Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Harcourt, William Vernon

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

HARCOURT, WILLIAM VERNON (1789–1871), virtual founder of the British Association, born at Sudbury, Derbyshire, in 1789, was fourth son of Edward Harcourt [q. v.], archbishop of York. After he had served in the navy, on the West Indian station, for five years, his father yielded to his wish to become a clergyman, and he became a student of Christ Church, Oxford, in 1807. He graduated B.A. in 1811, and M.A. in 1814, and remained a student of Christ Church till 1815. He had the advantage of the personal friendship of Cyril Jackson, the dean; and Dr. John Kidd [q. v.], then a teacher of chemistry at his college, imbued him with a lifelong love of that science. On leaving the university in 1811, Harcourt began his duties as a clergyman at Bishopthorpe, Yorkshire, and actively aided the movement for establishing an institution in Yorkshire for the cultivation of science. He constructed a laboratory, and occupied himself in chemical analysis, aided by his early friends Davy and Wollaston. In 1821 remains of prehistoric life found by Buck- land in the cavern of Kirkdale went to form the basis of a museum, connected with the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, of which Harcourt was the first president. In 1824 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

The first meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was held at York in September 1831, and the general plan of its proceedings, and the laws to govern it, were drawn up by Harcourt, who was appointed general secretary. At the Birmingham meeting of the association in 1839, Harcourt was elected president. The subject of his address was the history of the composition of water, supporting the claims of Cavendish to the discovery by original documents, and resolutely vindicating the claims of science to entire freedom of inquiry. Another subject to which Harcourt directed his inquiries was the effect of heat on inorganic compounds. For forty years he laboured to acquire glasses of definite and mutually compensative dispersions, so as to make perfectly achromatic combinations; and at an age when most men cease from continuous literary and scientific work he carried on experiments with characteristic zeal. In this work he was greatly aided by Professor Stokes.

Meanwhile Harcourt was efficiently performing much clerical work. He became canon of York in 1824, rector of Wheldrake in Yorkshire in 1824, and of Bolton Percy, Yorkshire, in 1837. He was always ready to assist public institutions of an educational and charitable character. The Yorkshire School for the Blind, and the Castle Howard Reformatory, besides many other useful institutions, owed their existence to him.

In 1861, on the death of his elder brother, George Granville Harcourt, he succeeded to the Harcourt estates in Oxfordshire, and his latter years were spent at Nuneham among his books, and in the congenial society of men of culture and science. He died in April 1871 in his eighty-second year, having married in 1824 Matilda Mary, daughter of Colonel William Gooch, by whom he was father of Edward William Harcourt, esq., of Nuneham, and of the Right Hon. Sir William Vernon Harcourt, and of five daughters.

[Private information; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Burke's Peerage, s.v. 'Vernon;' Burke's Landed Gentry, 'Harcourt.']