Friday, 3 August 2012

Good Fellows of Budleigh and Sidmouth

With the Carter bicentenary approaching in 2013 and that of Peter Orlando Hutchinson (1810-97) still fresh in local minds where better to go than to Sidmouth Museum, seen above, to discover how a town only a few miles along the coast from Budleigh commemorated one of its best known characters from the Victorian age.

For P.O.H., though born in Winchester, is very much part of Sidmouth's local history. And the town clearly cherishes its illustrious former residents which include four past Fellows of the Royal Society.

Sir Ambrose Fleming (1849-1945) worked with Marconi, and invented the diode valve. 

Sir Norman Lockyer (1836-1920), shown above, discovered helium and the spectrum of the sun, and was Editor of Nature for 50 years from its foundation. 

Sidney George Brown (1873-1948) was an inventor and engineer who devised the gyro-compass. His company S.G. Brown Ltd was based at Watford. 

And finally there was Frederick Lindemann (1886-1957) who was Churchill's scientific adviser, honoured as the 1st Viscount Cherwell.

The four Fellows naturally get pride of place in Sidmouth's Museum, an attractive building called Hope Cottage next to the Parish Church, donated to the Town Council by Miss Constance Radford in August 1925 and leased to the Sid Vale Association. Its Curator is Dr Bob Symes OBE, a former Keeper and Head of the Department of Mineralogy at the Natural History Museum in London.

There's a cabinet devoted to each FRS displaying relevant gadgets such as the gyro compass manufactured by S.G. Brown. But there are also photos of traders, fishermen and local authors such as R.F. Delderfield whose centenary we've been celebrating this year.

And then of course there's P.O.H.  Not a Fellow of the Royal Society of course. In fact he was a self-educated kind of fellow, but what a character. An author, artist, eccentric who insisted on wearing military uniform though not entitled to do so, antiquary, amateur geologist, long-distance walker - his walking-stick is one of the items on view - numismatist, and some might say trouble-maker.

American readers may like to know that Peter Orlando Hutchinson was great grandson to Thomas Hutchinson (1711-1780) the controversial Governor of Massachusetts who was prominent in events such as the Boston Tea Party that led to the War of Independence.

Sidmouth Parish Church
Photo credit: Eugene Birchall 

Certainly he stirred up a hornets' nest of bitter feelings on issues such as the renovation of Sidmouth Parish Church.  Queen Victoria had agreed to donate a window in memory of her father who had died in Sidmouth in 1820. Outraged on learning of its planned location, P.O.H. went so far as to take his letter of protest to the Queen at Osborne House, the royal residence on the Isle of Wight. His diary records his arrival at Cowes on 19 Sept 1860 at 3.00 pm. "At the hotel I changed into my uniform and found the use of it. Sentries presented arms and the Queen's gatekeeper threw the portal open wide as he saw me approach."

Queen Victoria in 1860 by the painter J.J.E. Mayall

Although his planned interview with the Queen did not take place he succeeded in having his message about the changes at the Parish Church conveyed to Victoria, who consequently withdrew her grant for the window "until the disputes respecting it are settled." Needless to say, the Church Restoration Committee was outraged at P.O.H's actions.

Yes, Sidmouth Museum has done a good job on P.O.H. and its other worthy former residents. Some might think it's as charmingly quirky and cluttered in a way similar to our own Fairlynch Museum in Budleigh. And one senses a real affection for Sidmouth's characters from the past on the part of  the volunteers who've put together displays about the interesting lives of former residents. This nicely-produced biography of P.O.H. is on sale for the modest sum of £1.

Those who want to spend a bit more can splash out on the splendid edition of Peter Orlando Hutchinson's Diary of a Devon Antiquary: The Illustrated Journals & Sketchbooks 1871-1894.

And Budleigh's own Henry Carter FRS, seen above? He was of course a totally different character, though a near contemporary. A professional man who qualified as a surgeon, but like many who studied medicine at that time including his contemporary and admirer Charles Darwin, with a keen interest in natural history. And with a career spent many thousands of miles from East Devon on the Arabian coast and in Bombay, amidst the hardships of a continent where diseases were rife and the climate was often harsh.

Most of his time seems to have been spent looking down a microscope at amoebas, bits of old fossil and pieces of sponge. For it's as a spongiologist that he made his name, with 26 kinds of sponge named after him and with his researches still valued by experts in the field today. That includes those scientists who are discovering the exciting possibilities that sponges can provide in the development of anti-cancer drugs.

No biography of Carter has been written. No diaries and few letters have been preserved. Yet slowly we can gain an insight into his character from the 1,894 pages that he wrote on geology and natural history which appeared in 127 publications during his lifetime.

A decent man with high moral aims. Like his distinguished anatomy professor William Sharpey he saw the study of natural history as something equally valuable as medicine in terms of its benefit to humanity. More than 30 years after their first meeting, Carter revealed how such thinking had moulded his own philosophy of life. A letter he wrote to Sharpey from Budleigh Salterton on 30 May 1872, ten years after his return from India, described how he was "devoting my leisure to scientific studies in order to follow your precept of making fellow-creatures better and happy."

One couldn't really ask for anything more from a scientist.

'Sea, Salt & Sponges!' the next Fairlynch Museum exhibition commemorating the birth of Henry John Carter FRS will run from mid-April to the end of September 2013.


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