Philip Henry Gosse
Born: Worcester, Worcestershire, April 6th 1810.
Died: St Marychurch, Devon, August 23rd 1888.
Philip Henry Gosse was a self-educated naturalist and writer, whose books included A Naturalist’s Rambles on the North Devon Coast (1853) and Evenings at the Microscope (1859) and whose influence led to the popularisation of natural science among the Victorians.
Gosse had already travelled to Newfoundland, Alabama and Jamaica, resettled in England, and published several books on Natural History by 1852, when he visited Ilfracombe for the first time. He left London and set out with his wife, Emily, and young son Edmund. At this time Ilfracombe was a burgeoning seaside holiday destination, and Gosse was able to combine scientific study of the marine life there with the joys of introducing his young son to the seaside. A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast (1853) was the end result of his visit and the book proved enormously influential, sparking a craze for marine biology in its readers. It was soon referenced by the popular guidebooks of the era as a resource for tourists interested in collecting specimens.
In 1852 Gosse had been involved in establishing the first public aquarium in Regent’s Park, stocked with specimens collected from Ilfracombe. In 1854 Gosse wrote The Aquarium, which detailed how to construct a tank in which he hoped the general public would be able to make their own rock pools. This furthered the interest in collecting and soon drawing-rooms up and down the country contained aquariums. Marine specimens were also collected for other purposes – shells were used to decorate boxes, and seaweed pressed into books.
In 1857 Emily died, and Gosse relocated to St Marychurch, Devon, where he would spend the remainder of his life. He continued to write, gave public lectures on natural history, and led parties on nature walks along the North Devon coast. However, this time was marked by Gosse’s stuggle to reconcile his faith in God with science, a project which led to his book Omphalos (1857) which attempted to reconcile the age of the Earth as shown by geology with the dating of the Creation in the Bible. The book was poorly recieved by scientists and Christians alike, with Gosse’s friend the Rev. Charles Kingsley commenting that he could not bring himself to believe ‘that god had written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie’.
Gosse continued to write books on Natural History, including Evenings at the Microscope (1859) and The Romance of Natural History (1861), and in 1860 he married Eliza Brightwen. A Year at the Shore (1865) was his last book on Natural History, although he continued to his studies in the field until he died in 1888.
George Lewes and George Eliot
George Lewes Born: London, 18th April 1817
Died: London, 30th November 1878
George Eliot/Mary Ann Evans Born: Nuneaton, Warwickshire, 22nd November 1819
Died: Chelsea, Middlesex, 22nd December 1880
Lewes and Eliot visited Ilfracombe together in 1856. The couple had been living together for two years, which had scandalised London society as Lewes had been unable to officially divorce his first wife, Agnes. George Eliot was at that time known by her real name, Mary Ann Evans, and editor of the popular left-wing journal The Westminster Review. George Lewes was already known as a journalist, theatre critic, novelist and philosopher, and wished to establish himself as a scientist. In addition to avoiding London society, both Lewes and Eliot arrived in Ilfracombe with the express intention of studying its rock pools.
They spent the first part of their trip in Ilfracombe, studying the marine life of the area with the help of the Reverend George Tugwell. When they continued to Tenby, Eliot was inspired to write The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton (1857) which would become the first of the Scenes of a Clerical Life and sparked her career as a novelist. The trip also led more directly to Lewes’ book Seaside Studies at Ilfracombe, Tenby, the Scilly Isles and Jersey (1857).
Eliot’s writings from the trip are full of references to visual phenomena and the visual arts, and profess her belief in the power of representations anchored in direct experience over disembodied abstractions. Her enthusiasm for her scientific studies is evidenced by her journal, which includes detailed descriptions of her finds which revel both in their aesthetic beauty and their scientific classification, for example ‘The Corallina Officinalis was then in its greatest perfection, and with its purple pink fronds threw into relief the dark olive fronds of the Laminariae on one side and the vivid green of the Ulva and Enteromorpha on the other‘. In her later writing she continued to draw on her experiences at Ilfracombe, including her description of Mrs. Cadwallader’s interference in Middlemarch society as like a creature in a waterdrop under a microscope which appears voracious under a weak lens but under a stronger one is revealed to sit passively whilst using tiny hairlets to induce vortices to draw in its victims.
Reverend George Tugwell
Born: Devon, 1829
Died: Lee, Devon, 2nd March 1910
Reverend George Tugwell was a local of Ilfracombe in North Devon who published A Manual of Sea Anemones Commonly Found on the English Coast (1856), which was explicitly addressed to ‘amateur ramblers about our English coasts who take a pleasure in noticing every form of beauty which they may encounter in their wanderings’ and cited the blessings of sea anemones as their beauty, the ease with which they can be collected, and that ‘they may be kept in the drawing room or the study without trouble or annoyance, and may be carried away to our country-houses as a permanent memorial of our visit to the seaside’. From this it may be inferred that Tugwell’s imagined audience were middle-class holidaymakers with a penchant for rational recreation. Like Charlotte Chanter, below, he believes in that studying nature will ‘raise the mind to an habitual love of the great Maker of these varied and wonderful creations’, but also ‘strengthen the memory’ and ‘improve the reasoning powers’.
He also wrote On The Mountain: Being the Welsh Experiences of Abraham Black and Jonas White (1862) and edited The North Devon Handbook (1851). He assisted Lewes and Eliot in their scientific study of Ilfracombe’s rock pools.
Reverend Charles Kingsley
Born: Holne, Devon, 12th June 1819
Died: Eversley, Hampshire, 23th January 1875
Charles Kingsley was a Christian socialist, priest, university professor, novelist, historian and natural scientist. He spent his early childhood in Devon, went on to study at Cambridge and after graduation, in 1844 he became the rector of Eversley. He published his first novel, Yeast, in 1848, and his later writings ranged through historical novels, religious journals, children’s books, and a book for amateur naturalists.
1854 Charles Kingsley and his family stayed in Bideford, Devon whilst he worked on the historical novel Westward Ho! (1855) and the natural history book Glaucus; Or the Wonders of the Shore (1855). In the opening of Glaucus Kingsley asks the reader to picture their six week seaside holiday, which he paints as lackluster, idle and unfulfilling. He goes on to exhort the reader to try the wonders of rational recreation, to learn a little about the wonders of the shore and marvel at God’s handiwork. The exploration of the shore which he narrates to the reader begins with examples from the Devon coastline, namely the landscape of Torbay and Paignton. Kingsley doesn’t see science as in opposition to the holy word of God, instead praising scientists who, rather than twist the facts to suit the Bible or the Bible to suit the facts, continued their research with faith that ‘God could take better care than they of His own everlasting truth’. In his book he writes that marine biologists should be like medieval knights in their physical and mental hardiness and their chivalrous manner. He advocates the study of natural history as a source of both pleasure and wisdom.
Darwin corresponded with Kingsley and in 1859 Kingsley was one of the first to welcome Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species, stating that it was ‘just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created primal forms capable of self-development’. Quotes from his letter were used in every edition of the book until the last in 1872.
In 1859 Kingsley was appointed chaplain to Queen Victoria and in 1861 he tutored the Prince of Wales, later to be Edward VII. Between 1860 and 1869 he held a professorship at Cambridge, and from 1870 to 1873 he was the Canon of Chester Cathedral, after which he became Canon of Westminster Abbey, until his death in 1875.
Charlotte Chanter (Née Kingsley)
Born: 24th December 1828
Died: March 1882
Chanter was sister to the Reverend Charles Kingsley and married to John Mill Chanter, the vicar of Ilfracombe. In 1856 she published Ferny Combes: A Ramble After Ferns in the Glens and Valleys of Devonshire, which is aimed at novice botanists (for example seaside holidaymakers) and is full of lush descriptions of the local landscape and the beauty of nature. The book not only describes where to find ferns and how to preserve them in a ‘fern-book’ but also extolls the spiritual benefit of enjoying the wonders of God’s creation. Fern-collecting was so common in the period between 1830 and 1910 that Charlotte’s brother Charles christened the craze ‘pteridomania’ or Fern-Fever, and Devon, particularly the around the villages of Lynton and Lynmouth, was prime fern hunting territory.
Francis George Heath
Francis George Heath grew up in Devon before moving to London to work as a civil servant. He was a pioneer in the Open Space Movement, and is chiefly remembered as author of popular books on rural life and natural history, including eight books about ferns and fern collecting. His first book The Fern Paradise: A Plea for the Culture of Ferns (1875) ran to eight editions. In it, he argues that if books for fern lovers used ‘word-paintings’ rather than the language of science then fern-hunting would reach much more of the population. He also states that with the rapid growth of the towns, creating fern ‘window gardens’ in homes and places of work can have a pleasant effect in relieving the ‘stifling domain of bricks and mortar’ and compensating for the absence of green fields.
He singles out Devonshire among the English counties as ‘unrivalled for the equisite loveliness of its scenery’ and names it as the ‘home of our native ferns’. His descriptions of the Devon landscape are romantic and exuberant:
‘Peer at low tide into yon dark and dripping cavern which yawns upon the sea! The bright sunshine which dances upon the rippling waves pauses at the cavern’s mouth, as if not daring to penetrate its gloomy depths. But just one tiny gleam of light has ventured to cross the threshold, and sparkling on the dripping water, it flashes through the opaque blackness a kind of electric light…you see at the side and on the roof of this lonesome sea-cave the beautiful Sea Spleenwort (Asplenium marinum), hiding its roots in the cavern-walls, and spreading out its bright green and shining fronds, that they may luxuriate in the dark humidity of its chosen retreat.’ (Heath, The Fern Paradise, 1878 edition, pg 56-7.)
Heath’s other books include The Fern World (1877), Sylvan Spring (1880), My Garden Wild and What I Grew There (1881), Where to Find Ferns (1885), and Sylvan Winter (1886).