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Mansfield, Charles Blachford (DNB00)


MANSFIELD, CHARLES BLACHFORD (1819–1855), chemist and author, was born on 8 May 1819 at Rowner, Hampshire, where his father, John Mansfield, was rector. His mother was Winifred, eldest daughter of Robert Pope Blachford of Osborne House, Isle of Wight. He was educated first at a private school at Twyford, Berkshire, and afterwards at Winchester College. When sixteen his health broke down, and he passed a year with a private tutor in the country. On 23 Nov. 1836 he entered his name at Clare Hall, but did not begin residence till October 1839. Owing to frequent absences from ill-health he did not graduate B.A. till 1846 (M.A. 1849). Meanwhile he read widely, and his personal fascination rapidly gathered many friends round him. With Kingsley, who was his contemporary at Cambridge, Mansfield formed a lifelong friendship (Memoir, pp. xii–xiv). Medicine attracted him for a time, and while still at Cambridge he attended the classes at St. George's Hospital; but when he settled in London in 1846 he definitely devoted himself to chemistry, occupying his leisure with natural history, botany, mesmerism, and with abstruse studies in mediæval science. Chemistry, he satisfied himself, was a suitable starting-point for the system of knowledge which he had already more or less clearly outlined, whose aim, in his own words, was ‘the comprehension of the harmonious plan or order upon which the universe is constructed—an order on which rests the belief that the universe is truly a representation to our ideas of a Divine Idea, a visible symbol of thoughts working in a mind infinitely wise and good.’ In 1848, after completing the chemistry course at the Royal College, he undertook, at Hofmann's request, a series of experiments which resulted in one of the most valuable of recent gifts to practical chemistry, the extraction of benzol from coal-tar (see Chemical Soc. Journal, i. 244–68, for experiments), a discovery which laid the foundation of the aniline industry (Meyer, Gesch. der Chimie, 1889, p. 434). He published a pamphlet next year, indicating some of the most important applications of benzol, among others the production of a light of peculiar brilliancy by charging air with its vapour (Benzol, its Nature and Utility, 1849). Mansfield patented his inventions, then an expensive process, but others reaped the profits.

In the crisis of 1848–9 he joined Maurice, Kingsley, and others in their efforts at social reform among the workmen of London, and in the cholera year helped to provide pure water for districts like Bermondsey, where every drop was sewage-tainted. He also wrote several papers in ‘Politics for the People,’ edited by the Rev. Frederick Denison Maurice [q. v.] and Mr. J. M. Ludlow, and afterwards in the ‘Christian Socialist.’ In September 1850 the description of a balloon machine constructed at Paris led him to investigate the whole problem of aeronautics, and in the next few months he wrote his ‘Aerial Navigation,’ still after forty years one of the most striking and suggestive works on its subject. In the winter of 1851–2 he delivered in the Royal Institution a course of lectures on the chemistry of the metals, remarkable for some brilliant generalisations and for an attempted classification upon a principle of his own represented by a system of triangles (Chemical Soc. Journal, viii. 110; Professor Maskelyne's Preface to Mansfield's Theory of Salts, pp. 23-7, where the principle is described). Next summer Mansfield, 'to gratify a whim of wishing to see the country, which I believed to be an unspoiled Arcadia' (Letters from Paraguay, Pref. p. 8), started for Paraguay. He arrived at Buenos Ayres in August, and having obtained permission from Urquiza, whom he describes as an 'English farmer-like, honest-looking man' (ib. p. 157), to go up the Parana, he reached Assumption on 24 Nov., and remained there two and a half months. Paraguay, under Francia and his successor Lopez, had been shut from the world for forty years, and Mansfield was, if not the first English visitor to the capital, certainly the first to go there merely to take notes. His letters, published after his death, contain bright and careful descriptions of Paraguayan society, 'the scenery, plant and bird life, and a scheme for the colonisation of the Gran Chaco, a favourite dream with him for the rest of his life. A sketch of the history of Paraguay, valuable for the period immediately preceding and following his arrival, forms the concluding chapter of the volume of 'Letters.' His earlier letters, printed in the same volume, deal in a similar manner with Brazil. These were translated into Portuguese by Pascual, and published along with elaborate critical essays on Mansfield's narrative at Rio Janeiro, the first volume in 1861, the second in 1862.

Mansfield returned to England in the spring of 1853, resumed his chemical studies, and began a work on the constitution of salts, based on the lectures delivered two years previously at the Royal Institution. This work, the 'Theory of Salts,' his most important contribution to theoretical chemistry, he finished in 1855, and placed in a publisher's hands. He had meanwhile been invited to send specimens of benzol to the Paris Exhibition, and on 17 Feb. 1855, while preparing these in a room which he had hired for the purpose in St. John's Wood, a naphtha still overflowed, and Mansfield, in attempting to save the premises by carrying the blazing still into the street, was so injured that nine days later he died in Middlesex Hospital. He had not completed his thirty-sixth year.

Mansfield's works, published at various intervals after his death, are fragments to which he had not added the finishing touch, yet each bears the unmistakable impress of a mind of the highest order, a constant attitude towards the sphere of knowledge more akin to that of Bacon or Leibnitz than of a modern specialist. The testimony, written or spoken, of many who knew him confirms Pascual's estimate, 'a great soul stirred by mighty conceptions and the love of mankind' (Ensaio Critico, p. 8). A portrait of Mansfield by Mr. Lowes Dickinson is in the possession of his brother, Mr. R. B. Mansfield. The engraving prefixed to the 'Letters from Paraguay' is from a photograph.

[Private information from Mr. R. B. Mansfield; Memoir by Kingsley, prefixed to Letters from Paraguay; Mrs. Kingsley's Life of Kingsley, 1877, pp. 216–18, 440–4; Preface by Professor Maskelyne to the Theory of Salts; Mr. J. M. Ludlow's Preface to Aerial Navigation; Chem. Soc. Journal, viii. 110–12; Pascual's Ensaio Critico sobre a viagem ao Brasil, 1861–2; Wurtz's Dictionnaire de Chimie, i. 527, 542–3, 545; Hofmann's Report on the Exhibition of 1862; Chemistry, p. 123; Study of Chemistry, p. 9; Timbs's Year-book of Facts, 1850, pp. 75–7; Fraser's Mag. liv. 591–601; New Quarterly Review, 1856, pp. 423–8.]

J. A. C.