Saturday, May 24, 2014

Master of Trinity College

William Whewell - scientist, philiosopher, college administrator, a polymath - was born 220 years ago today. He defied his humble origins, to become prominent in various fields, and to become Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, a position he held for 25 years. He is largely forgotten today, in the sense that there’s no modern biography. There is, though, an early biographical work, which makes extensive use of Whewell’s letters, and, more occasionally, of his diaries. One extensive diary quoted in the biography describes a visit to Trinity by the Duke of Wellington.

Whewell was born on 24 May 1794, the eldest child in what would become a large family. His father, a carpenter, wanted him to apprentice to the trade, but William proved academically bright, and came to the attention of Revd Joseph Rowley, head of Lancaster Grammar School, who allowed him to study for free. Later, he won a part-scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1812. Following, perhaps, after his mother who had published poems, he won the Chancellor’s prize for an epic poem he wrote entitled Boadicea.

Whewell did well at Trinity, excelling at mathematics; and, having been considered something of a rustic or ill-mannered, he significantly improved his social status. He was appointed as a mathematics lecturer and assistant tutor in 1818, and the following year was one of the founder members of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. By this time, his interests had extended beyond mathematics, towards science in general (indeed he is credited with coining the word ‘scientist’ in 1833) and philosophy. In 1828, he was elected to the Chair of Mineralogy.

In subsequent years, Whewell wrote a number of important papers on the subject of tides, and on the principles of education. In 1838 he was elected to the Knightbridge Chair of Moral Philosophy - before which he wrote History of the Inductive Sciences, and after which he wrote its sequel The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences.

In 1841, thanks to the election of the Conservative Robert Peel as Prime Minister, Whewell was appointed - over his more senior colleague, Adam Sedgwick who would have been favoured by a Whig government - as Master of Trinity College. A little earlier the same year, he had married Cordelia Marshall. They had no children, and after Cordelia died in 1855, he married again, to Everina Frances, widow of Sir Gilbert Affleck in 1858.

Much of Whewell’s early years as Master were taken up by revising the college statutes; and, as Master the largest college, he had much influence across the university. He also served twice as vice-chancellor. Although considered a reformer in his youth, he is remembered as a reactionary Master, sternly defending the autonomy of the colleges and the type of liberal education he espoused in Of a Liberal Education in General, with particular reference to the leading studies in the University of Cambridge (1845). He preached his last sermon in Trinity College chapel in February 1866, and died later the same year, after a fall from a horse. There is plenty of information about Whewell online, at Wikipedia, Cambridge University’s Janus website, University of St Andrews MacTutor website, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and Victorian Web.

Richard Yeo, summarising Whewell’s reputation in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required), says: ‘At the time of his death Whewell was known as a great master of Trinity and a man of enormous intellectual power and learning. Within the scientific community throughout Europe he was recognized for his research on the tides, his contributions to conceptual debates and terminology, and for his unrivalled knowledge of the history of the sciences. Although some aspects of his philosophy of science were criticized, Whewell’s work set an example for the critical study of the nature of science and, since the 1970s, the historical inquiry on which he claimed to base his philosophy of science has been more warmly appreciated. He combined this study of the physical sciences with publications on education, moral philosophy, and other subjects in a manner that astonished his contemporaries. He did this at a time when intellectual activity was becoming more specialized - a phenomenon that Whewell recognized in his own philosophy of knowledge. Today we are able to see that his achievement was one of the last of its kind.’

The Trinity College archive of Whewell’s papers lists ‘diaries 1817-1853’, but the online summary contains no further details. As far as I can tell, none of these diaries have ever been published. However, Mrs Stair-Douglas (also known as Janet Mary Douglas), having been asked to do so by Whewell’s sister, Mrs Newton, put together a biography of Whewell, largely based on his letters. This was published in 1881 by C Kegan & Co as The Life and Selections from the Correspondence of William Whewell, D. D. late master of Trinity College, Cambridge. Occasionally, the book (freely available at Internet Archive) makes references to, and provides extracts from, Whewell’s diaries.

For example, Stair-Douglas writes: ‘The pocket-books of this year [1829] contain a brief pencil diary, and also a number of notes and memoranda, chiefly mineralogical and architectural, made during the tour in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, upon which Mr. Whewell started on July 4. [. . .]

The diary shows that Mr. Whewell habitually talked to all his fellow-travellers and extracted from them all the information he could. Sometimes a servant girl going to place tells him about wages; or a Belgian laments the high duty upon distillation, which shuts up all the smaller stills; or an ex-Franciscan or Benedictine monk tells him how the convent land was farmed, the wages of the lay brethren, &c. He always offered a seat in his hired carriage to any intelligent person travelling in the same direction. At Spires he notes that he fell in with a Frenchman who had been quarrelling with the Douane on occasion of his bringing from Baden a musical instrument with keys, the notes of which are produced as in the wind harmonica, and adds: “The difficulty of getting on with a German in conversation strikes one more on meeting a Frenchman. The German answers all your questions with the most sincere goodwill, but there you stick - you never set him ” [. . .]

After visiting the source of the Danube in Prince Flirstenburg’s grounds, he mentions his arrival at “the edge of the great basin of Switzerland - a most glorious prospect. The Lake of Constance spread out on the left, the cloudy and uncertain Alps in the distance, and in the midst of the scene six grand castled eminences scattered over a space of five or six miles. The summits bold, and rising abruptly from the more level land, and the ruins one more picturesque than another. If the snowy Alps are seen from hence, as I am told is the case in clear weather, I cannot imagine a more magnificent view. I hope for a fine morning to-morrow and then!”

The entry next morning unfortunately is: “August 7 - Wretchedly bad weather”; however, after quarrelling with tailor and shoemaker, he adds: “Off to Schaffhausen - went immediately to the fall. It is grand in all aspects, but standing in the gallery, all the surrounding objects confused by the blinding spray and a sort of eternity of waters hurrying past and filling the eye, one can scarce believe that the solid universe is not drifting away with immeasurable violence. They have managed also that the water leaps at you, and only seems just to fall short by a foot.” ’

After Whewell’s appointment as Master at Trinity, Stair-Douglas writes that one of the first visitors to the Master’s Lodge, was Mr. Salvin, an architect. He had been summoned because a former college student - one Beresford Hope - had donated money for the college to restore an oriel and mullioned windows removed from the building under previous alterations. She gives the following diary entries concerning this project (which would leave Whewell’s living rooms uninhabitable for most of the year).

19 January 1842
‘Mr. Salvin, architect, arrived, and under his direction and in his presence we made attempts to discover traces of the oriel which formerly existed as part of the front of the Lodge. We found the foundation of the wall of the oriel immediately below the surface of the ground. The plan was semicircular, the diameter of the semicircle 13 feet and 7 inches, exactly opposite to the oriel which exists towards the garden. By examination of the upper storey of the Lodge it appeared that there are no lodging-rooms over Henry VIII’s drawing-room, but only a blank garret, to which there is no access except through the windows.’

16 August 1842
‘We returned to the lodge and stayed one night, the workmen being then employed in the restoration of the front, in pursuance of Mr. Hope’s undertaking to bear the expense of the restoration of the windows and oriel. In the interval I had corresponded with Mr. Hope and had finally learnt that 1,000l. had been placed to the credit of the College at the banker’s to meet the expense.’

17 September 1842
‘We returned to College. The windows of the front were entirely without glass, the rooms without furniture, and the wall was removed from top to bottom where the oriel was to be. The house full of workmen.’

Stair-Douglas goes on to say that Whewell’s journal was kept with considerable regularity at this time. In it, ‘we find mention of very frequent meetings of the Master and Seniors to deliberate upon the revision of the College statutes. These statutes, which the governing body of the College had bound themselves to respect, to preserve intact and to carry into effect, had, from the changes which centuries had brought about in national habits, and many other circumstances, come into such discrepancy with actual, and often with any possible, practice as to occasion very serious difficulties. The Master and other College officers found themselves frequently compelled to choose between deliberately neglecting and modifying that which they had sworn to execute, or attempting to put in operation rules which had become totally useless and inapplicable. The difficulty was a very serious one, and one from which there was no escape.’

26 April 1842
‘Went to London to visit my wife’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Marshall, 41 Upper Grosvenor Street. I took with me to London the Draft of the College Statutes as revised by the Seniority, at the various preceding sittings. I reported to the Home Secretary, Sir J. Graham, that this revision was in progress, explained to him the general principles on which it had proceeded, and pointed out the few instances in which the privileges of the Crown were concerned, viz. (1.) Visitatorial power, (2.) Power of giving leave of absence, (3.) Power of appointing ten paupers. He informed me that he should lay the draft before the Attorney and Solicitor-General, and at a subsequent interview agreed to do so, while it was still unconfirmed by the Seniors. I also saw the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General, who agreed to consider the unconfirmed draft; and I explained to them that the College did not expect or wish that they should suggest anything except what concerned the prerogatives of the Crown or the course of Law. For the purpose of consideration, I had two transcripts of the revised Statutes made, for which I paid 11l. 6s. I left one of these and a printed copy of the Statutes with Sir James Graham.’

Finally, here is a long extract from Whewell’s diary concerning a visit by the Duke of Wellington - Leader of the House of Lords in Peel’s government at the time - to Cambridge University.

4 July 1842
‘The Duke of Wellington arrived; his carriage stopped at the Great Gate and then proceeded to St. John’s, where he went to attend the Duke of Northumberland’s levee. He then walked with me to Trinity Lodge, and the Fellows were presented to him by me. He then went again to St. John’s Lodge, and accompanied the Duke of Northumberland to the Senate House. After his return to this Lodge he came into the dining-room, and then he conversed a good deal.

With reference to the news of the Queen having been shot at by Bean, which arrived this morning, he spoke of an attempt made to shoot him at Paris. He had previous information that he was to be shot at. The man tried in vain to find an opportunity in the streets. The Duke had said before the event that the assassin must inevitably make the attempt at his own house. So it turned out. The man placed himself behind a watch-box and fired as the Duke entered his own Porte cochère.

The postilion saw him raise his arm, and urged his horses to a gallop, so that the Duke thought he had knocked down one of the sentries in driving in. I asked him why he had done so, and he told me that a man had fired a pistol at me from a place close by. Mr. M (Mr. Milnes?) reminded the Duke that Napoleon left the man a legacy. “Yes” he said, “Napoleon left him 10,000 francs for trying to rid the world of an aristocrat.”

I spoke of the attempt made to kill the King of Portugal in the last century. “Yes,” he said, “that was under the Marquis de Pombal’s administration. It was one of the circumstances which led to the expulsion of the Jesuits. That event was an evil to Spain and Portugal. It ruined the education of the upper orders. They are now men of no education, no moral and religious education. You never find a well educated nobleman in Spain. Consequently they are regarded with no respect by those of lower rank, and are a worthless set. Nothing can save a country but a moral and religious education of its upper classes.”

He spoke much of the Afghan war. He had always disbelieved the accounts, he said, of the abandonment of Ghuznee. He never could believe that a person put in a command so important could be so destitute of resources as the accounts represented him. “I never could believe that such an officer could say that he was obliged to surrender for want of water, when he was snowed up. I never could believe that he could say that he had left the soldiers’ bayonets in the citadel. There is no more convenient way of disposing of a bayonet than at the end of the musket or in the scabbard by the soldier’s side.”

Speaking further of India, he said, “You have there the blessing of a free press; in that country, in a country quite unfitted for such a thing. You might as well try a free press on the quarter-deck of a man of war.”

Passing the picture of Perceval, he said he was a good debater and always spoke well when he had had previously to explain a measure to a meeting of his friends.

When the Duke had been in this Lodge a few minutes, he wished me to return to St. John’s Lodge, where the Duke of Northumberland was. I tried to detain him by representing that the Chancellor could not possibly go to the Senate House for some time, and that we should see him, and could join him when he passed the College gate. But he was not to be detained, so we walked together. As we went he said, “I came to do honour to the Duke of Northumberland, and I must be on the spot for that purpose. Nothing like being on the spot.”

When he had stayed at the Lodge some time after his return from the Senate House, conversing as above, I proposed to him to go to Magdalen College, where the Master had collected a party of distinguished visitors in the Lodge garden, with a band of music. We went there by the back of the Colleges and through Northampton Street. When we arrived near the gate the Duke asked who was the master of Magdalen, and when I told him Mr. Neville Grenville, he said “Oh, I know him, he officiates sometimes at the Chapel Royal. I usually go to the Chapel Royal. Sometimes I am there alone with the reader. ” Then aside, “Dearly beloved Roger.”

The Duke of Wellington went from Magdalen Gardens with the Bishop of London, and returned to Emmanuel to the Vice-Chancellor’s dinner. Here he stayed but a little while and went away before dinner, having determined to sleep at Hatfield. So far as I know he had no dinner till he got there, which must have been near eleven o’clock at night.

I left the dinner at the Vice-Chancellor’s early and came home to receive a few friends at the Lodge.’

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