Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Evangelical Christianity: reflections on the views of George Eliot, George Henry Lewes and Philip Henry Gosse

Evangelical Christians play important roles in George Eliot’s first two novels: Scenes of Clerical Life (really three separate novellas in one volume) and Adam Bede. As is well known, George Eliot (see above) was the pen name of Marian (earlier Mary Ann, or Mary Anne) Evans and her interest in evangelical Christianity came from when she attended schools in Nuneaton and Coventry. In her Introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Scenes of Clerical Life, Josie Billington writes [1]: 

As an adolescent, coming of age in just the period – the 1830s – she writes of in Scenes, Mary Anne Evans was swept up in the religious current of Evangelicalism.. ..If the Oxford Movement sought to turn back the legacy of the Reformation, Evangelicalism sought to complete what the Reformation had begun, expunging the ceremony and sacrament which were the remaining formal vestiges of Roman Catholicism and rediscovering the vital puritan impulses of original Protestantism.. ..Evangelicalism offered a belief that was hard and uncompromising, yet passionately earnest and totalizing, which in the first half of the nineteenth century had a profound impact not just on the rural towns of England, but on the nation’s cultural and intellectual life in general. 

Never fully committed to evangelical Christianity, Marian went on to reject it, while retaining sympathies for the “good side” of some of those who believed wholeheartedly in this approach. Her views are discussed in an essay by Donald C. Masters [2]: 

While George Eliot (1819-1880) came to dislike the Evangelical viewpoint, her treatment of Evangelicals, particularly in her early novels, was much more sympathetic than that of other Victorian novelists.. ..Like many other disillusioned Christians she retained her belief in the Christian ethic. She liked the Evangelicals in spite of their doctrines and what she regarded as their naïveté and narrowness, because they made people better.. 

..Her early letters.. ..suggest that her acceptance of Evangelical principles was merely an intellectual process. She never made the complete personal commitment that is the secret and core of the Evangelical position.. ..She had lost faith in the Bible, the essential basis of the Evangelical tradition and described it.. “histories consisting of mangled truth and fiction.” 

Many of us who have encountered evangelical Christianity, and subsequently turned away from it without making “the commitment”, can recognise George Eliot’s feelings. I have described my own experience [3]: 

My last contact with formal Christianity came at Torquay Boys’ Grammar School, where I went to meetings of the Christian Union, in which my elder brother was a leader. We sat around a table and listened to speakers, or to tapes of Billy Graham preaching. We also had prayer meetings when we all had to take part. Prayers were for the usual things connected with our salvation but, being a school, we also prayed for masters who were Christian, to boost their religious, as well as their educational, mission. I always dreaded prayer meetings and was not comfortable at any of the other meetings either. Unlike some of those present, I found Billy Graham strange and rather too energetic, and neither could I summon up much enthusiasm for a guest speaker who spent many minutes propounding the correct pronunciation of Bethphage. 

There were tracts for us to hand out in the school, delivered in bulk from the Evangelical Tract Society.. ..I couldn’t hand out such things and had quite a collection by the time I stopped attending the Christian Union. 

It is not difficult, then, to see how personal experience of religious groups affects one’s reading of George Eliot’s novels. Like Marian, I rejected the thinking of evangelical Christians (on many grounds) and, like her, try to see their good human qualities, although I worry about their tendency to proselytise to those going through hard times. 

In addition to Evangelicals, another feature of George Eliot’s novels is the presence of young children, often described in detail and forming important threads to the various storylines. Marian loved children, but she was unable to have any of her own. The reason was not biological, as far as I know, more that she didn’t marry until she was in her sixties and spent most of her adult life living with George Henry Lewes (see above), who was already married and had children. If “living in sin” was bad enough in the eyes of many in Victorian society, having children while in such a relationship would be viewed very severely indeed. Certainly, Marian’s cohabitation with Lewes caused much pain to her upright family and this, in turn, was the source of much sadness to her. 

The couple had a very close relationship, with Marian depending on George for reassurance and advice. He was from a theatrical family and both acted in, and wrote, plays: he also wrote novels, was an expert on Goethe, published an outstanding review of philosophy through the ages, contributed to many leading artistic journals, and was also what we would now call a networker [4]. Although unprepossessing in appearance (some called him ugly), he was popular for his conversation and energy and he knew many of the movers and shakers in Victorian literary society. He was one himself. 

Lewes met Marian through John Chapman, the publisher of the Westminster Review [5]. Chapman was a “free-thinker” and Marian lived in his household, where relationships between Mr and Mrs Chapman, their governess, and Marian were complicated. In Ashton’s account [5] we read that Chapman “visited Marian Evans’ room, where she played the piano for him and taught him German.” It was all too much for Mrs Chapman and Marian left the household, but returned in 1851 when Chapman asked her back to help him as part of the editorial team on the Review, where her “sharp brain, wide knowledge, willing labour, and ability to deal tactfully yet firmly with touchy contributors” [5] was invaluable. 

During 1852, Marian was spending much time with Herbert Spencer, the philosopher and biologist to whom she had been introduced by Chapman, and they “were so often in one another’s company that ‘all the world is setting us down as engaged’, Marian would have liked nothing better, but Spencer was less keen.” [5] The result was that, in 1853, Lewes replaced Spencer in her affections and this was the start of a deep relationship that only ended with Lewes’ death. He was a great support to Marian and advised her during her first, tentative steps as a novelist and he played the same role after she had become famous and was being hailed as a very significant writer. Marian had come a long way from those evangelical Christian schooldays in Warwickshire and Lewes had also progressed in his interests. Like his hero Goethe, he then became interested in practical science. 

In the early years of his relationship with Marian, Lewes had been chided by T.H.Huxley as a “’mere’ book scientist ‘without the discipline and knowledge which result from being a worker also’”. This came after a review that Lewes had written and it perhaps inspired him to join the Victorian craze for the study of marine natural history. The leading figure in popularising this interest was Philip Henry Gosse, who had written A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast (1853, centred on Torquay and Ilfracombe), The Aquarium (1854) and Tenby (published in March 1856, centred on the Welsh seaside town). Lewes read all these books and, in the summer of 1856, he and Marian left for Ilfracombe (where they befriended another enthusiast, Mr Tugwell, the curate of Ilfracombe) and then Tenby; following this with visits to the Scilly Isles and Jersey in spring and early summer of 1857. It was during the first section of this marine shore adventure that the pair discussed the possibility of Marian’s writing a novel. The Sad Fortunes of the Rev Amos Barton was commenced in the autumn of 1856 and became the first part of Scenes of Clerical Life published, anonymously, in instalments in Blackwood’s Magazine through 1857 and as a book in two volumes in 1858. She was not an enthusiast for studying shore life, so Lewes’ avid work on the coast allowed Marian time to think about the content of her embryo novel. 

Lewes’ work was published in instalments in Blackwood’s Magazine through 1856/7 and came out in book form, published by Blackwood and Sons and dedicated to Richard Owen, as Sea-side Studies in 1858. In the preface, Lewes pays homage to Huxley (perhaps the latter’s comment stung?) and there are frequent references to Gosse throughout the book. Both men showed a particular interest in sea anemones and, indeed they had a dispute over one aspect of the biology of some of these animals [6]. It is interesting to make a comparison of the two men. 

Whereas Lewes was a free-thinking agnostic (if he must be classified), Philip Henry Gosse (above) was a strict believer in the literal truth of the Bible [3] and an evangelical Christian. In 1857 he moved to St Marychurch in Torquay after the death of his wife Emily, who had accompanied him to Torquay, Ilfracombe and Tenby on the collecting trips that resulted in his earlier books. Emily was a writer of religious tracts (like those I failed to hand out during my school days) and as deeply committed as her husband to evangelical Christianity. Her painful death, leaving Henry Gosse with his young son Edmund (later Sir Edmund), was the main reason that he decided to move. 

At the time of the move to Torquay, he was expecting high sales of his book Omphalos, that was to be published in late autumn 1857, and he was looking forward to the attention that it would bring. Although there are many references to God and Creation in Henry’s books, Omphalos saw him tackle head-on the conflict between the Biblical Creation and the idea of geological time scales, that were becoming accepted by the mid-1850s. It is subtitled “an attempt to untie the geological knot” and it was Henry’s attempt to ease an obvious conflict: his idea being that rock strata and fossils were all created over the short period of the Biblical Creation. In Omphalos, he showed a thorough knowledge of geology and palaeontology and knew that large time periods were involved, but clung to his odd theory, for which he was duly mocked. Through all the difficulties of 1857, Henry didn’t question his beliefs; rather he became even more ensconced in evangelical Christianity. He reduced his attendance at meetings of the learned societies and didn’t have much personal contact with members the scientific community, although he had correspondence with many people, including Darwin. 

There are many that still adhere to the Creationist views shown by Henry Gosse, although they make little attempt to provide a rational explanation to account for the differences between their views and those of the scientific community. At least Henry made an attempt, even if his explanation was unacceptable to both scientists and believers; Charles Kingsley, for example, chastised Gosse for suggesting the God appears to be telling lies [3]. It seems that evangelical Christians who believe in the literal truth of the Bible have the opinion that there can be no opposition to their view and cannot tolerate any other explanations. 

Lewes took a very different approach, as described by David Williams [4]: 

He thinks, or at any rate he wishes, that the scientific explorers and the religious no-compromise men.. .. can be brought together to ‘sit round a table’, as we put it, that Huxley and Darwin can amicably confer with the tractarians and the Evangelicals and come out of the room with a formula acceptable to both sides. 

There has been movement among some evangelical Christians and we are all familiar with the little car badge of a fish with limbs, bearing the word “Darwin” at its centre. Perhaps the only major difference for many is whether there was a Creator, or whether all that we see around us is the result of chance events. 

After the adverse comments about Omphalos, Henry Gosse spent much time collecting marine creatures from the shores of South Devon [3]. He was in the throes of producing his major monograph on sea anemones, that was to be a standard work on these animals for many years and is still consulted today. It contains brilliant illustrations, as Gosse was a very capable artist in watercolours [7]. 

In a letter sent to Tugwell in November 1856, Lewes writes [8]: 

It would be a pleasant thing for you to write the monograph on Actinae with W. Thompson; & as to the money, you can’t expect much from such labour, but may consider yourself lucky to be free of expense. At the same time you have a formidable rival in Gosse, who is I believe engaged on a monograph. 

This shows Lewes’ respect for Gosse as an expert in sea anemones, but in a later letter to Hutton on 5th May 1859 we read [8]: 

Gosse’s book is too poor for a review; & I have long been making notes of the history I shall sketch which will I hope be far more entertaining than a review. 

I assume that Lewes is referring here to Omphalos, as Actinologica Britannica appeared in book form in 1860, having previously been published in twelve parts from 1858-1860 [9]. Despite their disagreement over some points [6], Lewes clearly respected Gosse as a natural historian. 

We know that Lewes and Marian visited Torquay in 1868 and, while the former continued with dissections for a future publication, Marian was preparing ideas for Middlemarch and it is possible that there were some indirect references to Torquay in that book [10]. We also learn that Marian and Lewes enjoyed walks at Babbacombe, adjacent to St Marychurch [10], and one wonders whether they called on Gosse, or encountered him while walking. I cannot find reference to a meeting and would be intrigued to know how it might have gone and what Marian would have made of this evangelical Christian and a man who was not afraid of proselytising. The urge to spread the Gospel came through in many of Henry Gosse’s books, but rarely with the intensity of the extraordinary conclusion of A Year at the Shore, published in 1865, three years before George and Marian arrived in Torquay [11]: 

I cannot conclude this volume without recording my solemn and deliberate protest against the infidelity with which, to a very painful extent, modern physical science is associated. I allude not only to the ground which the conclusions of modern geologists take, in opposition to the veracity of the “God which cannot lie,” though the distinct statements which He has made to us concerning Creation are now, as if by common consent, put aside, with silent contempt, as effete fables, unworthy of a moment’s thought, and this too before vast assemblages of persons, not one of whom lifts his voice for the truth of God. These assaults are at least open and unmasked. But there is in our scientific literature, and specially in that which takes a popular form, a tone equally dangerous and more insidious. It altogether ignores the awful truths of God’s revelation, that all mankind are guilty and condemned and spiritually dead in Adam; that we are by nature children of wrath; that the whole world lieth in the wicked one; and that the wrath of God abideth on it: it ignores the glorious facts of atonement by the precious blood of Christ, and of acceptance in Him. It substitutes for these a mere sentimental admiration of nature, and teaches that the love of the beautiful makes man acceptable to God, and secures His favour. How often do we see quoted and be-praised, as if it were an indisputable axiom, the sentiment of a poet who ought to have known better,–


“He prayeth best who loveth best

All things, both great and small;” –


a sentiment as silly as it is unscriptural; for what connexion can there be between the love of the inferior creatures, and the acceptableness of a sinner praying to the Holy God? It is the intervention of Christ Jesus, the anointed Priest, which alone gives prayer acceptance… There is no sentimental or scientific road to heaven. There is absolutely nothing in the study of created things, however single, however intense, which will admit sinful man into the presence of God, or fit him to enjoy it. If there were, what need was there that the glorious Son, the everlasting Word, should be made flesh, and give His life a ransom for many? … If I have come to God as a guilty sinner, and have found acceptance, and reconciliation, and sonship, in the blood of His only-begotten Son, then I may come down from that elevation, and study creation with advantage and profit; but to attempt to scale heaven with the ladder of natural history, is nothing else than Cain's religion; it is the presentation of the fruit of the earth, instead of the blood of the Lamb … This will be, in all probability, the last occasion of my coming in literary guise before the public: how can I better take my leave than with the solemn testimony of the Spirit of God, which I affectionately commend to my readers, – … THERE IS NO WAY INTO THE HOLIEST BUT BY THE BLOOD OF JESUS. FINIS. 

Henry Gosse was not only a proselytising evangelical Christian, but the leader of his group of Brethren in St Marychurch. He thus retreated into his own support group and this made it increasingly difficult for him to accept any religious views other than those he supported. It was religious differences, and the views of Henry on who one should have as friends, that was the basis of the conflict with his son, Edmund, described (with some elaboration?) in the latter’s famous book Father and Son [12]. This volume, more than any other work, has shaped our view of Henry [3], a pity as, if one could find a way of negotiating the religious hurdle, with all its side effects, he was a very nice man and would certainly be good company on rambles or on the shore. 

As we have seen, Marian Evans and Geoge Lewes were more accepting of those with religious differences and the former certainly recognised these human sides of evangelical Christians, although she was aware of their dogmatism and inflexibility. I think they would have enjoyed meeting Gosse, but what would Henry make of them? He would balk at their lack of faith in his version of Christianity and he would also strongly disapprove of their relationship. Henry did re-marry after the tragic death of Emily and his second wife, Eliza, while also being a member of the Brethren appeared to be a little more flexible in her approach to Edmund’s “sinfulness” than was his father. Edmund was also helped in his relationship with his father by his wife, the painter Nellie Epps, whom I have described as a “Nineteenth Century Wonder Woman” [13]. Nellie’s sister, Laura Alma-Tadema drew a profile of Marian in 1877 [14] and it would be amusing to know what the artist felt about her sitter and what views she shared with the Gosse family. 


[1] Josie Billington (1988) Introduction to George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life. Oxford, Oxford University Press World’s Classics. 

[2] Donald C. Masters (1962) George Eliot and the Evangelicals. The Dalhousie Review 41: 505-512. 

[3] Roger S Wotton (2020) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. e-book. 

[4] David Williams (1983) Mr George Eliot: A Biography of George Henry Lewes. London, Hodder and Stoughton. 

[5] Rosemary Ashton (2008) Lewes, George Henry (1817-1878). 



[8] William Baker (ed.) (1995) The Letters of George Henry Lewes Volume 1. Victoria, Canada, ELS Editions. 

[9] R.B.Freeman and Douglas Wetheimer (1980) Philip Henry Gosse: A Bibliography. Folkestone, Wm. Dawon & Sons. 

[10] Kathleen McCormack (2005) George Eliot’s English Travels: Composite characters and coded communications. Abingdon, Routledge. 

[11] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) A Year at the Shore. London, Alexander Strahan. 

[12] Edmund Gosse (1907) Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments. London, William Heinemann Ltd. 















Friday, 27 May 2022

School classmates with famous parents


At Oldway Primary School in Paignton, I had three classmates who had famous parents: Jennifer was the daughter of Myrtle Devenish [1] (above left, in later years); Geoff was the son of Arnie Kitson [2] (no image found!); and Diane was the daughter of Leslie Jackman [3] (above right, in later years).

I knew that Mrs Devenish was an actress, but didn’t know any roles she had taken, or seen any of her performances, but just being an actress was enough to be famous in my very limited world. In contrast to Myrtle, I had heard Arnie Kitson play his xylophone on radio broadcasts and he also taught Geoff the instrument – the latter making an appearance on “The Children’s Television Caravan”, a touring TV show that came to Paignton. I guess that Arnie, who came originally from Yorkshire, learned his craft in the music halls and I heard him play the xylophone on enough occasions to recognise his skill.

Leslie Jackman was a local schoolteacher who also ran Paignton Aquarium [4]. A keen naturalist, Leslie published many books about seashore life, insects, and much else and he also became a well-known natural history film-maker. He worked on the BBC “Out of Doors” TV programme where he occupied the Club Room and encouraged many children to look in pools, to make bark rubbings, or to try and find egg shells dropped from nests. Much of Leslie’s work, like that of Myrtle Devenish, came after I had left Oldway Primary School, but he was already well-known and therefore qualified as someone famous. In Walking with Gosse [5], I relate that my pressed flower collection was given second place in a competition at the school; first prize being given to Diane, as she had such an excellent mentor. Leslie (always Mr Jackman to me) certainly influenced me and I recognise his importance in my development as a natural historian.

So, three indirect contacts with fame (I only met Mrs Devenish on a couple of occasions, I never met Mr Kitson, and was yet to meet Mr Jackman). All on a rather small scale, perhaps, but nevertheless something that registered in my parochial little world.

There are those who are desperate to be nationally, or world, famous, and contemporary media can make it possible for web “influencers”, pop stars, and reality TV show participants to achieve this goal. Unfortunately, fame and recognition are rarely long-term, although there are exceptions to that general rule: A-listers are likely to stay there, but B-listers can slide to the C-list and onwards into oblivion.

In his book Fame in the 20th Century, Clive James writes [6]:

There was always fame. As long as there have been human beings, there has always been fame. It’s a human weakness.

He then goes on to describe 406 famous men and women of the century (plus 5 from earlier times) and I only had to look up one of them, the rest being familiar to me. As would be expected, most came from the world of Entertainment and the Arts; areas, together with sport, that can produce enduring fame, although famous sportspeople are usually young, as their careers taper with age. That’s not to say that some sportsmen and sportswomen do not retain their fame, as there are those who become “legends” in popular parlance. 

This leads me to wonder whether fame was important to Myrtle Devenish, Arnie Kitson and Leslie Jackman? We all appreciate recognition of our activities and we like “pats on the back”, but is the quest for fame a human weakness as Clive James suggests and does it bring any meaningful benefits apart from wealth and the best tables in restaurants? There are certainly drawbacks, as one moves further and further from what might be called normality. Many famous people feel threatened, they can fear lack of recognition, be besieged and stared at wherever they go, and may have to hide behind a mask. Who wants to be famous?





[5] Roger S Wotton (2020) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. e-book.

[6] Clive James (1993) Fame in the 20th Century. London, BBC Books.


Friday, 22 April 2022

Homage to the Torbay Express

Growing up in South Devon, I appreciated how lucky I was to be able to walk around the coast and through country lanes, lined by deep hedges, to woods and meadows with abundant wild flowers. Solitary walks were a source of solace from unhappy times and they also enabled me to recognise the importance of the natural world; something that has stayed with me ever since. It influenced my choice of subjects to study in the Sixth Form at school and then at university, and, although I could be called a scientist, I prefer to think of myself as a natural historian, as physical sciences are still a bit of a mystery to me and the study of biosciences is now dominated by one animal, rather than the wide range of animals, plants and micro-organisms that make up most of the natural world.

My other passion as a boy was trainspotting [1] and we were lucky in having a large number of trains bringing visitors to Torbay, especially on summer Saturdays. One train stood out: this was the Torbay Express that ran daily from Paddington to Kingswear and I looked on it with both admiration and envy; the former coming from the condition of whichever Castle Class locomotive pulled the train in the 1950s, and envy because I felt that there was no chance of me travelling on anything so prestigious. The Torbay Express was second only to the Cornish Riviera Express (called the Reveera by us) that didn’t come along our line and, as its name suggests, went to Plymouth and then on to Cornwall. Like “The Torbay”, it was not a train used much by holidaymakers; more by those in business and similar occupations, or by those who preferred smart, and rapid, travel.

The Torbay Express was originally called the Torbay Limited and ran on the GWR’s direct line through Berkshire, Wiltshire and Somerset, rather than on the earlier main line through Bristol. After Taunton, the line climbed to Whiteball tunnel and then entered Devonshire (an image of the express at this point is shown below, together with one of the train entering Exeter, where it made its first stop in the 1950s).


O.S.Nock [2] describes the journey on to Torbay: 

Emerging from the western end of Parsons Tunnel [see image below] the coastwise prospect is completely changed and extends to the rocky islets at the entrance to Tor Bay that we shall see at closer range later. The red cliffs are higher than ever here though less dramatic in their formation, but the sea wall, an invaluable protection for the railway in winter, is a favourite promenade for the holiday-makers of Teignmouth, whether they are railway enthusiasts or not.. 

..The line runs through the back of Teignmouth town between high retaining walls, in Dartmoor granite, but quickly enough on the left hand side there come delightful glimpses across the harbour, boat yards, and the estuary of the River Teign, with the beautiful little town of Shaldon beneath the high red cliff of the Ness.

The description by Nock continues after the Torbay Express has run through Newton Abbot (see image above) and then on through Kingskerswell and Torre to its next stop in Torquay: 

The present main station, by Livermead Sands, is near enough to the beach for some enticing glimpses of the waters of Tor Bay, and as the train starts away for the south, and negotiates some sharp though short gradients the line comes right out above the beach [at Hollicombe] and the full beauty of Torquay’s situation and its superb and rugged coastline is displayed. At this stage in the journey the prospect is soon cut off, by the houses of Paignton.. 

..On leaving Paignton, and climbing on to the cliff edge beyond Goodrington Sands (see image below) the wide panorama over the entire sweep of Tor Bay reveals some of its interesting and complex geological features. The red sandstone cliffs of Dawlish and Teignmouth recur at Paignton, in an even deeper shade of red, but at each end of the bay, on the north side extending outwards from Torquay to Hope’s Nose, and at the south beyond Brixham to Berry Head, the tattered and splintered rock formations from “London Bridge” to the outlying Thatcher and Oar Stones, and Berry Head itself are examples of carboniferous limestone, and provide such striking and spectacular cliff structure as to cause at least one eminent geographer to compare it with those of the Mediterranean Riviera resorts.

Passing over the summit at Churston the express then ran down to the beautiful Dart valley, skirting along the river bank to the terminus at the small town of Kingswear at the mouth of the river. Remaining passengers could then travel over to Dartmouth by ferry, the town having a railway station but no railway lines (there were never any!). What a contrast it must have seemed to London and its suburbs, and what a pleasure to be able to study the landscape from a railway carriage as it passes down the line.

All this was for the passengers. Trainspotters could either find a location where the express sped past or see it at Exeter, Torquay or Paignton. There, the polished locomotive could be admired and one could take in its metallic, oily and smoky smells after the rapid, and hard-working, journey down from London. All very special memories and, as Nock points out in his descriptions of the section of line through South Devon, a link between the wonders of steam locomotives and the geology of the terrain through which the Torbay Express passed at the end of its journey. Geology is part of natural history after all, but my main interest in that subject did not involve distant views, rather in what plants and animals could be seen first-hand on shores, or in hedgerows, and what could be seen with a simple microscope.

I still like steam locomotives and, as my career has shown, I have an abiding love of natural history. Both started when I was in a boy in Torbay and I’m pleased that, in this regard at least, I have failed to grow up.



[2] O.S.Nock (1985) Great British Trains: An evocation of a memorable age in travel. London, Pelham Books.

Photograph credits (in sequence) R.J.Blenkinsop; S.Creer; Ben Brooksbank;  R.J.Blenkinsop; and Derek Cross.










Friday, 1 April 2022

The Tale of Tim and David

I’m very proud to have been a professor at UCL and I met some wonderful people during my time there: students, academics, and support staff. When one reads the history of the place in Harte and North’s The World of University College London 1828-1978 [1] (the book has subsequently been updated), feelings are not just of pride, but also of humility, as so many great academics have graced the college. 

One of the pleasures of working at UCL was being able to pursue my interests in both research and teaching, but that also brought a downside, for I was the only person in my department working in Aquatic Biology and I was very grateful for the collaborations that I developed elsewhere in the UK, in Sweden and in the USA. In the end, I realised that my time would best be spent on scholarship, as well as in practical research, and I wrote several reviews that cut across disciplines and sub-disciplines. This was good for me and, I hope, for those wanting to break down barriers in Aquatic Biology, and I am so grateful that I was allowed to do this unhindered. That work certainly enhanced, and informed, my teaching. 

During my time at UCL, changes in higher education were occurring and the pressure to obtain research grants, high fee-paying overseas students, etc. were uppermost. Universities were being run more and more on business lines and, at UCL, there was a heavy stress on Medicine and Biomedicine, as these were areas where funding was generous for many projects. UCL attracted many very able researchers in these disciplines. 

It was in the field of biomedical research where I feel a bit confused and disappointed by the senior administrators at UCL and that takes me on to the title of  “The Tale of Tim and David”. Tim is Sir Tim Hunt (a Nobel Laureate) and David is Professor David Latchman, now Master of Birkbeck, University of London and described on his website [2] as “a leading UK university academic, author, and philanthropist”. Let me begin by referring to two pieces in The Guardian online. 

These are selected comments from an article in 2015 about Sir Tim, after he made a silly remark at a conference [3]: 

As jokes go, Sir Tim Hunt’s brief standup routine about women in science last week must rank as one of the worst acts of academic self-harm in history. 

“I stood up and went mad,” he admits. “I was very nervous and a bit confused but, yes, I made those remarks – which were inexcusable – but I made them in a totally jocular, ironic way. There was some polite applause and that was it, I thought. I thought everything was OK. No one accused me of being a sexist pig.” 

Collins [Professor Mary Collins, wife of Sir Tim and an eminent professor at UCL, Sir Tim being an honorary researcher there] was called by University College London. “I was told by a senior that Tim had to resign immediately or be sacked – though I was told it would be treated as a low-key affair. Tim duly emailed his resignation when he got home. The university promptly announced his resignation on its website and started tweeting that they had got rid of him. Essentially they had hung both of us out to dry.. .. What they did was unacceptable.” 

This is what was written in 2020 about David [4]: 

David Latchman, professor of genetics at University College London.. ..has angered senior academics by presiding over a laboratory that published fraudulent research, mostly on genetics and heart disease, for more than a decade. The number of fabricated results and the length of time over which the deception took place made the case one of the worst instances of research fraud uncovered in a British university. 

..two investigations at UCL.. .. were deeply critical of Latchman. Both found that his failure to run the lab properly, and his position as author on many of the doctored papers, amounted to “recklessness”, and upheld an allegation of research misconduct against him. 

Latchman no longer has a lab and has stopped supervising research, but he is still a part-time professor of human genetics at UCL, and master of Birkbeck. 

I have little more information than these two newspaper stories and I am not in a position to make judgement, nor would I wish to, as I do not have access to the details. However, I am struck by the difference in the “transgressions” made by the two eminent scientists: one made a silly comment and the other (apparently unknowingly) allowed the falsification of results in research. While Sir Tim was cast out, David was allowed to continue in his post. Why? Was it something to do with the philanthropy mentioned at the head of David’s website? Did money, and lawyers, talk? All this happened after I left UCL in 2012, but it leaves a bad taste and I reflect on the tolerance, integrity and collegiality of the college that I once knew well. 

[I’ve never met Sir Tim Hunt, but I have met David Latchman on a few occasions and found him pleasant, and informed, company. Professor Mary Collins was my Dean at the end of my career at UCL.]


[1] Negley Harte and John North (1979) The World of University College London 1828-1978. Portsmouth, Eyre & Spottiswoode 










Thursday, 24 March 2022

Susan Bell – a little known, but significant, figure in the Nineteenth Century

Thomas Gosse was an artist, his son Philip Henry Gosse a famous natural historian, his grandson Sir Edmund Gosse a noted literary figure, and nephew Thomas Bell a professor and President of the Linnean Society. Although we know much about these men, especially of Henry and Edmund, their stories may have been different, and perhaps less well-known, if it was not for Susan Bell and two other women: Emily Bowes and Nellie Epps.

Susan was the sister of Thomas Gosse and, according to him, “of a more refined and cultivated mind than the rest” of his family [1]. Being 15 years older, she had a strong influence on Thomas and he writes in his unpublished autobiography [2]: 

I had always an inclination for drawing.. ..I would often take a piece of chalk and draw the outlines of various common and familiar objects on the wall or on the kitchen door. My parents, witnessing my propensity as described, thought it would be useless to bring me up to a common trade, and therefore were resolved at length to give it encouragement. Accordingly, early in 1777 my school education was resigned for the practice of drawing at home; and here my sister Susan, afterwards Mrs Bell, became my tutoress. A drawing-book was bought for me, and another borrowed, with other necessary items. Thus I went on learning by degrees the art of drawing, in order that I might subsequently become a painter by profession.

From these beginnings, Thomas had instruction from various experts and became a student at the Royal Academy in Somerset House, attending classes and lectures, and he then became a pupil engraver. Armed with this training, Thomas became an itinerant painter “not on paper but on ivory” [1] - a painter specialising in miniatures. Thwaite [1] remarks: “He carried with him little more than his Bible, his Theocritus and the tools of his trade, but he was clothed with the armour of righteousness and stoicism.” 

Henry Gosse, like his father, received instruction in drawing from Susan and she also passed on to him her passion for natural history, after he had moved, with his family, to Poole, where Susan lived (and seen above in a near-contemporary view by Turner – her house is shown in [3]). She had married Thomas Bell, a surgeon, and her son, also Thomas Bell, was born in 1792, so was 18 years older than Henry. Thomas went on to have a distinguished career in both Zoology and Dentistry, being “responsible for innovations in the use of various dental instruments and [he] was the first to treat teeth as living structures by applying scientific surgery to dental disease” [4]. Thomas’ work in zoology focussed mainly on crustaceans, amphibians and reptiles, and he was responsible for describing animals in the latter group that had been collected on the voyage of HMS Beagle. In addition to his position as Professor of Zoology at King’s College London, Thomas also served as President of the Linnean Society and chaired the famous meeting on 1st July 1858, when papers by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace on the origin of species were presented (neither author being present).

Although on friendly terms with Darwin, Thomas Bell “remained hostile to the theory of evolution throughout his life” [4], but further in the piece by Cleevely [4], we read that: 

Darwin always regarded him as a delightful, kind-hearted man, and believed that a more good-natured person did not exist but that his overwhelming administrative roles and professional work prevented him from achieving very much.  

He was certainly invaluable to Henry Gosse, as it was Thomas Bell who introduced Henry to the publisher John Van Voorst, who accepted Henry’s first book The Canadian Naturalist. He also recommended Henry to be the author of books on natural history, then being planned by SPCK (The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge), and the income from Henry’s publications allowed him to begin his career as a writer, illustrator and lecturer.

Clearly then, Aunt Bell was both an important direct, and also indirect, influence on Henry Gosse and his love of natural history. It should also be noted that both Henry and Thomas were uncomfortable with the idea of evolution by natural selection, and this became acute for Henry who went on to publish Omphalos, his “attempt to untie the geological knot.” The knot was the apparent conflict between the increasingly accepted view that the evolution of plants and animals occurred over long periods of time, and the description of Creation in the book of Genesis in The Holy Bible. As Henry’s belief in biblical accounts was absolute, he explained in Omphalos that rock strata and fossils, of which he had an excellent knowledge, were created along with living organisms within the six days of Creation. To him, they were “prochronic” and his theory was revelatory to him – he really thought he had resolved the conflict. Very few others agreed and the theory of prochronic existence met with derision in some quarters and neither the scientific, or the religious, establishment could accept Herny’s idea. This shook Henry, especially as he had ordered a long print run, as he expected the book to be a big seller.

Omphalos was published in 1857, the same year that Henry’s wife Emily had died, painfully, from breast cancer, leaving him with the care of their young son, Edmund. Henry and Edmund moved to Torquay just weeks before Omphalos appeared and, writing in 1890, two years after Henry’s death, Edmund suggested that [5]: seems to me possible that if my mother had lived, he might have been prevented from putting himself so fatally and prominently into opposition to the new ideas. He might probably have been content to have others to fight out the question on a philosophical basis, and might himself have quietly continued observing facts, and noting his observations with his early elegance and accuracy.

It is likely, therefore, that Emily could have persuaded Henry not to write Omphalos. What is certain is that Emily and Henry shared a profound Christian faith, while being different in personality. Edmund writes [5] that “her mind was a singularly gay and cheerful one” and he believes that she had a strong influence on Henry’s writing in books like A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast and Tenby that were both informative and full of enthusiasm, leading his readers to explore natural history for themselves. So, we not only owe a debt to Henry, but also to Emily and, alongside Aunt Bell, she was a major influence on him.

As he grew up, Edmund became distanced from his father in many ways, but especially over religious beliefs and practice, and their relationship became difficult. Edmund married Nellie Epps, a painter who had studied with the pre-Raphaelites, and she played an important role in maintaining contact between the two men. Nellie was much liked by Henry and his second wife, Eliza, who was herself a warm supporter of all that Henry did. Eliza also had a cordial relationship with Edmund, something that was established when he was a boy.

Three outstanding, yet little known, women and I am pleased to be able to add some notes about Aunt Bell to the earlier pieces that I wrote on Emily [6] and Nellie [7], both of whom I admire very much [8]. We know a great deal about Henry and Edmund Gosse, and a little about Thomas Gosse and Thomas Bell, but all four were very lucky in having relations and/or partners who were such a positive influence on those around them. I would like these women to have their proper place in history.


[1] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810-1888. London, Faber and Faber

[2] Edmund Gosse (1915) Fragments of the Autobiography of Thomas Gosse. The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 27: 141-150


[4] R.J.Cleevely (2004) Bell, Thomas (1792-1880). The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

[5] Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-Shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann. 



[8] Roger S Wotton (2020) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. e-book, available widely.



Tuesday, 1 March 2022

Visits to the coffee shop

Twice a week, I enjoy having a flat white at my local coffee shop, choosing a time (about 11.00) when there are not too many people about and there is thus a choice of tables. My ritual is the same each time: order the coffee, collect it, settle at a table, and then read the paper that I have bought from the M&S shop that is next door to my habitual haunt. I take my time over the coffee (unless it gets busy and I need to give up my table, unlike the “home office” customers) and then walk back home. Nine times out of ten I feel better than when I arrived at the shop and I can’t really explain why. It’s not because of the stimulus of caffeine, although that may play a small part, but more about making me feel part of a bigger world; something about which psychiatrists would have their own comments to make. I also enjoy coffee with friends, but my solo visits have a quite different quality, suiting my mildly autistic nature.

Sometimes, a piece in the newspaper has a special appeal and that happened this morning when I read the review by Ellen Peirson-Hagger of Sheila Heti’s book Pure Colour in the "i" newspaper for 25th February 2022. It contained a paragraph that really made me think (both the review and the paragraph are shown below).

The question that was posed touched a nerve ending and I started to ask myself why I am moved deeply by some works of art – I guess that is something we all do, but I can only speak from my own experience.

When I’m in the right mood, I can be so moved by some pieces of music that I almost feel shaken. Something very deep within me is getting touched and I can easily see how this could be interpreted as “the breath of God”. What is this feeling? I don’t know the answer, but the effect is profound. Does it help to know that the composers that most affect me in this way are Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Sibelius? All three wrote music that was evocative of places that I know and where I have been “at one” with both Nature and Landscape. Of course, it is easy to say that my feelings are those of a Romantic and that it is all very emotional, but that doesn’t explain why I am that way. It feels like an attempt to find “light at the end of a tunnel”.

Other arts also affect me, but not to such a profound emotional level, although some paintings I return to stare at every time I visit galleries on repeat visits. It might be works by Turner or by Murillo, and there is no consistency of subject matter, just something that draws me. Turner I find fascinating, because he was seeking to portray something about the essence of Nature: Murillo because there is no artist better at conveying human tenderness. Like my reaction to certain pieces of music, the feelings can be (inadequately) described, but they cannot be shared.

It leaves me with the question of whether what I feel is similar to what others feel and whether that deep feeling causes them to believe in God. It’s interesting what can come from reading one’s paper in the local coffee shop.


Monday, 3 January 2022

Torquay Boys’ Grammar School, South Devon Tech. - and pranks

Many of us look back on school days as being some of the best of our life. For me, there were a few good times, but mostly it was not a happy experience, and I don’t feel disappointed that my old school has now been demolished. In the image above, the east entrance to the school, with its rather grand portico, remains, as does the eastern internal staircase (just visible in the background of this image by Tom Jolliffe – with the handrail still in place) that led to the first floor. 

Passing though the entrance shown in the image, one entered a corridor that had the Head’s Study on the left, the Secretary’s office on the right and a succession of classrooms also on the right, with the Biology Laboratory at the end of the corridor (to the left of the corridor were windows looking out on to one of the “playgrounds”). The Biology Lab. plays an important part in the following narrative.

Having passed O-levels in 1962, I took A-levels in Chemistry, Botany and Zoology (I dropped Physics after one year). Chemistry was then taught at the school in a relatively new two-storey block that had replaced an old hut, where Mr Roberts had earlier taught us (1A of the 1958 intake) to recite the mantra “Acid + Base = Salt + Water”. The hut was so old that the knots in the floorboards were raised and shiny, the rest of the boards being worn away by the scuffing shoes of generations of students. As I recall, A-level Chemistry was taught on the first floor of the new building and I had the misfortune of having Mr Crabtree as my teacher. He was clearly an able chemist, but he bullied me on occasions, one of which I recall clearly when he tapped me repeatedly on the head while saying, with raised voice, “valency, Wotton, valency!”. I’m not sure what I had done to deserve this response, but I admit that I didn’t have much interest in chemistry, as was apparent to Mr Crabtree. My fascination with natural history made the A-levels in Botany and Zoology much more to my taste, but, unfortunately, I was not a good scholar.

 These are quotes from my book “Walking with Gosse” [1]: 

As Biology was not among the most popular subjects at TBGS, we took A-Levels in both Botany and Zoology at the South Devon Technical College, in a building adjacent to the school. Teaching was shared between the two institutions, with Botany taught by Mr Hood from the Grammar School and Zoology by Mr Cosway from the Tech…

 …and another excerpt [1]: 

…I always enjoyed visiting Paignton Zoo to gaze at the animals and I joined the “Peacock Association” (the Friends of the Zoo) to gain free entry and to attend meetings with guest speakers. On the south side of the Zoo was an area closed to the public, with a high double gate that led to mature woodland and a hillside that was grazed by rabbits. Mr Hood had kept a record of the distribution of plants on the hillside over several years and a group of us Botany students was taken there to continue mapping the site using quadrats. It was something that was organised each year to teach botanical surveying techniques and I really enjoyed this field work. My earlier flower collecting meant that I could identify many plants, although I now used Latin names rather than the common ones, and I went back to the site on my own a few times to expand the survey in other areas. This impressed, and surprised, Mr Hood who, like Mr Cosway, didn’t think I had much of a future academically [the latter having recommended that I give up Zoology]. 

I liked Mr Hood, as he clearly loved plants and seemed independent-minded, although we only had occasional glimpses of the human side of our schoolmasters. He had spent time in India with the Army and was almost a caricature of someone from that background, having a large moustache and habitually wearing a rumpled tweed sports jacket and cavalry twills. Occasionally, he talked to us about the Western Ghats and some of his Indian adventures and these were very exotic for me, an insular Paigntonian.

The freedom of the Tech. was such that I never worked as hard as I should have done in classes and it also meant that, with a couple of friends, we thought little of skipping school to go collecting marine animals from the local shore (see below). We should have been in the School Library, but identifying the animals in our collections was much more fun and we also brought back specimens and set them up in aquarium tanks.

Our form room was the Biology Lab. in the main school building and it was the scene of several pranks. One came from our collections, as we soon discovered that seaweed kept in a large jar decomposed to produce a shocking and pervasive smell. What could be more fun than to secrete an open jar of rotting wrack near a radiator in the corridor and then retrieve it once the area had become filled with its perfume? We also discovered that bubbling gas into a sink of water to which “Teepol” had been added produced large quantities of foam that would spread along a bench and that throwing a lighted match into the foam would produce a wonderful sheet of flame that burned itself out in a second or two.

Perhaps the most infamous prank came when we went to a local pub and bought a couple of flagons of cider that we distilled to produce applejack. We knew well enough that distillates might contain harmful chemicals, in addition to ethyl alcohol, so we were reluctant to drink the stuff that we had made. I can still remember the smell of it though, and the pleasure to be obtained by our behaviour and, as with all the other pranks, the school was seemingly unaware of our activities. As mentioned earlier, the Head’s Study was just along our corridor and “Joe” Harmer (MA Cantab. FRAS) didn’t have a highly-developed sense of humour. If I’d been caught there would have been trouble (and more doubt about my academic abilities), even though I was only a passive participant in the activities. Visits to the shore were an exception, as I was fascinated by all that I discovered there, and played an active role in searches.

My chances of gaining a good reference on my university application form would also have been affected if my behaviour during the 1964 Sixth Form Conference had been discovered. These conferences were held in different schools each year and there were lots of group debates that were very enjoyable: conferences were also a chance to meet girls. At the one held at TBGS, the day started with a religious service at a local church and then there were sessions until lunchtime, during which three of us (highly illegally) went to “The Rising Sun”. After a couple of pints of beer each, we left to walk back to school, singing our version of the 1964 hit by The Animals:

There is a house in Torre, Torquay

They call the Rising Sun 

And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy

And God I know, I’m one 

Well, it didn’t lead to my ruin, but it might have done. On return to the conference, I had the misfortune to sit next to a teacher from another school and had to ask him to let me out as I needed to get rid of some of the fluid that I’d accumulated. He must have found it odd that I left the debate so soon after it started, and also that I smelt a little of alcohol. An anxious few days followed, but I got away with it and I did get my university place and that’s where I changed beyond recognition. I was now much more diligent and I have to say that it was at university where it all started for me. School was just part of the build-up, although I recognise the dedication, and excellence, of some masters and the friendship of fellow students. While rarely happy to see buildings being demolished (another image by Tom Jolliffe is shown below), there’s some satisfaction in seeing the end of the old TBGS. My time there wasn’t the happiest period of my life.

[1] Roger S Wotton (2020) Walking with Gosse. e-book (available widely).