Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/April 1881/Mr. Frank Buckland



EVENTS, in the present time, follow one another with such rapidity, and the favorites of society pass in such constant succession over the stage, that the most startling occurrences are only regarded as nine days' wonders; and men who have even filled a prominent place are almost forgotten before a monument is erected to their memory. Under such circumstances it may prove an almost hopeless task to recall attention to the character of a man who held only a comparatively subordinate official position, and who has left no first-rate work behind him to illustrate the achievements of a singularly ready pen. Yet Mr. Frank Buckland occupied so exceptional a position, and held it so long, that common justice requires that his memory should be preserved; and a short article on his doings, on his character, and even on the eccentricities which formed part of his character, may be welcome to hundreds of persons who knew and loved the man, and to thousands of other persons who did not know the man but loved his writings.

Francis Trevelyan Buckland was the eldest son of the Very Reverend William Buckland, the founder of the modern school of geology, the author of one of the best known of the Bridgewater Treatises, and Dean of Westminster. His mother—Miss Morland before her marriage—threw herself into the geological researches which made her husband famous, and frequently proved a ready assistant to the Dean. His father was probably one of the most popular lecturers ever known at Oxford. With the zeal of an enthusiast, he never confined his teachings to the lecture-room, but frequently organized parties to scour the neighborhood of the university, and explained the geology of the district standing on the very stones on which he was commenting. He had the rare art of throwing interest into the most abstruse subjects; and stories are still told of him, to illustrate his ready wit, which would enliven any article. In 1826, when his eldest son was born, he had already acquired a considerable reputation; and he chose as sponsors for his boy two men who both filled some position in the world—Sir Francis Chantrey, the sculptor, and Sir Walter Trevelyan, the apostle of temperance. The boy owed his two names, Francis Trevelyan, to his two godfathers. But these names are probably unfamiliar to the majority of the people who were afterward acquainted with him; the future naturalist almost always signed himself, and friends and strangers always spoke of him as, Frank Buckland.

Dr. Buckland is said to have expected his son's birth with as much impatience as Mr. Shandy awaited the arrival of Tristram. When the nurse told him that the child was a boy, he declared that he should go at once and plant a birch, for he was determined that his son should be well brought up. The declaration proved a prophecy. Young Buckland was educated by his uncle, Dr. Buckland, of Laleham, the friend and kinsman of Dr. Arnold, but a most severe and even brutal pedagogue. He was subsequently sent to Winchester, and in due course passed on to Christchurch. At school he certainly received his share of chastisement, and within a year or two of his death he showed some of his friends scars on his hand which he said were his uncle's doing. He was probably a trying pupil to an impatient schoolmaster; yet he contrived to acquire a large share of classical knowledge. He had whole passages of Virgil at his fingers' ends. He used to say, when he could not understand an act of Parliament, that he always turned it into Latin; and within a fortnight of his death he was discussing a passage of a Greek play with one of the accomplished medical men who attended him, interesting himself about the different pronunciation of ancient and modern Greek and the merits of Greek accentuation. Mathematics were not supposed to form a necessary part of a boy's education forty years ago, and it may be doubted whether even his dread of his uncle's ferule or the discipline at Winchester could have induced him to make any progress in the study. To the end of his life he always regarded it as a providential circumstance that nature had given him eight fingers and two thumbs, as the arrangement had enabled him to count as far as ten. When he was engaged on long inspections, which involved the expenditure of a good deal of money, he always carried it in small paper parcels, each containing ten sovereigns; and, though he was fond of quoting the figures which his secretary prepared for him in his reports, those who knew him best doubted whether they expressed any clear meaning to him. He liked, for instance, to state the number of eggs which various kinds of fish produced, but he never rounded off the calculations which his secretary made to enable him to do so. The unit at the end of the sum was, in his eyes, of equal importance to the figure, which represented millions, at the beginning of it.

Of Mr. Buckland's Christchurch days many good stories are told. Almost every one has heard of the bear which he kept at his rooms, of its misdemeanors, and of its rustication. Less familiar, perhaps, is the story of his first journey by the Great Western. The dons, alarmed at the possible consequences of a railway to London, would not allow Brunei to bring the line nearer than Didcot. Dean Buckland in vain protested against the folly of this decision, and the line was kept out of harm's way at Didcot. But, the very day on which it was opened, Mr. Frank Buckland, with one or two other undergraduates, drove over to Didcot, traveled up to London, and returned in time to fulfill all the regulations of the university. The Dean, who was probably not altogether displeased at the joke, told the story to his friends who had prided themselves on keeping the line from Oxford. "Here," he said, "you have deprived us of the advantages of a railway, and my son has been up to London."

It was probably no easy task to select a profession for a young man who had already distinguished himself by an eccentric love for animals, which had induced him to keep a bear at Oxford and a vulture at the deanery at Westminster. At his father's wish, Mr. Buckland decided on entering the medical profession. To qualify himself for his duties, he studied in Germany, at Paris, and at St. George's Hospital. While he was at Paris the cholera was raging, and the patients who died of it in hospital were allotted to the Anatomical School. Mr. Buckland, however, had the stoutest of nerves and the strongest of constitutions, and never contracted any illness during the year of sickness. He returned to London, and soon afterward became house surgeon at St. George's. He used to say that the cases which were brought into the accident ward grouped themselves into classes according to the hours of the day. The suicides came at an early hour of the morning; the scaffold accidents next, since a scaffold, if it gave, way at all, gave way early in the day; the street accidents afterward, and so on. At St. George's he collected a fund of good stories, with which he used to amuse his friends to the last days of his life. One of the best of them told, as he never minded his stories telling, against himself. An old woman came to the hospital with a cough, which she declared nothing would alleviate except some sweet, luscious mixture which another out-patient, a friend of hers, had received. The old woman was given a bottleful of the mixture, and returned again and again for more, though her cough got little better. At last Mr. Buckland's suspicions were aroused, and he desired that his patient should be watched. She was watched, and was found outside Chelsea Hospital selling the mixture in halfpenny tarts.

In 1854, while he was still engaged at St. George's, he was offered and accepted the post of assistant-surgeon in the Second Life Guards. Perhaps no army surgeon ever enjoyed so much popularity among his brother-officers. The friends whom he made during his nine years with the regiment remained his friends to the day of his death; and, whenever any of them happened to meet him, Mr. Buckland had an endless store of anecdotes of his old Life Guards days. The nine years during which he served with the regiment were probably the happiest of his life. He left it on the surgeoncy falling vacant, and on finding that the rules of the service necessitated his own supercession by the transfer from another regiment of another surgeon. But during the nine years through which he had served his name had become famous. His contributions to the "Field" newspaper and his "Curiosities of Natural History" had made natural history popular in thousands of households; and the exertions which he had already commenced in the cause of fish-culture had marked him as a man with an idea. Thus he left the army a known man, and during the next few years relied on his pen. Unfortunately, he was unable to continue contributing to the paper which he had been instrumental in originating. Differences arose between himself and the conductors of the "Field," and Mr. Buckland, separating himself from his fellow-laborers, founded "Land and Water." It is not too much to say that the latter periodical was indebted to his pen for its existence and reputation.

A new sphere was, in the mean while, preparing for Mr. Buckland's energies. In 1861 Parliament had sanctioned the appointment of two Inspectors of Fisheries for England and Wales. One of these gentlemen, Mr. Eden, retired in broken health in 1867, and Mr. Buckland was chosen as his successor. He had hardly been appointed when his colleague, Mr. Ffennell, died, and another gentleman had to be chosen for the second inspectorship. The old traditions of the office were thus snapped at the period of Mr. Buckland's appointment, and the new inspectors, without the assistance of an experienced colleague, had to map out their own policy. This is not the place to describe the policy which they pursued, or the results which ensued from it. It is sufficient to say that no public officer ever threw himself so heartily into his work as Mr. Buckland. His zeal frequently led him into imprudences which would have told severely on a less robust constitution, and which, perhaps, had the effect of shortening his own life. He has been known to wade up to his neck in water, and change his clothes driving away from the river on the box of a fly. This was an exceptional case; but it was a common thing for him to sit for hours in wet boots. He rarely wore a great-coat; he never owned a railway-rug; he took a delight in cold, and frequently compared himself to a polar bear, which languished in the heat and revived in the frost. The pleasure which Mr. Buckland derived from cold accounted for many of his eccentricities. Even in winter he wore the smallest amount of clothing; in summer he discarded almost all clothing. The illustrated papers, which have published portraits of him at home, have given their readers a very inaccurate idea of his appearance at his house in Albany Street. Those were very rare occasions on which he wore a coat at home. His usual dress was a pair of trousers and a flannel shirt; he deferred putting on socks and boots till he was starting for his office. Even on inspections he generally appeared at breakfast in the same attire, and on one occasion he left a large country-house, in which he was staying, with no other garments on. While he was driving in a dog-cart to the station he put on his boots, and as the train was drawing up to the station, at which a deputation of country gentlemen was awaiting him, he said with a sigh that he must begin to dress. Boots were in fact his special aversion. He lost no opportunity of kicking them off his feet. On one occasion, traveling alone in a railway-carriage, he fell asleep with his feet resting on the window-sill. As usual, he kicked off his boots, and they fell outside the carriage on the line. When he reached his destination the boots could not, of course, be found, and he had to go without them to his hotel. The next morning a plate-layer, examining the permanent way, came upon the boots, and reported to the traffic-manager that he had found a pair of gentleman's boots, but that he could not find the gentleman. Some one connected with the railway recollected that Mr. Buckland had been seen in the neighborhood, and, knowing his eccentricities, inferred that the boots must belong to him. They were accordingly sent to the Home Office, and were at once claimed.

We have said that he rarely wore a great-coat, and when he did so it was apparently more for the value of the additional pockets it contained than for its warmth. One of his good stories turned on this. He had been in France, and was returning, via Southampton, with an overcoat stuffed with natural-history specimens of all sorts, dead and alive. Among them was a monkey, which was domiciled in a large inside breast-pocket. As Buckland was taking his ticket, Jocko thrust up his head and attracted the attention of the booking-clerk, who immediately (and very properly) said, "You must take a ticket for that dog, if it's going with you." "Dog?" said Buckland; "it's no dog; it's a monkey." "It is a dog," replied the clerk. "It's a monkey," retorted Buckland, and proceeded to show the whole animal, but without convincing the clerk, who insisted on five shillings for the dog ticket to London. Nettled at this, Buckland plunged his hand into another pocket and produced a tortoise, and, laying it on the sill of the ticket-window, said, "Perhaps you'll call that a dog, too." The clerk inspected the tortoise. "No," said he, "we make no charge for them—they're insects."

If a close observer were asked to mention the chief quality which Mr. Buckland developed as Inspector of Fisheries, he would probably reply, a capacity for managing men. He had the happiest way of conciliating opposition, and of carrying an even hostile audience with him. It frequently occurred that the fishermen, at the many inquiries which his colleague and he held, looked in the first instance with suspicion on the inspectors. They never looked with suspicion on them when they went away. The ice of reserve was thawed by the warmth of Mr. Buckland's genial manner; and the men who, for the first half-hour, shrank from imparting information, in the next three hours vied with one another in contributing it. Mr. Buckland was equally at ease with more educated audiences, though in their case he was perhaps less uniformly successful. If he had been a politician, he would have been a greater mob orator than Parliamentary debater. But the higher classes, like the lower classes, could not resist the warmth of his manner or the ring of his laughter. He could not, in the most serious conversation, refrain from his joke; and some persons will recollect how on one occasion he was descanting, at a formal meeting, on the advantages which would ensue from the formation of a fishery district: "You will be appointed a conservator, and then you will impose license duties, and the money—probably three hundred pounds—will be paid to you." "And what shall I do then?" "Why, then," replied Mr. Buckland, "you had better bolt with it."

His love of a joke distinguished him as a lecturer. He remembered his father's lectures, and always thought it his first duty to make his audience laugh; and he had a dozen stories ready to provoke laughter. The excuse of a milk-boy, on a fish being found in the milk—"Please, sir, mother forgot to strain the water"—was one of those which did frequent duty. The same love of a joke followed him on his official inquiries. He left on one occasion a parcel of stinking fish, which he had carried about with him, and forgotten, neatly done up in paper, in a fashionable thoroughfare in Scotland, and stood at the hotel-window to watch the face of the first person who examined it. He amused himself, one Sunday evening, on another occasion, in making herring roe out of tapioca-pudding and whisky, to puzzle the witnesses whom he was to examine on the Monday; and he raised a laugh on a third occasion by telling a witness, who said he was a shoemaker, that, to judge from the appearance of the children's feet, he should think he had a very poor trade. Throughout his journeys, specimens of every kind, living, dying, and dead, were thrown into his bag, possibly to keep company with his boots or his clothes. The odor of the bag usually increased with the length of the inspection, and on one occasion, when it was exceptionally offensive, he said to the boots of a very smart hotel, "I think you had better put this bag into the cellar, as I should not be at all surprised if it smelt by to-morrow morning."

The love of fun and laughter, which was perceptible while he was transacting the dullest business, distinguished him equally as a writer. It was his object, so he himself thought, to make natural history practical; but it was his real mission to make natural history and fish culture popular. He popularized everything that he touched; he hated the scientific terms which other naturalists employed, and invariably used the simplest language for describing his meaning. His writings were unequal: some of them are not marked by any exceptional qualities. But others of them, such as the best parts of the "Curiosities of Natural History," and "The Royal Academy without a Catalogue," are admirable examples of good English, keen critical observation, and rich humor. His best things, he used to say himself, were written on the box of an omnibus or in a railway-carriage. "The Royal Academy without a Catalogue" was written between London and Crewe, and posted at the latter station. He had originally acquired the art of writing in a railway-train from the late Bishop of Oxford. He practiced it with as much zeal as the Bishop did, and with as good effect. The more labored compositions which Mr. Buckland undertook did not always contain equal traits of happy humor. He was at his best when he took the least pains, and a collection of his very best pieces would deserve a permanent place in any collection of English essays.

Desultory work of this character made Mr. Buckland's name a household word throughout the country. His articles were copied and recopied into various newspapers, and obtained, in this way, hundreds of thousands of readers. But, at the same time, this desultory work necessarily prevented him from accomplishing any literary task of first-rate excellence. Some of his personal popularity was thus purchased at the cost of his future reputation; and a mass of knowledge has died with him which might otherwise have been preserved. It is no exaggeration to say that he had collected during his busy life a vast store of information. He had trained himself to observe, and his eye rarely missed anything. He thought that he had facts at his disposal which would have enabled him to answer the great doctrines which Mr. Darwin has unfolded. Evolution was eminently distasteful to him; only two days before his death, in revising the preface of his latest work, he deliberately expressed his disbelief in it, and he used to dispose of any controversy on the subject by saying: "My father was Dean of Westminster. I was brought up in the principles of Church and state; and I will never admit it—I will never admit it."

Though, however, on such occasions as these Mr. Buckland used the language of advanced Tories, he habitually shrank from political discussion. He declared that he did not understand politics, and that he reserved himself for his own immediate pursuits. Into these pursuits he threw himself with his whole energy; and his energy was extraordinary. The greatest example of it was in the search which he made for John Hunter's coffin in the vaults of St. Martin's church. He literally turned over every coffin in the church before he found the one of which he was in search, spending a whole fortnight among the dead. He was ultimately rewarded by obtaining a grave for his hero's remains in Westminster Abbey. John Hunter was his typical hero. He had pursued the studies to which Mr. Buckland also devoted himself. He had founded a great museum. He had almost originated a science. Like John Hunter, one of Mr. Buckland's main objects was to form a collection which would illustrate the whole science of fish culture. The museum at South Kensington, which he has left to the nation, exists as a proof of his success. Inferior, of course, to the similar collections in the Smithsonian Museum of the United States, it forms an unequaled example of what one man may accomplish by energy and industry. Thousands of persons have interested themselves in fish-culture from seeing the museum; and the collection has long formed one of the most popular departments of the galleries at South Kensington.

Energy was only one of Mr. Buckland's characteristics. His kindliness was another. Perhaps no man ever lived with a kinder heart. It may be doubted whether he ever willingly said a hard word or did a hard action. He used to say of one gentleman, by whom he thought he had been aggrieved, that he had forgiven him seventy times seven already; so that he was not required to forgive him any more. He could not resist a cry of distress, particularly if it came from a woman. Women, he used to say, are such doe-like, timid things, that he could not bear to see them unhappy. One night, walking from his office, he found a poor servant-girl crying in the street. She had been turned out of her place that morning as unequal to her duties; she had no money, and no friends nearer than Taunton, where her parents lived. Mr. Buckland took her to an eating-house, gave her a dinner, drove her to Paddington, paid for her ticket, and left her in charge of the guard of the train. His nature was so simple and generous that he did not even then seem to realize that he had done an exceptionally kind action.

A volume might perhaps be filled with an account of Mr. Buckland's eccentricities. When he was studying oysters, he would never allow any one to speak; the oysters, he said, overheard the conversation, and shut up their shells. More inanimate objects than oysters were endowed by him with sense. He had almost persuaded himself that inanimate things could be spiteful; and he used to say that he would write a book on their spitefulness. If a railway-lamp did not burn properly, he would declare it was sulky, and throw it out of window to see if it could find a better master. He punished his portmanteau on one occasion by knocking it down, and the portmanteau naturally revenged itself by breaking all the bottles of specimens which it contained, and emptying their contents on its master's shirts. To provide himself against possible disasters, he used to carry with him an armory of implements. On the herring inquiry he went to Scotland with six boxes of cigars, four dozen pencils, five knives, and three thermometers. On his return, three weeks afterward, he produced one solitary pencil, the remnant of all this property. The knives were lost, the cigars were smoked; one thermometer had lost its temper, and been thrown out of window; another had been drowned in the Pentland Frith, and a third had beaten out its own brains against the bottom of a gunboat. No human being could have told the fate of the pencils.

Such were some of the eccentricities of a man who will, it may be hoped, be recollected by the public for the work which he did, and by his friends for his kindliness, his humor, and his worth. As he lived, so he died. Throughout a long and painful illness his spirits never failed, and his love of fun never ceased. "I wish to be present at this operation," was his quaint reply to the proposal of his surgeon that he should take chloroform, and his wonderful vitality enabled him to survive for months under sufferings which would have crushed other men. He is gone: his work is of the past; and posterity will coldly examine its merits. But his friends will not patiently wait the verdict of posterity. When they recollect his rare powers of observation, his capacity of expressing his ideas, his quaint humor, his kindly heart, and open hand, they will say with the writer, we shall not soon look on his like again.—Macmillan's Magazine.