Walpole Account

L. Huxley, Life and Letters II
Spencer Walpole

[24] Early in 1881, Sir William Harcourt appointed Professor Huxley one of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Fisheries. The office had become vacant through the untimely death, in the preceding December, of the late Mr. Frank Buckland. Under an Act, passed twenty years before, the charge of the English Salmon Fisheries had been placed under the Home Office, and the Secretary of State had been authorised to appoint two Inspectors to aid him in administering the law. The functions of the Home Office and of the Inspectors were originally simple, but they had been enlarged by an Act passed in 1873, which conferred on local conservators elaborate powers of making bye-laws for the development and preservation of the Fisheries. These bye-laws required the approval of the Secretary of State, who was necessarily dependent on the advice of his Inspectors in either allowing or disallowing them.

In addition to the nominal duties of the Inspectors, they became–by virtue of their position–the advisers of the Government on all questions connected with the Sea Fisheries of Great Britain. These fisheries are nominally under the Board of Trade, but, as this Board at that time had no machinery at its disposal for the purpose, it naturally relied on the advice of the Home Office Inspectors in all questions of difficulty, on which their experience enabled them to speak with authority.

For duties such as these, which have been thus briefly described, Professor Huxley had obvious qualifications. On all subjects relating to the Natural History of Fish he spoke with decisive authority. But, in addition to his scientific attainments, from 1863 to 1865 he had been a member of the Commission which had conducted an elaborate investigation into the condition of the Fisheries of the United Kingdom, and had taken a large share in the preparation of a Report, which–notwithstanding recent changes in law and policy–remains the ablest and most exhaustive document which has ever been laid before Parliament on the subject.

This protracted investigation had convinced Professor Huxley that the supply of fish in the deep sea was practically inexhaustible; and that, however much it might be necessary to enforce the police of the seas by protecting particular classes of sea fishermen from injury done to their instruments by the operations of other classes, the primary duty of the legislature was to develop sea fishing, and not to place restrictions on sea fishermen for any fears of an exhaustion of fish.

His scientific training, moreover, made him ridicule the [25] modern notion that it was possible to stock the sea by artificial methods. He wrote to me, when the Fisheries Exhibition of 1883 was in contemplation, "You may have seen that we have a new Fish Culture Society. C––talked gravely about our stocking the North Sea with cod! After that I suppose we shall take up herrings: and I mean to propose whales, which, as all the world knows, are terribly over fished!" And after the exhibition was over he wrote to me again, with reference to a report which the Commission had asked me to draw up: "I have just finished reading your report, which has given me a world of satisfaction. . . . I am particularly glad that you have put in a word of warning to the fish culturists."1

He was not, however, equally certain that particular areas of Sea Shore might not be exhausted by our fishing. He extended in 1883 an order which Mr. Buckland and I had made in 1879 for restricting the taking of crabs and lobsters on the coast of Norfolk, and he wrote to me on that occasion: "I was at Cromer and Sheringham last week, holding an enquiry for the Board of Trade about the working of your order of 1879. According to all accounts, the crabs have multiplied threefold in 1881 and 1882. Whether this is post hoc or propter hoc is more than I should like to say. But at any rate, this is a very good primi facie case for continuing the order, and I shall report accordingly. Anyhow, the conditions are very favourable for a long-continued experiment in the effects of regulation, and, ten years hence, there will be some means of judging of the value of these restrictions."

If, however, Professor Huxley was strongly opposed to unnecessary interference with the labours of sea fishermen, he was well aware of the necessity of protecting migratory fish like salmon, against over-fishing: and his reports for 1882 and 1883–in which he gave elaborate accounts of the results of legislation on the Tyne and on the Severn–show that he keenly appreciated the necessity of regulating the Salmon Fisheries.

It so happened that at the time of his appointment, many of our important rivers were visited by Saprolegnia ferax," the fungoid growth which became Popularly known as Salmon Disease. Professor Huxley gave much time to the study of the conditions under which the fungus flourished. He devoted much space in his earlier reports to the subject: and he read a paper upon it at a remarkable meeting of the Royal Society in the summer of 1881. He took a keen interest in these investigations, and he wrote to me from North Wales, at the end of 1881, "The salmon brought to me here have not been so badly diseased as I could have wished, and the fungus dies so rapidly out of the water that only one specimen furnished me with materials in lively condition. These I have cultivated: and to my great satisfaction have got some flies infected. With nine precious muscoid corpses, more or less ornamented with a lovely fur trimming of Saprolegnia, I shall return to London to-morrow, and shall be ready in a short time, I hope, to furnish Salmon Disease wholesale, retail, or for exportation."

In carrying out the duties of our office, Professor Huxley and I were necessarily thrown into very close communication. There were few days in which we did not pass some time in each other's company: there were many weeks in which we travelled together through the river basins of this country. I think that I am justified in saying that official intercourse ripened into warm personal friendship, and that, for the many months in which we served together, we lived on terms of intimacy which are rare even among colleagues or even among friends.

It is needless to say that, as a companion, Professor Huxley was the most delightful of men. Those who have met him in society, or enjoyed the hospitality of his house, must have been conscious of the singular charm of a conversation, which was founded on knowledge, enlarged by memory, and brightened by humour. But, admirable as he was in society, no one could have realised the full charm of his company who had not conversed with him alone. He had the rare art of placing men, whose knowledge and intellect were inferior to his own, at their ease. He knew how to draw out all that was best in the companion who suited him; and he had equal pleasure in giving and receiving. Our conversation ranged over every subject. We discussed together the grave problems of man and his destiny; we disputed on the minor complications of modern politics; we criticised one another's literary judgments; and we laughed over the stories which we told one another, and of which Professor Huxley had an inexhaustible fund.

[27] In conversation Professor Huxley displayed the quality which distinguished him both as a writer and a public speaker. He invariably used the right words in the right sense. Those who are jointly responsible–as he and I were often jointly responsible–for some written document, have exceptional opportunities of observing this quality. Professor Huxley could always put his finger on a wrong word, and he always instinctively chose the right one. It was this qualification–a much rarer one than people imagine–which made Professor Huxley's essays clear to the meanest understanding, and which made him, in my judgment, the greatest master of prose of his time. The same quality was equally observable in his spoken speech. I happened to be present at the anniversary dinner of the Royal Society, at which Professor Huxley made his last speech. And, as he gave an admirable account of the share which he had taken in defending Mr. Darwin against his critics, I overheard the present Prime Minister (Lord Salisbury) say, " What a beautiful speaker he is."

In 1882, the duties of another appointment forced me to resign the Inspectorship, which I had held for so long: and thenceforward my residence in the Isle of Man gave me fewer opportunities of seeing Professor Huxley: Our friendship, however, remained unbroken; and occasional visits to London gave me many opportunities of renewing it. He retained his own appointment as Inspector for more than three years after my resignation. He served, during the closing months of his officialship, on a Royal Commission on trawling, over which the late Lord Dalhousie presided. But his health broke down before the commissioners issued their report, and he was ordered abroad. It so happened that in the spring of 1885 1 was staying at Florence, when Professor and Mrs. Huxley passed through it on their way home. He had at that time seen none of his old friends, and was only slowly regaining strength. After his severe illness Mrs. Huxley encouraged me to take him out for many short walks, and I did my best to cheer him in his depressed condition. He did not then think that he had ten years of–on the whole–happy life before him. He told me that he was about to retire from all his work, and he added, that he had never enjoyed the Inspectorship after I had left it. I am happy in believing that the remark was due to the depression from which he was suffering, for he had written to me two [28]

years ago, The Office would be quite perfect, if they did not want an annual report. I can't go in for a disquisition on river basins after the manner of Buckland, and you have exhausted the other topics. I polished off the Salmon Disease pretty fully last year, so what the deuce am I to write about?"

I saw Professor Huxley for the last time on the Christmas day before his death. I spent some hours with him, with no other companions than Mrs. Huxley and my daughter. I had never seen him brighter or happier, and his rich, playful and sympathetic talk vividly recalled the many brilliant hours which I had passed in his company some twelve or thirteen years before.

One word more. No one could have known Professor Huxley intimately without recognising that he delighted in combat. He was never happier than when he was engaged in argument or controversy' and he loved to select antagonists worthy of his steel. The first public enquiry which we held together was attended by a great nobleman, whom Professor Huxley did not know by sight, but who rose at the commencement of our proceedings to offer some suggestions. Professor Huxley directed him to sit down, and not interrupt the business. I told my colleague in a whisper whom he was interrupting. And I was amused, as we walked away to luncheon together, by his quaint remark to me, "We have begun very well, we have sat upon a duke."2

If, however, a love of argument and controversy occasionally led him into hot water, I do not think that his polemical tendencies ever cost him a friend. His antagonists must have recognised the fairness of his methods, and must have been susceptible to the charm of the man. The high example which he set in controversy, moreover, was equally visible in his ordinary life. Of all the men I have ever known, his ideas and his standard were–on the whole–the highest. He recognised that the fact of his religious views imposed on him the duty of living the most upright of lives, and I am very much of the opinion of a little [29] child, now grown into an accomplished woman who, when she was told that Professor Huxley had no hope of future rewards, and no fear of future punishments, emphatically declared: "Then I think Professor Huxley is the best man I have ever known."

1 When I was asked to write the report on this Commission, I said that I would do so if Sir E. Birkbeck, its chairman, and Professor Huxley, both met me to discuss the points to be noticed. The meeting duly took place ; and I opened it by asking what was the chief lesson to be drawn from the exhibition? "Well," said Professor Huxley, "the chief lesson to be drawn from the exhibition ' is that London is in want of some open air amusement on summer evenings."
2 Of this he wrote home on March 15, 1881 : "Somebody produced the Punch yesterday and showed it to me, to the great satisfaction of the Duke of––, who has attended our two meetings. I nearly had a shindy with him at starting, but sweetness and light (in my person) carried the day." This Punch contained the cartoon of Huxley in nautical costume riding on a salmon; contrary to the custom of Punch, it made an unfair hit in appending to his name the letters s. d. Never was any one who deserved the imputation less.

Osborn Account

by Henry Fairfield Osborn
Transactions of the N. Y. Acad. Soc.
Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, vol. 2

[399] Huxley's last public appearance was at the meeting of the British Association at Oxford. He had been very urgently invited to attend, for, exactly a quarter of a century before, the Association had met at Oxford, and Huxley had had his famous encounter with Bishop Wilberforce. It was felt that the anniversary would be an historic one, and incomplete without his presence, and so it proved to be. Huxley's especial duty was to second the vote of thanks for the Marquis of Salisbury's address –one of the invariable formalities of the opening meetings of the Association. The meeting proved to be the greatest one in the history of the Association. The Sheldonian Theatre was packed with one of the most distinguished scientific audiences ever brought together, and the address of the Marquis was worthy of the occasion. The whole tenor of it was unknown in science. Passing from the unsolved problems of astronomy, chemistry, and physics, he came to biology. With delicate irony he spoke of the "comforting word, evolution," and passing to the Weismannian controversy, implied that the diametrically opposed views so frequently expressed nowadays threw the whole process of evolution into doubt. It was only too evident that the Marquis himself found no comfort in evolution, and even entertained a suspicion as to its probability. It was well worth the whole journey to Oxford to watch Huxley during this portion of the address, In his red doctor-of-laws gown, placed upon his shoulders by the very body of men who had once referred to him as "a Mr. Huxley," he sank deeper into his chair upon the very front of the platform and restlessly tapped his foot. His situation was an unenviable one. He had to thank an ex-Prime Minister of England and present Chancellor of Oxford University for an address, the sentiments of which were directly against. those he himself had been maintaining for twenty-five years. He said afterwards that when the proofs of the Marquis's address were put into his hands the day before, he realised that he had before him a most delicate and difficult task. Lord Kelvin (Sir William Thomson) one of the most distinguished living physicists, first moved the vote of thanks, but his reception was nothing to the tremendous applause which greeted Huxley in the heart of that University whose cardinal principles he had so long been opposing. Considerable anxiety had been felt by his friends lest his voice should fail to fill the theatre, for it had signally failed during his Romanes Lecture delivered in Oxford the year before, but when Huxley arose he reminded you of a venerable gladiator returning to the arena [400] after years of absence. He raised his figure and his voice to its full height, and, with one foot turned over the edge of the step, veiled an unmistakable and vigorous protest in the most gracious and dignified speech of thanks.

Throughout the subsequent special sessions of this meeting Huxley could not appear. He gave the impression of being aged but not infirm, and no one realised that he had spoken his last word as champion of the law of evolution.

In my early period as a lecturer, I had very little confidence in my general powers, but one thing

I prided myself upon was clearness. I was once talking of the brain before a large mixed audience, and soon began to feel that no one in the room understood me. Finally I saw the thoroughly interested face of a woman auditor, and took consolation in delivering the remainder of the lecture directly to her. At the close, my feeling as to her interest was confirmed when she came up and asked if she might put one question upon a single point which she had not quite understood. " Certainly," I replied. "Now, Professor," she said, "is the cerebellum inside or outside the skull?" (Reminiscences of T. H. Huxley, by Professor H. Fairfield Osborn).

Mivart Account

L. Huxley, Life and Letters II
(from Mivart’s "Reminiscences," Nineteenth Century, Dec.1897)
George Mivart

[437] The great value of Huxley's anatomical ideas, and the admirable clearness with which he explained them, led me in the autumn of 1861 to seek admission as a student to his course of lectures at the School of Mines in Jermyn Street. When I entered his small room there to make this request, he was giving the finishing touches to a dissection of part of the nervous system of a skate, worked out for the benefit of his students. He welcomed my application with the greatest cordiality, save that he insisted I should be only an honorary student, or rather, should assist at his lectures as a friend. I availed myself of his permission on the very next day, and subsequently attended almost all his lectures there and elsewhere, so that he one day said to me, "I shall call you my 'constant reader.'" To be such a reader was to me an inestimable privilege, and so I shall ever consider it. I have heard many men lecture, but I never heard anyone lecture as did Professor Huxley. He was my very ideal of a lecturer. Distinct in utterance, with an agreeable voice, lucid as it was possible to be in exposition, with admirably chosen language, sufficiently rapid, yet never hurried, often impressive in manner, yet never otherwise than completely natural, and sometimes allowing his audience a glimpse of that rich fund of humour ever ready to well forth when occasion permitted, sometimes accompanied with an extra gleam in his bright dark eyes, sometimes expressed with a dryness and gravity of look which gave it a double zest.

I shall never forget the first time I saw him enter his lecture-room. He came in rapidly, yet without bustle, and as the clock struck, a brief glance at his audience and then at once to work. He had the excellent habit of beginning each lecture (save, of course, the first) with a recapitulation of the main points of the preceding one. The course was amply illustrated by excellent coloured diagrams, which, I believe, he had made; but still more valuable were the chalk sketches he would draw on the blackboard with admirable facility, while he was talking, his rapid, dexterous strokes quickly building up an organism in our minds, simultaneously through ear and eye. The lecture over, he was ever ready to answer questions, and I often admired his patience [438] in explaining points which there was no excuse for anyone not having understood.

Still more was I struck with the great pleasure which he showed when he saw that some special points of his teaching had not only been comprehended, but had borne fruit, by their suggestiveness in an appreciative mind.

To one point I desire specially to bear witness. There were persons who dreaded sending young men to him, fearing lest their young friends' religious beliefs should be upset by what they might hear said. For years I attended his lectures, but never once did I hear him make use of his position as a teacher to inculcate, or even hint at, his own theological views, or to depreciate or assail what might be supposed to be the religion of his hearers. No one could have behaved more loyally in that respect, and a proof that I thought so is that I subsequently sent my own son to be his pupil at South Kensington, where his experience confirmed what had previously been my own.

As to science, I learnt more from him in two years than I had acquired in any previous decade of biological study.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University