2013 marks the centenary of the death of one of our less-remembered nineteenth-century Fellows, Sir John Lubbock, later Lord Avebury (yes, as in Avebury of the Neolithic stone circles, but we’ll get to that in a minute). Lubbock was a fascinating and multi-faceted man, applying himself to a range of arenas in Victorian society and learning with an energy and application that I find, quite frankly, exhausting. For him, the hours of the day were scheduled carefully and he always carried books on different subjects so that he could change and refresh his attention.
We have in our archives a range of resources which denote Lubbock’s plethora of involvements, but one of the nice little touches I find is the above election card. This election had nothing to do with Lubbock’s membership of the Royal Society – that would be his election certificate. Rather, it was to request support for his campaign for election in Maidstone, Kent, and he was elected in 1870 and again in 1874. A far cry from the garish, plastic-y election leaflets that are pushed through doors today, I think it offers a nice alternative.
You see, Lubbock was an amateur scientist and banker by trade. He was moreover – indicated by the election card – a politician. It is him we have to thank for – amongst other things – the existence of Bank Holidays (very important), and for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882 which laid the ground for the Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act in 1913, enabling the preservation of monuments around the country – an act which is celebrating its centenary this year.
So it seems to me a shame that Lubbock is far less remembered than many of his close acquaintances and friends. He was a member of the illustrious X-Club, counting Thomas Henry Huxley and John Tyndall amongst its ranks; and his contemporaries in the Fellowship included Lord Kelvin, James Prescott Joule and John Herschel. A more formative influence was found much earlier in his life, though, as in 1842 Charles Darwin moved in to Down House near to the Lubbock family home of High Elms. Despite his initial disappointment (Lubbock later recalled that when his father came home with the promise of ‘great news,’ he had rather hoped his father was going to announce that he was getting a pony rather than hailing the arrival in the neighbourhood of an eminent scientist), young John soon found a mentor and comrade in his dyspeptic neighbour and became a regular visitor to Down, applying his burgeoning work ethic to the study of natural history and biology.
Despite his amateur status, Lubbock did not shirk on his scientific work, covering a broad range of biological subjects. The influence of Darwin can be seen in his popular science books, from entomology in his ‘Ants, Bees and Wasps’ (1882) – which Lubbock took through seventeen revised editions and after his death was still being printed – to his work with animals in ‘On the Senses, Instincts and Intelligence of Animals’ (1888) and through to the study of archaeology and prehistory in his ‘Pre-historic Times’ (1865). Lubbock was regarded as an excellent speaker and a great populariser of his time; he was passionate about education and spoke on scientific topics to lay audiences as well as at gatherings of scientific societies such as the British Association and the Linnean Society.
By far my favourite items in our collection of Lubbock materials are his notebooks, including amongst them, working copies of his published titles, including his ‘Origin of Civilisation’ (1870) and the aforementioned ‘Prehistoric Times’. Both of these items can be seen on display at English Heritage’s Quadriga Gallery for ‘The General, the Scientist and the Banker: The Birth of Archaeology and the Battle for the Past’, amongst other items from our collections.
For those of you interested in finding out more about Lubbock’s scientific work, in March we will be hosting a one-day conference to celebrate the centenary of this oft-forgotten contemporary of Darwin and Huxley, focusing on his work, his life and his influence on the social and cultural spheres he placed himself in. For more information, including a programme, click on http://royalsociety.org/events/2013/aveburys-circle/.