The British Asses come for dinner

Over the weekend we went to Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, the home of William Henry Fox Talbot ( 1800 – 1877).


There was an abbey until the Dissolution under Thomas Cromwell when all “religious” aspects were removed or covered up, though the cloisters remain. It is a fantastic building. It is an excellent National Trust house to visit.


He was born, lived and died in his family home. He went to Trinity College,Cambridge, where both William Whewell and Adam Sedgwick, the great geologist, were probably his tutors. Settling back at Lacock Abbey he focussed on science covering a vast spectrum of science, publishing widely and being elected FRS.

His interests were varied and he planted much in his grounds like this Cedar of Lebanon.


Most notable was his work on “photography” and in the late 1830s developed a way of making fairly permanent images using silver salts, continuing the work of Thomas Wedgwood, the short-lived brother of Charles Darwin’s mother. He laid the foundations for relatively cheap photography using chemical fixing on paper, which, of course, is now superceded by digital cameras. If you want more details go to Wiki and follow through to better sources. Here is one of his first pictures of a window in the abbey.

Here is one of his “cameras” with a diddy digital one beside it.


He delved into many things and may be consider an early spectroscopy



He was on good terms with many contemporary “scientists” and so hosted a dinner party for several who who en route to Bristol for the 1836 meeting of the British Association aka the British Ass. The dining room has the table laid out to highlight this meal.



At one end was Constance


and the other William


and so to a galaxy of luminaries


Wheatstone was a physicist and all who did physics A level will know his Wheatstone Bridge.


Roget is remembered more for Thesaurus than his science


Sir David Brewster was a Scot and very significant in Scottish science and church circles. (In 1843 he joined Chalmers at the Disruption and was a keen evangelical.) Among other things he invented the kaleidoscope. He was a scientific man of letters.


As the plate says he was a polymath and Anglican priest. He gave us the word “scientist” and also suggested to Lyell in 1830 that he should call the Tertiary strata ; Eocene, Miocene and Pliocene which have since benn  further divided. In a sense he contributed less to science than enabling science. (In June I had the pleasure of taking the wedding of his great-great-great- ?- grandson in nearby Scorton.)


Baggage was a bit of a gadfly and is often regarded as the inventor of the computer with his calculating machine.

I often feel we do not recognise the contribution of these and the rest of the British Asses e.g. Buckland, Sedgwick, Coneybeare and a myriad others. The contributions all these made to science was phenomenal. Further,  many like two here were clergy but at that time there was little conflict between science and religion. The main exception was the ranting of Dean William Cockburn of York, who attacked all the geologists for not taking Genesis literally. In 1844 the British Ass met at York and Cockburn wrote a pamphlet attacking Adam Sedgwick, the geologist. Sedgwick did not reply so all these naughty geologists were not welcome at a civic do, so Harcourt, the Archbishop, invited to his residence at Bishopsthorpe where he plied them with the contents of his wine cellar. (It never happened when Coggan was there as the cellars were empty!)

The early 19th century saw an explosion of the growth of science and technology on both sides of the Channel. In Britain much was due to two people who gave so much encouragement. One was Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, who did little science after his visit to the Pacific. He died in the 182os, but had set the tone for British science, and polar exploration. The other was King George III, who before he was ill encouraged so much science and rarely gets the credit for it.

We have a good idea of the menu for that dinner, but I am sure the conversation was equally rich and nutritious.

And so ends my little cameo into science in the 1830s – my favourite period.



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