Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1703/Self-Help In Science

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From Good Words.


There was great excitement in the straggling Fifeshire village of Kettle one day in the spring of 1816. The inhabitants were all active, searching here, searching there, and going out in bands in this and that direction. A toddling child had gone astray, and could not be found, had perhaps been carried off by the gypsies, as Adam Smith had been; and the concern and grief of one couple was made common to all, as is the wont of villages, in spite of gossip and petty strifes, at less exciting times. But no child rewarded the eager searchers, though they had even met with blows at the suspected gypsy's encampment. When hope had almost been abandoned, and it seemed hardly possible to do more, in rushed the pig-wife to the father's house, crying, as she threw the child, safe and sound, into the mother's arms, "There, woman, there's your bairn! but for God's sake keep him awa' frae yon place or he may fare waur next time." The infant, who had already shown a keen love of animals and great courage and determination in handling them, had several times been found eagerly looking through the bars at a young litter. He had in some way got to gratify curiosity by nearer scrutiny, and had been for a whole night beside them. The adventure, odd and even ludicrous as are its circumstances, may be said to typify the life of the hero, as finding nothing in nature that is common or unclean, or unworthy of kindly interest, pursuing his studies in face of all obstacles and warnings "to keep awa' frae yon place," and doucely seeking to make a home with nature in her less accessible corners without thought of object beyond the delights of new knowledge.

Thomas Edward, with whom Mr. Smiles has done well to make the world fully acquainted in his latest work,[1] will take high rank among self-helpers. We can scarcely imagine what he might have done had he been blessed with more sympathy in his chosen pursuit while young, and expressly educated for it. Nevertheless, though illiterate, lonely, and poor, he has accomplished a great work, and his life is perhaps as deserving of study on account of the faithfulness, patience, and self-denial that have characterized it, as for the direct contributions he has made to science, and these are by no means small. The son of a weaver who had become a militiaman in the days when the thought of Napoleon was a nightmare on men's minds, Thomas Edward was born in 1814, at Gosport, where his father was stationed. After the disembodiment of the militia, the Edwards returned to Kettle, the mother's native place; but work being hard to find there, they resolved after a short time to go to Aberdeen. Here, being close to the Inches (which some sixty years ago were green and beautiful), the child found an inexhaustible field for observation. Each new creature he made acquaintance with he yearned to catch and to make a pet of. Before he was four years of age, his mother had been involved in difficulties with the neighbors through his "vermin." He brought home beetles, tadpoles, frogs, stickle-backs, crabs, rats, newts, hedgehogs, horseleeches, and birds of many kinds.

The fishes and birds [Mr. Smiles says] were easily kept; but as there was no secure place for the puddocks, horse-leeches, rats, and such like — they usually made their escape into the adjoining houses, where they were by no means welcome guests. The neighbors complained of the venomous creatures which the young naturalist was continually bringing home. The horse-leeches crawled up their legs, and stuck to them, fetching blood; the puddocks and asks roamed about the floors; and the beetles, moles, and rats sought for holes wherever they could find them. The boy was expostulated with. His mother threw out all his horse-leeches, crabs, birds, and birds' nests; and he was strictly forbidden to bring such things into the house again. But it was of no use. The next time that he went out to play, he brought home as many "beasts" as before. He was then threatened with corporal punishment. But that very night he brought home a nest of young rats. He was then flogged. But it did him no good. The disease, if it might be so called, was so firmly rooted in him, as to be entirely beyond the power of outward appliances.

If Tom were sent a message it was odds but some bird or fine butterfly or other insect caught his eye and he was off in chase, forgetful of his charges. When set down to rock the cradle as his mother was filling her husband's pirns (reels) or otherwise engaged, he escaped, as if at the prompting of some irrepressible instinct. His father threatened to confine him to the house, and tried it, with no avail — for the sun shone out of doors and all creatures were abroad, as if whispering to Tom to come and join them; then he was actually tied, but he loosed his bands by dragging the heavy table close to the grate, and thus setting fire to them, and almost to the house itself, in the process. His clothes were next taken from him and carried by his father to his workshop; but Tom tied an old petticoat round him, and was off to the woods — the strangest spectacle! When he came home his father threatened to chain him. "But," replied Tom, "ye hinna a cooch"[2] — for he had no notion of anything being chained but dogs. "Never mind," said his father, "I'll chain you."

But there was no need for that next day, nor the next. Tom's exposure in the petticoat had brought on a fever, which kept him down for three months, and the first thing he spoke of was his beasts. "Mother, where are my crabs and bandies that I brought home last night?" "Crabs and bandies," said she; "you're surely gaun gyte [become insane]; it's three months sin ye war oot." This passed the boy's comprehension. His next question was, "Has my father gotten the chains, yet?" "Na, laddie, nor winna; but ye mauna gang back to your auld places for beasts again." "But where's a' my things, mother?" "They're awa. The twa bottoms of broken bottles we found in the entry the day you fell ill were both thrown out." "And the shrew mouse you had in the boxie?" "Calton [the cat] took it." This set the boy crying, and in that state he fell asleep, and did not waken till late next morning, when he felt considerably better. He still continued, however, to make inquiries after his beasts.

His father after this was inclined to take a less severe view of his erratic ways, and would sometimes go for short waits, when the boy would assail him with questions that he could not answer about the rocks, and how they came there, and many other matters, Tom now formed parties of boys, with which he wandered in the woods or by the seashore; but he always found it possible to escape from them when anything special attracted his attention, and he desired to follow it. One of the most notable of these early escapades was his taking off his shirt to wrap in it a paper bees' byke (nest), which was new to him, and which he thus conveyed home; but on its being observed that he was shirtless, he came very near to getting beaten, and had his wasps' nest destroyed before his eyes.

He was next sent to a dame's school; but his habit of taking tame rats, mice, and other creatures there in his pockets became intolerable to the mistress. A crises came through a tame "kae," or jackdaw, which his mother one day sent him out with, under orders not to bring it back to the house again. He could not find it in his heart to part with the "kae," and carried it to school, hid in his trousers. But the "kae," failing to accommodate itself to his altered position when he knelt down at prayer, disturbed the school by its sudden cre-waw / cre-waw / set the children all laughing, and caused him to be expelled in spite of the friendship that existed beween the teacher and his mother. It was the same at two other schools of more importance. Against all his good resolutions, the temptation not to lose the chance of getting a rare bird or beast always proved too much for him. Before he was six years old he was declared utterly incorrigible and hopeless, and his parents soon after were glad to get work for him in a tobacco-factory, at which he could earn two shillings a week. They thought that he was falling into idle ways in his rovings and gatherings of "vermin." Here he met with some encouragement from his master, as he was fond of birds. But before he was eight the consideration of larger wages, and the prospect of extending his field of observation, caused him to seek work at a mill about a couple of miles from Aberdeen. Though he had to rise at four in the morning, so as to be at the mill by five, and was seldom home till nine in the evening, and with but short meal-hours, he was happy and contented at Grandholm Mill. The wages were from three to four shillings a week, rising to five or six, Edward says: —

People may say of factories what they please, but I liked this factory. It was a happy time for me whilst I remained there. It was situated in the centre of a beautiful valley, almost embowered amongst tall and luxuriant hedges of hawthorn, with watercourses and shadowy trees between, and large woods and plantations beyond. It teemed with nature and natural objects. The woods were easy of access during our meal-hours. What lots of nests! What insects, wild-flowers, and plants, the like of which I had never seen before! Prominent amongst the birds was the sedge-warbler,[3] which lay concealed in the reedy copses, or by the margin of the mill-lades. Oh, how I wondered at the little thing; how it contrived to imitate all the other birds I had ever heard, and none to greater perfection than the chirrup of my old and special favorite the swallow.

When he first saw a kingfisher the sight was like a revelation — an introduction to a world of poetry. But, as in poetry, illusion and reality lie near each other, so his simple account of his chase after it actually reads like a parable of life and its dreams.

But this delightful life could not last. When he was barely eleven his father apprenticed him to a man named Begg, a drunken shoemaker, who had a particular dislike to his natural-history pursuits, and beat him so mercilessly in his mad fits that the boy at last refused to go back, and ran off, making his way on foot to his mother's relatives at Kettle, who, however, so little relished the new accession, that he had to return home again, as he had come, somewhat humbled.

He now agreed to finish his apprenticeship with a man in Shoe Lane. In addition to his pupil-money, his employer received a percentage of his earnings. Here Edward was in a measure his own master, and pursued his studies, managing to begin a botanical garden, which he stocked with rare wild-flowers. He saw birds and animals stuffed in the gunsmiths' windows, and tried his hand on a mole, of which he was not a little proud. Having finished his apprenticeship, he got steady work for a time at set wages, and would have gone on with some degree of content, although he never liked his trade, had not a slack period come. He was thrown out of work, and his funds ran down. He tried to stow himself away in a ship for America, but, as the vessel was rigorously searched before sailing, he had to come forth.

His next step was to enlist in the Aberdeenshire militia, but we can infer that the military drill was not much to his taste. He nearly incurred severe penalties for breaking the ranks when a rare butterfly flitted past during parade. He was only saved by the earnest appeal of a lady friend of the officer in command. He disliked his trade so much that he tried several things (he was a church beadle for a short period), but in his twentieth year he could not see any prospect of a better opening in Aberdeen, and removed to Banff, where he had found work. His landlady was greatly puzzled by him, as well as his shopmates, who were often brought into rather close neighborhood to his favorites; her excessive carefulness compelling him to make his stool serve for a repository. She said, "She didna ken fat [what] kind o' chiel he was. A' body tried to keep awa' frae vermin but himsel'."

He married when only twenty-three years of age a sensible Banff woman who so far understood him, and helped him, and did not banish his "vermin;" and though she had good cause to appreciate his sobriety, for, in spite of advice, he never took whiskey with him in his rambles, she could not but have agreed so far with his drunken fellow-workmen, when they spoke of him as "a queer wanderin' kind o' creature." He now began seriously to collect, since he had room to keep. "It was indispensably necessary for him to husband carefully both his time and his money, so as to make the most of the one and the best of the other. And in order the better to accomplish this, he resolved never to spend a moment idly nor a penny uselessly;" a resolution from which he never departed. His wages were only 9s. 6d. a week, so that he could not abridge his working-hours.

He had bought an old gun for four-and-sixpence; but it was so rickety that he had to tie the barrel to the stock with a piece of thick twine. He carried his powder in a horn, and measured out the charges with the bowl of a tobacco-pipe. His shot was contained in a brown paper bag. A few insect-bottles of middling size, some boxes for containing moths and butterflies, and a botanical book for putting his plants in, constituted his equipment.

He did not cease work till nine at night, and commenced it at six in the morning. The moment he was free he set out on his rounds, with his supper in his hands or in his pocket. The nearest spring furnished him with sufficient drink.

So long as it was light, he scoured the country, looking for moths or beetles, or plants or birds, or any living thing that came in his way. When it became so dark that he could no longer observe, he dropped down by the side of a bank, or a bush, or a tree, whichever came handiest, and there he dozed or slept till the light returned. Then he got up and again began his observations, which he continued until the time arrived when he had to return to his daily labor. It was no unusual circumstance for him — when he had wandered too far, and came upon some more than usually attractive spot — to strip himself of his gear, gun and all, which he would hide in some hole; and thus lightened of everything, except his specimens, take to his heels and run at the top of his speed, in order to be at his work at the proper time. . . . His neighbor used to say of him, "It's a stormy night that keeps that man Edward in the house."

Sometimes he was caught in severe rainstorms on lonely moors, and before he could find shelter his insufficient pill-boxes had given way with the wet, and he presented the aspect of a vagrant so overrun with vermin that the good people into whose houses he went ran away from him in fright. Often all the bed he could get was to drop feet-foremost into a hole in a bank. "Think of having a polecat or a weasel sniff-sniffing at your face while asleep! Or two or three big rats tug-tugging at your pockets, and attempting to steal away your larder! These visitors, however, did not always prove an annoyance. On the contrary, they sometimes proved a windfall; for when they came within reach, they were suddenly seized, examined, and, if found necessary, killed, stuffed, and added to the collection." Many were the adventures he thus had with creatures of the night — polecats, otters, and rats. With owls and other night-birds he was abundantly familiar, and from night observations he was able even to note some new facts about so well-known an animal as the rabbit.

He divided the district into three circuits — six miles along the coast one way, and about five the other, and a radius of some five miles inland; and, though he could only visit one circuit on one night, each of them was visited twice a week, and his nets and other repositories he had set down for securing prey were carefully searched. But he was considerate, and tried to save the creatures all needless pain, using chloroform, which he always carried with him. It is worth noting, too, that, scant of time as he was, he faithfully kept the Sabbath, which was no doubt in favor of health, not to speak of higher things.

When he was by stress of weather hindered from going abroad, he devoted his time to making cases for his specimens, many hundreds of which he finished at one time or other in his life. But these did not always protect him from pillage. After having, with great labor, placed his collection (numbering nearly a thousand) of insects in these cases, and stowed them away in the garret, what must have been his feelings when, on going to take them out again, he found that they had all been gnawed away by rats or mice? His wife, on seeing the empty cases, asked him what he was to do next. "Weal," said he, "it's an awfu' disappointment; but, I think, the best thing will be to set to work and fill them up again." And he did; so that in 1845 he was able to give an exhibition in Banff, with such favorable results that he listened to the advice of friends to transport the collection to Aberdeen, and exhibit it there. With much anxiety a shop was rented for the purpose. At much expense and labor the collection was transported to the "granite city." But, though the exhibition was visited by a few scientific persons who could not credit that he had himself made the collection, the crowd did not rush to it, though in view of them he had reduced the price of admission to one penny. Dr. Macgillivray, the well-known naturalist, was delighted, but told Edward that the people of Aberdeen were not yet prepared for such an exhibition, especially that it was the work of so poor a man, and said he had come a century too soon. Another of the visitors was that very lady who, in the days of militia drill, had by her appeals saved him from punishment for breaking the ranks in pursuit of the butterfly. She asked him to her house to meet some scientific people, but his shyness and the distressing circumstances in which he was placed made him decline to go. Debt was above all things hateful to him. With all drawbacks, he had hitherto kept clear of it. But ruin now stared him in the face. He was deep in debt; and a stranger in a strange place. No wonder that he was depressed in spirit. He actually yielded to a melancholy suggestion and was very near to committing a tragically rash act. His ruling passion saved him; but the incident is so touching that we must give it: —

He had thrown off his hat, coat, and waistcoat before rushing into the sea; when a flock of sanderlings lit upon the sand near him. They attracted his attention. They were running to and fro, some piping their low shrill whistle, whilst others were probing the wet sand with their bills, as the waves receded. But amongst them was another bird, larger and darker, and apparently of different habits to the others. Desirous of knowing something more of the nature of this bird, he approached the sanderlings. They rose and flew away. He followed them. They lit again, and again he observed the birds as before. Away they went, and he after them. At length he was stopped at Donmouth. When he recovered his consciousness, he was watching the flock of birds flying away to the further side of the river. He had forgotten all his miseries in his intense love of nature.

Calmer and brighter thoughts now came back, and with them new energy. He advertised his collection for sale, and sold it, paid his debts, and returned to Banff, to begin anew his work of shoemaking and collecting. Very much the same life was carried on as before, and by the year 1850 he had made another collection, in some respects surpassing the first one. But, owing to an unfortunate fall over a steep cliff, the effect of which confined him to bed for a month, he was compelled to sell the greater part of it. Luckily about this time, he made the acquaintance of the Rev. James Smith, of Monquhitter, who lent him books, and otherwise aided him. Under this genial encouragement, he pursued his researches, till, in 1858, he had formed a third collection, more valuable than either of his former ones. For many years, through lack of books, he had been under the necessity of sending his specimens to others at a distance to be named; and it had so often happened that such specimens were never returned to him, that he had learned never to part with his discoveries unless he had duplicates of what he sent away. But now he had done much to improve his education, and, though he was indefatigable in following out his old system, he devoted a part of his time to recording his observations. These were at first inserted in the Banffshire Journal, and afterwards, at Mr. Smith's suggestion, in the Zoologist, and attracted considerable attention.

It was fortunate for him that he had been able to form this third collection; for it was the only provision he had against misfortune. He had educated his family well; and how could he save anything? In 1858, misfortune came; he was taken seriously ill. He had before this time had frequent twinges of rheumatism, and had not materially altered his ways; but now the doctor shook his head, and gravely warned him. He was told that, although his constitution was originally sound and healthy, it had, by constant exertion and exposure to wet and cold, become impaired to a much greater degree than had at first been supposed. He was also distinctly warned that if he didn't at once desist from his nightly wanderings, his life would not be worth a farthing. "Here," adds Mr. Smiles, "it appeared, was to be the end of his labors in natural history."

To get wherewithal to pay the doctor and the bills that had accumulated during his illness, his only hope lay in the sale of his third collection. Accordingly it went, as the others had done. "Upwards of forty cases of birds were sold, together with three hundred specimens of mosses and marine plants, with other objects not contained in cases. When these were sold Edward lost all hopes of ever being able to replenish his shattered collection." But a measure of strength returned, and not only did he, to some extent, replenish his stock, but he won honors in a new field. He had been introduced to Mr. Spence Bate, who, in conjunction with Mr. Westwood, was engaged in writing the account of the "Sessile-eyed Crustacæ," and to the Rev. Mr. Merle Norman, a well-known zoologist. In order to aid them, he was led to devote himself more particularly to marine zoology. He had no trawling or other gear, but he set traps in the pools at the seaside; he went along the shore and picked up the wreck from the wave; he sent his daughters for miles along the coast to get the waste from the fishermen's nets and lines, which, after much importuning, they had promised to keep for him. As the record of many falls and bruises conclusively tells that no cliff or scaur was left unsealed when he was in chase of a much-wanted specimen, so now no pool, however deep, could stop his way when he wanted a rare crab, or fish, or fish-parasite. The value of the contributions which he was able to make to science in this particular department are fully recognized in the valued works of Messrs. Bate and Westwood and Mr. Norman. In recognition of his services to science, a few years ago, he received the honor of an associateship of the Linnean Society, and was made a member of one or two other scientific societies in Scotland. Various efforts were at one time or other made to get some unimportant scientific post for him: he tried photography; applied even for a berth as a police-officer, or tide-waiter. None of these things were successful. The only tangible recognition of his scientific merits is the curatorship of the Banff Museum with a salary of £4 per annum. In face of the ignorant perversities of others, he has done good service in preserving some of its most valuable antiquities — of which the "Auld Been," which has a history, is not the least prominent.

Mr. Smiles does not need to apologize for writing the life of such a man because he still lives. His own, shyness and modesty have prevented him from gaining the recognition and reward which he might have secured, and surely no liberal-minded man will grudge him the benefit of being "put into a book." He well deserves the exceptional honor. We sincerely trust that the Banff folk will pleasantly disappoint his over-modest expectations, and buy many copies; and that in later editions it will hardly be correct to end the volume with the words that conclude the present edition: —

"Here I am still on the old boards, doing what little I can, with the aid of my well-worn kit, to maintain myself and my family; with the certainty that, instead of my getting the better of the lapstone and leather, they will very soon get the better of me. And although I am now like a beast tethered to his pasturage, with a portion of my faculties somewhat impaired, I can still appreciate and admire as much as ever the beauties and wonders of nature, as exhibited in the incomparable works of our adorable Creator." H. A. Page.

  1. "Life of a Scottish Naturalist: Thomas Edward, Associate of the Linnean Society." By Samuel Smiles, Author of "Lives of the Engineers," "Self-Help," etc. Portrait and Illustrations by George Reid, A.R.S.A. John Murray.
  2. A dog-kennel.
  3. Called also the English mocking-bird and Scottish nightingale.Called also the English mocking-bird and Scottish nightingale.