Science daring matchless deeds put on a fairer guise :
The steamship and the railway-train, the swift electric wire,
To narrow space, and shorten time, and bring the nations nigher —
Came forth from her unwearied toil, her insight keen and vast ;
And secrets of philosophy to household uses past.
(Walter White, ‘Eighteen-Hundred and Fifty-One’ Rhymes)
Walter White was the sub-librarian and later assistant secretary of the Royal Society, a particularly interesting figure because as well as embodying the quintessentially Victorian ideal of the self-educated man, he was also a prolific author, contributing extensively to periodicals alongside producing poetry and travel writing. The Royal Society holds a copy of his journals providing an engaging insight into the thoughts and practises of a man endeavouring to better himself and also a sneaky look into some of the inner workings of the Society itself.
Born on 23 April 1811, White started out following in his father’s footsteps as a skilled tradesman, crafting furniture but also reading and writing in his spare time to improve his mind. He experienced difficulty in supporting himself and his family, emigrating from England to America but returning after five years and finding clerical work. A glowing reference sent from James Simpson via Edwin Chadwick to Charles Weld, then Assistant Secretary of the Royal Society, in 1844, secured White a role in the library of the Royal Society where he settled for the remainder of his working life. The Society impacted on his life significantly by not only giving him a secure professional position, but also giving him the means and time to travel and write; and moreover providing opportunities to meet a wide range of prominent figures, both scientific and literary.
During his time at the Royal Society, White’s journal is littered with casual references to major scientific figures he encountered on a regular – if not quite day-to-day – basis. Darwin, Huxley, Babbage, Wheatstone, General Sabine and Lyell are among those who he holds conversations with on a range of topics from the daily business of the Society to the electric telegraph to the publication of On the Origin of Species. White provides the reader with an intriguing insider’s view of the society, indicating the temperaments of some of the more troublesome Fellows:
“Dr. Mantell’s paper read this evening at the Royal Society supplies some omissions in Professor Owen’s paper on the same subject, for which the Royal Medal was awarded some years since. A warm discussion ensued; first Mr. Christie grew angry because Dr. Mantell wished to read a short supplement. Mr. Owen spoke at some length, throwing discredit and contempt on the whole paper. Mr. Bowerbank in favour. Then Dr. Buckland in a most luminous and humorous discourse, then Dr. Carpenter inclining to Mr. Owen’s view. Mr. Gray made a few remarks, and at past eleven o’clock Dr. Mantell replied. The most interesting meeting which I have yet known at the Royal Society.” (The Journals of Walter White pp.83-4 March 23 1848)
Occurrences such as this appear fairly rare, as most meetings that White refers to – which he does not do especially regularly – are simply written of as ‘quiet’.
White appears to have taken an interest in science, attending lectures at the Royal Institution and reading works such as Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). This interest did not filter extensively through to his writing, though it is certain that his poem ‘Erebus and Terror’ (1860) was inspired during his time at the Royal Society. ‘Erebus and Terror’ documented the fate of the doomed Franklin expedition, the subject of a report to the Royal Society presented by Captain McClintock in 1859. White had met Franklin during his time at the Royal Society and had already written an article entitled ‘Arctic Explorations’ for Chambers’ Papers for the People which was published in 1850, indicating his prior knowledge of the subject when he wrote the poem.
White retired from the Royal Society in 1885, being awarded as a mark of appreciation his full salary until his death in 1893. His journals were published posthumously in 1898 by his brother, William, through the publishers Chapman and Hall, who White had not only worked with but maintained a personal friendship with J. Chapman during his writing career. While he did not extensively write on science or scientists, his journal makes evident the gratitude he felt to the Royal Society for enabling him to pursue his ambitions, and cements White in the position of a successfully self-educated man.