The Chester Society of Natural Science, Literature and Art

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The Chester Society of Natural Science  was inaugurated in 1871 by Charles Kingsley, then Dean of Chester Cathedral. (Yes, he was also the author of The Water Babies). Its original subject matter was Geological, Botanical and Zoological, but further scientific subjects were quickly added, and by the end of the 1890’s Photography literature and art had been added.  The Grosvenor Museum in Chester had been founded in 1885 and became the home of the Society, whose artefacts continue to form the basis of the collections.  From its earliest days the Society began to forge links with other scientific and natural history societies in a wide area.

I have not been able to find any evidence that Thomas was ever a full or associate member of the Society, but his connection with it is very clear.  By 1876-7 he was already guiding parties from the Society and its corresponding local groups in geological and botanical expeditions- see here.  I believe that Thomas’ connection with the Society was initially through George Dickson, Chester Nurseryman who was responsible for ‘headhunting’ Thomas for the Palé post, and who as an early member of the Society.

Once again Thomas’ habitual ability to be in the right place at the right time came into play.  Thomas McKenny Hughes, Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Cambridge University became the President of the Chester Society, as seen in the letterhead pictured above.  Probably the greatest area of geological interest and debate in the British Isles was right on Thomas Ruddy’s doorstep.  The identification of the relationship and dating of the Silurian and Cambrian rocks centred on the Bala beds of fossils, those very fossils which Ruddy had been collecting, identifying and scrupulously labelling over the last few years.  For forty years dispute had raged at the highest levels of Geological science between followers of Adam Sedgwick, mentor and Professorial predecessor of McKenny Hughes, and the man who had become his arch rival, Roderick Murchison.  No wonder that Professor Hughes and the members of the geological section of the Chester Society quickly identified Ruddy as a valuable resource of knowledge and presence literally ‘on the ground’ at that much discussed and disputed location.

For a detailed analysis of the Cambrian / Silurian controversy and Thomas Ruddy’s relationship see here .

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1876 Geology to the fore!

Tomen y Bala © John Darch via Geograph http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2134566
Tomen y Bala © John Darch via Geograph
http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2134566

By 1876, seven years after coming to Palé, Thomas was becoming widely known as a serious and respected amateur geologist.  It is not clear how he had achieved this position of respect and trust, but there must have been hours of patient study and days of fieldwork in order to reach this status.  Particularly important is his connection with the Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Cambridge, Thomas McKenny Hughes, who had been elected to the Chair in 1873, in succession to Adam Sedgwick.  Through this connection with Professor Hughes, who by the middle of 1876 Thomas R is calling ‘my friend’, TR is connected to the brightest stars of the beginnings of modern geology, Sedgwick and Charles Lyell and through Lyell, to Darwin himself, who did not die until 1882.

The following extract is a continuous transcription of the 1876 journal with no omissions.  Geology is to the forefront, there is no mention of the family, the Robertsons and Palé or even of Thomas’ greatest friend, William Pamplin.

July 20th Thursday The members of the Geologists Association and friends to the number of 34 came to Llandderfel station where there were seven conveyances waiting for them to take them to Llangynog. I had an invitation to go with them, so that I got ready. Mr. Davies acted as guide, so that he brought them to see my collection of fossils. I was glad to get introduced to some leading geologists such as Professor McKenny Hughes of Cambridge, Prof. John Morris, London University, Dr. Hicks of London, Mr. Hopkinson and other minor stars.

There were several ladies in the party. I gave them some refreshments, showed them my fossils which highly interested them, and took them afterwards to Brynselwrn quarry to get some graptolites. We next went up the Berwyns to the phosphate mine which was examined with interest and then to Llangynog where there was an excellent lunch ready for us at the expense of Mr. Doveston of ‘The Nursery’ near Oswestry whose two daughters were with us.

All were happy and enjoyed the lunch. I had to carve ducks, which I managed very well. Several amusing speeches were made after dinner. We also had Geological addresses outside in the evening. The day was very warm. The party proceeded to Oswestry in conveyances from there and I came home by those returning to Bala. I felt very much pleased to be with such high geologists. See paper for report of it [Paper not found – ed.] I may add that I had with me Mr. Barrois of Lille, France, Mr. & Mrs. Barbec of Pinner, Watford.

July 31st Monday. I went to Bala to act as guide for the members of the Chester Society of Natural Science. The morning was wet, but we faced the hill by Wenalt [SH927340], then to Brynbedog [SH931 330], lunched and went on to Bryn–y-Gwyn [SH934330], where many fossils were got. From there to Gelli Grin [SH936331], and back to Bala where a first-rate tea was ready. I made the acquaintance of several new geologists, amongst which was Mr. Shone of Chester, and my old friends Mr. Shrubsole and Professor Hughes. All the party enjoyed themselves very much.

Sept 11 Monday I had a visit of Mr. More of Dublin, Miss More his sister from Malvern and Dr. Stanley Haynes of Malvern also Mr. Shrubsole and his two boys. Mr. Shrubsole spent a happy day with me after we got quit of the others.

Oct 13 Friday The Revds. John Peter of Bala and Wynne Williams from Fronhenlog paid me a visit to see my collections. Mr. Williams said he could sit with me for hours and he was highly interested in the statuette from Wroxeter.

Nov 16th Thursday I went to Bala to advise the Local Board members about Tomen-y-Bala [A Norman motte, ed.]  My friend Dr. Hughes gave me dinner, and took me afterwards to see Fronderw quarry.

Nov 21st I went geologizing to Cynwyd and found three or four perfect Calymenei – the first I got perfect of the trilobiltes.  See here.

By Dwergenpaartje - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17289888
By Dwergenpaartje – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17289888

It happened that Thomas had brought his interest in geology to just the right part of the country and just the right time in history to play a significant part in the exploration of the geology of his local area.  In 1879 with the encouragement and mentoring Professor Hughes, Thomas published an article On the Upper Part of the Cambrian (Sedgwick) and the Base of the Silurian in North Wales in the foremost academic geological journal, the journal of the Geological Society of London.  This was a monumental achievement for a self taught geologist who left school at 14.

1871 The Robertsons at Palé

The Robertson family moved into Palé Hall in September 1871.  Their home in Wales until this point had been the Crogen Estate.  However, when the census was taken on Sunday 2nd April that year, the family were residing at their London home, 13 Lancaster Gate.  The census return gives a good opportunity to see who comprised the family at this important date.

Henry Robertson, born in Banff, Scotland,  was 55 at the time, and described in the census as Magistrate and Deputy Lieutenant, with ‘engineer’ added as something of an afterthought.  His wife Elizabeth, daughter of a London solicitor, was 49 and according to the census born in ‘Surrey, Bermondsey’.  Their children were Elizabeth, 19 (‘Miss Robertson’) Annie, 16; Henrietta, 13; and Henry B. 8 (‘Master Robertson’)  Henry’s second name was Beyer, in tribute to his father’s engineering partner and mentor, Charles Beyer.  On his death, Beyer left the use of his home, Llantisilio Hall not far from Palé for the use of Henry Beyer and his sister Annie.

I devise all that my messuage or mansion house known as Llantysilio Hall in the County of Denbigh with the lands…. .. to the use of my Godson Henry Beyer Robertson”   “To the use of my god daughter Annie Robertson, daughter of the said Henry Robertson for her life without impeachment of waste for her sole and separate use independently of any husband with whom she shall intermarry and of his debts control and engagements and from and after the decease of the said Annie Robertson”  [via Wikipedia]

All the children were born in Shrewsbury

Nine live-in servants are recorded at the Lancaster Gate House, some originating in London, others in Shrewsbury or Corwen, near Crogen and Palé.

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Earlier Census returns

In 1861 Henry and Elizabeth are recorded as living at st. Mary’s Court, Shrewsbury, with their three daughters.  Also living in the same house were Elizabeth’s mother, Ann Dean ‘Solicitor’s wife’, her sons Charles ‘Engineer’ and Joshua ‘Secretary of Railway’ and a nephew John Dean 17, ‘scholar’ as well as a Governess, Coachman, Cook, Nurserymaid and three Housemaids.  This demonstrates Henry’s rise in fortunes as within the next 10 years he owned the Lancaster Gate house, Crogen, which he rented out on removing to Palé and Palé itself.

In 1851 Henry and Elizabeth are found living in Richmond Place Chester, Henry designated ‘Civil Engineer’ with several additional words including [indecipherable] Hereford, Shrewsbury [indecipherable] Coal and Iron Master.  Charles Dean and nephew John Dean are also living there, with a Cook, Housemaid and Butler.

It is clear from Thomas Ruddy’s successive journal entries over the 37 years of his service at Palé that Henry Robertson and the whole family were amiable and considerate employers, and Thomas an energetic and conscientious Head Gardener.  Henry seems to have offered Thomas’ advice to many of the local landowners, resulting in Thomas visiting surrounding estates to advise their owners on horticulture and design.  As Thomas became increasingly noted for his geological collections, Robertson seems to have been proud to allow him to demonstrate his collections to callers, and in due course to Queen Victoria herself.  Henry’s brother in law Joshua Dean was frequently at Palé and was often a companion to Thomas in various excursions.  The Robertson family continued to spend time at Lancaster Gate during the year, thus giving Thomas more latitude to undertake his geological expeditions during their absence.

 

Headhunted for Palé

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Dicksons of Chester letterhead from a later letter to Thomas from George Dickson

‘1869 January 17th Mr. Dickson wished me to leave at once for North Wales to lay out grounds for Mr. Robertson of Palé near Llandderfel Station, east of Bala four miles.’

Mr. Dickson was George Dickson, son of James Dickson, an increasingly influential nurseryman and seedsman of Chester.  George’s father James had died in 1867 and George had taken over the business.  As you can see from the illustration, Dicksons were already royally recognised.  As with other nurserymen with whom Thomas had contact, they acted as headhunters for the gardens both of ‘old money’ or, like the Robertsons, the newly rich from the proceeds of the burgeoning industry and commerce of the central part of the nineteenth century.

A useful article gives details about the Dickson family and their business.  An interesting point is that they, like Thomas, were Scottish expats. Even more fascinating is that the man to whom Thomas was being recommended, the railway engineer and iron and coal magnate Henry Robertson was also born in Scotland.

Geo Dickson 1871

George Dickson  (aged 35) shown in the 1871 census living at Springfield, Newton by Chester with his wife Mary Elizabeth (31) and children Edith (6), Lavinia (5), John (3) Charlotte (1) and Bertha 2 months.  George is listed as ‘Seedsman, Nurseryman and Gardener’.

George was to become a close friend of Thomas.  As well as the connection with the nursery, George was an amateur naturalist and geologist, and it was he who would introduce Thomas to the Chester Society of Natural Science, Literature and Art, where Thomas’ talents would be nurtured and celebrated.
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A list of the members of the Society from 1885-6 Shows both James and George as members, as well as several others of their family including George’s daughter Lavinia.  I have never found Thomas listed as a member.  I believe this to be a matter of ‘social standing’ – which makes his award of the Kingsley Medal even more remarkable.

 

With the reopening of the RHS Lindley Library, I have opportunity to research further Dicksons and the other Nurseries used by Thomas as stepping stones to new employment. What were their operating methods, and are there any contemporary documents relating to this activity. A visit to the Lindley is on my ‘to do’ list.