Friday, 21 September 2018

Marine stonemasons


If I mention the word “worms”, most people think of earthworms and many view them with distaste. There are several species, all looking rather similar, and we don’t find them attractive because they are slimy and often live in decomposing organic matter. However, it is not unknown for infants to try eating them, so our dislike is something we learned from adults or older children.

We are less familiar with marine worms, and there are many different forms. The white calcareous tubes you see on rocks, or the small spiral tubes found on seaweeds like wracks, are secreted by worms and there is every likelihood that the worm is still resident when you see their ”home” at low tide. Marine worms of many species live in tubes and, in addition to those made from secreted calcium salts, these may be poorly consolidated – as with the lugworms beloved of sea anglers – or constructed of grains cemented together to prevent abrasion by moving sand grains. However, these tubes offer little protection against predation by wading birds in shallow water.


The mason worm (Lanice) is widely distributed and extends from the inter-tidal down to 1900 m [1] and may occur in very high densities (up to 20,000 individuals per square metre [2]). Lanice makes tubes that extend above the surface of the sandy mud in which the worms live and each tube has extensions at its tip. Where present as dense reefs, Lanice tubes promote sedimentation of fine mineral and organic particles and these sediments increase biodiversity [3]; the worms being referred to as “ecosystem engineers”. Close examination shows the tube and extensions to be made of sand grains and shell fragments cemented together by a secretion of the worm - thus the term mason worm (see above in a wonderful image captured by Jim Greenfield).


Lanice is in the group of worms known as terebellids and they feed when the worm and its tube are covered by water, so feeding can best be observed when worms are transplanted to an aquarium tank. The tentacles at the front of the body (see above) are extensible and very mobile and, if we  look at them under a microscope, we see many hundreds of thousands of beating hairs (cilia) over their surface and also a covering of mucus, produced from cells within the tissues of the tentacles [4]. Algae and detritus become attached to the tentacles when they are spread on to the substratum and the cilia then carry the mucus-bound “packages” to the mouth where they are ingested. Waste products are removed by the currents of water that the worm generates by moving its body within the tube.

Lanice also feeds by spreading the tentacles over the “fan” of extensions constructed at the top of its tube, collecting particles from the currents that result from wave action. We know that the particles carried in suspension contain micro-aggregates formed by bubbles created when waves break [5] and these, too, form part of the food for the worms, together with anything else that becomes swept up.

How do the worms locate their habitat? The answer is that it is largely a matter of chance. After reproduction (there are separate male and female worms [6]), larvae become planktonic and are carried around in the water column by currents and by their own swimming by means of the ciliated bands on their body (a second use of cilia for larvae as they also use these organelles to gather food). The large majority of planktonic larvae are eaten, or fail to reach a suitable substratum, but, when they do, each larva swims down and begins to transform into a small worm and begin their work as “masons”.

Far from feeling distaste at the sight of these worms, I marvel at their biology and how they evolved their form and habits. The sense of wonder is one of the pleasures of Natural History and the never-ending fascination of looking at living creatures.


[1] R. M. S. Alves, C. Van Colen, M. Vincx, J. Vanaverbeke, B. De Smet, J.-M. Guarini, M. Rabaut and T.J. Bouma (2017) A case study on the growth of Lanice conchilega (Pallas, 1766) aggregations and their ecosystem engineering impact on sedimentary processes. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 489: 15-23.

[2] A. Nicolaidou (2003) Observations on the re-establishment and tube construction by adults of the polychaete Lanice conchilega. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 83: 1223-1224.

[3] B. De Smet, A.-S. D’Hondt, P. Verhelst, J. Fournier, L. Godet, N. Desroy, M. Rabaut, M. Vincx and J. Vanaverbeke (2015) Biogenic reefs affect multiple components of intertidal soft-bottom benthic assemblages: the Lanice conchilega case study. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 152: 44-55.

[4] R. P. Dales (1955) Feeding and digestion in terebellid polychaetes. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 34: 55-79.

[5] R. S. Wotton (1996) Colloids, bubbles and aggregates: a perspective on their role in suspension feeding. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 15: 127-135.




Friday, 31 August 2018

Land and Sea


Visitors to Torbay, where I lived in the 1950s and 1960s, crowded to the beaches when the tide was out, but had to retreat further and further up the sands as the tide was coming in. Then, many left the beach area to go in search of ice cream, sea food, chips and dougnuts - and to play in the amusement arcades.

As a child, I realised that the tidal cycle varied from day to day and also through each month. It was only later that I uderstood that this was the effect of the gravitational pull of the sun and moon on the World’s oceans and that tides were the result of “bulges” and “troughs” in these huge masses of water, reaching their highest when the sun and moon were in alignment in what are termed spring tides. Waves would crash against the shore when the wind was blowing a gale from the east during spring tides and I loved going to the seafront during these storms to watch the cascades of spray – such a contrast to lying on the sand on a warm summer day. After these storms, there would be sand, stones, shells and all manner of flotsam washed on to the promenade behind the sea wall that marked the limit of the blue on a map...


Occasionally, there have been catastrophic breaches in sea defences, as occurred along the coast with the dramatic collapse of the village of Hallsands in Start Bay at the beginning of the Twentieth Century (see above). It was a fishing village, with a sea wall, and was also protected by underwater shingle banks offshore. These shingles were considered very suitable for building purposes and they were dredged, resulting in Hallsands losing a key defence against the effect of storms. The remains of the village provide sombre evidence of the power of the sea as an erosive force and, as a child, I found that looking down on the remains adjacent to the cliff brought a sense of fear and awe. This dramatic location was used in Michael Winner’s film The System [1] for a scene where the characters played by Oliver Reed and Jane Merrow had a romantic liaison – the forbidding atmosphere of the place providing a metaphor for what was to happen in their future relationship.

More recently, there has been serious erosion to the north of Torbay, with the breakthrough of the sea wall at Dawlish and the subsequent undercutting of the main railway line to South Devon and Cornwall. Brunel is widely recognised as a brilliant engineer, but his vision was sometimes unchecked. Certainly, his building of a railway line between sandstone cliffs and the sea was a recipe for trouble and so it has proved on many occasions. The sandstone cliffs of Dawlish (I use the term sandstone to include breccias, where large mineral fragments are embedded in a sandy matrix) are pitted and sculpted by the action of winds and rain and this gives us a clue to another form of coastal erosion; that from landward. Any visitor to the “Jurassic Coast” in southern England is familiar with regular rock falls, as are those who walk under chalk cliffs. They also occur in sandstone areas. There is a good example of such a fall just to the north of Torbay, between Oddicombe and Petitor. This is how the great writer Philip Henry Gosse describes this part of the coast in the 1860s [2]:

Along the margin of a cliff, now steep and sheer, now breaking into an uneven but variously verdant slope, we begin our march, ever and anon pausing to gaze on the smiling scene below. The descent we are just leaving behind, half-covered with the gorse and guelder-rose, is Oddicombe, whose white crescent beach lies below, bounded by the limestone promontory of Petit Tor, which divides the huge precipices of red sandstone close at hand from the bluff coast of the same formation that stretches away to the northward; its ruddy cliffs and bold headlands – Watcombe, The Ness at the mouth of the Teign, the perforated rocks and needles near Dawlish – gradually fading into blue as the coast-line trends away to the eastward, and is lost to the aching gaze somewhere about the boundary of the county.

It is a lovely scene..

Gosse lived in St Marychurch, Torquay, and he made extensive collections of marine organisms between Oddicombe and Petitor, but the sandstone outcrop is different in profile to the one with which he was so familiar. Recent cliff falls have strewn the beach below with masses of rubble (see below), including the remains of houses built on the cliff top to give fine views. Sandstone is a porous rock and consists of mineral grains eroded from older rocks that have become cemented with new mineral deposits and then compressed. In some areas deep within the Earth’s crust, porous sandstone strata provide reservoirs containing oil that we extract after drilling: a similar feature to the aquifers contained within chalk, from which we extract water using boreholes. Needless to say, sandstone that becomes saturated with water, and that is fractured, produces slides like those seen repeatedly at Oddicombe. If you wish to know more of these events, the website of Ian West and Nikolett Csorvasi [3] has many excellent illustrations of the Oddicombe cliffs over time and is well worth browsing.




The original sand that formed the rock may come from deserts, or from sediments at the bottom of seas or lakes. This takes us to the idea of time scales. The coastline of Torbay, so obviously composed to the observer of bands of limestone, sandstone, slates and shales [3], would have looked very different just a few thousand years ago, although the underlying rocks were, of course, always present. Sea level is higher now that it was then and we know that coastal forests have been flooded [4]; remains becoming visible during contemporary low spring tides. If we could see pictures from that time, we would still recognise headlands, although these would be inland and have rather different profiles to the ones we see today. If we go further back in time everything is changed markedly, with the island of Great Britain joined to continental Europe. Before that, Great Britain was part of a huge land mass on a tectonic plate moving around the surface of the Earth, supported on the Earth's magma core.

The Oddicombe cliff falls are easy to recall as they continue and there have been major collapses in the last ten years. We know of the destruction of Hallsands village from contemporary records, and we know of the Torbay forests from the evidence of their remains, although some find it difficult to believe. Events that occurred a million, tens of millions, hundreds of millions and thousands of millions of years ago are quite beyond our understanding. We are sure they occurred, but we cannot comprehend geological time scales. We never will.



[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) Land and Sea. London, James Nisbet & Co.







Wednesday, 22 August 2018

William Martin – opponent of the Establishment



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 Biography. https://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.



Monday, 13 August 2018

Changing our appearance


Modern Biology is dominated by molecular approaches and, especially, the role of genes in evolution and in medicine. In contrast, my degree studies in Zoology in the 1960s were based on the structure and function of a wide range of whole organisms. However, we were introduced to the importance of genes and the way that they interact with the environment (whether within a single cell, within an individual, or outside an individual) through the phenotype (the appearance created by gene expression). We learned that changes in the genotype (the whole genetic makeup, also called the genome) that occurred by chance mutations resulted in changes in the phenotype and that a changing environment allowed the selection of different phenotypes (and thus genotypes) that would be favoured. It is the process of natural selection that Darwin propounded, with the addition of an explanation based on genetics. In the natural world, the process whereby a genetic mutation results in a successful phenotype may take thousands of years to spread through a population: much less in primitive organisms with short, or very short, life cycles.

It was a relationship that always stuck in my mind, although it had little influence on my research and teaching. Some of my research collaborators worked on phenotypic plasticity (different environmental conditions allowing the expression of different parts of the same genotype), so I had that idea, and could see how it applied to animals such as the arctic hare and the ptarmigan that change the colour of their coat/plumage from summer to winter as their environment changed from multicoloured to white. This is clearly under genetic control and requires changes in the physiology of each animal, driven by the influence of environmental cues. There are many more examples in the natural world.

The genotype-phenotype-environment relationship is of great interest to humans, although we may not know of it as such. While recognising that we are created by our genes, it is our phenotype that most interests us in Western countries - the way we look. Of course, we add to that by changing our external appearance frequently (unlike arctic hares and ptarmigans) by using clothes and other coverings. Much attention is given to the hair that grows on parts of our bodies and, recently, on body ornamentation in the form of tattoos. However, it is our shape, and the appearance of different body parts, that most affects us, as these are not easily changed in hours.


Unfortunately, not everyone is satisfied by their body and surgical procedures are used to change our phenotype. These include face lifts, breast enlargement or reduction, hair transplants, modifying parts of the face (like cheek bones and noses), and many others. Cosmetic surgery is invaluable after accidents or major illness, but the modification of appearance for vanity is narcissistic; yet so important to those that spend large sums of money on these procedures. Recently, a contestant on Love Island, a reality TV show in the UK, admitted to having extensive cosmetic interventions on various parts of her body; the cost being estimated at £25,000. She stated “I didn’t take all the decisions (about the operations, fillers, etc.) because I was trying to be a role model. I did it for me and no-one else.” [1]. In the article (see above) she didn’t explain why the results of the procedures made her feel better. The legendary Jocelyn Wildenstein probably spent a lot more on her surgical enhancement (see below) and she has stated that she is very pleased with the results, as she always wanted to look like a large cat. I have no idea whether she knows that others find her appearance monstrous.


In medicine, we are now looking to alter genotypes to prevent serious illnesses, or as a means of treating existing ones, with the exciting development of pharmacogenetics allowing drug treatments that are tailored to individuals. Very large sums of money, and much effort, go into this and the results in a few areas are highly promising. I wonder how long it will be before changing our genotype becomes an acceptable way of altering our phenotype and thus the way we look? It is unlikely to be soon, as so many genes are involved, and it may only be effective during early development, when adult features are beginning to form. Designer babies anyone?

At the opposite end of the age spectrum, we are also investing heavily in studies of ageing. Genetic engineering based on the results of these studies could promote an appearance of agelessness; replacing the cosmetics and cosmetic procedures on which we spend so much money. Then, if we can reduce the appearances of ageing, can we genetically engineer individuals to not age and thus not die? Surely that will never happen?

So, what of the third factor in the genotype-phenotype-environment relationship? We are mostly concerned with our social environment and, through research, in the environment within individuals. Our progressive destruction of the natural environment, a factor in both mental and physical health, might make selection of the phenotypes from altered genotypes irrelevant. But then, our interest is in humans, and the superficiality of humans, above all else.


[1] The i 2nd August 2018



Thursday, 2 August 2018

The power of religious conversion


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?










Friday, 6 July 2018

A mammoth tooth from a submerged forest


The following, fascinating quote is from an 1865 paper by William Pengelly on “The submerged forests of Torbay” [1]:

A few years ago Mr C.E.Parker purchased an elephant’s tooth of some Brixham fishermen who had just taken it up in their trawl whilst fishing in Torbay.

The purchase took place in the 1850s and Pengelly describes how Dr Falconer of the Torquay Natural History Society identified the tooth as being that of a mammoth. He continues [1]:

Had this been a portion of an existing species it might have been supposed that it had been lost from or with some ship returning from India or Africa; but being a relic of an extinct animal it is obvious that it must have been dislodged from some geological deposit. That this was near at hand and that the fossil hade been exposed but a very short time may be safely inferred from the facts that it is entirely destitute of marks or traces of abrasion, and that there are no marine incrustations on its surface.. ..there can be no reasonable doubt that the trawl tore it out of a submarine part of the forest.

We know that the remnants of these forests are exposed occasionally by wave action, as can be seen in an excellent brochure published by Torquay Museum and available on the Web [2]. The appearance of these remnants must come as a surprise to all those who know Torbay as a holiday destination, with golden sandy beaches like those of Tor Abbey Sands, Goodrington Sands and Broadsands (see images below), all of which are named by Pengelly as having deposits to seaward that contain the remains of animals such as red deer, wild hogs, the long-fronted ox and the mammoth [1].





These beds then also extend inland, with surficial deposits overlying the clay and, according to Pidgeon [3] “most of the trees found prostrate in the forest-clay are.. ..willows.” The ancient forest is therefore likely to have been waterlogged from time to time and that promoted the deposition of organic and mineral particles that formed the clays. So, what we know as seaside and sea was, just a few thousand years ago, a region of swampy forest between rocky outcrops and these forests were habitats for many large animals.


Pengelly (above) was a distinguished geologist, famous for excavations in Kent’s Cavern in Torquay that contributed much to our knowledge of ancient cave faunas and the strata in which their remains were found. He was recognised widely by the scientific community, being made a Fellow of the Royal Society for his research, and maintained an active correspondence with many who shared his interests [4]. 

Pengelly lived in a house in the Upton area for many years, moving to Torquay from Looe in Cornwall and his house was named Lamorna, probably in honour of that region of his home county. He ran a school and was much involved with lectures and the work of the Torquay Natural History Society; the town being an important centre for the Nineteenth Century passion of Natural History, which included the study of rocks and fossils.

At the time of Pengelly’s paper, it was recognised that there had been an increase in sea level in the past few thousand years, and that this resulted in the submersion of the forest, but the rise was not linked actively to the melting of massive glaciers at the end of the last glaciated period ("Ice Age"); knowledge that we now take for granted. Coming 20 years after Pengelly’s paper, Pidgeon focused on whether the fossils found in the submerged forest beds were contemporaneous with early humans. We love anthropocentricity, and especially like the idea that our ancestors as modern humans co-existed with mammoths, these being such popular animals in our imagination. It is intriguing that complete bodies of these proboscideans have been found frozen in the permafrost of Siberia [5], but, unfortunately, Torbay mammoths have been much less well preserved.


[1] W. Pengelly (1865) The submerged forests of Torbay. Devonshire Association Transactions 1(4):30-42. [Published in 1866].


[3] D. Pidgeon (1885) On some recent discoveries in the submerged forest of Torbay. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 41:9-22.

[4] Hester Pengelly (1897) A Memoir of William Pengelly, of Torquay, F.R.S., Geologist, with a selection of his correspondence. London, John Murray.

[5] Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn (1995) Mammoths. London, Boxtree.





Thursday, 28 June 2018

The End of the World


Those brought up in the world of evangelical Christianity are likely to remember being frightened when the Book of Revelation was discussed, especially the sections describing what is going to happen at the end of the World. There was always the thought that the events described were imminent and that “fire and brimstone” awaited unbelievers.


Philip Henry Gosse was an evangelical Christian who led the congregation of Brethren who met in Fore Street in St Marychurch Torquay during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Every Sunday, he preached a sermon and we have a record of their contents as they were published in one of his last books, The Mysteries of God [1]. His preaching on the end of the World would certainly have produced some discomfort in those listening to him. 

In the chapter entitled “Things coming on the Earth” [1] we read:

It is probable that, at the instant of Rapture of the Church, the whole of Papal Europe will be engulfed by the yawning of the earth bursting into a vast Volcano, never to be quenched. Perhaps one effect of this opening of the bowels of the globe will be to fill up the depression of the Mediterranean; and so to accomplish that physical change announced (Rev. xxi. 1),- “the sea was no more.”

The inference is that the destruction likely to result from this volcanic activity is to be aimed at Roman Catholicism, long a subject of loathing by Gosse and other members of evangelical, non-conformist Christian sects (and obviously not mentioned by name in the Bible, as the book was written in the earliest days of Christianity). We are not told about the extent of other eruptions and explosions, although it was well known in the Nineteenth Century that other areas of the World have considerable volcanic activity. The focus on the Mediterranean not only serves to allow focus on the fate of Roman Catholics, but it also leads on to the events that are set to occur in, and around, Jerusalem.

Most important is the descent of the New Jerusalem, described by Gosse as [1]:

..the sudden coming into sight, from heavenly space, of a glittering object, unknown to astronomers, self-luminous, above the brightness of the sun, steadily approaching, till it enters our atmosphere, and comes into close proximity to, if not actual contact with, this globe; transcends all human experience, and defies all natural philosophy. But the epoch is an epoch of miracle: the Almighty God is henceforth visibly interposing; and is not bound by natural laws, which He made, and which He can interrupt, or counteract, at his pleasure. The suspension of a non-rotating cubic mass, 1500 miles every way, in our atmosphere or near it, composed of such materials as gold and gems, and inhabited by millions of human beings, in bodies, however ethereal, would surely so augment and throw out of bearing, the specific gravity of the earth, so alter its relations to the sun, to the moon, even to all the other planets, as to be inconceivable and impossible!..

..I suppose this cube to face the earth cornerwise: to consist, indeed of two pyramids, placed base to base, of which the upper will be the city-proper, and the lower will consist of the twelve glorious foundations. These foundations are the most remarkable feature in the whole material structure; and they form its distinctive character; “the City that hath the foundations.”

This extraordinary description is based on Revelation Chapter 21, with Gosse adding his own exegesis. Questions arise from this description, of course, and contemporary readers must ask where the New Jerusalem (Heaven) is now and whether it currently has a physical form, as it is going to at the end of the World. I’m sure that these questions also occurred to Gosse, but he was happy to admit there were sections of the Bible that he could not understand.


The attention to detail in The Mysteries of God is typical of the man and it replicates the pattern of Gosse's investigations on seashore life and on many other aspects of Natural History. His books on these subjects were very popular and they contain many references to God as Creator. Like many contemporary readers, I do not pay much attention to these interjections and they do not impact the rest of his wonderful writing. Gosse was a profound Creationist and proposed his own theory to explain the presence of the rock strata, with their associated fossils, that came into existence over the few days stated in Genesis [2]. It is fitting that he had something to say about both the beginning, and the end, of the World.

To Henry Gosse, religious belief was paramount and he always wished to be able to ascend to Heaven in the Rapture [3] and not have to go through the process of death. Unfortunately, he didn’t get his wish and died four years after The Mysteries of God was published.



[1] Philip Henry Gosse (1884) The Mysteries of God. London, Hodder and Stoughton.

[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1857) Omphalos: an attempt to untie the geological knot. London, John Van Voorst.

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


Friday, 22 June 2018

Five articles inspired by visits to National Trust properties



William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), the pioneer of photography and refiner of the calotype process, was a mathematician and keen archaeologist who lived at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire. His family home is now owned by the National Trust and it is easy for a visitor to imagine life in the old house, and the adjoining village, during the Nineteenth Century.


During a visit to Lacock Abbey, I had a chance to look through the library (only at the spines of the books, as they were wired in for security purposes - see above) and was drawn to a copy of Foot-prints of the Creator: or the Asterolepis of Stromness by Hugh Miller. I have no idea whether Fox Talbot read this copy, but I feel sure that he did. The book was an important contribution to debates about apparent conflicts between the literal truth of the Bible and mounting support for the reality of geological time scales and for the evolution of organisms, especially humans. Foot-prints of the Creator was written as a response to the ideas put forward in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation published, anonymously, by Robert Chambers in 1844. That book, very popular at the time, described the evolution of both the physical and biological world, using, in part, ideas that had earlier been propounded by Lamarck. Of the development hypothesis, Miller wrote:

If, during a period so vast as to be scarce expressible by figures, the creatures now human have been rising, by almost infinitesimals, from compound microscopic cells,-minute vital globules within globules, begot by electricity on dead gelatinous matter,-until they have at length become the men and women whom we see around us, we must hold either the monstrous belief, that all the vitalities, whether those of monads or of mites, of fishes or of reptiles, of birds or of beasts, are individually and inherently immortal and undying, or that human souls are not so. [1]

It was this latter point that was so important to Miller who, as a committed Christian, could not countenance the idea of humans without souls. There was no conflict, however, with the view of geological time scales, and Miller described periods of creation and extinction in The Testimony of the Rocks; or, Geology in its Bearings on the Two Theologies, Natural and Revealed. The book was published posthumously and is based on several lectures, with the addition of further chapters “written mainly to complete and impart a character of unity to the volume of which they form a part” [2]. In the preliminary section entitled “To the Reader”, Miller writes:

It will be seen that I adopt.. ..[a] scheme of reconciliation between Geologic and Mosaic Records which accepts the six days of creation as vastly extended periods; and I have been reminded by a somewhat captious critic that I once held a very different view, and twitted with what he terms inconsistency. I certainly did once believe.. .. that the six days were simply natural days of twenty-four hours each,-that they had compressed the entire work of the existing creation,-and that the latest of the geological ages was separated by a great chaotic gap from our own. [2]

He continues by stating that:

..the conclusion at which I have been compelled to arrive is, that for many long ages ere man was ushered into being, not a few of his humbler contemporaries of the fields and woods enjoyed life in their present haunts, and that for thousands of years anterior to even their appearance, many of the existing molluscs lived in our seas. That day during which the present creation came into being, and in which God, when he had made “the beast of the earth after his kind, and the cattle after their kind,” at length terminated the work by moulding a creature in his own image, to whom he gave dominion over them all, was not a brief period of a few hours’ duration, but extended over mayhap millenniums of centuries. No blank chaotic gap of death and darkness separated the creation to which man belongs from that of the old extinct elephant, hippopotamus, and hyæna; for familiar animals such as the red deer, the roe, the fox, the wild cat, and the badger, lived throughout the period which connected their times with our own; and so I have been compelled to hold, that the days of creation were not natural, but prophetic days, and stretched far back into the bygone eternity. After in some degree committing myself to the other side, I have yielded to the evidence which I found it impossible to resist; and such in this matter has been my inconsistency,-an inconsistency of which the world has furnished examples in all the sciences, and will, I trust, in its onward progress, continue to furnish many more. [2]

Although unable to accept ideas about the evolution of humans, Miller had changed his mind about the literal description of the days of Creation in The Bible. He made extensive studies of the fossils in his native Scotland, and elsewhere, and found geological time periods the only possible explanation for the changing flora and fauna in different rock strata.


Hugh Miller (1802-1856) was brought up in Cromarty and left school at around sixteen. His father had died when he was five and his maternal uncles were an important influence on the young Hugh, encouraging his fascination with the natural world and also with folklore and legend, interests that remained with him for the rest of his life. He had always been a keen reader and liked to write, but he needed a job and so became a stonemason, travelling to wherever there was work. His skills with hammer and chisel aided his developing interest in geology and he was expert in breaking open nodules that contained fossils. As described in the excellent biography Hugh Miller: Stonemason, Geologist, Writer by Michael A. Taylor [3], Miller achieved fame as an expert on fossil fish from sandstones and this despite his natural shyness and difficulty in enjoying formal meetings. After a spell working in a bank, he was appointed the editor of an Edinburgh newspaper, The Witness, that enabled him to write on a number of subjects and he was involved in debates on the future of the Free Church in Scotland, holding strongly Calvinist views. It is perhaps surprising, then, that Hugh Miller ended his own life and the reasons for his suicide are not clear, although he suffered from severe health issues caused by silicosis, acquired when he worked in an atmosphere thick with stone dust in his younger years. To the end, he was a committed Christian and his faith was not challenged by the difference between the “geologic and Mosaic records”. He was “not a man torn between science and religion, but, on the contrary, one who is comfortable with both.” [4]

Another book published in 1857 took a quite different line to that in The Testimony of the Rocks. Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888) was a member of the Brethren and could neither accept ideas on evolution or anything that questioned the literal truth of the Holy Bible. The developing ideas on the mid-Nineteenth Century were thus a challenge that he felt he must address. Like Hugh Miller, Henry Gosse had no formal training but he, too, became an expert in his field, in this case Natural History. In his early years he was encouraged in his observations by a maternal aunt and he went on to be fascinated by all the living organisms around him. His work on sea anemones and corals is still recognised as important, but he also published on a wide range of other topics. Interestingly, like Hugh Miller, he was a shy man and an excellent writer, but Henry Gosse was also a gifted painter and illustrator and his books became widely popular as a result. One book was not a success and this was Omphalos, sub-titled an attempt to untie the geological knot, and this was Henry Gosse’s way of resolving the conflict that Miller also addressed. Although primarily an observer of living organisms, Henry Gosse had an excellent knowledge of rock strata, the fossil record and geological time and he accepted this reality. However, Gosse theorised that they were part of the six-day Creation, with the structure of the Earth’s crust, including the remains of organisms, having been created in a few days. Unsurprisingly, this view was considered absurd by scientists at the time and, to Henry Gosse’s surprise, it was also regarded very unfavourably by Christians, as they found it unlikely that God would wish to deceive by hiding fossils within rocks [5].



 It seems strange that devout Christians, working with the same Holy Book, have such disparate views and the debate about Creation, and what was meant in Genesis, continues today. Of course, it causes such strong feelings because there are always differences of opinion in human culture and we have a tendency to only fully acknowledge our own personal beliefs. Hugh Miller was able to accept a change in his views in the light of changing evidence and it did not impact his faith, but Henry Gosse found himself boxed into a corner. Gosse had the satisfaction of maintaining the purity of his position, but it left him isolated and disappointed. No more so than in his relationship with his only son Edmund, with whom he had been very close and who, as a youth, could not follow his father’s dogmatic approach.

I greatly admire Henry Gosse as a Natural Historian and find his books, and illustrations, quite wonderful. He was a caring man whose religious beliefs underscored everything that he did, but whether we could have sustained a conversation, or a friendship, is debatable. In contrast, I think I would feel less guarded when meeting Hugh Miller, although his energy and time-keeping might be a strain. Both men are important parts of the period of Natural History described by Lynn Barber as its heyday [6] and Miller and Gosse are given adjacent chapters in her book. The transformational work of Darwin in On the Origin of Species published in 1859, just two years after The Testimony of the Rocks and Omphalos, provided, in natural selection, a mechanism to explain evolution and it transformed our thinking. It is such an important book that it has overshadowed the contributions made by Miller and by Gosse, yet the change of mind of one, and the determination not to change by the other, give insights into current debates on Creation and evolution. Their books are worth reading.

I wonder if Fox Talbot read both?

[1] Hugh Miller (1849) Foot-prints of the Creator: or the Asterolepis of Stromness. London, Johnstone and Hunter.

[2] Hugh Miller (1857) The Testimony of the Rocks; or, Geology in its Bearings on the Two Theologies, Natural and Revealed. Edinburgh, Thomas Constable & Co.

[3] Michael A. Taylor (2007) Hugh Miller: Stonemason, Geologist, Writer. Edinburgh, NMS Publishing Limited.

[4] Simon J. Knell and Michael A. Taylor (2006) Hugh Miller: fossils, landscape and literary geology. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 117: 85-98.

[5] Roger S. Wotton (2012) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. Southampton, Clio Publishing.

[6] Lynn Barber (1980) The Heyday of Natural History. London, Jonathan Cape.




While visiting the Library of Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, I found a copy of Hugh Miller's Foot-prints of the Creator: or the Asterolepis of Stromness and wondered whether the Fox Talbot family had been enthusiastic readers of the book [1]. Last week, I was at Oxburgh Hall, the ancestral home of the Roman Catholic Bedingfield family, famous for its well-preserved Priest's Hole, into which the brave can still clamber. This hidden room was to protect Roman Catholic clerics after the Reformation, a time when they were hunted and persecuted. The house and park are wonderful places to visit [2] and I followed my usual habit of perusing the spines of the volumes in the Library: one of the books that stood out was a copy of Jean-Henri Fabre's Social Life in the Insect World.
 



Fabre, who lived from 1823 to 1915, was an enthusiastic entomologist and had the ability to engage readers with his descriptions of insects and their behaviour, often amplified by the results of experiments that he conducted. Here is an example from Social Life in the Insect World where he discusses his observations on the Oak Eggar Moth Lasiocampa quercus (see above). The text is translated from the French and this is what members of the Bedingfield family would have read [3]:

One afternoon, while trying to determine whether sight plays any part in the search for the female once the males had entered the room, I placed the female in a bell-glass and gave her a slender twig of oak with withered leaves as a support. The glass was set upon a table facing the open window. Upon entering the room the moths could not fail to see the prisoner, as she stood directly in the way. The tray, containing a layer of sand, on which the female had passed the preceding day and night, covered with a wire-gauze dish-cover, was in my way. Without premeditation I placed it at the other end of the room on the floor, in a corner where there was little light. It was a dozen yards away from the window.
   The result of these preparations entirely upset my preconceived ideas. None of the arrivals stopped at the bell-glass, where the female was plainly to be seen, the light falling full upon her prison. Not a glance, not an inquiry. They all flew to the further end of the room, into the dark corner where I had placed the tray and the empty dish-cover.
   They alighted on the wire dome, explored it persistently, beating their wings and jostling one another. All the afternoon, until sunset, the moths danced about the empty cage the same saraband that the actual presence of the female had previously evoked. Finally they departed: not all, for there were some that would not go, held by some magical attractive force.

The description of what we now know to be the action of pheromones is delightful: who could not be fascinated by Fabre's account of his experiment? Charles Darwin certainly valued his work in insect biology and, in a letter to Fabre on 31st January 1880 [4], wrote:

I hope that you will permit me to have the satisfaction of thanking you cordially for the lively pleasure which I have derived from reading your book. Never have the wonderful habits of insects been more vividly described, and it is almost as good to read about them as to see them.

Further in the same letter comes this:

I am sorry that you are so strongly opposed to the Descent theory; I have found the searching for the history of each structure or instinct an excellent aid to observation; and wonderful observer as you are, it would suggest new points to you. If I were to write on the evolution of insects, I could make good use of some of the facts which you give.

Fabre's Creationism came from his deep religious beliefs, recorded by his biographer and namesake, Abbé Augustin Fabre [5]:

..in these times of overweening atheism [the biography was published in 1921], when so many pseudo-scientists are striving to persuade the ignorant that science is learning to dispense with God, would it not be a most timely thing to reveal, to the eyes of all, a scientist of undoubted genius who finds in science fresh arguments for belief, and manifold occasions for affirming his faith in the God who has created and rules the world?

Incorporating quotes from Jean-Henri Fabre, he continues:

.."Life is a horrible phantasmagoria. But it leads us to a better future.".. ..This future the naturalist [Fabre] liked to conceive in accordance with the images familiar in his mind, as being a more complete understanding of the great book of which he had deciphered only a few words, as a more perfect communion with the offices of nature, in the incense of the perfumes "that are softly exhaled by the carven flowers from their golden censers," amid the delightful symphonies in which are mingled the voices of crickets and Cicadae, chaffinches and siskins, skylarks and goldfinches, "those tiny choristers," all singing and fluttering, "trilling their motets to the glory of Him who gave them voice and wings on the fifth day of Genesis."..

.."And when one evening," says his friend, "I remarked that these little miracles clearly proved the existence of a divine Artificer: 'For me, I do not believe in God', declared the scientist, repeating for the last time his famous and paradoxical profession of faith: 'I do not believe in God, because I see Him in all things and everywhere.'"

It is fitting then that Fabre's book is in the Library (shown below) at Oxburgh Hall, the home of the Roman Catholic Bedingfield family. Not only will family members have thoroughly enjoyed Fabre's descriptions of his observations and experiments in entomology, they would also empathise with the importance of his faith, although they may have questioned Fabre's dogmatism. It is easy to sympathise with Darwin's frustration at the conflict between reason and the unbending position of those believing that The Holy Bible must be taken literally. It is a conflict that continues today.






[3] Jean-Henri Fabre (1911) Social Life in the Insect World (translated by Bernard Miall). London, T. Fisher Unwin Ltd.


[5] Abbé Augustin Fabre (1921) The Life of Jean Henri Fabre, the Entomologist 1823-1910 (translated by Bernard Miall). New York,





The Scotney Castle Estate in Kent provides a wonderful example of an English Romantic landscape. The original castle was modified extensively in the early Nineteenth Century (below, upper) and a new house, in a quite different style (below, lower), built on the hill overlooking it. The grounds are beautiful, but the old castle and its moat are the dominant features and can be seen from all the best rooms in the new house, completed on the instructions of Edward Hussey III in 1843.





When visiting large houses owned by the National Trust, I always make a point of looking at the titles of the books in their libraries (see the previous two articles). It is clear that Edward Hussey III, like many of his class in the mid-Nineteenth Century, was interested in Science and Natural History. Among the books in the new house were Jabez Hogg's The Microscope: it's History, Construction and Application (published in 1854), James F. Johnston's The Chemistry of Common Life (published in 1855) and Mrs T. J. Hussey's Illustrations of British Mycology (published in two parts in 1847 and 1855). Hogg's book was very popular at the time, selling over 50,000 copies, and it describes the physics of microscopy; the construction of microscopes; how to prepare materials for microscopy; and descriptions of animals, plants and their parts. It was a comprehensive guide for those indulging in this Victorian passion, and Johnston's work gave some answers to questions about the biology of organisms that were observed, with sections on air and odours; water; soil; foodstuffs and digestion; liquors; and narcotics (!).


However, it was Mrs Hussey's book that most attracted my attention, as she had a family connection to Scotney Castle. Anna Maria was married to Thomas John Hussey, the son of the Reverend John Hussey, who was the younger brother of Edward Hussey, the grandfather of Edward III who built the new house. Maria (the name by which she was known in the family) was the daughter of the Reverend J. T. A. Reed and the Reed family, like the Husseys, were acquainted with many leading figures of the day in science, including Babbage, Herschel, Fox Talbot and Graves. Both families knew the Darwins of Downe and Maria's younger brother George Varenne Reed was tutor to Charles Darwin's sons [1].

Maria had three younger sisters, all of whom were interested in botany and in collecting plants [2], and she wrote a wonderfully personal journal during a visit that she made to Dover with her youngest sister Kate (Catherine) in 1836 [2]. At the time, Maria was 31 years old, with two young children, and Kate 19 years old. In addition to many visits to the shore to observe marine life, the two collected plants, fossils and other geological specimens during walks in the Dover area, some of which required short trips by boat. There is no mention of her interest in fungi in the journal.

In Illustrations of British Mycology, Maria describes fungi (funguses to her) that can be collected in Britain; the means of collecting them; and how to identify them. It is detailed, accurate and scholarly, with many plates that show the skill of both Maria and her sister Fanny (Frances) as illustrators - montages of some of the lithographs in the book are shown below. We learn from Elizabeth Finn that Maria was not happy with the work of the lithographers [1] and one can only wonder at how good the originals must have been:




In addition to its value in allowing accurate identifications, the book also conveys Maria's enthusiasm for the subject. Here are two examples of her descriptions, first of toadstools and then of mushrooms [3]:

This splendid Agaric lifts its head boldly, the "observed of all observers", even the most careless so that it is oftener kicked to pieces, and other attentions of the kind bestowed on it, than most "Toadstools" receive: I have mourned over specimens nearly a foot across, their pure ivory gills and glowing scarlet pileus crushed in the dusty road.

The English "Mushroom" proper takes two different forms, according to soil and other conditions of site. The first case is that of rich cool loam districts, such as the extensive grazing pastures where the dairymen of Bucks herd their cows, and which have not been ploughed or mowed within the scope of the remotest tradition; the herbage is kept down by the cattle, and neither rude gravel below, not rank matted grass above, offers obstacles to the regular development of the fairest and most fragile of mushrooms, the very perfection of the thing! no freckles deface the white silky pileus, no thick cottony screen swathes a clumsy stem betokening coarse over-feeding; a light soft veil is all the protection the gills ever had, and they have expanded so rapidly even that has disappeared, or left only a few lacerated fragments on the stem; tender, succulent, friable and digestible, nourished on pure earth, in air redolent of wild thyme and the breath of kine, by dew which might be Fairies' nectar it is so free from the impurities of city miasma..

I do not know if Maria visited Scotney, but I would like to think that she did, as the estate must have been a splendid place for hunting fungi. The presence of her book in the Library indicates that Edward III was likely to have had an interest in this activity, and perhaps in looking at details of fungi using a microscope, and who better than a relative (by marriage) to act as a guide? Judging from her descriptions in the book and in her journal, she would have made a fascinating companion on Nature rambles and she deserves to be ranked alongside Margaret Gatty, Anna Atkins, and Amelia Griffiths, all eminent Victorian Natural Historians.


[1] Elizabeth A Finn (2009) Hussey, Anna Maria (1805-1853). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[2] Elizabeth Finn Botany, Boats and Bathing Machines: Anna Maria Hussey's Holiday in Dover 1836. Available as an e-book from Kent Archives Service - Ref U3754.

[3] Mrs T. J. Hussey (1847) Illustrations of British Mycology, containing Figures and Descriptions of the Funguses of Interest and Novelty Indigenous to Britain. London, Reeve Brothers.






I like perusing the titles of books in the libraries of large country houses. They give an impression of the interests of previous owners of the house and, because of my liking for Natural History, it is volumes on this subject that particularly catch my eye [1,2,3].


Last week, I visited Standen House, the country home of the Beale family from the end of the Nineteenth Century. It has lovely gardens and the interior of the house is decorated in Arts and Craft style and contains some very fine furniture [4]. As would be expected in the library of a family with seven children - and, later, grandchildren - there were many volumes about fairy tales and adventure, but the book that stood out for me was The Days and Nights of Birds by the French amateur ornithologist Jacques Delamain (the cover of my copy is shown above). Ornithology has always been a popular pastime, and many books have been written about the habits, and habitats, of birds. In the Foreword of The Days and Nights of Birds [5] Delamain writes:

"But has not everything essential been said about birds?" The question was put to me one day by Abel Bonnard who was unwilling to see too narrow a limit imposed on his keen poetical curiosity. I assured him that this subject, like all which touch nature, was inexhaustible. Indeed, for the seeker, one discovery leads to another and new problems appear which the mind tries to solve. The beauty of living creatures and the setting in which they move, life's harmony and complexity, always awake in us unexpected echoes. Intellectual curiosity, the aesthetic sense and poetry never fail to renew the world.

Each one of us follows his own way, seeking to understand the mystery of creation. For some, the way grows endlessly broader, embracing vast horizons, others advance slowly and shortsightedly along a narrow path. But no one can set out without discovering riches..

We can see that Delamain's interest in birds was wrapped up with his love of Nature and he communicated this in an attractive prose style that is apparent even in translation. It is easy to see how readers may be stimulated to look more closely at birds after reading his books and Delamain concludes the Foreword by writing:

My first book, Why Birds Sing, brought me precious assurance from my readers that I had taught them how better to observe Nature, and how to love her more. If my present volume induces them to look once more on the ever varied spectacle offered to our eyes by the seasons as they pass, and increase their interest in the creatures that people our fields, woods and rivers, it will have fulfilled its purpose.

One can imagine Mr Beale, or visitors to Standen, reading the book and using it as a guide to their own observations on walks in the garden or around the estate.


The writings of Delamain influenced many others, including the composer Olivier Messaien. Messiaen was fascinated by birdsong and Hill and Simeone [6] describe the result of his visit to Delamain's home La Branderaie de Gardépéé (see above):

In April 1952,.. .. Messaien took what proved to be a decisive step. At the suggestion of his publisher Leduc he paid a short visit (15-17 April) to Jacques Delamain, a leading ornithologist and prolific author. Delamain lived in south-west France, his house at Gardépéé set in large wooded grounds midway between Cognac and the neighbouring town of Jarnac, where the Delamain family firm still produces brandy. Delamain's tuition enabled Messaien's knowledge of ornithology to catch up with his musical aspirations. In particular, he learned to identify birds solely through their songs or cries: 'It was [Delamain] who taught me to recognise a bird from its song, without having to see its plumage or the shape of its beak.'

..the visit to Delamain proved a life-changing experience. Delamain inspired Messiaen to pursue his researches in a more systematic way. The results can be seen in the surviving birdsong notebooks, the Cahiers de notation des chants d'oiseaux, in which Messaien started to collect his observations from nature..

Messaien went on to compose Réveil des oiseaux and Hill and Simeone [5] include a quote from the composer about this work:

"In Réveil des oiseaux [...] there's really nothing but bird songs [...], without any added rhythm or counterpoint, and the birds singing are really found together in nature; it's a completely truthful work. It's about an awakening of birds in the beginning of a spring morning; the cycle goes from midnight to noon: night songs, an awakening at four in the morning, a big tutti of birds cut short by the sunrise, forenoon songs, and the great silnce of noon.."

You can hear the piece in this video clip [7] and it is interesting that it follows a sequence of bird song through a day, perhaps in homage to Delamain's Days and Nights of Birds



I find the link between Delamain and Messaien fascinating: a great composer and a wonderful writer both communicating about Nature and the pleasure that it gave them. Thank you Standen, and the National Trust, for giving me a chance to tell the story.






[5] Jacques Delamain (1933) The Days and Nights of Birds (translated by Mary Schlumberger). London, Victor Gollancz.

[6] Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone (2007) Olivier Messiaen: Oiseuax exotiques. Aldershot, Ashgate, 





 In 2017, I visited Dyrham Park for the first time. The late 17th and early 18th Century house has a breathtaking setting (see above) and its grounds, with their ponds and formal gardens, add to the perfection of it all. The interiors are equally splendid and I enjoyed walking around, looking at the furnishings and decoration, but I was drawn to a painting. This was Murillo's An Urchin Mocking an Old Woman eating Migas that had been in the house for centuries, although the canvas I was staring at was, I think, a copy [1] of the original (see below).


There are two threads to Murillo's work: religious paintings and those of street life, and the painting at Dyrham Park combines both. Prolific and popular in his time, Murillo had an excellent technique and was able to convey movement and feeling. I remember being struck by his work when I first saw The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities [2] on a visit to the National Gallery in London as a teenager. 


I have indicated the main lines of composition in the Dyrham Park painting above, the background being of little significance. From this analysis, we see that our eye is led around the images, with the lines drawing us to the face of the woman and, over and over again, to the face of the boy. The dog also plays a part, as does the food that the woman is attempting to eat with a spoon. The boy has a beautiful face (we can barely see his body, but for the right shoulder and arm) and, while engaging us, he is mocking the old woman, who looks across and up with fear and resignation. Her bowl of migas is drawn to one side and partially hidden from him (and the dog) by her right arm. The message is one of the cockiness of youth and the despair of bullying in old age and being able to do nothing about it. While the religious component is hidden, the painting could be taken as a model for at least one of the Beatitudes [3] and may well have been conceived by Murillo with this in mind.

Another question arises from the title of the work: what is migas? By chance, I had lunch yesterday at Moro in Exmouth Market in London. On the menu (see below, with magnified section) they had migas as an accompaniment to grilled lamb and sweetcorn, so I had some. The migas that I was served was a ball of fried, seasoned breadcrumbs and this is the way the dish is served in modern Spain, and in many other countries, often with some small pieces of meat or chorizo included. It is thus "leftovers" and this further emphasises the lowly position of the old woman in the painting, although her migas looks much more substantial and was possibly of bread scraps moistened with liquid (water, milk, or oil?) from the jug seen in the bottom left of the composition.




If you get the chance, visit Dyrham Park [4]. It is a magnificent place and you, too, can stare at the Murillo painting and be challenged by Murillo's urchin.