John Aubrey (1626–97) first visited Samuel Hartlib in his house in Charing Cross on the 2nd December 1652. Hartlib found the young country gentleman from Wiltshire to be ‘a very witty man and a mighty favorer and promoter of all Verulemian Designes’ (Hartlib Papers, 28/2/49B [Ephemerides, 1652]). Both Aubrey and Hartlib shared interests in educational reform, chemical philosophy, and universal languages. They also had a number of friends in common, for example the young Robert Boyle, and would, in future, exchange information about agricultural improvement and the mechanical arts.
The exchange of information is one of the subjects of this letter from Hartlib to Aubrey, which discusses Hartlib’s plans for an ‘Office of Address’, that is an institution for co-ordinating and analysing international correspondence which would assist in religious reformation and the advancement of learning. Hartlib had floated this idea as early as 1641, but it had taken definite shape following his discovery of the bureau d’adresse operated in Paris by Théophraste Renaudot. By 1646, Hartlib intended his ‘Office of Address’ to have two branches, for the ‘Address of Accommodations’ and the ‘Address of Communications’, and it had become the principal focus of his plans for preferment and state patronage, as well as the instrument through which he hoped to gather information that might alleviate contemporary unemployment and poverty. Although Parliament showed considerable interest in the project, especially between 1647 and 1649, no formal office was ever established, and Hartlib had to continue to rely on networks of informal correspondence, such as those referred to in this letter.
Although not found explicitly in the writings of Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, the Office of Address was similar in conception to some of the functions of Solomon’s House, described in Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627, catalogue no. 53 ). Hartlib may have appeared to Aubrey to be the man most likely to fulfil Bacon’s vision for the advancement of learning. Certainly, Aubrey shared much of Hartlib’s interest in and esteem for Bacon’s ideas, as this letter suggests. By 1655, Aubrey was himself planning to write a life of Bacon. Hartlib told John Worthington of the project enthusiastically, commenting that ‘I wish he may do it to the life’ (Diary and Correspondence, vol.1, pp.68–9), but Aubrey’s notion of a full-scale work in the end came to nothing.