Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Our English world-winners




An earnest artist named William Walker, not being wholly absorbed in the pursuit of gain, but working with enthusiasm on his own perceptions of what is great in humanity and fitting in a nation, has for many years devoted himself to the task of gathering and grouping together the great men who were living in the early part of the present century when the great man-preyer, Napoleon Bonaparte, was in the zenith of his power,—the man-preyer who cared for no arts but those conducive nearly or remotely to his war-trade, and who called Englishmen shop-keepers, because he could not plunder their shops at his pleasure,—the man-preyer who would have slain the whole human race, in order to sit on an universal throne.

While he was doing, and trying to do more of these things, the English nation withstood him; and with all that labour upon them, leisure was found amongst them to follow up the peaceful processes by which the world has gradually been won from a wilderness. The works of war they wrought at, unceasingly, in self-defence; but the works of peace went on notwithstanding, to pay the cost of war, and yet heap up a constantly accumulating capital of which the world had never before an example.

When our progenitor Adam left Eden behind him, changing the spontaneous growth of food for that grown by labour, then began the processes by which the brain of man, labouring on from year to year, had to win from nature her hoarded knowledge, and convert her physical forces into the servants of man and the substitutes for his physical strength. And these processes will go on enlarging and improving till the whole habitable world shall become an Eden by the operations of art; and then the drudgery of mere labour shall cease, and that labour only which is exercise of the mental and physical nerves and muscles shall remain. Our chemists and our machinists are the pro-creators of these latter days, destined to achieve the art-creation that shall remove the primal curse, making happiness the normal condition of mankind, and misery only an accident. Before us, by dint of the loving energy and enthusiasm of Mr. Walker, is a picture, not painted for the few, but engraved for the many, of some fifty of the pioneers of this our land, who have led the way in winning from the wilderness this portion of the earth, and setting the fashion to those of other lands to go and do likewise.

This is of a verity a picture of great men—men whose instinct it was to work for the world and fight against misery: some of them wealthy and some of them poor; with visions perchance of wealth to come, but still working for the world’s welfare as the only path through which to ensure their own,—the race of path-finders who are ever setting copies for the English nation to work by, and thus gain more results by the development of national energy.

Accompanying the picture, which contains upwards of fifty portraits, some full figures, and some more or less hidden, but all admirably grouped, there is a volume, by Mr. Walker’s son, giving a brief memoir of the salient points of each individual history; this also is well executed, and it forms a useful book of reference for those who would know more than the picture can tell.

Philosophers, astronomers, naturalists, and physicians, are put in the group; then follow the chemists, and, lastly, the engineers: this is as it should be,—they who gather knowledge from the stores of Nature build up the groundwork whereon true art is based, and whereby empiricism is corrected.

Prominent in the first group is Herschel, with a globe by his side, a paper in his hand, and thought in his face, which the keen eye of Maskelyne is watching. Then comes the benevolent face of Jenner; more than benevolent—beneficent, for benevolence is a very easy virtue. Sir Joseph Banks is looking over his shoulder—a starred and belted baronet, genial and pleasant, showing all outward reasons why he was popular at the court of Queen Oberea,—an enterprising man, making voyages to hard and wintry lands, in the pursuit of nature, though rich enough to live at home in quiet, and this, too, in days when ships were veritable “prisons, with a chance”—and more than a chance—“of being drowned,” and not the sea-palaces of our modern yachts, in which our modern lords make voyages to Greenland and elsewhere, albeit with none of the ancient valour of our race decreased—as daring as ever—but with the scurvy vanquished by pleasanter food than “saur kraut,” and many other confections than the “rob of oranges and lemons.”[1] Brave old Sir Joseph, he was indeed Nature’s wild huntsman on untrodden ground, and no carpet knight, cynical Peter Pindar and George the Third notwithstanding.

Seated on a low chair, a volume of large size poised edgewise on his knee, and with his hand resting on it, and his fine abstract face bent down in thought, is Cavendish, the descendant of a long line of nobility, yet so earnest in his chemic art as to be unconscious of any class distinction. Heeding not money or power, or any worldly reward, he was the man who would have pursued his experiment with the last remaining drop of water while the rest of the world was ablaze,—a special agent of Providence to unfold the secrets of nature in furtherance of the process that substitutes the sweat of heated water for the sweat of man’s heated muscles.

With spectacles on nose sits Dalton, the man who reduced the world to “atoms,” the philosopher of quantities and proportions, but whom rich, and wealthy, and ambitious Manchester—to which he emigrated from Cumberland—left to penury, because his theory could not build up a patent for the better production or dyeing of cotton cloth, or some other visible or tangible article of sale. They are firm brows above his spectacles, but withal the face is stamped with a “Dominie” expression, the result of too early work as teacher in a school ere his mental muscles had acquired distinctive form. It is not good for man to live too much with inferiors or subordinates. Dionysius in his kingdom or his school was equally a precision. But precision is a needful quality of the Quantitative Philosopher dealing in balances of materials, yet needing a balance of another kind when dealing with humanity. The indomitable bearing of the man who lives hard and works hard, seeking no patronage in the process of rising from Weaverdom to a Masterdom in chemistry, is a goodly contemplation. But is there no process by which a man can make sure of being rewarded for a lifelong work till he attains to sixty-seven years, and then of obtaining something better than 150l. per annum?

Behind Dalton is Sir Humphry Davy, the great Cornish man, and greater chemist, with the advantage that his pursuit was not abstract, but capable of material demonstration, such as people could understand by vision. The face is small and gentle, but not strong. It may be that he was too early dandled, too early popular, or it may be too material (which is one source of popularity), though his book on “Salmon Fishing” shows a strong love of natural science. The material philosopher must ever be more popular with the crowd than the abstract or moral philosopher—for the more palpable a thing, the greater is the number of the recipients: this may be the reason why Cuvier held his art and science inferior to his title, and why Davy thought a knighthood at the hands of George, Prince Regent, a greater thing than the unfolding of nature’s mysteries.

Close to Davy stand Hatchett and Wollaston, the latter famous for his resolving small things into great—a tea-tray into a laboratory; a genial man withal, a philosopher as well as a chemist, and a man of business also, making 30,000l. (a huge sum in those days) by teaching how platinum might be forged into bars, though it could not be cast into ingots.

The father of Hatchett was a coach-maker royal, who built vehicles for George the Third. He was a man of shrewdness and of some inventive faculties, but rather curious than useful. He was the first inventor of a suspension wheel, a very different affair from what are now called suspension wheels. The spokes were subtracted, and their place supplied with leathern straps stretching diagonally between the nave and the periphery. These straps were intended to serve as springs. The result was, as might have been expected, a very erratic movement of the peripheries, followed by a break-down.

Mr. Hatchett had also a perception that the lower the centre of gravity in a carriage, the less likely it was to overset. This was a mechanical truth, and he acted on it. The result was a vehicle which obtained the name of a “Spider” from its general configuration. A small body, something like a sedan chair, was hung between four large wheels, the floor being within a foot of the ground. Permission was granted for the inventor to exhibit it to his Majesty George the Third, at Windsor; so down he went thither behind four post-horses. But in those days ruts were very deep and mud was very plentiful, and by the time he arrived at Windsor, the “Spider” was stained and covered with the variation of each soil ’twixt that and Long Acre. The busy king, punctual as ever to an appointment, was there in waiting, and ere Hatchett could get the mop to work, just as he emerged from his muddy cage, there was the well-known repetitive voice, immortalised by Peter Pindar, at work.

“What, Hatchett, Hatchett! all mud, all mud, Hatchett!”

And so the “Spider” was never repeated, though the joke was, as often as the king and the coachmaker met. The “Spider” was stowed away in a corner for its namesakes to build upon.

But Mr. Hatchett throve notwithstanding. He was a tradesman of the time and for the time. He lived over his shop, guiltless of a suburban villa, and his wife took care that the chips were not wasted in their early career: she was witty in her way, too, as well as thrifty, for when the future chemist, apprenticed to his father’s trade, and up betimes at the bench, was wanted to breakfast, she would put her head out of the back window, and call:

“Now, young Chopstick,” a playful paraphrase on the family surname. And he might chop sticks, but like the smith in the nursery tale, who could only make a “hiss out of his hot iron,” so the labour of the small Hatchett was nought—no king, or prince, or duke, ever rode behind his unhandy work.

But his father was born before him, and of the thriving class. When he grew rich he built himself a new house, still over his great front shop, with such taste as was in him. A wooden palm-tree supported the brestsummer[2] below, and there was a square court on the leads of the first floor, with mock windows whitened, to give light to his back front, and to shut out the shops where his men plied their tools. The house itself was a curiosity. There was a breakfast parlour, a complete oval in plan, with door and window to match. And there was a large front room, canvassed and painted all over with classic scenery in dark colours, the doors all concealed, and the spring-door handle made in imitation of an ivy leaf. We believe that the place still exists, looking down into Long Acre, and that it is in the occupation of a bookseller, or bookstorer.

The ruling passion is strong in most men, and the ruling passion of Mr. Hatchett was carriage building. Thus, he built his house like a carriage, without any fixed staircase. While it was building he went in and out by the ladders and folding steps; and when it was finished he found that a staircase was needed, and that there was no space to make it. So he bought a small house in an adjoining back street, and made an unsightly stair, with an entrance door very like that of a watchhouse.

But he had turned the luxury of the wealthy into a save-all for himself, and had accumulated a large fortune, which he left to his only son Charles, who was a chemist, partly from taste and partly that it was a popular and fashionable pursuit. Yet he worked hard at it, and rendered good service, having leisure thereto, and not being driven (like Dalton) to seek a livelihood by his labour. He was not an originator, but a plodding worker, with a rich man’s laboratory, in some of the many paths that had been struck out by others.

At the central table opposite to Dalton sits James Watt, worthily representing Chemistry and Mechanism. Midway is Matthew Boulton, a veritable gentleman of the old English stamp, a man of clear perception, without whom Watt would perchance have been doomed to blossom unseen. It is no light thing to conceive a mechanical idea, and to bring that idea forth and cultivate it, and to cause it to grow up into healthy existence. But not the less needful is it to have appreciators of ideas. All the mechanism, all the chemistry of the world would be practically valueless were it not that there is a multitude to perceive and applaud, and to profit by them. All the buttons in the world could not prevent Matthew Boulton from having “a soul above buttons,” or from perceiving and hailing greatness wheresoever it might be found. So Watt and Boulton were the Pylades and Orestes of early mechanism, and they needed no Jason to lead them forth on a golden quest. Coal mining and water pumping was the great work of their day, and mechanism and machine mills followed. In both these men is to be seen that union of Celt and Saxon, or Dane, which constitutes an Englishman,—the faculties of perception to generate and perseverance and daring to accomplish.

Close to Boulton sits Marc Isambard Brunel, a Celt full of contrivance at a time when contrivance was not so common as it is now, when the public mind has become cultivated by the wide spread of mechanism. He was a fortunate man, for he fell in with Sir Samuel Bentham, and through him obtained Government employment. The judgment of the man was not equal to his imagination. He was not of the stuff of which Watt was made; but he was of the class of whom it has been said that they can no more help contriving than hens can help laying eggs.

On one occasion, when he had been laid up for several months with some defect in his lower limbs, John Farey called on him. “Take a seat, Mr. Farey,” said the invalid. A large chair stood before him, looking as if two men could scarcely lift it, so Mr. Farey put two hands to it with all his strength, when suddenly it went up to his head, and Brunel burst into a violent laugh, prolonged for some time. The chair was a cheat. He had amused himself with pasting strips of paper round an ordinary stick chair, then cutting it off with his penknife and gluing it together, and thickening it till it became a mass of hollow papier maché. Sir Samuel Bentham, had originated this tubular idea many years before, and had all his fire-irons made of thin tubular steel.

Behind Brunel, when he should have been in front as the master mind, stands the mechanist, and more, the ideal and constructive engineer, Sir Samuel Bentham, to whom nothing came amiss, and whose patent specification to this day marks the character of his mind—a specification without drawings, so clear is the wording. A lawyer’s son, he had no taste for the law, but, like Peter the Great, went to the Royal Dockyards to study shipbuilding; and so he went on, his moral sense and perception guiding the course of his physical inventions, now machines, now a school, now a prison, and then a factory. He went to Russia, and there executed much military and other work. When he found his light guns kick, and his round shot hop off from stone walls, he backed them up with timber against the cascables, converted all recoil into added force on the shot, and soon made lime and stone fly. And when he came back from Russia to his brother Jeremy’s house, in Queen Square, he began to make machinery for all kinds of wood-work before unknown, and planned and built ships for the Admiralty, in which for the first time powder magazines were made safe. The Portsmouth block machinery, called Brunel’s, was in reality Bentham’s, whose mind took the same logical form in mechanism that the mind of his brother Jeremy took in law. But Brunel reaped the pecuniary benefit, such as it was; and Bentham was shelved by the usual Governmental process, going to France, on the return of peace in 1814, in order to bring up his family economically. Pleasant is the modest face of Sir Samuel, in the background, with almost a winning gentleness, like that of his brother Jeremy, who when returning to his home through Tothill Street, dressed in a suit of grey, of ancient cut, and with long grey hair falling over his shoulders, sat down, tired, on a door-step. A lady passing, struck with his appearance, and taking him for a poor man, gave him a penny. He took it, enjoying the jest, and ever after kept it in his writing-desk.

Near Sir Samuel Bentham stands Maudslay, the original Maudslay, who founded the famous firm. He was a huge man, broad and stout, of whom it could not well be said that his mechanical talent lay in a nutshell. On one occasion, while they were busy on the building of the “London Engineer,” the first steamer that crossed the Channel, some experiments were making, and Maudslay was wanted. “Go for him,” said John Farey to the clerk; “pick out the best coach on the stand,”—there were hackney coaches in those days—“and be sure to load him equally between the four springs, or there will be a break-down.” When Maudslay came, and the consultation was over, John Farey was wickedly slow in taking the draught of water. When asked why, he said, “I am waiting till Maudslay steps ashore, she’ll rise half a streak then.”

Prominently next to Watt stands Rennie, the mechanician, the engineer, the bridge builder, the canal maker, the lighthouse constructor; and earnestly looking up into his face is Telford, his peer, one of the same calibre, a man who could have invented all that Brindley and Smeaton did, had it not been done before. They were men of strength and faculties, who worked with brain and hand, and not by jobbing in shares. Affectionate is the face of Telford; rugged that of Rennie—a strong man, with a large body to match a large head.

In the background stand Count Rumford (such was his Swedish title), and William Murdoch, the economiser of heat for domestic purposes, and the constructor of the first steam locomotive, although only in a model; both have beneficence marked in their faces.

Cartwright and Crompton follow next, the inventors of the power-loom and spinning-mule, which called into so large an existence an exotic trade, removing it from its native India to Lancashire, and furnishing a large portion of the wealth that enabled England to resist the despotism that would otherwise have overwhelmed the Continent, a trade now at the culmination which will again lead it back to India.

Cartwright is an example of the inventor in his highest phase,—the discoverer by forethought, and not the mere contriver by afterthought,—the poet, the minister of religion, and inductive physician, who lived till forty years of age unknowing of mechanism, till the problem was accidentally proposed to him, how to supply weaving hands to answer the demand of the yarn plethora which machinery had induced, in answer to the previous yarn famine, balancing supply and demand.

And so Cartwright—a minister of the church, and not the first or the last with a similar aptitude—set himself to work to produce a machine loom, and gradually completed it in all its parts; and as the customs of society forbade him becoming a manufacturer, some of his friends established a factory at Doncaster, and failed in it, probably from want of business aptitude. Another of his mills was burnt down by the mob at Manchester, who feared loss of employment; and finally Parliament awarded the man who thus marvellously had aided England’s prosperity, with a less sum than it had cost him to bring his invention to use. Ere his death he had practically given to his country machine labour equal to 200,000 men. In that thoughtful, earnest face, set before us by Mr. Walker, there are the aspect and lineaments of the philosophic poet stamped by Nature as a benefactor of mankind, a creator and distributor of wealth, too earnest to reserve his own share of it.

Close by him sits Crompton, the farmer-weaver, who learned to work and play in the quaint old building called the Hall-i-the-Wood, who loved music better than weaving, but was constrained to the latter by the necessities of life. With the eight-spindled jenny of Hargreaves he spun his yarn for his own weaving; and, after five years of thought, he produced his spinning-mule with forty-eight spindles, multiplying the power by six, and the excellence of the quality many fold. And all this he had done when only twenty-seven years of age.

Then came his trouble. The manufacturing men who had not the inventive brains, besieged him, and bargained with him to buy his machine, and then cheated him of the payment, giving him little more than sufficient to construct a new machine. Very similar to this was the process which dispossessed Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton-gin, of his reward in the United States. The planters broke into his house by night, and stole and published his invention, thus precluding him from obtaining his patent.

The face of Crompton is that of a thoughtful student unused to worldly ways, and rendered cautious by being practised upon. An honest worker, desirous of using his own invention in peace, he was unfitted to struggle with the competitive world about him. After all his struggles, a miserable pittance was awarded to him, by the charity of pitying neighbours, enough to save him from hunger in his old age.

Lord Stanhope is not omitted: he is a man of the Cavendish stamp, but a mechanist instead of a chemist; yet with a mental warp that could not recognise greatness in other things than mechanism—a workman, with an hereditary fortune provided him, a man ill-fitted to the aristocratic sphere of his birth; one like King Louis of France—a good locksmith spoiled to make a weak king. Had Lord Stanhope been born in the sphere of a Brindley, he would probably have achieved far greater things.

In the face of Richard Trevithick there is an expression of the same kind of energy and ambition that is seen in the portraits of the elder Napoleon. With a genius for mechanics he had also a genius for many other things. The very versatility of his powers precluded his success in life: he was a valiant and gifted Cornishman, with imagination of a high order, but with little self-control.

Like the skeleton at the Egyptian feast stands Joseph Bramah, with his back towards us, his portrait never having been painted, and his bust, modelled by Chantrey, having been destroyed, for what reason appears not, by Lady Chantrey, after the sculptor’s death.

Whence came that name, sounding so like Braham? Was it also in its origin an Abraham, and did it come from the Hebrew tribes in York, with its accompanying artist cunning? He, too, was a many-sided mechanist, one who did the world large service, and who, aided by a good business faculty in buying and selling, did himself and his heirs service also. Very like to his nephew, John Joseph Bramah, is that head in shape, ingeniously devised by the artist from the memory of his kindred. John Joseph inherited the business faculty of his uncle, and his love for mechanism, if not his inventive skill. He it was who gathered together in Pimlico a huge business in railway plant, with the aid and help of the two Stephensons, George and Robert, and subsequently transferred it to Smethwick, near Birmingham, as the “London Works,” joining with himself Charles Fox and John Henderson as his partners; and out of their works finally grew up the Crystal Palace, the Non-such of its time, which faded away also like the other Non-such in the days of old.

Much did these great men invent, unfolding principles that left to others little else but contrivances to follow in the same track. In these days the growth of machine tools has made possible the construction of great machines which were not before dreamed of. There is no longer any merit in workmanship, for the machine does it all, and imagination comes into play only in design. But the existence of the tools tends also to cramp design, for the design is made subservient to the capacity of the tool. There is another evil, too, now strongly experienced by originators. The race of men with brain, and eye, and skilled hand all in combination, needful to original things, is disappearing, and a wide-spread complaint exists that few skilled workmen are to be had: men are only attendants on automata.

But we are yet far from the ultimate victories of invention,—the fish in the sea are more in number than those taken out of it;—and it is to the small number of model-makers that we must look for the cultivated culmination of their cunning of hand. A long list might be made of things yet to do, in which skilled craftsmen will be needed to set the patterns; and in good time they will come.

Some future artist will yet give us the pictured aspect of more benefactors to society at large, including those rare men who, though not conspicuous by large apparent results, yet do as Hampden did in the cause of freedom—men not great in acts or speech, but prophets constantly suggesting to others the true paths of progress, giving the ideas and planning those processes by which others achieve what is called success—success I mean in the eyes of the multitude, which measures men and their results by the stir and noise which they excite.

Grateful are we to men like Mr. Walker, who has thus gathered together in groups the world’s workers, with their images and superscriptions, that men may know their benefactors and render to their memory that justice which was too rarely accorded in their lives.

So, all honour to the work of both the father and the son, the picture and the book, in teaching the men of the present what they owe to men of the past.

W. Bridges Adams.


  1. See “Cook’s Voyages.”
  2. Probably from the French, apprêt-sous-mur.