Posts Tagged ‘Sir William Lawrence 1st Baronet’

Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

Louisa Lawrence


Louisa Lawrence

Louisa Lawrence was the daughter of James Senior and Elizabeth Trevor, of Broughton House, on the outskirts of Aylesbury. James had made his money as a haberdasher in Bruton Street, Berkeley Square, London. Like her father, Louisa had social ambitions. After she married the surgeon William Lawrence in 1828 when she was 25 and he was 45, hers were gratified by horticulture, first in a villa with less than two acres at Drayton Green. In her comparatively small garden she cultivated over 200 orchids and over 500 varieties of roses, long before hybrid tea roses and perpetuals were fashionable. There were Italian pollarded walks, rockwork including a rustic arch (with Cupid), a French parterre, a span-roofed greenhouse, a stove and an orchid house. By 1838 a detailed account of this model of what a suburban garden could be made into was published in The Gardener’s Magazine.

In June 1838 the Lawrences bought the larger property of nearby Ealing Park (or Little Ealing) with 100 acres, for £9000. It is described by Pevsner as “Low and long; nine bays with pediment over the centre and an Ionic one-storeyed colonnade all along”. This was very grandly furnished, as can be seen from the catalogue of the sale of the contents after Louisa’s death. There was a great deal of livestock on the estate, including poultry of all sorts, cows, sheep and pigs. There were thousands of bedding plants, “stove plants”, more than 600 plants in early forcing houses, nearly a hundred camellias, and so on and so on.

An indication of Louisa’s celebrity is that two influential gardening books were dedicated to her in the early 1840s. In 1841 Mrs Loudon, wife of the editor of The Gardener’s Magazine, wrote The Ladies’ Companion to the Flower Garden, being an Alphabetical Arrangement of all the ornamental plants usually grown in gardens and shrubberies, with full directions for their culture. She dedicated it to Mrs Lawrence of Ealing Park, Middlesex, “as a zealous patron of floriculture, an excellent botanist, and, above all, as one of the first lady-gardeners of the present day”. Vol. LXVIII of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, the work of Sir William Jackson Hooker, the director of the Royal Botanic Garden was dedicated “with sentiments of great regard and esteem” to Mrs Lawrence, “the beauty of whose gardens and pleasure grounds and whose most successfully cultivated vegetable treasures are only equalled by the liberality with which they are shown to all who are in botany and horticulture”.

Louisa was extremely competitive, constantly winning prizes for herself and also for her gardens at shows organised by the Botanic Society, the Royal Horticultural Society, and others. One of her keenest rivals was Joseph Paxton, the Duke of Devonshire’s famous gardener at Chatsworth in Derbyshire. He and the Duke visited her in 1841, although it seems that Paxton did not like her. Louisa’s greatest triumph was in 1849, and very much over the Duke and Paxton. For eighty years or so botanists had been bringing back to Europe previously unknown plants from all over the world, and they were eagerly cultivated. There was a race among English horticulturists to produce the first flower of a beautiful tree from Burma called Amherstia nobilis. Mrs Lawrence succeeded, sending the first spike to the Queen and the second to be engraved. A further spike arrived at Chatsworth and sent both the Duke and Paxton into raptures at its beauty. She was also the first to grow the purple-blue climbing nasturtium, Tropaeolum azureum.

At Ealing Park Louisa’s ambitions became even more serious, and she was even more definitely on the fashionable visiting circuit. In 1844 Dr. Carus, the King of Saxony’s doctor, writing in his diary about Louisa’s husband, noted: “His wife is celebrated as one of the first flower cultivators in London, and possesses in particular a beautiful collection of orchideous plants, which we shall probably visit on some other occasion.” The king’s party did go a few days later and Carus was amazed by both the flowers and the elegant grounds. Grander still was the visit of Queen Victoria, the Prince Consort, the King of the Belgians, and the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who planted the first trees in a planned avenue of deodars, the Himalayan cedar which had been introduced to England not long before, in 1831.

Louisa and William had two sons and two daughters. The eldest son died young; the second, Sir Trevor Lawrence, became as celebrated a gardener as his mother and President of the Royal Horticultural Society. On her death the surgeon, who had been chiefly living in Whitehall Place, leased Ealing Park and it was eventually sold by their son.

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Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

Sir William Lawrence 1st Baronet
16 July 1783 – London, 5 July 1867


William Lawrence

Lawrence was born in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, the son of the town’s chief surgeon and physician. His father’s side of the family were descended from the Fettiplace family. His younger brother was one of the founding members of the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester. At 15 he was apprenticed to, and lived with, John Abernethy (FRS 1796) for 5 years. He married Louisa Senior (1803–1855), the daughter of a Mayfair haberdasher, who built up social fame through horticulture. Their son, Sir Trevor Lawrence, was for many years President of the Royal Horticultural Society.

Lawrence had a long and successful career as a surgeon. He reached the top of his profession, and just before his death the Queen rewarded him with a baronetcy (see Lawrence baronets). He had for many years declined such honours, and family tradition was that he finally accepted to help his son’s courtship of an aristocratic young woman (which did not succeed). Lawrence suffered an attack of apoplexy whilst descending the stairs at the College of Surgeons and died on 5 July 1867 at his house, 18 Whitehall Place, London.

Said to be a brilliant scholar, Lawrence was the translator of several anatomical works written in Latin, and was fully conversant with the latest research on the continent. He had good looks and a charming manner, and was a fine lecturer. His quality as a surgeon was never questioned. Lawrence helped the radical campaigner Thomas Wakley found the Lancet journal, and was prominent at mass meetings for medical reform in 1826. Elected to the Council of the RCS in 1828, he became its President in 1846, and again in 1855.

During Lawrence’s surgical career he held the posts of Professor of Anatomy and Surgery, Royal College of Surgeons (1815–1922); Surgeon to the hospitals of Bridewell and Bethlem, and to the London Infirmary for Diseases of the Eye; Demonstrator of Anatomy, then Assistant Surgeon, later Surgeon, St Bartholomew’s Hospital (1824–1865). Later in his career, he was appointed Surgeon Extraordinary, later Serjeant Surgeon, to the Queen. His specialty was ophthalmology, although he practised in and lectured and wrote on all branches of surgery. Pugin and Queen Victoria were among his patients with eye problems.

Shelley and his second wife Mary Shelley consulted him on a variety of ailments from 1814. Mary’s novel Frankenstein might have been inspired by the vitalist controversy between Lawrence and Abernethy, and “Lawrence could have guided the couple’s reading in the physical sciences”.

Despite reaching the height of his profession, with the outstanding quality of his surgical work, and his excellent textbooks, Lawrence is mostly remembered today for an extraordinary period in his early career which brought him fame and notoriety, and led him to the brink of ruin.

At the age of 30, in 1813, Lawrence was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1815 he was appointed Professor of Anatomy and Surgery by the College of Surgeons. His lectures started in 1816, and the set was published the same year. The book was immediately attacked by Abernethy and others for materialism, and for undermining the moral welfare of the people. One of the issues between Lawrence and his critics concerned the origin of thoughts and consciousness. For Lawrence, as for ourselves, mental processes were a function of the brain. Abernethy and others thought differently: they explained thoughts as the product of vital acts of an immaterial kind. Abernethy also published his lectures, which contained his support for John Hunter’s vitalism, and his objections to Lawrence’s materialism.

In subsequent years Lawrence vigorously contradicted his critics until, in 1819, he published a second book, known by its short title of the Natural history of man. The book caused a storm of disapproval from conservative and clerical quarters for its supposed atheism, and within the medical profession because he advocated a materialist rather than vitalist approach to human life. He was linked by his critics with such other ‘revolutionaries’ as Thomas Paine and Lord Byron. It was “the first great scientific issue that widely seized the public imagination in Britain, a premonition of the debate over Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, exactly forty years later”.

Hostility from the established Church of England was guaranteed. “A vicious review in the Tory Quarterly Review execrated his materialist explanation of man and mind”; the Lord Chancellor, in the Court of Chancery (1822), ruled his lectures blasphemous, on the grounds that the book contradicted Holy Scripture (the Bible). This destroyed the book’s copyright. Lawrence was also repudiated by his own teacher, Abernethy, with whom he had already had a controversy about John Hunter’s teachings. There were supporters, such as Richard Carlile and Thomas Forster, and “The Monthly Magazine”, in which Lawrence was compared to Galileo. However, faced with persecution, perhaps prosecution, and certainly ruin through the loss of surgical patients, Lawrence withdrew the book. The time had not yet arrived when a science which dealt with man as a species could be conducted without interference from the religious authorities.

It is interesting that the Court of Chancery was acting, here, in its most ancient role, that of a court of conscience. This entailed the moral law applied to prevent peril to the soul of the wrongdoer through mortal sin. The remedy was given to the plaintiff (the Crown, in this case) to look after the wrongdoer’s soul; the benefit to the plaintiff was only incidental. This is also the explanation for specific performance, which compels the sinner to put matters right. The whole conception is mediæval in origin.

It is difficult to find a present-day parallel. The withholding of copyright, though only an indirect financial penalty, was both an official act and a hostile signal. We do not seem to have a word for this kind of indirect pressure, though Suppression of dissent comes closer than censorship. Perhaps the modern ‘naming and shaming’ comes closest. The importance of respectability, reputation and public standing were critical in this case, as so often in traditional societies.

After repudiating his book, Lawrence returned to respectability, but not without regrets. He wrote in 1830 to William Hone, who was acquitted of libel in 1817, explaining his expediency and commending Hone’s “much greater courage in these matters”.

He continued to espouse radical ideas and, led by the famous radical campaigner Thomas Wakley, Lawrence was part of the small group which launched The Lancet, and wrote material for it. Lawrence wrote pungent editorials, and chaired the public meetings in 1826 at the Freemasons’ Tavern. He was also co-owner of the Aldersgate Private Medical Academy, with Frederick Tyrrell.

Meetings for members of the College, were attended by about 1200 people. The meetings were called to protest against the way surgeons abused their privileges to set student fees and control appointments.
In his opening speech Lawrence criticised the by-laws of the College of Surgeons for preventing all but a few teachers in London, Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen from issuing certificates of attendance at preparatory lectures. He pointed out that Aberdeen and Glasgow had no cadavers for dissection, without which anatomy could not be properly taught.

A proposed change in the regulations of the College of Surgeons would soon cut the ground from under the private summer schools, since diplomas taken in the summer were not to be recognised.

“It would appear from the new regulations that sound knowledge was the sort acquired in the winter, when the hospital lecturers delivered their courses, while unsound knowledge was imparted in the summer when only the private schools could provide the instruction”. Lawrence in his opening speech, Freemason’s Tavern, 1826.

Lawrence concluded by protesting against the exclusion of the great provincial teachers from giving recognised certificates.

However, gradually Lawrence conformed more to the style of the College of Surgeons, and was elected to their Council in 1828. This somewhat wounded Wakley, who complained to Lawrence, and made some remarks in the Lancet. But, true to form, Wakley soon saw Lawrence’s rise in the College as providing him with an inside track into the working of the institution he was hoping to reform. For some years Lawrence hunted with the Lancet and ran with the College. From the inside, Lawrence was able to help forward several of the much-needed reforms espoused by Wakley. The College of Surgeons was at last reformed, to some extent at least, by a new charter in 1843.

This episode marks Lawrence’s return to respectability; in fact, Lawrence succeeded Abernethy as the ‘dictator’ of Bart’s.

His need for respectability and worldly success might have been influenced by his marriage in 1828, at the age of 45, to the 25-year-old socially ambitious Louisa Senior.

At any rate, from then on Lawrence’s career went ever forward. He never looked back: he became President of the Royal College of Surgeons, and Serjeant-Surgeon to Queen Victoria. Before he died she made him a baronet. “Never again [did] he venture to express his views on the processes of evolution, on the past or the future of man.” He did, however, warn the young T.H. Huxley – in vain, it must be said – not to broach the dangerous topic of the evolution of man.

In 1844 Carl Gustav Carus, the physiologist and painter, made “a visit to Mr Lawrence, author of a work on the “Physiology of Man” which had interested me much some years ago, but which had rendered the author obnoxious to the clergy… He appears to have allowed himself to be frightened by this, and is now merely a practising surgeon, who keeps his Sunday in the old English fashion, and has let physiology and psychology alone for the present. I found him a rather dry, but honest man”. Looking back in 1860 on his controversies with Abernethy, Lawrence wrote of “events which though important at the time of occurrence have long ceased to occupy my thoughts”.

In 1828, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

The careful anonymity in which the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was published in 1844, and the very great caution shown by Darwin in publishing his own evolutionary ideas, can be seen in the context of the need to avoid a direct conflict with the religious establishment. In 1838 Darwin referred in his “C” transmutation notebook to a copy of Lawrence’s “Lectures on physiology, zoology, and the natural history of man”, and historians have speculated that he brooded about the implied consequences of publishing his own ideas.

In Lawrence’s day the impact of laws on sedition and blasphemy were even more threatening than they were in Darwin’s time. Darwin referred to Lawrence (1819) six times in his Descent of man (1871).
Lawrence’s Natural history of man contained some remarkable anticipations of later thought, but was ruthlessly suppressed. To this day, many historical accounts of evolutionary ideas do not mention Lawrence’s contribution. He is omitted, for example, from many of the Darwin biographies, from some evolution textbooks, essay collections, and even from accounts of pre-Darwinian science and religion.

Although the only idea of interest which Darwin found in Lawrence was that of sexual selection in man, the influence on Alfred Russel Wallace, was more positive. Wallace “found in Lawrence a possible mechanism of organic change, that of spontaneous variation leading to the formation of new species”.

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