Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER X.: RETURN TO DERBY. 1841—42. Æt. 21—2. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
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CHAPTER X.: RETURN TO DERBY. 1841—42. Æt. 21—2. - 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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RETURN TO DERBY.
April 26, 1841, served for the journey; so that, next day being the 27th, my 21st birthday was kept at home. No recollection of it remains save that, during an evening walk in the Arboretum, my old schoolmaster expressed his satisfaction that I had not come back to the paternal roof injured by dissipation, as many young men do. Three years and a half had elapsed since my departure; and they had been on the whole satisfactory years, in so far as personal improvement and professional success were concerned.
The mention of improvement recalls the fact that one motive for not accepting the permanent post on the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway offered to me, was the desire to prepare for the future by a course of mathematical study. A work on the Differential Calculus was pored over for a short time, but the reading of it soon ceased. All through life my constitutional idleness has taken the form of inability to persevere in labour which has not an object at once large and distinct. To apply day after day merely with the general idea of acquiring information, or of increasing ability, was not in me. But with an important and definite end to achieve, I could work. In this case the end was neither sufficiently important nor sufficiently definite, and my energies quickly failed.
The chief motive for disengaging myself, however, was that already intimated—the desire to carry out, in a way already devised, my father’s idea of an electro-magnetic engine. This desire was soon traversed in a totally unforeseen manner. The Philosophical Magazine was one of the periodicals taken in and circulated by the Derby Philosophical Society, to which my father belonged. It was, I believe, in one of the numbers of this, though I cannot now identify it, that I read an article on the question of motors. The result of reading this article was an immediate abandonment of the scheme. It proved to me that an electro-magnetic engine worked, as all such engines in those days were supposed necessarily to be, by a galvanic battery, could never compete in economy with a steam-engine: the general argument being that the process was one of utilizing the force latent in coal, and that there must be a greater waste in doing this by the agency of smelted metal oxidized in a battery, than by the agency of coal burnt under a boiler. It did not occur to me that an electro-magnetic engine, though much less economical, might have advantages over the steam-engine for special purposes. Nor did anybody at that time dream of generating electricity by the force of falling water. But it was quite as well that I gave up the project; for, apart from the reason for doing so which prompted me, there would soon have been disclosed a still more cogent reason. The plan devised would have encountered insurmountable difficulties.
Thus, within a month of my return to Derby, it became manifest that, in pursuit of a Will-o’-the-wisp, I had left behind a place of vantage from which there might probably have been ascents to higher places. It then appeared that an unqualified blunder had been committed. But things do all always work out in conformity with expectations. A false step may eventually lead to a path more advantageous than the one deserted. Had there not been this seemingly-foolish act, I should have passed a humdrum, and not very prosperous, life as a civil engineer. That which has since been done would never have been done.
Not many days after my return home, there was brought for our inspection a beautiful herbarium, made by a young medical man in Derby during his student days. Why so much effect should have been produced is not obvious; but my ambition was at once fired to make a herbarium as good or better. The first step was to provide a needful appliance. My father had led me, when a boy, to acquire some manual dexterity, and this was now utilized. Paying a carpenter for the use of his bench and tools, I devoted a few days to making a botanical press—not indeed the whole of it: four large wood-screws were ordered from a turner. Of course, as it may be supposed, this press was unlike anything existing, but it answered its purpose well.
Afternoon walks subsequently were made interesting by the search for specimens; and in the course of some months there resulted a considerable collection of the more conspicuous ordinary plants which the fields and hedgerows round Derby furnished. It still exists, and shows that the ambition which prompted me was not unfulfilled.
The interest thus shown in botany was not, in any considerable measure, scientific. The instinct of acquisition and the desire to produce something worthy of admiration, united to stimulate me; and the little knowledge gained was incidental only. Though I knew by name the system of Jussieu, the Linnæan system sufficed my purpose, and the Natural Orders remained unknown. But such acquaintance with vegetal structures as was then acquired, was doubtless of use in after years when biology became a subject of methodical study.
The reaches of the Derwent above Derby were in those days rural, and in parts not unpicturesque. The railway bridge which now spans the river just above the town, did not exist; and suburban quiet was not broken by the shrieks of whistles. A pleasure-boat excursion up to the mills at Darley (not then made inaccessible by the stretching of an iron bar from bank to bank) was enjoyable.
On fine mornings during the latter part of May and a good part of June, any one who, between 7 and 8, was near this stretch of water, would very likely have heard some familiar melodies: now one voice only being audible, and now another voice joining in with a second. These voices were those of myself and a friend. Finding, while at Worcester, that rowing was beneficial, I had, soon after my return home, hired a boat for a quarter of a year, and had invited this friend to join in morning excursions. As before said, there was much singing in our office at Worcester, mostly of sentimental ballads; and of these my memory had accumulated a considerable stock: an uncultured taste being satisfied with songs of a kind which in later life I have come to detest. My friend, some two years my junior, was also passing through that phase in which there is contentment with manufactured music, as distinguished from the music of inspiration. Thus led by our likings, we not unfrequently made the woods near Darley echo with our voices: our secular matins being now and then arrested for the purpose of gathering a plant. There is still, in the herbarium above named, a specimen of Enchanter’s Nightshade gathered in the grove skirting the river near Darley.
My companion, known by sight from early boyhood, had only now, during the few preceding weeks, become personally known. His name, Edward Lott, will recur frequently throughout this autobiography; for the friendship thus commenced was a lifelong friendship. His nature was one which it is difficult to praise unduly. Not that he was intellectually remarkable in any way, but that he was morally of the highest type—absolutely conscientious, and, along with the sentiment of justice, displaying in large measure all the other altruistic sentiments. During the many years of our great intimacy, in the course of which we were frequently travelling companions, I never saw him out of temper. His face, which was extremely handsome, indicated his character. The expression united dignity, mildness, and serenity. He impressed every one with his innate goodness. When, nearly 40 years afterwards, he accompanied me on a visit to the house of friends in Gloucestershire, joining an Easter party to all members of which he was a stranger, an inquiry of the hostess what they thought of him, brought the reply—“Oh, we are all in love with Mr. Lott.”
In 1841, and for many years afterwards, he was an adherent of the current creed—a member of the Established Church. Now and then differences of opinion arose between us: always amicable differences, however. But during the latter part of his life these disagreements on religious questions, as well as on political questions, died away.
The contrast is remarkable between the present time, in which children often see a good deal of the world before they get into their teens, and the time when I was young, when but few people went far from their native places. I make this remark à propos of the fact that until after I was one-and-twenty I had never seen the sea.
My father always spent his summer vacation at the sea-side; not commonly remaining stationary, but rambling along the coast day by day and from one place to another. One of these vacation rambles was due soon after my return home, and I agreed to join him. The Isle of Wight was our proposed region. After a day or two at Southampton, seeing among other places Netley Abbey, we passed over to Cowes, and in the course of a week walked thence by way of Ryde, Brading, Sandown, Ventnor, Blackgang Chine, Brixton, and Freshwater, round to Yarmouth. It was a delightful time, leaving vivid recollections. The emotion which the sea produced in me was, I think, a mixture of joy and awe—the awe resulting from the manifestation of size and power, and the joy, I suppose, from the sense of freedom given by limitless expanse. In those days the Isle of Wight was more rural than now; and, joined with the pleasurable feelings given by the sea itself, there were those which the scenery and the shore gave. My father and I were in sympathy on most matters, and our rambles along the coast brought us objects of interest almost from step to step—now the geology of the cliffs and the new plants growing about them, now the physical effects produced by the waves, now the living things on the beach, vegetal and animal. That there was some collecting going on is proved by a letter of my father’s written home, which says of me:—“He is about to send off another packet [of curiosities] to-day.” One small incident was that at Luccombe Chine we passed just as some boatmen were landing a sun-fish. Knowing Prof. Owen, my father wrote to him telling of the fact, and intimating that the creature might perhaps be useful for dissection.
From Yarmouth we passed over to Portsmouth, whence, after a few days, came a migration to Hayling Island. At the end of a quiet week there we parted—he to complete his summer tour, and I to return home; for the fund I had devoted to the trip was exhausted.
My mornings during this period were usually devoted to some kind of work, if an occupation usually of a more or less speculative kind may be so called. Of work in the ordinary sense—activity directly conducive to advancement—there was little or none: probably because there was no opportunity for it. In July one of the things which occupied me was an investigation concerning the strength of girders. There resulted a paper on the subject published in The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal for September, 1841. The outcome of it was a very elaborate algebraic formula, which will raise a smile on the face of any one familiar with the higher mathematics; for what it achieves in a laborious way is doubtless achievable by the Infinitesimal Calculus in an easy way. It is neither worth preserving, scientifically considered, nor has it any interest for the general reader. Should any one exhume it he must be prepared for strange blunders. No proof was sent; the result being that the compositor and reader transformed the equation in ways peculiar to themselves.
Attention has recently been drawn to the process of depositing metal by electrolysis—a process discovered by Prof. Daniel, which has since undergone such extensive developments. The subject interested me and I commenced experimenting; meeting, if not with much success, yet with sufficient success to prompt speculations concerning possible uses of the method. It occurred to me that by covering a surface with something like an etching ground, then cutting through this by an etching tool, and then depositing by electrotype a sheet of copper over the whole surface, there would be produced a block with lines in relief like those of a woodcut; and it seemed that this way of producing a printing block would be far less laborious than that which the wood-cutter adopts. I carried the idea into practice, and though not with satisfactory results, yet with results which promised well. Having done this, I went to consult the list of patents. But already the plan, too obvious to be overlooked, had been taken possession of. The list of patents, or else of caveats, contained a sufficiently clear description of it.
This disappointment proved to be a disguised good fortune. The process, presently brought to bear, went under the name “glyphography”; and was adopted to a certain small extent. It had drawbacks, however, and failed to compete with other methods; until, in a few years, it was no more heard of.
Experiments in electrotyping aroused some interest in electro-chemistry. I made myself a small galvanic battery and tried to deposit other metals than copper; not, however, with much success. There came, too, attempts to form crystals by electrolysis, accompanied by wild hopes respecting the pecuniary results to be obtained. Joined with these electro-chemical inquiries there were others exclusively chemical, of which traces exist among surviving memoranda. Naturally, too, my speculative tendency came into play, and some papers preserved concern the interpretations of “quantity” and “intensity” in electricity.
But all these experiments and speculations ended in no practical results. The only benefits were certain small additions to knowledge, and some little increase of manipulative skill.
To the experiments and speculations which occupied the mornings, and the country walks in search of plants, which occupied the afternoons, there was now added, in the latter part of the day, another occupation. In 1841 a movement was commenced for the diffusion of vocal music. Wilhelm’s system was introduced into England; and Mr. Hullah, under some official authority, established a teaching organization in the chief towns. Though given to the singing of songs, I had no knowledge of music from notes. The desirableness of acquiring such knowledge was manifest; and the opportunity was seized.
The cultivation of part-singing was the chief aim. Beyond the set lessons there were soon commenced practices at the house of my friend Lott: he and his sister and I passing at least one evening a week in trying over glees and madrigals. After the course of instruction was over, a small Glee-Society was formed of some dozen members, of whom I was one. Not only during this period, but for years after, part-singing was one of my chief gratifications.
How is it that among those who profess a love of music, this gratification, great at the same time that it is costless, is so little appreciated? There are few enjoyments higher and none so easy to have, where a will to have it is entertained by the requisite number. Perhaps one obstacle is that glee-singing does not display the musical proficiency of young ladies. For this, solo-singing is required. And since our social arrangements are, in chief measure, adjusted to the furthering of marriages, it results that glee-singing is not patronized by mammas or their daughters: all professions of love of music notwithstanding.
Already, before leaving Worcester, there had been established a correspondence with two of my friends made there; and this continued. Letters to Jackson, and letters from him, concerned chiefly professional questions, the steps taken in pursuance of our respective careers, accounts of our common friends or acquaintances, joined, on his side, with a good deal of quizzing. But the correspondence with E. A. B——— was, in considerable measure, devoted to political and religious discussions. Some passages seem worth quoting as indicating the stage of thought at that time reached. A letter written by him on Sept. 4, shows that, while at Powick, I had got beyond the crude belief that a republican form of government is good irrespective of conditions. E. A. B——— wrote:—
“I am perfectly aware that you hold the opinion that governments that are fitted for one time and people are by no means fitted for another; but you used to dwell upon it more particularly with regard to religious government, and there I differ from you entirely.”
And then in the same letter there occurs the paragraph:—
“I do not admire your definition of government at all, though I cannot at this moment suggest a better. You call it ‘a national institution for preventing one man from infringing upon the rights of another.’ ”
Thus it appears that at twenty I entertained, though in a crude, unqualified form, a belief which much of my energy in subsequent years was spent in justifying and elaborating.
Probably there were other passages written at that time showing the drift of thought. But when, some thirty odd years afterwards, I asked E. A. B——— if he could let me have my letters to him, he replied that they had been burnt up at the time of his marriage, when he destroyed all useless papers.
The practice of making pencil portraits, commenced at Powick, was continued after my return home, when sundry relatives and friends sat to me. One of the first results was the sketch of my grandmother, given in the first division—“Family-Antecedents.” There was soon executed, too, a portrait of Lott, promptly laid hands on by his sister; and there were others of two of my father’s particular friends.
In so far as literal representation went, these were not amiss; but they were all bad considered artistically. Some men there are who at once perceive those traits which give the distinctive character to a face or other object. My father had a considerable amount of the faculty thus shown; but I inherited none of it. A tolerably exact perception, joined with a fair amount of manual dexterity, enabled me to render with some truth each particular line and shade which I saw, but did not enable me to seize, in the midst of the complex impression, the proportional importance of its components. It is the ability to do this which constitutes the power of representation when it rises to what we call genius.
With this making of pencil portraits there was presently joined the copying of life-sized heads taken from the antique, and afterwards the drawing of ideal heads. Some of these survive. They possess very little merit. There is in them no vigour of imagination—no individuality of expression; nothing beyond meaningless good looks.
Soon after, if not at the same time, came drawing of other kinds—landscape sketches, not from nature but from fancy, and practices in the drawing of foliage. These displayed just the same lack of that artistic power which is born, not made.
The drawing of heads presently gave rise not only to these other kinds of drawing, but also to modeling. The initiation of this I do not remember. Perhaps it was inspection of some faces which my father had modeled when a young men—especially a laughing face. The history of this was that one of his pupils (Archibald Fox, a brother of the late Sir Charles Fox) was taking lessons in modeling, and that the criticisms my father passed on his work led to a challenge to model something himself. This laughing face was his response, and a very successful response it must have been. It is remarkable for a first attempt. But, as I have said, my father’s quick æsthetic perception was not transmitted to me, and the results of my efforts in modeling had no merit beyond that of mechanical imitation.
In the office at Worcester there had been made not only drawings for engineering works, but also those for various buildings—stations, offices, engine-houses, and so forth. Naturally there occurred occasions for the discussion of architectural principles; and of course my views were ordinarily heretical—expressions of dissent from that subordination to authority which was usually displayed and defended.
During the autumn of 1841 I devoted a little attention to architecture; reading up the descriptions of the Greek orders and other styles, and making sketches. There was commenced, too, a very ambitious design—a vast temple of rather complex character and unusual distribution of parts. The chief aim was to produce a drawing which should be a tour de force in perspective. Enough of it remains to show the general idea; but, as usually happened with me when there was no large ulterior purpose, my resolution flagged, and the project was not carried far.
There was also a sequence more relevant to these discussions at Worcester. In December I wrote a letter on “Architectural Precedent,” which was published in The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal for January 1842; and then, in reply to some comments, mainly sympathetic but partly adverse, which appeared in the February number of that periodical, there appeared in March a second letter from me. These letters are not worth preserving.
From the account of my boybood there was omitted an incident which now had its effect. Between 1820 and 1830, phrenology had been drawing attention; and there came over to England, about 1830 or after, Gall’s disciple, Spurzheim, who went about the country diffusing knowledge of the system. Derby was among the towns he visited. Being then perhaps 11, or perhaps 12, I attended his lectures: having, however, to overcome a considerable repugnance to contemplating the row of grinning skulls he had in front of him. Of course at that age faith was stronger than scepticism. Accepting uncritically the statements made, I became a believer, and for many years remained one.
Not unnaturally, therefore, it happened that when, at the close of January, 1842, there came to Derby, to give lectures and examine heads, a phrenologist at that time of repute—Mr. J. Q. Rumball—I presented myself to him for characterization. Here are the results; given not because of their intrinsic value, but because they furnished a text for the opinions about me expressed by my two most intimate friends:—
“Such a head as this ought to be in the Church. The self-esteem is very large; it will only produce self-respect, a fear of degradation, therefore, united as it is here to a very full moral development, itself is a moral faculty, and it is almost impossible that you should be other than a high-principled man. Something obstinate, but even this will unite itself with the higher powers not the animal propensities, and I know not that a man’s principles can be too obstinately adhered to. Persevering and prudent, reasonably prizing money and benevolent withal. It is clear that I find no fault so far.
“If the forehead were as quick as it is sound, if the memory of details were equal to the general memory, there would be no fault here neither, but individuality is not full enough; this is the only fault I see. General talent therefore rather than particular genius results from such an organisation. I should not call you ex necessitate either a poet a painter or a musician, but you may acquire considerable proficiency in either, especially in music. Verbal memory is rather good than otherwise, and mathematics will be no difficulty, and yet I do not discover any one particular talent. The temper is somewhat reserved and perseverance the principal characteristic of the mind.
“J. Q. Rumball.
“Herbert Spencer, Esq., Jan. 29, 1842.”
Thinking that it would be interesting to hear what Jackson thought of it, I sent this characterization to him. Here is his comment:—
“I must confess [I] thought it an odd one and not altogether worthy of Monsieur Rumball. I do not think it is a correct one; for instance he says that you have taste for music drawing &c. &c. equally and that he does not find any one more prominent than the other, from which he deduces the opinion that you might be clever in all but not to shine in any. Now I do not for a minute wish to detract from your merits, as I do, and always shall, consider them of a high order; but nevertheless I think that you might study drawing and painting and sculpturing &c. with the greatest zeal without attaining to eminence, whilst the study of philosophy, natural history, chemistry and sciences generally, if pursued would be easily within your grasp even to the furthest extent. Pardon me if I even hint that I do not think music an ingredient of your spirit, if I may so term it. As to your being brought up for the Church, I don’t think you are half so fit for it as I am; not on account of qualities or abilities, as in that respect you far outstrip me, but because you are of a much more restless mind more likely to be moved by every new doctrine and apt to be led away by an ingeniously devised plan, and knowing your views about Church government, I may certainly add that Mr. Rumball never will see you in a gown, &c.”
Jackson, at my request, forwarded the phrenological measurements and inferences to E. A. B———, whose remarks were as follows:—
“To come to another subject which has afforded me considerable amusement and some satisfaction inasmuch as it goes a long way to confirm my previous opinion—I mean your phrenological development as laid down by Rumball. Now I will not pretend to say that there is [not] a good deal of truth in what he has said with regard to your general character; but I do mean to say that he might have arrived at the same conclusion without feeling your head at all. For instance, without any compliments, a person need not look at you twice to ascertain that you are no fool and this after all is the upshot of all he says, the only amplification of this being his opinion that your talent is more general than individual. Now to ascertain the latter he need only have talked to you for a quarter of an hour upon any subject [which he did not] inasmuch as the readiness you show to engage in argument upon all subjects is almost presumptive evidence that you have not devoted your energies to any one or two subjects, and the deduction is pretty obvious. In the details of your character he is on the whole very correct, the only point upon which he is definite in which he is right and in which there is I should imagine some difficulty in judging, is in his opinion of your musical talent which he describes as large and only qualified by the generalness (if one may coin a word) rather than individuality of your turn of mind. N. B. Did you whistle ‘The Admiral’ while he was organizing? In one instance in which I should think it difficult to judge he has, as I think you must see yourself, signally mistaken you. He speaks of your ‘veneration and respect for superiors as large.’ That is the last thing I should have thought of accusing you of, and I believe I understand and can appreciate your character very well. I think that my definition of your mind as a radical one, is as good a one as can be given. You are radical all over in anything and everything—in religion, in politics, in engineering, manners, &c., &c.”
Papers yield evidence that at that time my faith in phrenology was unshaken. There are memoranda on the emotions of self-esteem and love of approbation, to the disadvantage of the last and advantage of the first; and there are also some characteristic memoranda concerning “the evils of great veneration.” Curiously illustrating the speculative tendency, shown in this as in other directions, there is, among these memoranda, a design for an ideal head—I do not mean face only, but contour of skull.
April, 1842, brought a temporary return to engineering activities. A tributary of the river Derwent which runs through Derby, called the Markeaton Brook, was raised suddenly to an immense height by a local deluge of rain, and overflowed to the extent of producing in the main street a flood of some six feet in depth: the level attained being so unusual that it was marked by an iron plate let into the wall. It occurred to me to write a report on this flood; and to make suggestions for the prevention of any like catastrophe hereafter. This report was presented to the Town Council, and afterwards printed and distributed by their order.
But the plan I recommended for preventing in future any such disastrous overflows, was one implying expensive engineering works, and was not adopted.