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PART II.: 1837—1841 - Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 1 
An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904).
Part of: An Autobiography
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Even in the absence of letters I should have known that I arrived in London on the 8th of November, 1837; for the next day furnished an incident which fixes the date. The Queen, who had but lately succeeded to the throne and was not yet crowned, dined with the Lord Mayor in the City on the 9th of November; and the occasion called for a State-pageant. To see this I was, the morning after my arrival, taken by my uncle and the friends he was visiting in London. It was the only royal procession, or display of allied kind, which I ever saw.
The office of Mr. Charles Fox, in which I was for an interval to pass most of my days, was at the Chalk Farm Station. It is no longer extant; having been demolished to make room for the North London Railway, which crosses the Hampstead Road and enters the station just over its site. Here I presented myself on the 10th, and made acquaintance of some who were to be my companions. On the day after came my first experience of railway travelling, gained during an excursion with Mr. Fox as far as Tring—the point to which the London and Birmingham Railway, as it was then called, was open. Locomotion was less rapid than it is now. In the course of our journey, Mr. Fox took out his watch, and, noting the passing of the mile-posts, calculated that we were going at 30 miles an hour, which he thought a high speed. Nor was the rolling-stock at that time much like what it is at the present time. The engines used on the London and Birmingham lines had but four wheels, and weighed only ten tons. The first-class carriages were, as nearly as might be, made to represent three coach-bodies joined together; and, in pursuance of the tacit desire to repeat coaching usages, every first-class carriage had a guard’s seat on the outside at each end: an arrangement which did not cease until a guard was killed by collision with the arch of a bridge, while inadvertently standing on the roof of a carriage. The second-class carriages, evidently intended to simulate the outsides of coaches as much as was practicable, had no sides, and were covered by roofs supported on vertical iron rods, so that the wind and rain could blow through from side to side.
Bradshaw’s Guide, too, was not yet—did not commence till the autumn of 1838, when it made its appearance in the shape of some three or four leaves. There have been disputes as to the date of its origin, but I speak from definite remembrance.
Already it has been stated that Mr. Charles Fox, who, fourteen years after, became well known as the designer and constructor of the Exhibition-Building of 1851, and was afterwards knighted, had been a pupil of my father; and there has also been named the fact, that in 1834, I had, in company with my father and mother, paid a visit to him at Watford, where he filled the post of sub-engineer. From this post he had some time after been transferred by Mr. Robert Stephenson, the engineer-in-chief, to superintend under him the construction of what was in those days known as “The Extension.” For the London and Birmingham Railway was originally intended to stop at Chalk Farm; and only in pursuance of an afterthought was it lengthened to Euston Square. Mr. Charles Fox’s faculty had, probably, soon made itself manifest to Mr. Stephenson. He had no special discipline fitting him for engineering—very little mathematical training or allied preparation; but in place of it he had a mechanical genius. Much of the work on “The Extension” for which Stephenson got credit, was originated by him: among other things, the iron roof at Euston Station, which was the first of the kind ever made. After the Extension was finished he was appointed resident engineer of the London division of the line: his limit being Wolverton. Parts of this division were still incomplete; and beyond the completion of these there devolved on him much business with contractors—measuring up work and making small surveys. He had, possibly, represented to the directors that his time was unduly absorbed in these details; for it was to undertake them that I was appointed. He had seen something of me during our visit at Watford in 1834, and possibly the fact that I had surprised a pupil of his, Mr. Frank Conder, by solving a problem in trigonometry he set me by way of test, gave him some confidence in my ability to discharge these not very difficult duties. The salary was only £80 a year, with a prospect of increase to £150; but for a youth of 17 this was not amiss: especially considering that the post gave valuable opportunities of obtaining information and undergoing discipline.
My chief companion at first was Mr. George Harris, a pupil of Mr. Fox. Our occupations were scarcely distinguishable. Many not unpleasant days were passed together during the winter and early spring in surveying at various parts of the line. It was, indeed, disagreeable in muddy weather to make measurements of “spoil-banks,” as are technically called the vast heaps of earth which have, here and there, been in excess of the needs for making embankments, and have been run out into adjacent fields; and it was especially annoying when, in pelting rain, the blackened water from one’s hat dripped on to the note-book. The office-work, too, as may be inferred from the tastes implied by the account of my education, came not amiss. There was scope for accuracy and neatness, to which I was naturally inclined; and there was opportunity for inventiveness. So fully, indeed, did the kind of work interest me, that I shortly began to occupy the evenings in making a line-drawing of a pumping engine for my own satisfaction, and as a sample of skill as a draughtsman.
Letters show that I was quite alive to the responsibilities of my post, and resolute to succeed. During the whole of this sojourn in London, lasting over six months, I never went to a place of amusement; nor ever read a novel or other work of light literature. Evenings not spent in drawing or in calls on friends, were devoted to rambles about London; and these, of course, were interesting to a youth of my age and inexperience. One incident attendant on these rambles remains with me. To my great astonishment I found myself in a large square lighted with oil lamps: the time being one when the use of gas was almost universal, and when, indeed, in provincial towns like Derby, oil lamps had practically disappeared. This square was Grosvenor Square. It struck me as curiously significant that in this centre of fashionable life there should still survive the old system of illumination when it had elsewhere been replaced by a better.
Letters to my father now written, recall letters written from Hinton during my boyhood, in the respect that considerable spaces in them are occupied by mathematical questions and other spaces by suggested inventions or improvements. One dated about Christmas contains a demonstration of a theorem in conic sections, and another some speculations—very crude ones indeed—respecting the relation between pressure and expansion of steam, and the relation of the two to temperature. In a letter of February 7, I find the passage:—
“You will very likely recollect that while I was in Derby I made many experiments on the formation of curves, and some of them, of which you first suggested the idea, were formed by the motion of a line of a given length through a fixed point; one end being moved according to some particular conditions and the other end describing some peculiar curve.”
There follows an example of such a curve, with the sketch of a suggested instrument for utilizing the idea. A page of a letter of March 10 is occupied by solutions of problems my father had sent, and another page by a calculation he requested me to make of the allowance for curvature of the Earth in levelling. Then, later on in the spring, come accounts of improved methods of keeping the note-book of a survey and of ranging straight lines.
This tendency to independent thinking had, as at Hinton, disagreeable concomitants. On one occasion Mr. Fox passed some criticisms upon my tendency to differ from companions, and from officials with whom I had dealings. Unhappily the particular case which led to the expostulation was one in which, because of my better mathematical culture, my disagreement with an official was well warranted. The effect would have been greater had I been proved wrong.
Towards the end of May came a change in my occupation and place of abode; as is shown by the following passage from a letter home dated Wembly, near Harrow, June 12:—
“You will see by the date of this letter that I am not at present staying in London. I have now been down in the country rather more than three weeks, where I am staying as the Company’s Agent to superintend the completion of the approach roads to the Harrow Road bridge. My duties consist in seeing that the contractor fulfils the terms of the contract, and also to take care that when he draws money on account he does not get more than an equivalent for the work done. . . . I have now a good deal of time for study, &c., and I am making pretty good use of it. The inclosed  solutions of problems on the second book of Chambers [Euclid] I made out in one morning whilst seated under one of the arches of the bridge, where I had taken shelter from the rain. . . . I went to London a few days after I came and got a drawing-board, paper, &c., and commenced the drawing of a locomotive engine for myself. The drawing which I am copying is merely in lines, but the drawing which I am doing I have commenced colouring and shall finish in about a fortnight.”
In July my father spent a week with me at Wembly, pleasantly relieving for a time the monotony of the life. As is implied by several passages in letters, this was a good deal felt. The following is dated August 3.
“I am sorry to say that from all I can see I shall continue here some time longer. Since you went we have commenced curing the slips which you saw when you were here. I have had them almost entirely under my own management. . . . We had an accident close by here a few days ago. An engine with a train of sheep ran off the line. . . . I was on the spot very soon after the accident and remained until the engine was got on again about 11 o’clock at night. . . . I was very much struck with the promptness and tact which Mr. Fox displayed in the management of the concern. The appearance of things was more altered for the better in 10 minutes after he had turned to, than it had been for an hour before.”
Then followed sketches of an appliance by which I proposed to make some kinds of sewing “much easier, more expeditious, and perhaps neater.” Before the close comes the sentence:—
“In your next letter send me word what are your ideas about the revolution of the magnetic pole. Do you think it has any connexion with the precession of the equinoxes?”
Evidently the characteristic excursiveness of thought was continuing and perhaps increasing.
An amusing adventure experienced during my stay at Wembly is worth narrating. Mr. Fox wished to have a survey of the Wolverton Station, in preparation, probably, for enlargement. Harris and I were sent down one day early in August to make this survey; and we completed it before evening set in. Wolverton, being then the temporary terminus, between which and Rugby the traffic was carried on by coaches, was the place whence the trains to London started. The last of them was the mail, leaving somewhere about 8. If I remember rightly there were at that time only five trains in the day, and there were none at night. A difficulty arose. This mail-train did not stop between Watford and London, but I wished to stop at the intermediate station—Harrow: that being the nearest point to Wembly. It turned out that there was at the Wolverton Station no vehicle having a brake to it—nothing available but a coach-truck. Being without alternative, I directed the station-master to attach this to the train. After travelling with my companion in the usual way until we reached Watford, I bade him good-night and got into the coach-truck. Away the train went into the gloom of the evening, and for some six or seven miles I travelled unconcernedly: knowing the objects along the line well, and continually identifying my whereabouts. Presently we reached a bridge about a mile and half to the north of Harrow Station—the Dove-house Bridge, I think it was then called. Being quite aware that the line at this point, and throughout a long distance in advance, falls towards London at the rate of 1 in 330; I expected that the coach-truck, having no brake, would take a long time to stop. A mile and a half would, it seemed, be sufficient allowance; and on coming to the said bridge I uncoupled the truck and sat down. In a few seconds I got up again to see whether all the couplings were unhooked; for, to my surprise, the coach-truck seemed to be going on with the train. There was no coupling left unhooked, however, and it became clear that I had allowed an insufficient distance for the gradual arrest. Though the incline is quite invisible to the eye, being less than an inch in nine yards, yet its effect was very decided; and the axles being, no doubt, well greased, the truck maintained its velocity. Far from having stopped when Harrow was reached, I was less than a dozen yards behind the train! My dismay as we rushed through the station at some 30 miles an hour may be well imagined. There was the prospect of having to push back the truck after it had stopped; and, judging from the small loss of velocity during the preceding mile and a half, the stoppage seemed likely to be remote enough. There now, however, commenced a cause of retardation which I had not counted upon. From the Dove-house Bridge to the Harrow Station, the line is straight; but immediately after passing the Harrow Station it enters upon a curve. Of course the result in this case was that there came into play the friction of the flange of the outer wheel upon the outer rail. A loss of velocity necessarily followed. The train now began rapidly to increase its distance, and shortly disappeared in the gloom. Still, though my speed had diminished, I rushed on at a great pace. Presently, seeing at a little distance in front the light of a lantern, held, I concluded, by a foreman of the plate-layers, who was going back to the station after having seen the last train pass, I shouted to him; thinking that if he would run at the top of his speed he might perhaps catch hold of the waggon and gradually arrest it. He, however, stood staring; too much astonished, even if he understood me, and, as I learned next day, when he reached Harrow Station reported that he had met a man in a newly-invented carriage which had run away with him! Failing this method of bringing by undesired journey to an end, there arose the thought of trying to stop the truck myself. I unfastened one of the cross-bars (used to steady a carriage placed on the truck), and tried to press the end of it against the tyre of the wheel. I soon found, however, that this necessitated leaning over so much that I should be in danger of tumbling out, and gave up the attempt.
After being carried some two miles beyond the Harrow Station, I began rather to rejoice that the truck was going so far; for I remembered that at no great distance in advance was the Brent siding—a place, just to the north of the Brent embankment, where a line of rails diverged from the main line into a side-cutting, and into which the truck might easily be pushed instead of pushing it back to Harrow. I looked with satisfaction to this prospect; entertaining no doubt that the waggon would come to rest in time. By and by, however, it became clear that the truck would not only reach this siding but pass it; and then came not a little alarm, for a mile or so further on was the level crossing at Willesden: Willesden being at that time a village having no station, and the level crossing (where there is now a bridge) serving merely to give continuity to a quiet lane. I knew that after the last train had passed, the level-crossing-gate would be closed against the line; and that if the truck went on as it was going it would run full tilt against the gate, and I should probably be thrown out and killed. However, there was one saving fact—the incline of 1 in 330, down which the truck was rushing, came to an end some distance before Willesden. I was soon made aware of this fact on reaching the Brent bridge; for the truck then began to slacken speed, and finally came to a stand in the middle of the embankment crossing of the Brent valley.
Here was I then, between 9 and 10 at night, with this truck far away from any station, and having to provide for the safety of the line next morning. I forthwith walked on to the level crossing at Willesden and aroused the man in charge. He came to the window of his bedroom and listened sceptically for some time to my statement: thinking it was an attempt to hoax him. However, on telling him that if a train was thrown off in the morning he would be responsible for the result, he believed, dressed himself and came out, walked with me along the line to the place where the truck was standing, and joined me in pushing it back to the siding. But the adventure was not ended. It happened that the switch leading into this siding was a peculiar one; and, not being aware of the peculiarity, we ran the truck off the rails. Here seemed a still greater dilemma. However, by our united efforts, helping ourselves with sleepers lying at hand and using a cross-bar of the truck as a lever, we finally heaved the truck on to the rails again, and, pushing it into the siding, blocked it safely. I then made the best of my way to the farm-house at Wembly in which I was staying: arriving there between 12 and 1 o’clock in the morning. Of course the incident was not kept a secret by those who were witnesses; and, as may be imagined, caused a good deal of laughter at my expense.
Something much more important to me, though less amusing to the reader, soon after happened. A letter to my father dated Wembly, August 23, runs thus:—
“I have got capital news for you and I have no doubt that you will rejoice with me in my improved prospects. Mr. Fox has just made me an offer to go on to the Gloucester and Birmingham Railway at a salary of £120 yearly, and says he has little doubt but I should soon be raised to £200 per annum. The situation at first would be one of a draughtsman, and if found competent I should be raised to a sub-assistant engineership. As an additional encouragement, and a very flattering compliment to me, Mr. Fox pointed out the instance of Conder [a pupil of his while he was at Watford] who has been some time holding a situation of £200 a year [on the Birmingham and Gloucester] ‘although,’ Mr. Fox said, ‘he has not got his wits about him nearly as much as you have.’ I also hear very pleasing accounts of Captain Moorsom, the head Engineer of the railway, whom I shall be under. Mr. Fox says he is one of the nicest men that he knows; a real gentleman, and a benevolent, good-hearted man. Before I heard all the particulars I was very much inclined to refuse it, because I should so much have preferred to remain with Mr. Fox; but as he said, the number of officers employed on the railway will be gradually diminishing, and my present situation would most likely not last long. . . . I am still busy at the Harrow-Road bridge and have had almost the entire management of the slips. Mr. Eastted [the contractor] has been from home nearly all the time and when he has been here he has not interfered with me. All the slips are now very nearly cured. I have had about 80 men under me for the last month.”
It was agreed on all hands that the offer was one to be accepted, and arrangements were presently made for my departure.
To complete the narrative I ought to name my last piece of work before leaving London. A letter to my father thus describes it:—
“Mr. Fox has lately been appointed consulting engineer to the Greenwich Railway; and Harris happening to be very unwell at the time, I had to make surveys of the three stations before I came away. I had but four days to do the last two in and make the plans as well, so you may imagine that I had not much spare time.”
None of the railways from the South and East were then existing. That which has now become a channel into which pour various large streams of traffic, was then nothing but an isolated few miles of line, evidently in a very unprosperous condition, with scanty and mean rolling stock, and termini not much larger than the existing stations at Deptford and Spa Road. Enlargements or improvements were to be made under Mr. Fox’s supervision.
After finishing the plans of these stations and handing them to Mr. Fox, I bade good-bye to him and to my companions in the office at Camden Town, and left London for Worcester on the 24th September, 1838.
LIFE AT WORCESTER.
Many of those born within the past generation are unaware of the fact that our great railways began as comparatively small ones, and have grown to their present sizes by successive extensions and still more by successive amalgamations. The railway on to the engineering staff of which I passed towards the end of September, 1838, at that time known as the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, was one of these relatively small lines, subsequently lost by fusion with a vast system of lines. The Midland Railway, which at first ran only from Rugby to Leicester and thence to Nottingham and Derby, began, in the Forties, to incorporate other lines; first of all the North Midland, then the Birmingham and Derby, and soon afterwards this same Birmingham and Gloucester, which now forms a very small component. During its construction no one connected with it supposed that it would thus lose its individuality.
Our engineering offices were at Worcester, in a house which no longer exists. It was pulled down years ago to make room for a line of railway to Malvern, which crosses Foregate Street over the site it occupied. The second stage of my engineering career, there commenced, brought social surroundings of a previously unknown kind. Unlike the pupils of Mr. Charles Fox, quiet youths, carefully brought up (two of them being sons of dissenting ministers), the junior members of the Birmingham and Gloucester staff belonged largely to the ruling classes, and had corresponding notions and habits. Our chief engineer, Capt. Moorsom, having been a military man, and having as his two resident engineers (for the Birmingham division and the Gloucester division) military men also—Royal Engineers—showed his leanings, or perhaps chiefly his friendships, by gathering together, as sub-engineers and draughtsmen, young fellows whose connexions were in most cases military or naval. There were, however, some of other classes—one the son of a clergyman and himself a Cambridge graduate, Mr. G. D. Bishop, who eventually was for a time the locomotive engineer of the line, and afterwards improver of the disc-engine; another, Mr. C. E. Bernard, brought up as an architect, who eventually settled at Cardiff; a third, Mr. H. Hensman, who, in later years, became engineer to the Bank of England; and others whose subsequent careers I need not specify, or know nothing about.
The superintendence was not rigid, and the making of designs was interspersed, now with stories not of an improving kind, now with glances down on the passers-by, especially the females, and resulting remarks: there being also a continuous accompaniment of whistling and singing, chiefly of sentimental ballads. As may be supposed, the code of morals (using the word in that absurdly restricted sense now commonly given to it) was not very high. It is an unfortunate concomitant of the engineering profession that it habitually carries young men away from those surroundings of family and friends and neighbors which normally serve as curbs, and places them among strangers whose opinions and criticisms exercise over them little or no influence. It is with them as with medical students, who, similarly free from the restraints of home, and not put under such restraints as young men at Oxford and Cambridge are subject to, show the effects in randomness of living—to use the mildest expression.
Not unfrequently the behaviour of our companions was matter of remark between myself and a steady member of the staff, with whom I became intimate; and we used to agree that it was impossible that they should come to any good. We were wrong, however. Sundry of them, whose after-careers I have known, have turned out very respectable men—one especially, who, during many years, has been exemplary in all relations, domestic and social; and who, though in those early days without any thought beyond selfish pleasures, has, during a long mature life, been a man of high aspirations as well as model conduct. Let me add that, strangely enough, this change in him has been the concomitant of a change from the so-called orthodox views in which he was brought up, to the so-called heterodox views which he has held during these forty odd years.
“And who are the two in the brown coats?” This question was put to one of our staff at a Worcester ball, by the daughter of a physician living opposite to our office, who daily saw the goings and comings of those engaged in it, and doubtless made criticisms upon them as they did upon her and her sister.
The question referred to my friend G. B. W. Jackson (already indirectly referred to above) and myself, who both happened to wear frock coats of brown cloth—a colour at that time not uncommonly worn. A question from my father concerning him brought out the following description:—
“Jackson is about 24 years old. He was educated chiefly in Germany and was articled to Mr. Wishaw, civil engineer. He had been some years in business for himself before he came here. He is a Moravian and very steady; not very quick of comprehension. He has great perseverance. He knows no more of classics than I do; is very fond of landscape painting which he has practised a good deal whilst travelling on the Continent; and I should say rather economical. There is a queer jumble of particulars!”
When, in the course of 1839, my father visited me, he formed a very high opinion of him, as witness a passage in a subsequent letter to me:—
“I have thought it not unlikely that your noble-minded friend Jackson may have had something to do with suggesting it [an improvement in my official position]. I believe it to be his principle to do a good turn wherever he can. I hope you will cultivate his friendship. I wish you saw his nature as I do. Accustom yourself to open your heart to him as an elder brother.”
He was the son of Dr. Jackson, at that time foreign secretary to the Bible Society. Of somewhat ungainly build, and with an intellect mechanically receptive but without much thinking power, my friend was extremely conscientious—one whose sense of rectitude was such that he might be trusted without limit to do the right thing. Without limit, did I say? Well, perhaps I should make a qualification, and say that in all simple matters he might be implicitly trusted. For I remember once observing in him how needful an analytical intelligence is in cases where a question of right and wrong is raised out of the daily routine. The moral sentiments, however strong they may be, and however rightly they may guide in the ordinary relations of life, need enlightenment where the problems are complex.
In one respect this companionship was, perhaps, not so desirable. Association with a man whose intellectual powers were above my own would have been more advantageous. The effect of our intercourse was to encourage, rather than to repress, the critical and self-asserting tendency in me, already sufficiently pronounced.
Alien in culture, ideas, sentiments, and aims, from most of the young men with whom this new engagement brought me in contact, they regarded me as an oddity. Constitutionally wanting in reticence, I never concealed my dissent from their opinions and feelings whenever I felt it. This tendency to pass adverse judgment was soon observed and commented upon. “He is a queer fellow; he’s always finding fault with something or other,” was the kind of remark made in my presence. The criticisms I so unwisely made were commonly not without good cause. Most of these junior members of the staff, engaged in making plans under direction, were without engineering faculty, and had no interest in their work beyond that of carrying out orders as best they might. Having but rudimentary knowledge of mathematics and none of mechanics, they were incapable of giving any scientific reasons for what they did; and hence there continually arose occasions for commenting on things that were wrong.
How little the thought of policy deterred me from displaying this constitutional habit, may be judged from two instances which occurred. Happening to glance at some plans which were being finished by one of these companions, I observed a shadow incorrectly projected. My remark upon it was met by the reply that it must be right, since he had been shown how to project the shadow by the resident engineer, Mr. Hughes. Prudence would have dictated silence; but yielding to a dictum, however authoritative, which I believed to be wrong, was not in my nature. To prove that I was right I made a model in cardboard of the structure represented, and, by using an artificial light, proved experimentally that the shadow would take the form I alleged. Of course this conduct, coming to the ears of my superior officer, was not to my advantage. Still more absurd, from a prudential point of view, was another criticism of mine upon a proposed system of laying the rails—five feet bearings between the chairs, with intermediate “saddles,” as they were called, yielding vertical support but no lateral support. Led by experience gained on the London and Birmingham, I perceived that this arrangement, suggested by Mr. Hughes and adopted by Captain Moorsom, would not answer—that the lateral oscillations of the engines would cause bulging in the intervals between the chairs. In due time this prophecy proved to be well founded; but the utterance of it by a young fellow of eighteen implied an offensive disrespect for those above him.
Of course the traits of character thus illustrated, did not conduce to friendship with those around. After a time, however, the unfavourable impressions at first produced wore off. It was discovered that within the prickly husk the kernel was not quite so harsh as was supposed. Eventually amicable relations were established, and our intercourse became harmonious.
As compared with most lives, the lives led by the junior members of the B. and G. staff were not trying or unpleasant. Our office hours were from 9 to 5, with an interval of an hour in the middle of the day; and we had, what was at that time quite an exceptional thing, the Saturday afternoon to ourselves.
This leisure half-day was, when the weather permitted, often utilized for excursions. Sometimes my friend Jackson and I walked out to the line, the nearest point of which, Spetchley, was some four miles from Worcester, to inspect the work going on. During the summer of 1839 we betook ourselves to boating on the Severn; now and then going as far up as a place which was named Holt Fleet. Other members of the staff were occasionally our companions, and, as we were young and in high spirits, these afternoons were especially enjoyable. At other times we took rambles in search of the picturesque; not on Saturdays only, but occasionally on Sundays: one Sunday, I remember, being devoted to an expedition up the valley of the Teme for some nine or ten miles. And once I took a Sunday’s solitary walk over to Malvern, ascending the “Worcestershire Beacon,” kept along the top of the range of hills to the far end, and, descending the “Herefordshire Beacon,” returned to Worcester.
Save these Saturday-afternoon excursions and summer-evening walks into the country with Jackson, not many positive pleasures varied my life during this period; for, not associating with other members of the staff, I did not share those convivialities which they provided for themselves. How my leisure time was passed I do not distinctly remember. My impression is that though I bought Weale’s book on bridges with the intention of mastering its contents, and though I took up other lines of engineering study, yet compartively little serious work was done. Nor did reading of a non-professional kind occupy much space; save, indeed, novel-reading, of which there was a good deal.
Nevertheless it seems from my letters that there were commonly subjects of inquiry before me. Always I was more originative than receptive. Occupation with other people’s thoughts was so much less interesting than occupation with my own. Correspondence shows that this was the case during these times at Worcester as during both earlier and later times. My taste for mathematics, or rather for geometry, is habitually shown: something like half of the space in letters being occupied either with questions propounded or with questions solved. By way of showing the ordinary mental activities during this period I cannot do better than string together a series of extracts. Under date November 10, 1838, after being at Worcester some six or seven weeks, I wrote:—
“You will be glad to hear that I have got into a more regular system of study since I have been in Worcester. I am beginning to feel the good effects of strict discipline, both as regards the capability of continued application and the pleasure which I find in the pursuit. I have had considerable success in the solution of problems, chiefly those contained in the exercises at the end of Chambers’ Euclid. I have made out the first 16 in the first book, all those in the second, and the first 11 of those in the third.”
And there follow some three pages of demonstrations. In a letter of December 2, occurs the passage:—“I thought I would try a question in Mechanics the other day and so set myself the following problem”—one concerning the pressure exercised by the top of a ladder against a wall when a man of a specified weight was standing at a specified point on it.
A letter of December 31 contains “a method of drawing the curve made by unrolling the oblique section of a cylinder,” and also some designs for bridges of simple kinds. On January 19, 1839, some paragraphs were filled in describing a way of projecting shadows with illustrations; and then follows the passage:—
“I have become quite idle and stupid lately. I expect I am beginning to fill out a little and that all the energies are directed to bodily development. I do not recollect that you gave me your opinion whilst I was in Derby upon one of the questions I asked you. To what extent is it expedient to force the mind against the inclination? I should like to hear what my uncle Thomas says upon this head. It seems to me to be rather important to be able to distinguish between idleness and mental debility.”
A very different subject occupies space in a letter of March 10:—
“I have not come to any distinct conclusion why the Earth should fall to the Sun in less than a quarter of a year. The obstacle in the way of calculation is the increase of attraction as well as the accelerated velocity, and how to combine the two ratios is the question. From your manner of putting the case I should be led to suppose that there is some simple and conclusive reason for it. Many of the things which formerly used to appear very simple now appear complicated, on account of the many collateral circumstances which I used to overlook.”
How habitual was this speculative thinking was well shown in the subsequent July. My father then paid me a visit of something like a fortnight, on his way to South Wales, where he was going to spend part of his midsummer vacation. The period was evidently utilized for scientific discussions, as witness this extract from a letter written by him to my mother at the time:—
“I believe I must leave Worcester in my own defence for Herbert provides me with problems of so interesting a kind both to himself and to me that I find it difficult to relax entirely from mental pursuits and allow my mind to run wild.”
Doubtless his presence acted as a stimulus, and there resulted even more speculation than usual.
A paragraph having some significance of another kind was written in August, 1839:—
“You will be glad to hear that I have had an addition of £15 to my salary, making on the whole £135. . . I have been given to understand that Mr. Hughes’ letter of recommendation to the Directors was highly flattering, and he evidently expected that I should have had a greater addition than was granted. However, I am quite satisfied as it is.”
A letter of October 9, 1839, yields a quotable passage:—
“I have just returned from a journey to Stourbridge, near Birmingham, where I have been staying for a few days on Company’s business. I went to see after some points and crossings which you heard me mention as chiefly in my hands, and to give some directions and information concerning them.”
Some sentences worth reproducing bear the date November 18, 1839:—
“I have been occupying my leisure lately in investigating transverse strength in all its forms. Several theories have suggested themselves, but I have not succeeded in coming to any very satisfactory issue.
“I have had some very interesting work lately. The designing is left in a much greater degree to myself than heretofore, and I can generally manage to persuade Mr. Hughes to agree to my plans.”
The mental excursiveness exemplified during previous years is thus variously exemplified afresh.
This mental excursiveness occasionally had useful results. Some of the passages which are quoted below, showing this, are of earlier dates than some of those given above; but they are here separated as being instances in which theory led to practice. Writing on March 10, 1839, I said:—
“You need not be afraid of my studying skew bridges or any other subject merely so as to be able to draw by rule. I never remember, nor even take any interest in, a subject which I do not understand; and when I do study anything it is generally with the intent to understand the principles. All I at present know of skew arches, and the method I have adopted in drawing them, are original. The only thing I remember to have borrowed from Mr. Fox, is his definition of a spiral plane.”
There presently followed a new plan of projecting the spiral courses in bridges of this kind; and this plan I set forth in an article contributed to The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal for May, 1839. It is reproduced in Appendix A, not because it has any interest for the general reader, but because it was my first published essay, save the two letters before mentioned which were written when a boy of fifteen.
During the latter part of 1839 the preparations of plans for crossings and sidings at various stations was put into my hands. A device for saving trouble was one of the consequences. Curves of very large radius had to be drawn; and, finding a beam-compass of adequate length difficult to manage, I bethought me of an instrumental application of the geometrical truth that angles in the same segment of a circle are equal to one another. An obvious implication is that if an angle be made rigid, and its arms be obliged to move through the two points terminating the segment, the apex of the angle must describe a circle. In pursuance of this idea I had made an instrument hinged like a foot-rule, but capable of having its hinge screwed tight in any position, and carrying a pen or pencil. Two needles thrust into the paper at the desired points, being pressed against by the arms of the instrument, as it was moved from side to side, its pen or pencil described the arc of a circle. When about to publish a description of this appliance, I discovered that it had been already devised, and was known as Nicholson’s Cyclograph.
A letter of March 12, 1840, contains the paragraph:—“I have got an improvement in the apparatus for giving and receiving the mail-bags from railway trains;” and in the next letter are sketches and descriptions. Someone had been sent on to the London and Birmingham Railway to make drawings of an appliance of this kind, which was there in use, designed by Mr. Dockray. Perception of its needless complexity led me to devise a simpler one, of which I had a working model made. It was the same as that which is now everywhere in use. Doubtless it was re-devised by someone else.
With the above extracts may be joined one which shows that the speculative tendency was occasionally qualified by the experimental. It is from a letter dated March 4, 1840:—
“I have been modelling a little in pipe-clay since I came from Derby [where I had been at Christmas]. I have finished one ornament composed of leaves of somewhat after the manner of the decoration in the old Gothic churches, and I have taken a cast in plaster of Paris. Not that it was worthy of such an honour, but merely for the sake of practice. . . . Jackson and I are proceeding vigorously with our chemical experiments. We devote two evenings in the week to manipulations, besides thinking over the phenomena between times. We had three other members when first the idea was started, but they have all dropped off.”
Murray, the lecturer on Chemistry, had recently been at Worcester, and a letter shows that I, and probably also Jackson, had attended one of his lectures. This led to the making of the experiments above named. They were carried on in an attic over the office: subscriptions from some half-dozen having sufficed to purchase apparatus.
My father’s letters written during this period from time to time called my attention to religious questions and appealed to religious feelings—seeking for some response. So far as I can remember they met with none, simply from inability to say anything which would be satisfactory to him, without being insincere.
How had this state of mind, unlike that general throughout our family, arisen? There were, probably, several causes. In childhood the learning of hymns, always, in common with other rote-learning, disagreeable to me, did not tend to beget any sympathy with the ideas they contained; and the domestic religious observances on Sunday evenings, added to those of the day, instead of tending to foster the feeling usually looked for, did the reverse. As already indicated in Part I, my father had, partly no doubt by nature and partly as a result of experience, a repugnance to priestly rule and priestly ceremonies. This repugnance I sympathized with: my nature being, indeed, still more than his perhaps, averse to ecclesiasticism. Most likely the aversion conspired with other causes to alienate me from ordinary forms of religious worship.
Memory does not tell me the extent of my divergence from current beliefs. There had not taken place any pronounced rejection of them, but they were slowly losing their hold. Their hold had, indeed, never been very decided: “the creed of Christendom” being evidently alien to my nature, both emotional and intellectual. To many, and apparently to most, religious worship yields a species of pleasure. To me it never did so; unless, indeed, I count as such the emotion produced by sacred music. A sense of combined grandeur and sweetness excited by an anthem, with organ and cathedral architecture to suggest the idea of power, was then, and always has been, strong in me—as strong, probably, as in most—stronger than in many. But the expressions of adoration of a personal being, the utterance of laudations, and the humble professions of obedience, never found in me any echoes. Hence, when left to myself, as at Worcester and previously in London, I spent my Sundays either in reading or in country walks.
In those days there was not any decided conviction about the propriety or impropriety of this course. Criticism had not yet shown me how astonishing is the supposition that the Cause from which have arisen thirty millions of Suns with their attendant planets, took the form of a man, and made a bargain with Abraham to give him territory in return for allegiance. I had not at that time repudiated the notion of a deity who is pleased with the singing of his praises, and angry with the infinitesimal beings he has made when they fail to tell him perpetually of his greatness. It had not become manifest to me how absolutely and immeasurably unjust it would be that for Adam’s disobedience (which might have caused a harsh man to discharge his servant), all Adam’s guiltless descendants should be damned, with the exception of a relatively few who accepted the “plan of salvation,” which the immense majority never heard of. Nor had I in those days perceived the astounding nature of the creed which offers for profoundest worship, a being who calmly looks on while myriads of his creatures are suffering eternal torments. But, though no definite propositions of this kind had arisen in me, it is probable that the dim consciousness out of which they eventually emerged, produced alienation from the established beliefs and observances.
There was, I believe, a further reason—one more special to myself than are those which usually operate. An anecdote contained in the account of my early life at Hinton, shows how deeply rooted was the consciousness of physical causation. It seems as though I knew by intuition the necessity of equivalence between cause and effect—perceived, without teaching, the impossibility of an effect without a cause appropriate to it, and the certainty that an effect, relevant in kind and in quantity to a cause, must in every case be produced. The acquisition of scientific knowledge, especially physical, had co-operated with the natural tendency thus shown; and had practically excluded the ordinary idea of the supernatural. A breach in the course of causation had come to be, if not an impossible thought, yet a thought never entertained. Necessarily, therefore, the current creed became more and more alien to the set of convictions gradually formed in me, and slowly dropped away unawares. When the change took place it is impossible to say, for it was a change having no marked stages. All which now seems clear is that it had been unobtrusively going on during my stay at Worcester.
Capt. Moorsom was a man of kindly nature, and felt much interest in the welfares of those who were subordinate to him. One of his ways of showing this is implied in the following passage from a letter to my father dated December 2, 1838:—
“I forgot to mention to you in my former letters that we have a club, consisting of all the individuals belonging to the engineering department of the railway. We meet and dine together at Capt. Moorsom’s every two months, and in the evening, subjects connected with the railway and previously fixed upon are discussed, every individual being allowed to make observations. We have a club-uniform which, by the way, I was forced to get rather against my will.”
Very soon I took a share in the proceedings by reading a paper on the setting-out of curves, with designs for an instrument specially adapted for the purpose. Still-extant diagrams show that my method was bad. Instead of being one which continually divided and sub-divided the effects of inexact observations, it was one which continually multiplied such effects. A letter written home on May 26, 1839, says:—
“I am just about to commence a series of experiments upon kyanized timber, to ascertain its strength as compared with that of the wood in its natural state. This was delegated to me at our last meeting at Capt. Moorsom’s.”
Then, à propos of this same matter, there occurs in a letter, dated August, the passage which follows:—
“I made my first attempt at a speech at our last dinner at the Captain’s which occurred a fortnight since. We had arranged that our report upon kyanized timber [Bishopp had been joined with me] should have been postponed till the next meeting, and consequently I went quite unprepared; but finding that it was expected that I should say something I made a few observations and was gradually drawn into the subject and much to my astonishment without feeling any nervousness.”
No results of any moment came out of the inquiry. No appreciable difference was found between the strength of wood which had been subjected to the action of bichloride of mercury and that which had not.
Any one who, on a certain morning towards the close of January, 1840, happened to be on the bridge which spans the Severn at Worcester, would have been much surprised had he looked over the parapet. In mid-stream, just below the centre arch, was a boat containing a man evidently charged to manage it. Attached to one of the thwarts next to the bow, was a rope-ladder. The upper end of this rope-ladder was fastened to the balustrade of the bridge; and, climbing up the ladder, was to be seen a young fellow of something like twenty, who appeared to be in a somewhat precarious position. What the meaning of the proceeding might be, a passing spectator would have been puzzled to say.
The young man, as will probably be inferred, was myself, and that I did not come to grief is astonishing. For, on the one hand, had the ladder been much inclined it would have twisted round and left me hanging to its under side; while, on the other hand, in proportion as its position approached the vertical, the strain exerted upon it by the boat held in a tolerably swift stream, joined with the strain of my weight, seemed very likely to cause breakage. I had, however, taken care to test the ladder well before using it. Its strength proved adequate, and I succeeded in my aim.
But what was I doing in so strange a position? will still be the question. The explanation is contained in the following paragraph written to my father on January 18:—
“You will remember our bridge over the Severn at Worcester. I have to-day been deputed by Capt. Moorsom to take the requisite dimensions for making a drawing of it during the course of the ensuing week. It seems that it is in contemplation by the Trustees to increase the width of the bridge, and I am to assist Capt. Moorsom in making an economical design for so doing.”
Here occurred a temptation to independent thinking, and, as usual, the temptation was not resisted. There was, moreover, the usual lack of reticence—a lack which, had my superior not been very good-tempered, would probably have been injurious to me. For, while making drawings for a widening of the bridge in pursuance of Capt. Moorsom’s plan, I suggested a plan which appeared to me better. He was not at all offended by my audacity; and it was agreed that both plans should be sent in.
And now there came a considerable change in the course of my life; entailing, alike, difference in abode and difference in occupation.
When I joined the staff at Worcester, the post of engineering secretary to Capt. Moorsom was filled by Mr. F. H. P. Wetherall, a son of Capt. (afterwards Admiral) Wetherall. Either because he had no faculty for engineering, or because he did not see how the functions he discharged under Capt. Moorsom conduced to professional advancement, he resigned: sometime in 1839. He was followed by a military man, Capt. Whitty—a gentleman who many years after became one of the Inspectors of Prisons. He, too, presently grew dissatisfied with the prospects afforded by his position. When, early in 1840, he left, one of our staff at Worcester was asked by Capt. Moorsom to undertake secretarial duties, and did so for a time; but, like his predecessors, he either disliked the work or did not see his way to benefit by it. Hence there resulted the following letter:—
Bishopp does not fancy doing Secretary in preference to iron work. I therefore wish to offer the change of post for about a month or six weeks to you, and you will entirely use your own choice as to accepting it or not. If you come here it will be necessary to live at or near Powick, and lodgings are now vacant near this house, and you will have a finger in the pie for all that goes on, although your attention will be mainly directed to correspondence. . . .
“W. S. Moorsom.”
“31st March, 1840.
I did not long hesitate to accept the post under the conditions named. A letter to my father, dated April 4, speaks of that day as the third of my initiation in secretarial work. It goes on to say:—
“Hitherto I have walked over in the morning; dined with the Captain; and returned after the conclusion of my duties.
“I think I shall receive much benefit from the few weeks drudging I am to have. Already I have rubbed off a great deal of my dread of correspondence; and as to my writing I find that instead of as heretofore having to urge my pen along with difficulty it now seems as though it were inclined to run away from me. . . .
“Our chemical experiments (or as Ramkin the office-keeper called them our comical experiments) as you may suppose are knocked on the head by my adjournment to Pike (Ramkin’s edition of Powick). The apparatus, however, are remaining to take the chance of their being resumed.”
As its statements imply, this letter refers to a transitional period of a few days—belonging neither wholly to my life at Worcester nor wholly to my life at Powick. But now all that follows, rightly comes into a new chapter.
SOME MONTHS AT POWICK.
About three miles out of Worcester, on the way to Malvern, lies the little village of Powick, just where the surface begins to rise out of the valley of the river Teme; and some quarter of a mile from the village, on the rising ground, stands the house, King’s End, which was the residence of our engineer-in-chief, Capt. Moorsom. Between this house and lodgings in the village, my life for some few months was now to be passed. The following are extracts from a letter dated 15th April, 1840:—
“I am going on swimmingly with my duties as secretary; I suppose I wrote about eight or ten letters to-day besides endorsing some two or three times the number and sundry other little matters. Capt. Moorsom is treating me very kindly in every respect, it would hardly be possible to show more consideration and regard for my welfare than he is doing.
“He has (of his own accord) been advising me to practise levelling for the purpose of making myself familiar with the mechanical use of the instrument and has volunteered his own level (which has just been put in order) for the purpose.
“He takes every opportunity of pointing out what he thinks may be useful to me and invites me to come and sit with them in the evening whenever I feel inclined to do so. Mrs. Moorsom also acts in a very amiable manner upon every occasion. . . .
“I should very well like to pay a little attention to botany; but there are several reasons which militate against it at the present time—1st, I have to devote part of my spare time to the practice of levelling; 2nd, the Captain recommends me to study geology; and, 3rd, I have so many important books that I am anxious to purchase when I can spare money that I do not feel inclined to buy a work so very irrelevant to the profession. I don’t mean to say that I do not think it worth while to read Jussieu, but that it is only under present circumstances I do not deem it advisable. I am not so illiberal as to think any department of information unworthy of study. . . .
“I was thinking the other day that I should like to make public some of my ideas upon the state of the world and religion, together with a few remarks on education. I think, however, that I may employ my time better at present.”
Merely noting that the last paragraph, amusing as coming from a young fellow not quite twenty, is at once illustrative of that self-confidence shown in so many other ways, and is curiously significant of things to come, I return to the first part of the letter. As I was treated with great cordiality by the chief, my position was a pleasant one. The amount of work was moderate; the leisure was available for country walks; and the spending of Sunday afternoons and evenings at King’s End, afforded a social intercourse which my life for some years had lacked. A new experience should also be named—the establishing of relations with a number of children, with whom I soon became a favourite, as is shown by letters received from them after I went away.
Secretarial work was from time to time agreeably broken by journeys to different parts of the line—journeys on which I accompanied Capt. Moorsom in my official capacity. Drives in his gig, to Tewkesbury, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Bromsgrove, &c., varied by occasional expeditions I made on his behalf, to inspect, report, and transact matters of business, gave me many enjoyable relaxations.
Which was the best dictionary to buy, was an inquiry made in one of my letters to my father; and the inquiry reminds me of the need there then appeared to be for the use of one.
I have often wondered how it happened that up to so late a period, my spelling continued very defective. Letters written home from London and from Worcester surprise me by the numerous errors they contain—most of them obviously due to inadvertence, but here and there one apparently due to ignorance. It is clear that I did not read my letters over before sending them, otherwise a large part of the errors must have been noticed and corrected; and that they were habitually sent off unread exemplifies my constitutional idleness. Now that, in search of an explanation of the mistakes ascribable to ignorance, I look back upon my antecedents, I recognize a sufficient cause. As shown in early chapters, my education was in but very small degree linguistic. No lessons had been given to me in English grammar, my father having, out of regard for my health, interdicted anything like pressure; and hence all the writing which accompanies grammar-learning was missed. So, too, the long continued efforts made, first at Derby and afterwards at Hinton, to gain some knowledge of Latin and Greek (which were accompanied by grammar-learning only to the extent of mastering the declensions and part of the conjugations, and by a little easy translation), were unaccompanied by any of the usual exercises. Hence, beyond such amount of writing as my mathematical culture entailed, none was needed save for letters home. There were, indeed, a few occasions on which my aunt made me write from dictation; but such discipline was not carried to any extent. So that it would, in fact, have been remarkable had I, under such circumstances, learned to spell correctly.
I do not understand how it happened, but my sense of responsibility having been sufficiently aroused, the defect became relatively inconspicuous. I did not buy a dictionary until after my secretarial work had ended; and the evidence shows that there was comparatively little need for one. Of course such errors as had previously been caused by carelessness were now excluded; and, as for the rest, it seems that there had been in me a dormant knowledge which was forthcoming when the demand for it became imperative.
As far back as I can remember my father had made style a subject of study—often amusing himself by taking up a book and making emendations on the margin; and now that a good opportunity occurred, he endeavoured to interest me in the subject. In a letter of his written the day before my 20th birthday, he says:—
“It is with composition as it is with virtue and holiness, no person sees the beauty of it till he begins to practise it. I am glad indeed that your eyes are beginning to open and to see what a great attainment it is to be able to write freely and well.”
Some criticisms which I had made on a pamphlet recently published by my uncle Thomas, suggested this last remark; but nothing in the way of study came from this opening of my eyes. Not until, at the age of twenty-three, when there occurred to me an idea respecting force of expression, did the subject of style attract me. But then, having a theory to work out, I found all relevant books became interesting, and there presently resulted an essay on the subject. Sequences of this kind were characteristic of me.
Let me remark, in passing, that no great results can be counted upon from the study of style. One who is clearheaded, and who throughout life has daily heard well-framed speech, is pretty certain to have a style which is lucid if nothing more; and in the absence of either of these antecedents, the study of style will do but little. The most to be expected is that marked defects of expression and of arrangement may be rendered manifest in the course of revision. And, while not much can be done towards achieving correctness and clearness, still less can be done towards acquiring vigour, picturesqueness, and variety. Innate powers alone can produce these.
In place of narrative some extracts from letters will best indicate the course of my life during April and May:—
“Tomorrow we have an assistant coming—a gentleman named Capt. M———, who is, I suppose, about to enter the profession under the chief’s auspices, and his employment as an introduction to engineering to consist in endorsing letters, &c., &c. . . . so that having him as my Smike (as the Captain calls him) I shall have a good portion of the work taken off my hands.
“Friday last saw a repetition of our engineers’ meeting. . . . In consequence of my filling the berth of secretary I was, much to my surprise, requested by the chief to take one end of the table, and there being between twenty and thirty present the situation was no sinecure.
“Yesterday was spent in an excursion on the line. I started from this with the Captain in his gig at 9 a.m., and accompanied him to Bromsgrove, where after spending an hour or so in examining the works, and getting some refreshment, we parted—he proceeding onward to Birmingham and I occupying the remainder of the day in walking back along the line.
“These, you see, are pretty good proofs that the Captain has not fallen off in his kind treatment. . . . He is, in fact, the best specimen of a perfect gentleman that I have ever come near. Mrs. Moorsom, also, is quite as worthy of admiration in her conduct to all around her. I spent the whole of Good Friday with them, and taking the average since I have been here, I pass about two evenings in the week at their house.
“The affair of the Severn Bridge is now under consideration by the trustees, and the result will be known next Tuesday. The proposition appears to have been very favourably received from the account Capt. Moorsom gave of the proceedings, and he says that my design is to be adopted if they conclude to execute the improvement. So that you see he has not stopped short in his disinterested conduct on this point.”
Then follow two pages of description and argument concerning a plan I proposed for testing the qualities of the waters to be employed for locomotives: the notion being that, instead of ascertaining the amount of impurity by analysis (the nature of it being relatively unimportant), it might be ascertained by “that modification of the hydrometer called the areometer or delicate measurer.” In a letter of 4th May is the following:—
“I have just commenced an article on my theory of trussed beams. There has just occurred a very good opportunity of bringing it forward as a criticism or series of remarks on an article in the last number of the Journal.
“I intend to make some experiments for my own satisfaction and also for the purpose of making out a clear case.”
A diary of some days well exhibits one of the interludes of my life at Powick. A partial opening of the line was about to take place:—
“Monday—Hurry scurry till 1 p.m. to get through business before starting—set off in the gig with Capt. M. to Eckington (15 miles from Powick); from thence to Cheltenham by one of the local trial trains—slept at Cheltenham.——Tuesday—To Eckington and back (24 miles) by morning trial train.—Transacted secretarial work on return—walked on line to look at works—went to Tewkesbury (10 miles) from Cheltenham by railway to make arrangements for finding friction of locomotive. (In the afternoon we happened accidentally to have two engines going the same way on the two lines of rails, and a race was the consequence—went side by side at between 30 and 40 miles an hour for a mile or so, and shook hands from one train to the other)—slept at Tewkesbury.——Wednesday—Made some arrangements for experiments on loco.—went to Cheltenham (10 miles)—took measurements of evaporating surface—went through secretary’s work—ran to and fro with engines—returned to Tewkesbury and slept there.——Thursday—Experiments on friction—walked to Bredon to meet trial train—went from there to Cheltenham—accompanied Capt. M. to Gloucester in the gig—transacted correspondence, &c., and looked over works at Gloucester—returned to Cheltenham—dined, and went down with evening trial train to Eckington—returned to Cheltenham—drove Capt. M.’s gig to Tewkesbury (horse ran away and went at a gallop for a mile and a half; took it quite coolly and let her go on till she was tired)—slept at Tewkesbury.——Friday—Finished off experiments—Captain arrived from Cheltenham at 10—by his request set to work to design an arrangement for taking a line of rails from station down to the quays on the river side; propose to make alteration in the bed of the river, &c., to facilitate arrangements—returned with him in the gig to Powick and worked till 8 this evening to get matters straight.”
It was about this time, namely, the beginning of June, that Capt. Moorsom displayed at once his kind feeling and his good opinion of me by a letter to my father. Its expressions were such as gave great pleasure to both of us: my father’s pleasure being especially shown in the reply, of which he sent me a copy. Capt. Moorsom’s letter, however, is nowhere to be found. It was, I doubt not, taken great care of; and, as sometimes happens in such cases, has disappeared. It is quite as well, however; for, had it been extant, I should have been in great doubt whether to quote it or not to quote it.
Though a little out of chronological order, I may perhaps better here than elsewhere include an incident which shortly afterwards occurred. It is indicated in the following letter:—
“Dear Spencer,—Will you go with me to the Deepdene? We shall probably go up from Cheltenham to London this evening and return so as to be here on Wednesday morning—but we may be detained till Thursday.
“If you accede to this I will have the gig ready for you here at 9½ a.m., and you can take it into Wor’ster and we will start thence about 12¾.
“W. S. Moorsom.”
For the tentative expression of this note, the reason was that this expedition to Deepdene was a hors d’œuvre. My engagement with the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, of course, did not include taking part in any other work which Capt. Moorsom engaged to do; and probably it was the consciousness of this which led him to ask rather than to order.
Writing to my father from Powick, on 2nd July, I said:—
“I have never seen any place I like so well as this said ‘Deepdene.’ A week would have passed very pleasantly away in looking over the house and strolling about the grounds. I remained in the mansion during my two days’ stay and had consequently plenty of opportunity of looking over the collections of paintings and sculpture.”
Of the work which Capt. Moorsom had undertaken to design and superintend for the owner of Deepdene—at that time the well-known H. T. Hope, M.P., author of Anastasius—a part was the building of an ornamental wooden bridge over a lane which runs through the park. Of this I had made the drawings, and while at Deepdene staked out the foundations. When at Dorking 50 years after, I made inquiries concerning this bridge, but found that alterations in the grounds had caused removal of it.
Some pages back reference is made to certain proposed experiments in verification of a theory of trussed beams. A letter of June 6, however, describes something quite unlike a verification. It runs:—
“Last night I made the experiments on trussed beams which I mentioned to you. The results, however, have quite disconcerted me, and appear, as far as I can see, to throw my theory to the winds. Not that the strengths are different from what I had expected, for I have not yet had time to see how they would agree with my hypothesis, but that the appearance of the fracture does not bear out the position I had assumed.”
Doubtless it was well to have occasionally a positive disproof of my conclusions. There needed no fostering of self-confidence, but rather the reverse.
This quotation and this comment fitly serve to introduce the fact that during these months there had been going on the usual speculative activity, ending now in theoretical and now in practical results: the last being predominant. Let me first name the purely theoretical ones.
It may be remembered that an early chapter states that when seventeen I hit on a geometrical theorem of some interest. This remained with me in the form of an empirical truth; but during the latter part of my residence in Worcester, responding to a spur from my father, I made a demonstration of it; and, now that it had reached this developed form, it was published in The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal for July, 1840. It is reproduced in Appendix B. I did not know, at the time, that this theorem belongs to that division of mathematics at one time included under the name “Descriptive Geometry,” but known in more recent days as “The Geometry of Position”—a division which includes many marvellous truths. Perhaps the most familiar of these is the truth that if to three unequal circles anywhere placed, three pairs of tangents be drawn, the points of intersection of the tangents fall in the same straight line—a truth which I never contemplate without being struck by its beauty at the same time that it excites feelings of wonder and of awe: the fact that apparently unrelated circles should in every case be held together by this plexus of relations, seeming so utterly incomprehensible. The property of a circle which is enunciated in my own theorem, has nothing like so marvellous an aspect, but is nevertheless sufficiently remarkable.
Of the more practical results of the speculative tendency some are described in a letter of 25th June:—
“I have two very nice little contrivances to explain to you but do not know whether I shall be able to enter fully into the detail.—The first (which is not theoretical, for I have already put it in practice) is a little instrument for showing by inspection (with the necessary data) the velocity of an engine—That is to say, suppose an engine and train goes up a gradient of 1 mile 37 chains long in 2 minutes and 27 seconds, what is the velocity per hour? This instrument shows it by merely adjusting the scale to correspond with the above data. . . .
“The principle is very simple (being only another application of that valuable proposition the 6th in the 6th B.) and you no doubt see the application at once.”
A description and drawing of this instrument will be found in Appendix C under the name “Velocimeter”: an illegitimate name but a convenient one. The letter from which the above paragraph is quoted, continues as follows:
“When I gave the one I have made to Capt. M. he was inclined to say that I had been uselessly expending my time in making an instrument which was of little practical use, until I reminded him that had Bishopp (one of the staff who has been superintending the trials of the ‘Americans’) had such an apparatus it would have saved him between one and two thousand such calculations as the one I have given as an example, and a good portion of a week in time.
“I find that I shall not be able to discuss the second one till my next, so I will only tell you that it is an instrument for measuring the tractive force of a locomotive engine whilst drawing a train under all the varying circumstances of different gradients, velocities and loads, . . . that the instrument is hydrostatic [hydrodynamic I ought to have said] and that the index will be the compression of a column of air in a glass tube (a column of mercury being interposed between the water and air): the principle is such that the index will give the medium of all the irregularities of pull.”
A subsequent letter contains drawings of the proposed apparatus, but nothing came of the idea. I had no opportunity of carrying it out.
One other appliance, though some months subsequent in date of origin to the velocimeter, may conveniently be named here. I called it a Scale of Equivalents. In the course of the experiments on the strength of kyanized timber named in the last chapter, there arose the need for changing the denomination of the measurements taken. They had been set down in inches and tenths, and it was decided that they should be reduced to tenths and hundredths of a foot. Having a dislike to the mental labour which the required calculations implied, I was prompted to find a method of effecting the change in an easier way. The simple appliance which served for this special purpose was afterwards developed into a more complex appliance available for general purposes of many kinds.
I described this “Scale of Equivalents” in an article which, sometime after, was sent to The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal. It was not published, for the reason that making the lithographed illustration would have entailed too great a cost. No account of the instrument anywhere exists; and I have therefore thought it well to give one. See Appendix D.
À propos of the foregoing details it is proper that I should here reproduce a passage written by my father to me on July 3rd:—
“I am glad you find your inventive powers are beginning to develop themselves. Indulge a grateful feeling for it. Recollect, also, the never-ceasing pains taken with you on that point in early life.”
The last sentence is quoted not only in justice to my father, but also as conveying a lesson to educators. Though the results which drew forth his remark were in the main due to that activity of the constructive imagination which I inherited from him, yet his discipline during my boyhood and youth doubtless served to increase it. Culture of the humdrum sort, given by those who ordinarily pass for teachers, would have left the faculty undeveloped.*
With the approach of midsummer came an experience wholly unrelated to engineering, and but indirectly related to the life of the last three months—an experience which was quite new to me.
Mrs. Moorsom and family had gone in May to Ryde, in the Isle of Wight, and during the early part of June Capt. Moorsom had been for a time staying with them. When June was nearly half through, business brought him back for a few days, and with him came a relative—a lady about my own age. The pressing affairs having been attended to, he again joined his family at Ryde, leaving this visitor sole mistress of the house for the ten days or so which followed. Of course we had been duly introduced during the Captain’s brief sojourn: the introduction making me acquainted with a young lady sufficiently good-looking, though not perhaps a beauty, but intelligent, unconventional, amiable, and in various ways attractive. Whether Capt. Moorsom supposed that she would restrict herself to the rest of the house, or whether he foresaw that she might occasionally visit the room which served as an office, I do not know; but this last result soon occurred. How it occurred I cannot remember. Probably the bringing of letters became the occasion for a “Good morning.” Presently this daily salute grew into something more, until by-and-by the greater part of the day was spent by us togther in the office.
Of course the intimacy which thus sprang up with one just growing into womanhood, was extremely agreeable; the more so because my previous life had kept me almost wholly out of female society. As I had no sisters, there had been no visits of girls to our house, and no visits on my part to houses where there were girls. Though, while at Hinton, I had sometimes seen the sisters of one of my fellow-pupils, P———, whose family resided in Bath (concerning one of whom, a very beautiful girl, her brother occasionally quizzed me, not without reason), yet, practically, this intercourse which now commenced in the study or office at King’s End, was my first experience of anything more than mere formal meetings.
That Capt. Moorsom should have been so incautious as thus to leave two young people together without restraint or oversight, surprises me when I think about it. Possibly, knowing she was engaged, he thought that the pre-existing relation would furnish a sufficient check. But, if this was his thought, he did not duly consider me in the matter: leaving me unguarded by the knowledge. However, no harm of any kind happened, notwithstanding the length of time we daily passed together. Her society was doubtless beneficial; though not, perhaps, conducive to the fulfilment of duties. Probably, among other effects, it tended to diminish my brusquerie. An incident proves that this was conspicuous. One day, after some speech of mine, she remarked—“If anyone else had said that, I should have been offended.” This, while it implies my bluntness, also shows how quickly it had become manifest that it was my habit to utter thoughts with but little consideration; and shows, too, how readily, when this trait is recognized as innate, things which would ordinarily imply intentional rudeness, are accepted as matters of course.
After the return of the family, and before any entanglement of feeling occurred, there came on a visit the young gentleman to whom she was engaged: then an undergraduate at Oxford. When, one Sunday afternoon, we sallied out for a walk with the children, she, taking his arm, looked over her shoulder smilingly, and rather mischievously, to see what effect was produced on me: there being an evident suspicion that I should not be pleased. The revelation was not agreeable to me; but still it did not give me a shock of a serious kind. Matters had not gone far enough for that.
The stay of this young lady at Powick became greatly extended, and during the rest of my engagement on the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, which was fully three-quarters of a year, we remained on a friendly footing, and letters occasionally passed between us. One of them may fitly be quoted, partly because it shows the kind of relation in which we stood, and partly because it indicates a certain opinion which I already entertained.
“Powick, 18 Nov., ’40.
“My dear Mr. Spencer,
“You sent me a few days ago a decidedly unofficial letter, and I now propose to send you one which will come under the same denomination. You will, perhaps, be inclined to say I am interfering with what is no concern of mine, but I trust the importance of the subject will excuse the presumption, if it is such—I have just heard from E——— that our ideas respecting the preservation of our friends with regard to the late dreadful accident at Bromsgrove do not at all accord, and I was much surprised to hear that you disagree with the opinion that all events in this world are under the direct surveillance of the Almighty—Mr. Hugres, who was here to-day, says that he, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Creuze, had intended to be upon the engine but were detained at Cofton, and he added that they had even determined as the platform was hot, to stand upon the steps, and had they done so his inference is that they must have experienced the fate of poor Scaife.
“I do not think you can really be of opinion, that the God who ‘numbers the very hairs of our head,’ was in this case indifferent to the fate of his servants, or that his goodness and mercy is not conspicuous in their preservation from the dreadful fate which would probably have overtaken them.
“Forgive me if I have offended you by this letter. I assure you I had no wish but your good in writing it, which I hope you will believe and also consider me,
“Your very sincere friend,