Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VIII.: SOME MONTHS AT POWICK. 1840. Æt. 20. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
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CHAPTER VIII.: SOME MONTHS AT POWICK. 1840. Æt. 20. - 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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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,