Wednesday, 6 March 2019

A gray whale off the coast of South Devon?



The gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus – see above) is today only found in the north Pacific Ocean, yet skeletal remains have been found in the eastern Atlantic [1]. Indeed, Gray named the genus [2] from a cervical vertebra that bore a very close resemblance to vertebrae of an “imperfect skeleton” discovered in Sweden. This vertebra was sent to Gray by William Pengelly FRS of Torquay (see below), a distinguished palaeontologist and famous for his excavations of local cave fauna, especially those of Kent’s Cavern,


This is what Pengelly wrote [3]:

A few years ago, but the exact date has escaped me, there was brought to my house [“Lavorna”] a large bone which had been washed ashore on Babbicombe beach [the old spelling], near Torquay. It was not difficult to see that it was part of the vertebral column of a cetacean, and that it had undergone considerable abrasion. That, however, which chiefly arrested my attention was the fact that such parts of its surface as were unrubbed were covered with a darkish stain, from which the abraded parts were free: a fact which led me to conclude that the stain was superinduced.


The staining reminded Pengelly of that on bones from deposits formed from a submerged forest within the current Torbay [4] and which had subsequently become flooded. These deposits contained the bones of deer and other terrestrial animals, but whales clearly could not have existed here. Radiocarbon dating of the vertebra, and two others that were also collected from Babbacombe Bay, just to the north of Torbay (see above), showed the bones to be 340 ± 260 years old – very recent compared to the submerged forests and thus likely to have become stained by falling on to the sediments. It is presumed that there was a population of gray whales in the eastern Atlantic until the 17th Century [1], but how the Babbacome vertebrae came to be washed ashore remains a mystery. The bones are large (the one illustrated below being 41 cm across) and that only adds to all the questions as to their origins. Perhaps gray whales were regular visitors to Babbacombe Bay and Torbay? Perhaps the bones were thrown overboard from a ship returning from the Pacific with unusual mementoes? Who knows?



[1] P.J.Bryant (1995) Dating remains of gray whales from the eastern North Atlantic. Journal of Mammalogy 76: 857-861.

[2] J.E.Gray (1865) Notice of a new whalebone whale from the coast of Devonshire, proposed to be called Eschrichtius robustus. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London pages 40-43.

[3] W.Pengelly (1865) On cetacean remains washed ashore at Babbicombe, South Devon. Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association 1(iv): 86-89.



Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Wotton’s place in the history of Biology


Stanley Goodman, the eminent economist and historian, mentioned the name of Edward Wotton to me. As Stan is a polymath, it came as no surprise that he had come across Wotton, but I knew nothing of my namesake (and no relation, I presume). Of course, I was then prompted to find out more. It turns out that Edward was an important figure in the history of Biology, yet he is not mentioned in Charles Singer’s textbook on the subject [1]. So, who was Edward Wotton and why was his book - De differentiis animalium libri decem [2] - an important influence on contemporary biologists and those who were to follow?

Born in Oxford in 1492, Edward was educated at Magdalen College School, where he was a chorister, and at Magdalen College Oxford, graduating in 1514 [3]. He then moved to the newly-established Corpus Christi College to teach Greek, although he retained rooms at Magdalen. Bishop Fox, the founder of Corpus Christi, granted Edward leave and he travelled to Padua, a great cultural centre, with its well-established University (founded in 1222) and glories such as the Scrovegni Chapel and its wonderful interior by Giotto. At Padua, Edward studied for an MD and returned to Oxford to receive the same degree in May 1526 [3].

Edward Wotton was admitted as a fellow of the College of Physicians and, like so many of those who practised medicine at the time, developed an abiding interest in natural history, not so much from first-hand study but from extensive scholarship of known texts, especially of those by Aristotle and his followers. The result was the publication of De differentiis animalium libri decem in 1552, an encyclopaedic account of the knowledge of the time. I find it a challenge to read as it is in Latin, so I am dependent on others to inform me of its details. Animals are described under headings, starting with many-toed mammals and ending with zoophytes (plant-like animals).


A feature of the book is that it separated factual material from that embellished by folklore [4], like the Natural History of Pliny, who was described by Singer as:

..a man of immense industry with an enthusiasm for collection. He did not, however, collect natural history objects, but only information or rather misinformation about them.. ..Unfortunately, Pliny’s judgement was in no way comparable to his industry. He was excessively credulous. Thus his work became a repository of tales of wonder, of travellers’ and sailors’ yarns, and of superstitions of farmers and labourers. As such it is a very important source of information for the customs of antiquity, though as science, judged by the standards of his great predecessors, such as Aristotle or Theophrastus or Erasistratus, it is simply laughable.

Given this attack on Pliny [1], it is even more surprising that Wotton’s book is given no mention in A Short History of Biology, especially as Wotton, like Pliny was a collector of information rather than a first-hand observer. However, the book is cited in Mayer’s The Annals of European Civilization 1501-1900 [5].


Unlike Edward Wotton, Thomas Moufet (or Muffet or Moffet) was a collector and carried out extensive field studies on insects. Like Edward, he studied medicine in mainland Europe (in Basel, after graduating with a BA from Gonville Hall Cambridge, having transferred from Trinity College [6]). Moufet’s book Insectorum, sive, Minimorum animalium theatrum draws on Edward Wotton’s knowledge [7 (and see above)] and was published posthumously in 1634. This book is mentioned by Singer [1] as being important in the history of Biology, but:

The significance for science of classical scholarship was on the wane, and the work of the later schools is conducted in a new spirit.

Interestingly, one reviewer, Haller, believed that Moufet “gave credence to too many fabulous reports [but] acknowledged him to be ‘the prince of entomologists’ before John Swammerdam” [6]. He was certainly inundated with specimens that were sent to him and Singer recounts that he was urgently in need of descriptive terms [1].Some of the illustrations from Insectorum sive are shown below and they enable us to identify insects today, so they must have been very powerful images in their day. There are hundreds of them and the shift in approach from Wotton to Moufet is significant, as Singer points out. It presages the approaches to the study of Zoology that were to follow, but Edward Wotton certainly had an important rôle in the development of studies in the subject.






[1] Charles Singer (1931) A Short History of Biology. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

[2] Edward Wotton (1552) De differentiis animalium libri decem. Paris.

[3] A.F.Pollard (revised by Patrick Wallis) (2004) Wotton, Edward (1492-1555). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/29999

[4] Encyclopaedia Britannica (Eleventh Edition) 1910-11 https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:EB1911_-_Volume_28.djvu/1052

[5] Alfred Mayer (1993) The Annals of European Civilization 1501-1900. New York, Barnes & Noble.

[6] Victor Houliston (2004) Moffet [Moufet, Muffet], Thomas [T.M.] (1553-1604). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/18877

[7] Thomas Moufet (1634) Insectorum, sive, Minimorum animalium theatrum. London.


My thanks to Stan Goodman for introducing me both to Edward Wotton and to Alfred Mayer.

Friday, 18 January 2019

Honouring Sid Wotton


In her anecdotal history of small-town life in Paignton [1], Peggy Parnell writes of a local outfitter’s business and its progress from a humble start to having several successful shops. Perretts was considered “up-market” and had a year-round clientele, as well as the casual summer trade found in any seaside resort. The company was run by three generations of one family and was staffed with tailors to make alterations to clothes, and shop assistants to “measure-up” and engage in sales patter. It was so different to today’s internet-dominated approach to clothes retailing and, of course, the business no longer exists.

Included in Peggy Parnell’s chapter on Perretts is the paragraph shown below:


Obviously, a tragic occasion as he was only 59 years old, but who was Sid Wotton and, if he left such an impression on the owners and the staff of the company, what was his effect on the public who shopped in Perretts?

Firstly, Sid Wotton had a deep knowledge of outfitting, was unfailingly courteous, remembered returning customers and their requirements, and was very loyal to the Perrett family, as they were to him. Add to these qualities, the ability to make a sales pitch and you have all the essential ingredients of a valuable employee in the old world of retailing. What else do we know about him?



Sid Wotton was born on 17th August 1909 in Princes Street, Paignton, and he remained in the town (except for war service in Belgium, see above) all his life. On 10th October 1934 he married Doris Youlden at Winner Street Baptist Church (see above), attended by both, and where Sid was a member of the choir. In 1933, he had been involved in the selection of a new organist [2] and Sid had a fine tenor voice, singing hymns and oratorios with gusto. In addition to his singing, Sid also spoke at Church garden parties (see below) and it is easy to see that his skills as a salesman were useful if these parties involved fund-raising.


Sid and Doris had three sons, all brought up to attend Winner Street Church each Sunday, and the anniversary of the founding of the church was usually celebrated by a group photograph, like the one below. In addition to his connection with the church community, Sid was a Freemason, becoming Worshipful Master of Torbay Lodge No. 1358. Outside those interests, life revolved around Perretts and the growing family, but then illness intervened. Doris, who was anxious by nature, suffered from uncontrollable hypertension and this led to a stroke from which she died aged 49. This must have been a very difficult time for Sid, especially as he had been diagnosed with diabetes and then developed cardiovascular disease. By 1965 all three boys had left home and we come to the events described by Peggy Parnell. That’s not how Sid should be remembered.

Andy Warhol suggested that everyone should be famous for 15 minutes. I’m not sure that a paragraph in a book counts as fame, especially when the ending is so tragic. Rather, I want to celebrate the Sid Wotton who was such an important person to those who knew him and who showed fine qualities of loyalty and service in everything that he did. It’s all history now, of course, but that doesn’t make celebrating the man any less important.


[1] Peggy Parnell (2013) A Paignton Scrapbook. Stroud, The History Press.

[2] Patricia M. Leaman (1986) A History of the First 100 Years of Winner Street Baptist Church, Paignton. Publisher unknown.   


I would like to thank David Wotton for telling me about the reference to Sid Wotton in Peggy Parnell’s book.



Thursday, 3 January 2019

Remarkable, primitive animals from Cockington Stream


The small village of Cockington in Torbay is very popular with visitors who come to see its thatched cottages, old forge, and many other charming buildings, all nestling in a valley. It was the destination for the last carriage ride taken from his home in St Marychurch, Torquay, by the great natural historian Philip Henry Gosse, accompanied by his son Edmund. The ride, shortly before Henry’s death in 1888, is described very movingly by Edmund in a biography of his father [1,2].

I was brought up in Torbay, so I made the occasional visit to Cockington village as a child, although, as a family, we mostly stayed away from popular places. My fascination with natural history came from family walks in early childhood and it was the alien aquatic world that really grabbed my imagination. While marine organisms of the shore were readily visible - seaweeds, limpets, barnacles - most were hidden until one turned over stones in rock pools, or was lucky enough to wander down to the low water mark during Spring tides.

Childhood visits to the cinema in Paignton to watch films by the divers Hans and Lotte Hass made me aware that there was a natural world of which I knew very little and this added to its fascination. My imagination of this world extended to my play and I remember vividly placing a metal biscuit tin over my face, taking a deep breath and then diving under the bedclothes - nothing interesting was found! Using a snorkel in the sea would have terrified me as, although I was fascinated by what I saw in the cinema and in aquarium tanks, I was terrified of putting my head under water. It was truly an alien world for me and the feeling of wonder that so many aquatic organisms were unfamiliar stayed with me.

Later, I wandered around the coast on my own, looking at rock pools and I also enjoyed walking along country lanes, just for the pleasure of discovering new places, and being re-acquainted with those that were familiar. While I was happiest investigating the seashore, I also looked at the margins of local ponds and streams. On one walk along Cockington Lane - the same lane that Henry and Edmund Gosse had followed in their carriage - I decided to look for animals in the small stream that runs close to the road (see below). The upper part of the Cockington stream is dammed to form ornamental ponds and it then flows to the sea. Curious about what might be living in the stream, I picked up a few stones from the bed and, after examining them for a few seconds, was pleased that flatworms were very common and seemed to be on all the stones that I looked at. I still recall the discovery, even though it was nearly sixty years ago.


The flatworms were gliding over the surface of the stones and I was absorbed in watching their movement, as it wasn’t possible to see how they propelled themselves. Their locomotion is achieved by the beating of many thousands of microscopic cilia (small hair-like extensions from the cells covering the bottom surface of the worm), cells also secreting a mucus trail on which each worm moves, just as snails do. If watching their movement wasn’t fascinating enough, knowing that freshwater flatworms have remarkable powers of regeneration filled me with even more of a sense of wonder. I didn’t carry out any experiments like those shown in the videoclip below (where the movement of flatworms is also seen clearly) [3], but I knew about this ability. Not exactly like the sort of things that Hans and Lotte Hass filmed, but a fascinating part of the aquatic world nonetheless and to be seen only a short walk from where I lived.


Cockington gets many visitors and it is also a popular attraction for residents of South Devon, but I wonder how many of those having a cream tea, or strolling among the thatched buildings and lovely gardens, then walk back to the sea front along the boardwalk path? And of those, how many decide to look in the Cockington stream and see a quite different, yet fascinating, world? I am guessing that I was always in a very small minority.


[1] Edmund Gosse (1890) The Naturalist of the Sea-Shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.






Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Saffron


When I was a boy, growing up in Torbay in Devonshire, we would occasionally have saffron buns as a treat. As I recall, they were only sold in one bakery and they looked very similar to the ones in the image below. The buns were markedly yellow, but otherwise looked like other fruit buns and we ate them cut in half and spread with butter. I had no idea how saffron was obtained, although I knew it came from crocuses, and I was also aware that the buns were a little more expensive than the more usual varieties: they also had a characteristic taste. There was some mention in conversation that saffron buns were made for celebrations in neighbouring Cornwall, but I had no idea that saffron was used anywhere else in the World, whether in buns or in any other type of cooking. Mine was a parochial life.


Saffron buns, of a characteristic form, are a feature of the Santa Lucia festival in Sweden that is celebrated on 13th December each year [1]. In this tradition, children take part in a procession in their schools, where a girl is dressed as the saint and has lighted candles (or battery-driven equivalents) in a crown on her head. After the singing of traditional Santa Lucia songs, the festival ends with everyone tucking into the buns (lussekatter), although why they should contain saffron is not known, as the history of the tradition is sketchy.



Saffron (the stamens of a crocus, see above) is used in a wide array of dishes, both savoury and sweet, as well as in baking buns, and it was already established as a spice in Old Testament times [2]. In an article in The Guardian, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall gives a description of the origins of saffron (and also how it came to be grown in the part of the country where I was brought up) [3]:

Saffron [the saffron crocus] first grew in western Asia. The Moguls took it from Persia to India, and it has been cultivated in Kashmir since the third century A.D.. By the 10th Century, Arabs were growing it in Spain, where some of the world’s finest saffron is still produced. In the 13th Century, crusaders returned from Asia Minor with crocus corms and began growing it in Italy, France and Germany. The story goes that a pilgrim smuggled a corm back to England in the 14th century.. ..Within a couple of centuries, saffron meadows spread in a precious purple carpet across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, where Market Walden even changed its name to Saffron Walden..

..But in some ways East Anglian “crokers”, as the crocus growers were known, are parvenus. Here in the West Country, we’ve been going for gold a lot longer. We exchanged tin for saffron with Phoenician traders and crocus meadows existed around Bude until the 19th century; West Country cooks turned the magical stamens into sunny loaves and cakes. Historically, we could literally count saffron as a local ingredient; traditionally, we still do.

In the article, Hugh then does on to give recipes for: saffron chicken with rice; saffron honey ice-cream; and Cornish saffron tea bread (just like the buns of my boyhood). The recipe for the latter is adapted from one by Elizabeth David, who recommended eating the bread with a glass of sauternes – something which would not have met with approval in our household.


The process of producing the best Spanish saffron is described in an article in the “i” newspaper of 21st November 2018 (see above). Crocuses are picked by hand, making sure that stems are broken near their base, and the flowers collected into baskets that are taken to be spread out on a long table. Picking is always carried out early in the morning, before the fierce heat of the sun affects the flowers adversely, and the process of plucking out the three stamens is then carried out by hand, to be followed by gentle drying over a fire. The article goes on to say that “The journey from field to jar must be completed within 24 hours to maintain freshness and comply with the EU-backed Denominacion de Origen Protegida (DOP) regulations”. It is no wonder that saffron is so expensive, wherever it is produced, and many substitutes [4] are passed off as the real thing. However, these never have the same density of colour and depth of flavour.

Saffron is not just of value in colouring and flavouring food: like many spices, it also has medicinal properties, including its value as an anti-oxidant [5]. It has also been used traditionally to reduce the effects of urinary tract infections and to ease childbirth [6]. Research on animals points to its value in treating some cardiovascular conditions, depression and macular degeneration, prompting suggestions that its biochemical constituents – crocin and crocetin – should be investigated further in a therapeutic role [6].

This throws up the question: did our ancient forebears first use saffron as a medicine or in colouring and flavouring food? We cannot know the answer and the selection of saffron must have come by trial and error at a time when our (non-human?) ancestors tried eating anything that they found, before settling on those that were edible or had a use. From there, they must have discarded the whole crocus and begun using just the stamens to concentrate the effect of the spice, using drying to produce an even more potent product.


The distribution of the native saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) is very similar to that of Colchicum spp., another crocus-like plant (see above) but from a different botanical family [7]. These also have medicinal properties, as they contain colchicine [8], long known as a treatment for gout and other joint problems. Unfortunately, colchicine has unpleasant side effects when taken in quantity and our ancestors would have developed nausea and gastro-intestinal disorders if they ate a lot of Colchicum plants before discerning their medicinal value.

We’re now moving off topic and into ethnobotany, but it is fascinating to consider how we came to select the wide range of foodstuffs that we enjoy today, especially as we now have a global perspective. It’s all a long way from the saffron buns I enjoyed as a boy in Torbay and I wasn’t sufficiently curious then to find out more. I am now, though.

  

[2] Song of Solomon 4:14 in The Holy Bible.

[3]

[4] V.Khilare, A.Tiknaik, B.Prakash, B.Ughade, G.Korhale, D.Nalage, N.Ahmed, C.Khedkar and G.Khedkar (2019) Multiple tests on saffron find new adulterant materials and reveal that 1st grade saffron is rare in the market. Food Chemistry 272:635-642.


[6] G.K.Broadhead, A.Chang, J.R.Grigg and P.McCluskey (2016) Efficacy and safety of saffron supplementation: current clinical findings. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 56:2767-2776.

[7] C.Brickell (editor-in-chief) (1996) The Royal Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants. London, Dorling Kindersley.

[8] B.Dasgeb, D.Kornreich, K.McGuinn, L.Okon, I.Brownell and D.L.Sackett (2018) Colchicine: an ancient drug with novel applications. British Journal of Dermatology 178:350-356. et al.



My thanks to those who posted on the “Torbay Undiscovered, Lost, Forgotten, Unloved!” Facebook page in response to my request for details about saffron buns in Torbay.










Tuesday, 4 December 2018

The Extraordinary Martin Brothers


William Martin
   


William Martin (1772-1851) was “an able mechanic” [1] who worked as a ropemaker and also served in the militia, where he developed a reputation as a highly competent swordsman, often taking part in, and winning, duels [2]. He was also an inventor and, in his biography [2], he includes the following quote, where Mackenzie describes well-known residents of the Parish of Wallsend in Newcastle-upon-Tyne [3]:

“William Martin, the Natural Philosopher,” resides here. He has published, under the patronage of his Grace the Duke of Northumberland, “A New System of Natural Philosophy, on the Principle of Perpetual Motion; with a Variety of other Useful Discoveries.” From the Lord having made man a living soul, by breathing into his nostrils the breath of life, Mr Martin infers that air is the cause of perpetual motion.. ..Mr Martin’s other discoveries are numerous and useful. They consist of a life-preserver for seamen, air-fans for ventilating coal-mines, an inimitable safety-lamp, a plan for curing the dry-rot, cutting canals, and extinguishing fires at sea; also an improved velocipede, a suspension bridge, &c &c. But unfortunately, though under such noble patronage, his inventions have not been brought to a successful termination; and most of them have been stolen from him by unprincipled men! Mr M. did, however, obtain, in 1814, a silver medal and ten guineas from the Society of Arts, for his invention a of a spring weighing machine...

Based on this description, what are we to make of William Martin? His Perpetual Motion Machine was exhibited in London in 1808 and among those who saw it was Charles Hutton FRS, the famous mathematician [4]. He complimented William on the elegance of construction, but concluded that the pendulum of the machine continued to swing because of the influence of magnets. William, quite rightly, denied this, but chose not to explain that a hidden tube connected with the outside of the building allowing atmospheric air to be drawn to and fro, just beneath the ball at the base of the pendulum. William himself gave a description of the machine in 1825 but it is difficult to imagine its construction without seeing a version of it. As to his other inventions, Balston [4] concludes that “..William’s safety-lamp and weighing-machine were of real value..” and it may well be that the lamp was superior to those of Davy and Stephenson that became most widely known. Among William’s less successful inventions was the “Northumberland Eagle Mail”, a type of dandy horse bicycle propelled by the feet of the rider (see below – there were many versions and we do not know who copied whom). William used this to ride from town to town giving lectures on Natural Philosophy, although Balston [4] describes the failure of one demonstration: “…on the Town Moor, he got excessively hot propelling it over the rough ground and was pelted with mud by the spectators.”


Clearly, William was thick-skinned as well as having a talent for invention, although he continued to be irked by what he felt was a lack of recognition and this set him against the scientific Establishment. He clearly retained a liking for duels, although not of the kind in which he was so successful as a younger man. Seccombe [1] writes:

He founded the Martinean Society, based on opposition to the Royal Society, and particularly hostile to the Newtonian theory of gravitation, against which he harboured a growing antagonism, which ultimately embraced all men of science. Styling himself ‘anti-newtonian’, Martin began giving lectures, first in the Newcastle district and from 1830 throughout England. Throughout these years his voice was heard at many meetings, ranting against scientists in general. He was inevitably drawn to the annual gatherings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the butt of his polemic The defeat of the eighth scientific meeting of the British Association of Asses, which we may properly call the rich folks’ hopping, or the false philosophers in an uproar (1838).

In addition to his views on science and scientists, William also pronounced on politics and economics (I apologise on his behalf for the sexism) [4]:

He believed that there was much more wisdom among the poor than among the rich and thought that only poor men should be elected to Parliament. The college-bred man, he said, could make great speeches, but a man could be a wonderful speaker without being wise. He scouted the idea that England was over-populated, and said that shortage of food and employment was wholly due to the mismanagement of the rich. He advocated Government works – improving roads, reclaiming waste land, planting forests, and enclosing commons – as the cure for unemployment. He proposed a two-shilling income tax on all incomes above £100, and was ready to compensate the taxpayers by giving each of them a gold medal or star to wear, with the total amount of his taxes engraved on it.

It’s no surprise that the wider Establishment also rejected him after such an attack. As we look back at William Martin, this quote from a review of his book A New System of Natural Philosophy in The Newcastle Magazine of January 1822 concludes [5]:

When Mr Martin’s volume is read in the 21st century.. ..the wise of that day will doubtless exclaim that, though not quite so extensive as the universe, his works are equally inexplicable. After a quotation or two, and a few exclamations about the greatness of God, and the raptures of our author at the sight of Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus.. ..Mr Martin concludes with the republication of Pope’s universal prayer, which, an ill-natured critic would say, is certainly, though not the most amusing, by far the most instructive piece of philosophy in the book.

That’s right up there among the best damning reviews one could get, but I haven’t read William Martin’s book so I am not in a position to judge. However, having been trained as a scientist, I am conscious of the need to avoid exaggeration and dishonesty, although there are cases of scientists who bend the rules to get exposure. Although he was not trained as a scientist, William Martin provides an example of someone who had talent, but did not follow this creed, yet it is easy to warm to his stand against the political Establishment and the role of the “ruling class”. His ideas on economics also have a contemporary feel.

Do we appreciate characters such as William Martin and, more importantly, should we pay them much attention? How extraordinary, too, that William and two of his brothers all became famous in their day: Jonathan (1782-1838) was a notorious arsonist, driven by his religious beliefs [6], and John (1789-1854) a well-known artist who has works in the collection at Tate Britain. 


[1] Thomas Seccombe, revised by Anita McConnell (2006) William Martin (1772-1851). Oxford Dictionary of National Biographyhttps://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/18218

[2] William Martin (1833) A Short Outline of the Philosopher’s Life, from being a Child in Frocks to the Present Day, etc. Newcastle, J Blackwell and Co..

[3] E. Mackenzie (1825) An Historical, Topographical, and Descriptive View of the County of Northumberland, etc. Volume II. Newcastle upon Tyne, Mackenzie and Dent.

[4] Thomas Balston (1945) The Life of Jonathan Martin, Incendiary of York Minster. London, Macmillan & Co.

[5] Anon (1822) William Martin, The Natural Philosopher! The Newcastle Magazine, January 1822 pages 25-28.




 Jonathan Martin


A religious conversion is usually transformative. Having been brought up as a Christian, and having attended evangelistic rallies, I have often wondered what happens in people’s minds during that process. Some insights are given in “testimonies”, but these are often full of clichés and not very helpful to understanding.

Jonathan Martin (above) gives a description of his conversion in his autobiography [1]:

The first Love feast [a gathering of Christians to share bread, water and prayer] that I attended was at Yarm; my soul was dismayed and filled with unbelief, and I wept sore and would not be comforted. My brethren fell on their knees and prayed with me, but their prayers were of no effect. I went home and went to bed sorrowful, not having found the blessing of which I had aforementioned dreamed..

..My religious friends were often enquiring if I felt the Witness of the Spirit, to which I replied that I did not and would not, till the time came.

At the end of five months, I took the Sacrament in the Church at Stockton, and leaving it at half past one o’clock, I hastened to Yarm, where the lovefeast was to commence at two o’clock. I had only had an hour to go four miles, but I was running for a prize, and was determined not to be late..

..I arrived before the first prayer was finished, and was not five minutes on my knees till the Lord set me at full liberty, and here too he shewed me that I had indeed met with the people among whom I must find my way to glory..

..The next night I was invited to a Prayer Meeting at Norton, the Room we occupied was nearly full, and while the Class Leader was giving out a Hymn, The Spirit of God came down in such abundance into my heart, that I was ready to leap over the Table for joy.

Clearly a profound, and transforming moment for Jonathan, but who was he and what were the consequences of his conversion?

Fenwick Martin, Jonathan’s father, was a tanner (but had many other jobs) and was known as an excellent swordsman. He eloped to Gretna Green with Isabella Thompson, the daughter of a landowner who did not approve of Fenwick, and they went on to have thirteen children, only five of which survived to adulthood [2]. The five children were all born in different towns and villages, a result of the itinerant lifestyle led by their parents. Fenwick loved travelling from place to place [2].

Jonathan was the third child - a sister and brother were to follow him – and he had a birth deformity, being tongue-tied. This was cured by cutting the membrane holding the tongue to the floor of the mouth when he was "in his sixth year", something that resulted in a speech impediment for the rest of Jonathan’s life [2]. This early experience must have troubled him, as his inability to speak as a young child meant that he was isolated and he often walked alone in the countryside. He was self-educated and could read and write, but he was apprenticed to a tanner in Hexham, following one of this father’s professions. He also took after his father in having wanderlust and he was determined to see something of the world when his apprenticeship ended in 1804. In London, he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy, serving on the H.M.S.Hercules (where he was amazed that the Captain ordered bands to play on a Sunday, offending his religious beliefs) before being transferred to another ship that had been captured as a prize. At Cadiz:

..he had many narrow escapes from the shore batteries, and this made him “begin to see his lost ruined state as a sinner, and to cry to God for mercy and salvation, hoping He would spare him to return to his native land, when he would join himself to the people of God”, i.e. the Wesleyan Methodists [2].

Shortly after, Jonathan jumped ship and sailed in a merchantman for Egypt and returned via Sicily to Portsmouth, where he was paid off. In this last journey, a rogue wave in the Bay of Biscay nearly sank the ship, a scene illustrated in Balston’s biography [2] (see below). From Portsmouth, Jonathan travelled to London and then back to the North-East of England where he returned to work as a tanner. He married in 1814 and had a son, Richard, who was named for one of Jonathan’s brothers.


We now reach the time when Jonathan went to the love-feast in Yarm and his conversion, as described in the autobiography. He went on to develop an intense dislike for the Church of England and his life became guided solely by messages from God, sometimes coming in dreams [2]:

The Wesleyan Methodists were so alarmed by his conduct that they expelled him from their Society, and Mr page [the tanner] dismissed him from his employment. But he felt the peace of God in his soul, and was not discouraged.

Over the next months he moved around to get work and maintained his hostility to preaching in the Church of England, even attempting to interrupt sermons. On hearing that the Bishop of Oxford was to hold a confirmation at Stockton, Jonathan decided to attend. He had previously borrowed an old, broken pistol from his eldest brother, which was discovered by his wife. On being asked what the old weapon was for, Jonathan replied that it was to be used to shoot the Bishop. His wife subsequently removed the pistol and Jonathan went to the service in Stockton without it – however, she reported Jonathan’s “intention” to the Church authorities and he was subsequently arrested and appeared before the Justices at Stockton who, on getting some typically strange answers to their questions, “ordered him to be confined in a madhouse for life”. Jonathan was then conveyed to the West Auckland lunatic asylum. 
Balston [2] gives us an account of Jonathan’s life in the asylum, where he suffered at the
hands of both fellow inmates and, on occasion, from the asylum owner. He was transferred to the asylum at Gateshead, where he had an ambivalent relationship with the owners, just as he had at West Auckland, and eventually escaped from there via the roof (see above). Jonathan wandered through the countryside and was exhilarated at being free, visiting a distant relative of his mother, who made him welcome. Unfortunately, his wife had died of breast cancer in 1821, so he could not return to her and he travelled widely through the North of England and Scotland. Jonathan was able to earn some income as a tanner and from hawking copies of his autobiography while on his journeys. The first edition was published while Jonathan was in Darlington in 1825, a second being printed in Barnard Castle in 1826, with a third in Lincoln in 1828.

It was in Lincoln that he married Maria Hudson and Richard, who had been lodging with Jonathan, was then sent to a boarding school. Jonathan was readmitted to the Wesleyan Methodist Society and he retained the fervour, and convictions, so clear to him at the time of his conversion. With Maria, he travelled to York, arriving on 26th December 1828, and it was Jonathan’s activities in York that led to his widely-known notoriety. It began with a series of letters (all with Jonathan’s idiosyncratic spelling [that had been corrected in the autobiography]) attacking members of the clergy in the Church of England for their indulgent lifestyles and complacency, but none received a reply. Jonathan was further angered by this, stating [2]: “I found the Lord was determined to have me show this people a warning to flee from the wrath to come.” 

He devised a plan to carry out his threat and, on 1st February 1829, he entered York Minster and, after kneeling in prayer, was directed to go to the bell loft, where he remained when the Minster was locked up for the night. Balston [2] details what happened next and, in summary, these consisted of Jonathan gathering flammable materials and setting them alight – all guided by the reassurance and direction that he gained from God through prayer. He escaped though a window and the resultant blaze burned through the night, destroying part of the roof and the interior of the eastern part of the Minster, including the Archbishop’s throne.


After this disaster, a group of clergy and magistrates met to discuss how the fire occurred. They concluded quickly that the fire was the result of arson, the rope ladder used by Jonathan to climb to a window having been discovered, and the culprit was identified after questioning people who had met him. The letters were also produced and an arrest warrant for Jonathan was issued, with a reward of £100 for his capture. He was eventually tracked to Codlaw Hill and was taken to the “House of Correction” in nearby Hexham. From there he was taken to the jail in York and appeared before the Grand Jury at the Guildhall on 23rd March 1829, an event so popular that there was a melee over the available seats and it was agreed that a more fitting location would be the County Assizes, commencing on 30th March.  On being charged with setting fire to the Minster, Jonathan replied [2]: “It was not me, my Lord, but my God [that] did it.” The trial proceeded, with many witnesses who knew Jonathan being called; the letters he had written being admitted as evidence. The jury returned a verdict of “not guilty on the grounds of insanity”, with Jonathan detained during His Majesty’s pleasure. He was sent to London and was eventually confined in the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem (“Bedlam”), dying there in 1838, aged fifty-six.

Was Jonathan insane? There are many cases where people commit acts after praying, or believing that they are receiving a message from God. Does this mean that all those who act on such impulses are insane? Would Abraham have killed Isaac on the orders of God if an angel hadn’t intervened [3]? Did Jonathan Martin have a breakdown, as Matthew describes it in his biography [4]?  Do visions and these powerful religious impulses come from mental breakdowns? Does religious conversion follow a kind of breakdown, or heightened emotional state, where rational thought is suspended?  When does “hearing God” become “hearing voices”? I ask these questions as an atheist and I’m puzzled. 


[1] Jonathan Martin (1828) The Life of Jonathan Martin, of Darlington, Tanner (Third Edition). Lincoln, R.E.Leary.

[2] Thomas Balston (1945) The Life of Jonathan Martin, Incendiary of York Minster. London, Macmillan & Co.

[3] Genesis Chapter 22 in The Holy Bible.

[4] H.C.G.Matthew (2004) Martin, Jonathan (1782-1838). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/18198


P.S. The preface to Balston’s biography of Jonathan Martin is written to Edith Sitwell who had published her English Eccentrics eleven years earlier in 1933. Did he feel that Jonathan would be a worthy candidate for entry into a future edition of Sitwell’s book?



John Martin


Towards the end of his life, John Martin painted three large pictures, all of which are now in the collection of Tate Britain. Only “The Plains of Heaven” of 1853 is on display, high on a wall in the room dedicated to British Art of the 1840s. The other two paintings “The Great Day of his Wrath” of 1851-3 and “The Last Judgement” of 1853 are in store. 

Shortly after these works were completed, Martin suffered a severe stroke on 12th November 1853 and he died at Douglas on the Isle of Man on 17th February 1854 [1].


“The Last Judgement” (see above) can be considered one of Martin’s finest achievements, but, before examining the painting, we should consider John Martin’s life and his success as a painter. He was born in Haydon Bridge in Northumberland, the fourth surviving son of Fenwick Martin, an itinerant tanner. John’s mother, Isabella, was religious and insisted that her children said prayers twice daily and had a fear of Hell and the devil [2], an upbringing that clearly affected him, as many of his paintings were on religious themes – “The Last Judgement” being a good example.

John’s eldest brother, William, became famous, or should it be infamous, as an inventor and “philosopher” [3]. Next came Richard, who had an army career and rose to the rank of Quartermaster Sergeant in the Grenadier Guards [4], and then Jonathan, who achieved notoriety for deliberately setting fire to York Minster in protest against the behaviour of senior clerics [5]. Having William and Jonathan as older siblings, with their strongly-held and controversial views, must have been a big influence on John, who described himself as a “timid and nervous child, fearing to be in the dark and dreading ghosts and hobgoblins at every corner” [1].

John’s passion for drawing and painting was clear throughout his childhood, but he lacked recommendations that would allow him to train with an established artist. Instead, he was first apprenticed to a coachbuilder, for whom he painted flourishes and images, and then became a pupil of Boniface Musso in Newcastle who taught him enamel painting and, by returning for extra tuition, the art of oil painting [2]. He was an enthusiastic, and diligent, student and he moved to London in 1805 to join Charles Musso, Boniface’s son, as a china painter [2]. He continued to study composition, perspective and architecture in his free time and eventually began to exhibit some of his oil paintings, becoming noticed by at least one influential patron, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg [2]. Having this entrée, he was able to work as an artist.

Arnold’s Magazine of the Fine Arts for December 1833 [6] contains an article entitled “On the genius of John Martin” and we can get a flavour of the piece from several quotes:

We presume there are few readers of our magazine (artistical, literary or scientific) who are not acquainted with the name of John Martin, and to whom that name is not as “a household word,” embodying, in one conception, all that is great and glorious in art..

..we have seen many attempt the same supernatural style in painting and conception, but, in the general effect, they have fallen most immeasurably short of that richness, extent, and magnificence of design, which are inherent in all the pictures of John Martin..

There is much more in the same vein, detailing Martin’s skill in conveying architectural detail, sense of space, use of light and shade, etc. and it concludes with this:

..as if to add another proof to the true inconsistency of man, or of the nature which rules within him – as if to shew, we had almost said, what the overbearing spirit of jealousy and power can do – what shall we say to that great body of British Artists, who constitute the members of the Royal Academy, when the truth stares them, and the whole world, in the face THAT JOHN MARTIN IS NOT A MEMBER OF THE ROYAL ACADEMY..

The capitalisation is in the article and the whole piece is a passionate celebration of the paintings of John Martin and a sure indication that he was not a member of the Arts Establishment. A later article in the same magazine describing John Martin’s engravings for “Illustrations of the Bible” adopts a more critical tone, describing one as “a failure both in design, composition, and general effect” and another as having inappropriate figures as part of the composition. It does, however, describe John Martin’s ability to depict “the vast, the great, and the terrible”.

It is these skills which are featured in “The Last Judgement”, painted twenty years after these reviews and no-one can doubt that Martin was working on a large scale (the canvas measures 326 cm x 197 cm and the illustration above gives no impression of its size). A work on this scale gives an even greater sense of awe to those viewing it, an important consideration in paintings based on religious subjects.


 


“The Last Judgement” contains much detail, arranged into distinct sections (see above). The upper part of the painting shows the second coming of Christ, surrounded by angels and other heavenly figures, bathed in a dazzling light that is reminiscent of some works by Turner. At the right, we see the final expulsion of Satan (clad in black, of course) and he is cast into the giant chasm that runs diagonally and separates those who are saved from those who are damned. Some of the “saved” have been identified [2] and they include the painters Michelangelo, Rubens, Dürer and Wilkie; the writers Dante, Shakespeare and Milton; and the scientists Galileo, Franklin, Watt and Newton. The latter choice would not have pleased John’s brother William, who was passionate in his dislike of Newton [3], although this was as much a dislike for the mainstream view of science and scientists than it was against Newton himself. William died in 1851, so he was not going to be put out by John’s choice. On the side of the damned, there are many less-recognisable figures, but prominent is a bishop, so John is expressing the same strong dislike of Church leaders that was shown by his brother Jonathan, who died in Bethlem Royal Hospital in 1838 [5].

“The Last Judgement” had a mixed reception and it is easy to be critical of the work today. However, it must be accepted that its scale is impressive and it does have a strange, visionary quality. Perhaps Arnold’s Magazine was right in suggesting that John Martin should be elected to the Royal Academy, although his anti-Establishment stance, shared with his brothers, probably didn’t help? They were, however, a remarkable trio and John, like William, showed versatility as a free-thinking inventor, putting forward plans for a new London waterfront and also infrastructure for the supply of clean water [1]. The three brothers are now largely forgotten, but we still have John’s paintings to remind us of the Martin family, even though they are not all on public display.  


[1] Thomas Balston (1947) John Martin 1789-1854: his life and works. London, Gerald Duckworth & Co.

[2] William Feaver (1975) The Art of John Martin. Oxford, Clarendon Press.


[4] Thomas Balston (1945) The Life of Jonathan Martin, incendiary of York Minster, with some account of William and Richard Martin. London, Macmillan & Co.


[6] ? M. Arnold (1833) On the genius of John Martin. Arnold’s Magazine of the Fine Arts 3.2: 97-104.




Thanks to Tate Britain for giving me permission to use the image of Martin’s painting from their web site: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/martin-the-last-judgement-t01927





Friday, 30 November 2018

“The Doctor” – then and now


Visitors to Tate Britain will be familiar with the painting "The Doctor" by Sir Luke Fildes RA (see below). As it is highly melodramatic, in a style loved by Victorians, it is easy to relate to the feelings of the subjects, especially as these focus on the serious illness of a child. Fourteen years before he painted “The Doctor” in 1891[1], Fildes lost a one-year-old son and there is no questioning the message of the work, however unlikely the scene was in reality. The painting shows the power of art across the centuries – and it makes us ask questions.


“The Doctor” is carefully composed and Fildes constructed a cottage stage set in his studio to help him create the scene (see below); the interior being based on a fisherman’s cottage in Hope Cove in South Devon that the artist had visited and sketched [1]. The decoration and furniture of the cottage are humble and we can imagine them to be quite different to those of the doctor’s residence. We also notice that the doctor is dressed well, in contrast to the dimly-lit parents of the child being treated.


The scene is illuminated by an oil lamp and the lighting keeps returning our attention to the doctor and his patient. Some light comes through the small window in the cottage, but the plain curtains are drawn and we thus conclude that this was a night call and that the doctor had been with his patient for some time. A bottle of medicine and a cup and spoon have been placed on the table and we imagine that these were involved with the treatment that the child is receiving. While the doctor focusses intently on his patient, looking for signs of improvement, the father of the child maintains a stoic approach and comforts his wife, who cannot look. She seems consumed with maternal distress and anxiety – death of children being a common experience of many families at the time of the painting – and both parents are background figures to the story being told.

In his 1895 biography of Fildes, David Croal Thomson writes [2]:

This composition of “The Doctor” has been recognised by the medical profession as a great and lasting compliment to the whole body. No more noble figure than the doctor could be imagined – the grave anxiety, supported by calm assurance in his own knowledge and skill, not put forward in any self-sufficient way, but with dignity and patience, following out the course his experience tells him is correct; the implicit faith of the parents, who, although deeply moved and almost overcome with terrible dread, stand in the background trusting their doctor even when their hearts fail.

It is a powerful accolade for family doctors and the faith placed in their expertise, concern and diligence. If this was true of 1895, is it still true today? Of course, the provision of medical care varies from country to country and we are fortunate in the UK in having a National Health Service (NHS). However, I’m not sure how many of us have a family doctor who knows us, our medical history, and our circumstances. That’s to be expected in a system under economic stress and with doctors having increasing numbers of patients to look after and with these patients living into old age, with the accompanying array of illnesses that come with senescence.

In the town where I live, it is difficult to make appointments to see a general practitioner and, when one does, the information on our health record is stored on a database that must be read in detail to provide a background to any consultation. Reference onward to a hospital specialist takes time, and appointments may be on days that are months ahead. It might be regarded as an efficient system, but it doesn’t feel like it, and the compassion shown by “The Doctor” is not always present. As to home visits, they are out of the question and, if one cannot get to the surgery where the doctor sees patients, the alternative is to make a telephone call to a remote practitioner who can only advise on the symptoms that one describes – sometimes difficult if one is feeling very unwell.

There is no question that general practitioners care, are highly trained, and, for the most part, competent. It is a tough job, and comes with its own stresses, but there is the compensation of a good salary, the chance to work part-time, and a high status in society, something which can cause a small minority of doctors to believe in their superiority. We don’t know any details of “The Doctor” in the painting, but we do note that he is of a very different social standing to his patients, yet there is no question that he has put himself out and is dedicated to ensuring recovery, if at all possible. How relevant are those qualities today in the age of the spreadsheet, MBA-speak, and layers of “management”?


[1] https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/fildes-the-doctor-n01522 (a larger image of the work can be seen here)

[2] David Coral Thomson (1895) The Life& Work of Luke Fildes RA - from The Art Annual. London, J.S.Virtue & Co..


I would like to thank Tate Britain for allowing me to reproduce the image of “The Doctor”.