I received the National Trust letter, I did not reply or travel to Woolsthorpe. My family story seemed to be based on wishful thinking or a mistake, and it would lay unproven one way or another.
Until that is one day in March 2003, when I thought to investigate my grandfather’s mysterious family. The internet was now improving rapidly and searching online for family members was starting to become easier and more fruitful. I speculated that a general search for my grandfather’s name might just turn up something interesting. I had only my grandfather’s birth certificate with his father and mother’s name, and date and place of birth. To my amazement I was quickly led to a website with my grandfather’s name, and his mother and father. On it was a link to his father Arthur Henry Newton – that much I had already. But there was more – that link led me to his parents, and then their parents. Link after link led me back through generations of Newtons. I was astonished. The website led me to Sir Isaac himself and his uncle Robert Newton who, it turned out, was my own direct ancestor. I had only hoped to find my grandfather’s family but had instead found dozens of others, over centuries of time. If I had tried the same six years earlier it would have failed completely, because ironically it turned out that all the information I had been looking through was there only because of the open day held by the National Trust in 1999 – if only I had gone at the time!
Eventually I visited Woolsthorpe and saw an extended family tree on the wall there, and my interest in my own family turned into an interest in Isaac’s life and the world he lived in. I had the privilege of enough time to look more into those early figures in my branch of the Newton family, headed by Isaac’s uncle Robert Newton, which turned out to be an interesting story in itself.
The curious tale of Robert Newton, eldest uncle of Sir Isaac Newton
Robert Newton was probably born in Woolsthorpe in 1607 and baptized in the parish church, the second son of Robert. His elder brother Isaac was the natural philosopher’s father. The records of the quarter sessions at Grantham show that Robert was still living in the family parish in 1637, in his thirtieth year, and in Isaac’s pedigree prepared by him in 1705 he says that Robert “lived after at Counthorpe”. This is a hamlet in the parish of Castle Bytham, near Swayfield, a few miles from Woolsthorpe. There is little or no trace of it today, other than a road-sign. Robert’s great grandson John Newton inherited the manor and the small estate on Isaac’s death, but got himself into serious debt with some high living and was forced to sell the estate to repay. We can find Robert still in Counthorpe on Sunday, 6 March 1642 listed as a resident of the hamlet. He was asked, as was every man over eighteen years, to make an oath called the Protestation Oath, which was taken on that day at the church. There are just 17 male residents in the hamlet, but the return shows that Robert did not make the Oath as there is no cross against his name, and one or two others, whilst every other name has a cross next to it. Sadly, the return from Colsterworth is lost so we cannot see what his father Robert, his other brothers Isaac and Richard, and his uncle Richard, – all in that parish – did.
Although Isaac said that Robert lived after at Counthorpe, he did not stay there. In fact Robert moved from Counthorpe not long after the Protestation Oath, and his movements are recorded for us by his great grand-daughter, Michel Newton, who was born in 1718 in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, during Isaac’s life. According to her recollections (as an old lady and recorded around 1795) her great grandfather Robert “removed to Oundle, co. Northampton about 1640 and became an innkeeper”, she also added that Robert “was at variance with his family” but she doesn’t venture who or why. One author, CW Foster, terminally discounted this story, writing that he had located Robert’s inventory dated 1646 in a nearby parish, claiming the parishes of Creeton and Castle Bytham were the same at the time. However, the reasoning is poor, as the two parishes did not merge administratively until centuries later, and the only connection between the inventory and Isaac’s uncle is the common name and the proximity of the second parish.
This rather piqued my family pride and after some patient research I uncovered clear documentary evidence of the move. The records of the manor of Counthorpe survive and they show that Robert is certainly to be found in Counthorpe on 20 November 1640 where he renews the lease of a substantial farm from Abel Barker of Rutland, who owned the manor, for £50 per year. Incidentally the signature on the lease shows that Robert had an education and his handwriting is very elegant. Despite taking the 16 year lease in 1640, just a few years later, in January 1645, Robert’s land is sold to John Barker, brother of Abel. Robert has lost the farm, probably unable to pay his half-yearly rent due on 29 September 1644. Robert never appears again in the Counthorpe records, nor do any Newtons during the seventeenth century and beyond.
Financial hardship during the civil war was common, even Isaac once confessed to “using unlawful means to bring us out of distresses” – distresses were the legal means where creditors could recover their money by taking goods – by force if necessary. Robert was not the only one to “be reduced” as it was put in those days. His cousin Francis Newton had a farm of reportedly £200 per year at Swayfield, just a mile or two away from Counthorpe, and he was also reduced according to his descendants, because “he spent great parts of it during the late civil wars”. Luckily for him he was helped out by other family (probably his cousins who would later become Baronets at Culverthorpe Hall), and “removed” to Ancaster during the war. Soon after the loss of his farm in Lincolnshire Robert is to be found, as Michel Newton said, in Oundle, and a series of his children are born there, his will of 1677 describes him as an “innholder”. It is not yet clear why he ended up in Oundle about 20 miles to the south, or which of the five or so coaching inns he owned, but it is likely to have been because of some kin or friendship connection with the town.
We do not know what caused the “variance” in the family or who was involved, but we can say that Isaac did not know his uncle Robert until late in his life. In August 1666, when Robert was 59 years old, Sir Isaac submitted his pedigree to the Herald at Grantham, wholly unaware of the existence of his uncle. It was not until 1705 that Isaac discovered the truth, and his early drafts either omit him as before or include just his name, without any wives or children’s names. Some time soon after descendants of both the Francis Newton once at Swayfield and Robert Newton visited Isaac in London.
So history repeats itself. Isaac discovered his uncle Robert years after he died because of a rift in the family which kept him in the dark, I likewise discovered family kept from me because a rift in my grandfather’s family. My research into the areas of Isaac’s life that have been overlooked or given small attention has taken me to fascinating corners of English life in the seventeenth century, revealing a rich and complex picture of family relationships. I intend to publish this in a book to be called Mr Newton’s new perspective. The title is taken from a reference to his new telescope (then called a “perspective”), and to draw attention to a new perspective on his life, taking him to be a man rather than a venerated national icon.