'Angling - Preparing for Sport': published in 'British Field Sports' in 1831, this copper-engraved print depicts the kind of fishing tackle and clothing which would have been familiar to Sir Humphry Davy's literary characters Halieus, Ornither, Poietes and Physicus.
Salmononia: or Days of Fly Fishing, first published in 1809 by the Cornish chemist and inventor Humphry Davy (1778-1829), is one of the most collectable of angling books from the early nineteenth century. It was dedicated to the Irish physician and mineralogist, William Babington, a longstanding friend of Davy and a fellow founder of the Geological Society of London in 1807.
The book, written while Davy was ill, takes the form of a series of discussions between four imaginary characters: Halieus, the accomplished fly fisher; Ornither, a county gentleman who has done a little fishing; Poietes, a fly-fishing nature-lover; and Physicus a natural philosopher who has never fished.
John Davy, in his Memoirs of the Life of Humphry Davy, paints a wonderful picture of his brother on the river:
"I am sorry I have not a portrait of him in his best days in his angler’s attire. It was not unoriginal, and considerably picturesque – a white, low-crowned hat with a broad brim; its under surface green, as a protection from the sun, garnished, after a few hours’ fishing, with various flies of which trial had been made, as was usually the case; a jacket either grey or green, single-breasted, furnished with numerous large and small pockets for holding his angling gear; high boots, water-proof, for wading, or more commonly laced shoes; and breeches and gaiters, with caps to the knees made of old hat, for the purpose of defence in kneeling by the river side, when he wished to approach near without being seen by the fish; such was his attire, with rod in hand, and pannier on back, if not followed by a servant, as he commonly was, carrying the latter and a landing net."
Humphry Davy admits that Salmononia was inspired by ‘recollections of real conversations with friends’ and John’s memoir revealed that Halieus was inspired by William Babington. But whose conversations inspired the other characters?
Two friends of both Davy and Babington that must be strong contenders are William Nicholson (1753-1815) and Anthony Carlisle (1768-1840). They are best known for their decomposition of water into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis, achieved in 1800 with a copy of Alessandro Volta’s recently invented pile – a discovery which so excited Davy that he wrote that: ‘An immense field of investigation seems opened by this discovery: may it be pursued so as to acquaint us with some of the laws of life!’
Davy met Nicholson when he arrived in London, having already corresponded and sent his first scientific papers to him in 1799 for publication in A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts – the first monthly scientific publication in Britain, running between April 1797 and December 1813. Over the course of its life, Nicholson’s Journal included some twenty articles on fish (but not specifically fly fishing). The most important was the editor’s own in the article on the torpedo fish in 1797, which speculated about the source of the electric charge within the pelicules of the torpedo, and which inspired Volta to try the various combinations of discs (an important hint) resulting in the development of his battery pile. When Davy was appointed as Director of the Royal Institution, aCommittee for Chemical Investigation and Analysis was established, on which Nicholson was invited to participate.
Nicholson had known Babington since 1784 when they were joint secretaries of a philosophical coffee house society established by Richard Kirwan, another Irish chemist and geologist. He also knew Carlisle, then at Westminster hospital, through his close friend the radical author William Godwin whose wife Mary Wollstonecraft was attended by the surgeon before she died in 1797.
Unfortunately, we don’t have an account of Davy, Babington, Carlisle and Nicholson fishing together, but it is a scene that we might easily imagine.
Nicholson, who was a prolific publisher, in his 1809 British Encyclopedia, or Dictionary of Arts and Sciencesdescribes fly fishing as ‘an art of so much nicety, that to give any just idea of it, we must devote an article to it.’ Sadly, he does not write about fly-fishing as eloquently as he does about chemistry, simply describing a number of flies and his only advice on how to fish is ‘keep as far from the water’s edge as may be, and fish down the stream with the sun at your back, the line must not touch the water.’
But, in a memoir of The Life of William Nicholson, the manuscript of which has finally been published 150 years after it was written, there is a charming account by Nicholson’s son of fishing trips with Carlisle in around 1803:
"Carlisle was at that time about thirty years of age, good looking and active …
Having passed his early days at Durham and in Yorkshire, Carlisle was fond of the country and country sports. We had many a day’s fishing at Carshalton, where his intimacy with the Reynolds and Shipleys procured him the use of part of the stream where the public were excluded. He was a skilful fly fisher and during the day I generally carried the pannier and landing net, but towards night when the mills stopped, and the water ran over a bye-wash, I with my bag of worms and rod managed to hook some fish as big as were taken during the day.
We also had fishing grounds at a place in Hertford called Chenis which was rented as I understood by Carlisle and a fellow sportsman called Mainwaring. These two gentlemen and myself as a third in a post-chaise used to start at 6.00 o’clock am, breakfast at Ware or Hoddesdon and forward to the fishing, which was fine for a boy of fourteen. And then Mr Mainwaring always took a fowling piece with him and occasionally shot a bird which was worth all the fish, rods and lines and all.
Chenis was a remarkably quiet rural place and the little inn we slept at was situated in a settlement of some half dozen cottages and houses, but what its name was I do not know. On one occasion when our companion was called away Carlisle and I remained there for a day or two. We were very successful in our fishing and were about to depart when it turned out there was a county election going forward and there was no conveyance to be had for love or money. Carlisle was wanted at home and we had no choice but to start on foot, so away we went after breakfast with a boy to show us a footpath way through fields to Rickmansworth where we hoped to get some conveyance to London.
Carlisle had the best share of the luggage and the boy and I the remainder. The country we travelled was beautifully undulated and of a dry sandy soil. It was very hot and I suspect I was the first to feel fatigue. After a long trudge we stopped at a gate leading into a sandy lane and looking back at the hillside I was amazed at the display of poppies in full bloom, the whole field was a mass of crimson, a new sight to me.
I was very thirsty and tired and have often thought of that field and Burns’ immortal lines:
Pleasures are like poppies spread;
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
or like the snow fall on the river.
a moment white then melts forever.
But time, like a pitiless master, cried onward and we had to trudge again. At last our guide left us on the dusty high road to Rickmansworth, where in time we arrived. Here we got some refreshment and awaited til a return post-chaise conveyed us to London. We had walked nearly 30 miles and it was my first walking adventure of any magnitude."
The story was written when young Nicholson was eighty, and his geography seems a bit muddled – I have been unable to locate a place called Chenis, in Hertford – but records exist for one in Buckinghamshire in the 1770s. Could he mean the river Chess if he was near Ware and Hoddesdon? The Chess also passes near a village called Chenies just a few miles from Rickmansworth. (If any readers of the Flyfishers’ Journal can help, I would be very interested to hear from them.)
Carlisle went on to enjoy a stellar medical career, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1804, where he became Professor of Anatomy 1808 to 1824.
In 1809, he published an account of some experiments into how fish swam, by cutting various fins off seven fish each of dace (cyprinus leusiscus), roach (cyprinus rutilus), gudgeon (cyprinus gobio) and minnow (cyprinus phoxinus). He recorded how, on removal of the pectoral fin  its progressive motion was not at all impeded, but it was difficult for the fish to ascend; on removing the abdominal fin as well, the fish could not ascend; on removing the single fins, ‘produced an evident tendency to turn around, and the pectoral fins were kept constantly extended to obviate that motion; … and so on, until all fins had been removed from the seventh fish which cruelly ‘remained almost without motion’.
Carlisle was appointed Surgeon Extraordinary in 1820 to King George IV and was knighted in 1821. He died in 1840, never losing his love of fishing.
"Sir Anthony Carlisle had been called into the Prince Regent mainly to consult as to what wine he should drink. Having ascertained that brown sherry was the favourite of the day, he recommended it and gave great satisfaction.
Carlisle wrote to me, while I was engaged in a survey in Yorkshire, to find him a handy honest unsophisticated lad as a servant. I did my best and sent him one. The lad turned out a stupid dog, but when I visited London a short time afterwards and dined with Carlisle this boy waited and amused me by incessantly answering Carlisle ‘Yes Sir Anthony, … no Sir Anthony’ and ‘Sir Anthony’ at the beginning, middle and end of every sentence. All this passed as a matter of course and reminded me how calmly we bear our dignities when they fall upon us.
Carlisle was a true fisherman and a great admirer of honest Izaak Walton and used to quote from that delightful book The Compleat Angler, so that when any food or wine was better than common he said ‘it was only fit for anglers or very honest men’; and then he had another joke when we got thoroughly wet on our fishing excursions, saying ‘it was a discovery, how to wash your feet without taking off your stockings’."
I was extremely fortunate in having been signed by one of the leading independent publishers - Peter Owen Publishing. This was the first publisher that Iapproached (so very fortunate indeed) and is surely testament to the importance of Mr Nicholson, rather than my own humble credentials.
As the main biography is taking much longer than anticipated (see below), we decided to publish The Life of William Nicholson by his Son as a prelude - exactly 150 years after it was written in 1868. This rare manuscript has been held by the Bodleian Library since 1978.
In addition to the edited text of The Life of William Nicholson by his Son, the book also includes:
- a timeline of Nicholson's life, work and inventions;
- details of Nicholson's published works;
- Nicholson's patents and inventions;
- Nicholson's list of members of the coffee house philosophical society of the 1780s (not as complete as in Discussing Chemistry and Steam by Levere and Turner …, but indicative of Nicholson's associates at the time); and
- committee Members of the Society for Naval Architecture of 1791.
Design agency Exesios have done a super job of the cover, and there is a special treat on the inside with:
- a map of all Nicholson's known homes on (Drew's map of 1785); and
- the drawings from the 1790 cylindrical printing patent.
I'm delighted that Professor Frank James of UCL and the Royal Institution has written an afterword which focuses on Nicholson's scientific contributions. Considering his literary associates, Professor James also suggests why Nicholson was never made a member of the Royal Society, despite his many achievements.
The modern biography of William Nicholson (1753-1815)
With 110,000 words under my belt, I was beginning to think that the end was in sight on the modern biography - until I met up with Hugh Torrens, Emeritus Professor of History of Science and Technology at University of Keele, to chat about some of the civil engineering issues.
Our first meeting resulted in a very exciting list of 29 items of further research which will keep me busy researching and writing for several months.
Meanwhile, you can keep up to date with news and developments here on the blog.
William Nicholson (1753-1815) is best known to Enlightenment historians as the founder of A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts – the first commercial monthly scientific journal in Britain. Taking a wide variety of articles from all levels of society, Nicholsons Journal, democratised access to technological developments, encouraged debate and accelerated the spread of scientific know-how. However, it was a thorn in the side of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, and Sir Joseph Banks is reported to have blocked Nicholson’s membership to the Royal Society on the basis that he wanted ‘no journalists’ or ‘sailor boys’ – the latter a reference to Nicholson’s early career with the East India Company and a contretemps at the short-lived Society for the Improvement of Naval Architecture.
Despite this, they enjoyed a cordial relationship over at least 20 years. Nicholson was first engaged by Banks to help produce the paper Observations on a Bill, for Explaining, Amending, and Reducing into One Act, the several laws now in being for preventing the Exportation of Live Sheep, Wool, and other Commodities, 1787.
Shortly after this, Banks accepted the first of three papers from Nicholson for the Royal Society – one on a proposed design for a compact scale rule to replace the cumbersome Gunther’s rule; one in 1788 regarding Nicholson’s invention of the revolving doubler (a device to generate electricity) and a third paper on electricity was read in 1789.
In 1799, Nicholson moved to Number 10 Soho Square where he established a scientific school and hosted a series of scientific lectures. He was a regular participant at Banks’s Sunday Conversazione and the Thursday breakfast held in the Banks library.
In 1802, a disagreement arose when Nicholson wrote to Banks asking permission to republish papers from the Royal Society, as was happening in foreign journals – he argued that it was unfair that ‘journalists within the Realm should be put in a less favoured situation than foreign philosophers’.
Working relations resumed, and in 1806, on behalf of the Board of Longitude, Banks invited Nicholson to comment on designs of the timekeepers constructed by John Arnold and Thomas Earnshaw hoping to reveal the secrets of their designs to the wider watch-making community and thereby stimulate similar developments.
Between 1800 and 1812, 14 articles by Banks were published in Nicholson’s Journal – so in the end, even Sir Joseph recognized the benefits of speedier dissemination of scientific information.
These articles can ve accessed via: http://www.nicholsonsjournal.co.uk/nicholsons-journal-index.html
Checking a few of the links on our list of Nicholson’s publications, I was delighted to find that there is now a copy of The Navigator’s Assistant available to read on Google Books.
The previous link (via the Hathitrust) attributed the book incorrectly to William Nicholson ‘master attendant of Chatham dockyard’. Unfortunately, quite a few other online links make the same error (including one on Worldcat – where I was surprised that I could not find a facility to report the error).
Published in 1784 in two volumes for 6 shillings, more than ten years after he had returned from his second voyage to China, this was Nicholson’s second publication in his own name. It followed on from the success of his An Introduction to Natural Philosophy in 1782.
Despite the success of his first book, Joseph Johnson was not interested in a work on navigation, and Nicholson eventually persuaded three publishers to spread the risk and work with him. These were Thomas Longman of Paternoster Row (1730-1797), Thomas Cadell of The Strand (1742-1802) and John Sewell of Cornhill (c1733-1802).
Sewell became a good friend of Nicholson, and was an interesting character. His shop in Cornhill was described in his obituary as “the well-known resort of the first mercantile characters in the city, particularly those trading to the East Indies. “ “He possessed, besides his professional judgement of books, a tolerable knowledge of mechanicks, particularly of ship-building … and was a most zealous promoter of a Society for the Improvement of Naval Architecture,” - of which he persuaded Nicholson to become a member.
Two other historic nuggets - with no relation to Nicholson, but rather interesting - caught my eye in his obituary:
Businesses in Cornhill had suffered from a number of fires, and so Sewell came up with the idea of building a water tank beneath the coach-pavement which was kept full and was a ‘perpetual and ready resource in cases of fires happening in the vicinity.’
In 1797 mutinies were threatened by sailors of the Royal Navy – a time when Britain was at war with France – “the kingdom was alarmed and confounded” and John Sewell drew up plans for a Marine Voluntary Association “for manning in person the Channel Fleet”. Fortunately, the sailors came to their senses and the volunteers were not required.
Returning to The Navigator’s Assistant, this was not a great success. The Monthly Review described it as “undoubtedly the work of a person who is possessed of ingenuity enough to leave the beaten path” but goes on to criticise a number of technical errors.
The Gentleman’s Magazine kindly described it as “too refined and laboured for the class of persons to whom it was addressed: and therefore it is not much to be wondered at that this Assistant was neglected”.
As we near publication of the Life of William Nicholson by his son, I find myself scanning the shelves of every bookshop to see whether much, if any, space is given to Georgian biographies. I was delighted to come across this biography in prime position on the New Releases shelf: THE ENLIGHTENED MR. PARKINSON – The pioneering life of a forgotten English surgeon by Cherry Lewis.
Parkinson identified a specific type of shaking palsy and it is this mental health condition for which his name is recognised today, but the biography tells a broader story of his work in general medical practice, his involvement in social and political reform, and his interest in fossils and geology. He was one of the founders of the Geological Society in 1807.
I particularly enjoyed the way that the author has explained the background at a time of tumultuous and constant change occasioned by wars, political upheaval, societal advances, medical and scientific discoveries. This is done in a very accessible way which ensures that the book will be just as enjoyable for a reader who is not intimate with that period of his life, between 1755 and 1824.
Parkinson’s life coincided pretty well with William Nicholson (1753-1815). They would certainly have met at the Geological Society, which Nicholson joined on the suggestion of their mutual friend Anthony Carlisle, if not in the mid-1790s when Parkinson was a member of the London Corresponding Society with Nicholson’s good friend Thomas Holcroft.
Parkinson submitted four papers to Nicholson’s Journal:
October 1807 - Nondescript Encrinus, in Mr. Donovans Museum.
March 1809 - On the Existence of Animal Matter in Mineral Substances.
May 1809 - On the Dissimilarity between the Creatures of the present and former World, and on the Fossil Alcyonia.
January and February 1812 - Observations on some of the Strata in the Neighbourhood of London, and on the Fossil remains contained in them.
THE ENLIGHTENED MR. PARKINSON – The pioneering life of a forgotten English surgeon
By Cherry Lewis, published by ICON
Image: A Mad Dog in a Coffee House by Thomas Rowlands, 1809 - Source wikimedia
If I have a bit of spare time on a business trip to London, then I can often be found in the Royal Society ploughing through the minute books to see whether William Nicholson was ever proposed as a member.
Nicholson’s son, also called William, recalled that:
The main point on which my father felt aggrieved was his rejection at the Royal Society. My father had been recommended by several of the members of the Society to offer himself. He was duly proposed, but objected to.
It came to my father’s ears that Sir Joseph Banks was the chief objector, having said that whatever pretensions Mr Nicholson had to the membership, he did not think a ‘sailor boy’ a fit person to rank among the gentlemen members of the Royal Society, or words to that effect.
But, let us not dwell on his one disappointment, when Nicholson enjoyed such a wide variety of acquaintances through his membership of a number of societies, each of which I will return to in a future blog:
The Cannonians (around 1780) – this was the name of an informal dining club that met in a cookshop in Porridge Island near St. Martin's-in-the-Fields.
Richard Kirwan’s Philosophical Society (1780-1787) – which had no official name, but was often called the Chapter Coffee House Society, after its main meeting place. See this blog for details of the membership. William Nicholson joined in 1783, proposed by Jean-Hyacynthe de Magellan and John Whitehurst, and was elected joint secretary with William Babington in 1784.
General Chamber of Manufacturers of Great Britain and Ireland (1785-1787) – Josiah Wedgwood was the first chairman and proposed Nicholson as secretary.
The Society for the Improvement of Naval Architecture (1791-1796) – established by Mr John Sewell, a publisher and friend of Nicholson who proposed him as a member from outset.
The Royal Institution, Committee for Chemical Investigation and Analysis (June 1801- ) Nicholson was appointed to this committee with Anthony Carlise, presumably proposed by Humphry Davy.
The Geological Society of London (1807-) Nicholson joined as a member in 1812, proposed by Anthony Carlisle, James Parkinson, Arthur Aikin (a founder of the society) and Richard Knight.
In December 1780 in the Chapter Coffee House near St Paul's Cathedral, several men led by the Irish chemist Richard Kirwan decided to meet fortnightly to discuss ‘Natural Philosophy, in its most extensive signification’.
The membership of the group grew steadily, and meetings took place in a variety of locations including the Baptist’s Head Coffee House. William Nicholson joined in 1783 and was elected joint secretary with William Babington in 1784.
Nicholson’s copy of the minutes of the society, until 1787 when it folded, are in Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science and it was wonderful to be able to inspect them recently.
Compared to other philosophical societies of that time, especially the Lunar Society which had been meeting in the Midlands since 1765, this group seems little known – partly because it never had any name.
In 1785 it was agreed that the group would have no formal name when Kirwan ‘affirmed that the society not being desirous of that kind of distinction which arises from name or title were so far from giving any sanction or authority to the names used by their secretaries that the original determination in this respect was that the society should not have a name.
Fortunately the minutes do include a most interesting list of 35 members (the total number of members over the life of the society was 55).
Mr Alex Aubert (1730-1805), Austin Friars, 26
MrAndrewBlackhall (?-?), Thavies Inn, Holborn
DrWilliamCleghorn(1754-1783), Haymarket, 11
DrAdairCrawford(1748-1795), Lambs Conduit Street, 48.
MrJean-Hyacinthde Magellan(1722-1790), Nevilles Court, 12
MrJamesHorsfall(-d1785), Inner Temple.
DrJohnHunter(c1754-1809), Leicester Square
MrWilliamJones(1746-1794), Inner Temple
MrRichardKirwan(1735-1812), Newman Street, 11
MrPatrickMiller(1731-1815), Sackville Street, 17
MrEdwardNairne(1726-1806), Cornhill, 20
DrCharles William Quin(1755-1818), Harmarket, 11
DrJohnSims(1749-1831), Paternoster Row, 11
MrBenjaminVaughan(1751-1835), Mincing lane
MrAdamWalker(c1731-1821), George Street, Hannover Square
DrWilliam CharlesWells(1757-1817), Salisbury Court
MrJohnWhitehurst(1713-1788), Bolt Court, 4
DrJohnWatkinson(1742-1783), Crutched Friars, 22
DrRichardPrice(1723-1791), Newington Green
Rev'd DrJosephPriestley(1733-1804), Birmingham
The entire set of minutes, as well as descriptions of all the members of the society, are set out in Discussing Chemistry and Steam: The Minutes of a Coffee House Philosophical Society 1780-1787, by Trevor H. Levere and Gerard L'E Turner.