Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Chapter XXIII


experience at courts.

Pension to Dr. Dalton—Inhabitants of Manchester subscribe for a Statue by Chantrey—The Author proposed that he should appear at a Levee—Various difficulties suggested and removed—The Chancellor approves and offers to present him—Mentions it to King William IV.—Difficulties occur—Dalton as a Quaker could not wear a Sword—Answer, he may go in his Robes as Doctor of Laws of Oxford—As a Quaker he could not wear Scarlet Robes—Answer, Dalton is afflicted with Colour-blindness—Crimson to him is dirt-colour—Dr. Dalton breakfasts with the Author—First Rehearsal—Second Rehearsal at Mr. Wood's—At the Levee—The Church in danger—Courtiers jealous of the Quaker—Conversation at Court sometimes interesting, occasionally profitable.

The following letter was addressed by me to Dr. Henry, the biographer of Dalton, in reply to inquiries respecting the part I had taken in procuring a pension for that distinguished philosopher. It was printed in the "Life of Dalton," and is now reprinted from its illustration of the subject of this chapter:—

"My dear Sir,—I have now examined my papers, as far as I can, to find any traces of Dalton amongst them. I find only two letters, of which I send you copies.

"I well remember taking a great interest in Dalton's pension, as you will see by several passages in 'The Decline of Science,' pp. 20 and 22, and note; but I have no recollection of any of the circumstances, or through what channel it was applied for.

"I find several letters of that date from Mr. Wood,[1] and it appears from them that I went with him to Poulett Thomson;[2] but I only gather this fact from those letters. I send them in the enclosure, as they may be of use. You can return them at your own convenience.

"When the inhabitants of Manchester had subscribed 2,000l. for a statue of Dalton, he came up to London, and was the guest of Mr. Wood. He sat to Chantrey for the statue. I consequently saw much of my friend. It occurred to me that, as his townsmen were having a statue of him—as the University of Oxford had given him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws—and as the Government had given him a pension—if it were not incompatible with his feelings, it would be a fit thing that he should be presented at a levee. It appeared to me that if William the Fourth were informed of it, it would afford him an opportunity of saying a few words to the venerable philosopher, which would be gratifying to the inhabitants of Manchester, the University of Oxford, and the world of science.

"Accordingly I wrote a note to Mr. Wood, suggesting the idea, and proposing that he should ascertain from Doctor Dalton whether it would be unpleasant to him to go through the usual forms.

"Dalton not objecting, my note was sent on by Mr. Wood to Lord Brougham, who at that time was Lord Chancellor. He approved highly of the plan, and offered to present Doctor Dalton. He also mentioned the circumstance to the King.

"I had had some conversation with Mr. Wood upon the subject, when several difficulties presented themselves to him. Doctor Dalton, as a Quaker, could not appear in a court-dress, because he must wear a sword. To this I replied, that being aware of the difficulty, I had proposed to let him wear the robes of a Doctor of Laws of Oxford.

"Mr. Wood remarked, that those robes being scarlet, they were not of a colour admissible by Quakers.

"To this I replied, that Doctor Dalton had a kind of colour-blindness, and that all red colours appeared to him to be the colour of dirt. Besides, I had found that our friend entertained very reasonable views of such mere matters of form. The velvet cap of the Doctor again was not an obstacle, as he was informed that it was usually held in the hand, and was rather a mark of office than a covering for the head.

"These difficulties being surmounted. Doctor Dalton came one morning to breakfast with me. We were alone; and after breakfast he went up with me into the drawing-room, in order to see the Difference Engine. After we had made several series of calculations, he recollected that he had in his pocket a note to me from Mr. Wood. On hastily looking it over, I found that it was to announce to me that our friend acquiesced in the plan.

"I now mentioned the forms usual at a levee, and placing several chairs in order to represent the various officers in the Presence-chamber, I put Doctor Dalton in the middle of the circle to represent the King. I then told my friend that I should represent a greater man than the King; that I intended to personate Doctor Dalton, and would re-enter at the further door, go round the circle, make my obeisance to the King, and thus show him the kind of ceremony at which he was to assist.

"On passing the third chair from the King's, I put my card on the chair, at the same time informing Doctor Dalton that this was the post, of a Lord in Waiting, who takes the cards, and gives them to the next officer, who announces them to the King.

"On passing the philosopher I kissed his hand, and then passing round the rest of the circle of chairs, I thus gave him his first lesson as a courtier.

"It was arranged that I should take Doctor Dalton with me to the levee, and put on his card, 'Doctor Dalton, presented by the Lord Chancellor.'

"When the morning arrived I went to Mr. Wood's residence, and found Doctor Dalton quite ready for the expedition. In order to render the chief actor perfect in his part, we again had a rehearsal; Mrs. Wood personating the King, and the rest of the family, with the assistance of sundry chairs and stools, representing the great Officers of State. I then entered the room, preceding my excellent friend, who followed his instructions as perfectly as if he had been repeating an experiment.

"Being now quite satisfied with the performance, we drove off to St. James's. The robes of a Doctor of Laws are rarely made use of, except at a University Address: consequently Dr. Dalton's costume attracted much attention, and compelled me to gratify the curiosity of many of my friends, by explaining who he was. The prevailing opinion had been that he was the Mayor of some corporate town come up to get knighted. I informed my inquirers, that he was a much more eminent person than any Mayor of any city, and having won for himself a name which would survive when orders of knighthood should be forgotten, he had no ambition to be knighted.

"At a short distance from the Presence-chamber, I observed close before me several dignitaries of the church, in the full radiance of their vast lawn sleeves. The Bishop of Gloucester,[3] who was nearest, accidentally turning his head, I recognized a face long familiar to me from its cordiality and kindness. A few words were interchanged between us, and also by myself with the rest of the party, the remotest of whom, if I remember rightly, was the Archbishop of Dublin. The dress of my friend seemed to strike the Bishop's attention; but the quiet costume of the Quaker beneath his scarlet robe was entirely unnoticed. I therefore confided to the Bishop of Gloucester the fact that I had a Quaker by my side, at the same time assuring him that my peaceful and philosophic friend was very far from meditating any injury to the Church. The effect was electric upon the whole party; episcopal eyes had never yet beheld such a spectacle in such society, and I fear, notwithstanding my assurance, some portion of the establishment thought the Church really in danger.

"We now entered the Presence-chamber, and having passed the King, I retired very slowly, in order that I might observe events. Doctor Dalton having kissed hands, the King asked him several questions, all which the philosopher duly answered, and then moved on in proper order to join me. This reception, however, had not passed with sufficient rapidity to escape jealousy, for I heard one officer say to another, 'Who the d—l is that fellow whom the King keeps talking to so long?'

"Conversations at Courts are not always thought to be the most interesting things in the world; although, doubtless, they must be so to the parties engaged in them. In the midst of crowded levees and drawing-rooms, one is often compelled to become the confidant of strangers around us. The amusement derived from this source predominates over the instruction. I have heard much anxious inquiry as to certain pieces of clerical preferment—who is to have certain military or colonial commands, and what promotions will take place from the consequent vacancies?—many political queries have been proposed, and how 'the party' would act in certain contingent cases? I once heard a gentleman receive at a levee the first announcement of a legacy; on another occasion, on my return from the Continent, I was myself informed at a levee of a similarly gratifying, and to me entirely unexpected, event.

"Doctor Dalton having now passed through the formal part of a levee, had a better opportunity of viewing the details. He inquired the names of several of the portraits, and I took the opportunity of pointing out to him many of the living celebrities.

"We then returned to Mr. Wood's residence, and the whole party were highly gratified at the success of the undertaking.

"I am, my dear Sir, very truly yours,

"C. Babbage.

"Dorset Street, Manchester Square,
February 7, 1854."

  1. Member for South Lancashire.
  2. Afterwards Lord Sydenham.
  3. Dr. Monk.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.