Biography of Thomas Edward

Thomas Edward, Shoemaker.

It is the object of this volume to set forth the lives of working men who through industry, perseverance, and high principle have raised themselves by their own exertions from humble beginnings. Raised themselves! Yes; but to what? Not merely, let us hope, to wealth and position, not merely to worldly respect and high office, but to some conspicuous field of real usefulness to their fellow men. Those whose lives we have hitherto examined did so raise themselves by their own strenuous energy and self-education. Either, like Garfield and Franklin, they served the State zealously in peace or war; or else, like Stephenson and Telford, they improved human life by their inventions and engineering works; or, again, like Herschel and Fraunhofer, they added to the wide field of scientific knowledge; or finally, like Millet and Gibson, they beautified the world with their noble and inspiring artistic productions. But in every one of these cases, the men whose lives we have been here considering did actually rise, sooner or later, from the class of labourers into some other class socially and monetarily superior to it. Though they did great good in other ways to others, they did still as a matter of fact succeed themselves in quitting the rank in which they were born, and rising to some other rank more or less completely above it.

Now, it will be clear to everybody that so long as our present social arrangements exist, it must be impossible for the vast mass of labouring men ever to do anything of the sort. It is to be desired, indeed, that every labouring man should by industry and thrift secure independence in the end for himself and his family; but however much that may be the case, it will still rest certain that the vast mass of men will necessarily remain workers to the last; and that no attempt to raise individual working men above their own class into the professional or mercantile classes can ever greatly benefit the working masses as a whole. What is most of all desirable is that the condition, the aims; and the tastes of working men, as working men, should be raised and bettered; that without necessarily going outside their own ranks, they should become more prudent, more thrifty, better educated, and wider-minded than many of their predecessors have been in the past. Under such circumstances, it is surely well to set before ourselves some examples of working men who, while still remaining members of their own class, have in the truest and best sense “raised themselves” so as to attain the respect and admiration of others whether their equals or superiors in the artificial scale. Dr. Smiles, who has done much to illustrate the history of the picked men among the labouring orders, has chosen two or three lives of such a sort for investigation, and from them we may select a single one as an example of a working man’s career rendered conspicuous by qualities other than those that usually secure external success.

Thomas Edward, associate of the Linnean Society, though a Scotchman all his life long, was accidentally born (so to speak) at Gosport, near Portsmouth, on Christmas Day, 1814. His father was in the Fifeshire militia and in those warlike days, when almost all the regulars were on the Continent, fighting Napoleon, militia regiments used to be ordered about the country from one place to another, to watch the coast or mount guard over the French prisoners, in the most unaccountable fashion. So it happened, oddly enough, that Thomas Edward, a Scotchman of the Scotch, was born close under the big forts of Portsmouth harbour.

After Waterloo, however, the Fifeshire regiment was sent home again; and the militia being before long disbanded, John Edward, our hero’s father, went to live at Aberdeen, where he plied his poor trade of a hand-loom linen weaver for many years. It was on the green at Aberdeen, surrounded by small labourers’ cottages, that Thomas Edward passed his early days. From his babyhood, almost, the boy had a strong love for all the beasties he saw everywhere around him; a fondness for birds and animals, and a habit of taming them which can seldom be acquired, but which seems with some people to come instinctively by nature. While Tam was still quite a child, he loved to wander by himself out into the country, along the green banks of the Dee, or among the tidal islands at the mouth of the river, overgrown by waving seaweeds, and fringed with great white bunches of blossoming scurvy-grass. He loved to hunt for crabs and sea-anemones beside the ebbing channels, or to watch the jelly-fish left high and dry upon the shore by the retreating water. Already, in his simple way, the little ragged bare-footed Scotch laddie was at heart a born naturalist.

Very soon, Tam was not content with looking at the “venomous beasts,” as the neighbours called them, but he must needs begin to bring them home, and set up a small aquarium and zoological garden on his own account. All was fish that came to Tam’s net: tadpoles, newts, and stickleback from the ponds, beetles from the dung-heaps, green crabs from the sea-shore–nay, even in time such larger prizes as hedgehogs, moles, and nestfuls of birds. Nothing delighted him so much as to be out in the fields, hunting for and taming these his natural pets.

Unfortunately, Tam’s father and mother did not share the boy’s passion for nature, and instead of encouraging him in pursuing his inborn taste, they scolded him and punished him bitterly for bringing home the nasty creatures. But nothing could win away Tam from the love of the beasties; and in the end, he had his own way, and lived all his life, as he himself afterwards beautifully put it, “a fool to nature.” Too often, unhappily, fathers and mothers thus try to check the best impulses in their children, under mistaken notions of right, and especially is this the case in many instances as regards the love of nature. Children are constantly chidden for taking an interest in the beautiful works of creation, and so have their first intelligent inquiries and aspirations chilled at once; when a little care and sympathy would get rid of the unpleasantness of having white mice or lizards crawling about the house, without putting a stop to the young beginner’s longing for more knowledge of the wonderful and beautiful world in whose midst he lives.

When Tam was nearly five years old, he was sent to school, chiefly no doubt to get him out of the way; but Scotch schools for the children of the working classes were in those days very rough hard places, where the taws or leather strap was still regarded as the chief instrument of education. Little Edward was not a child to be restrained by that particular form of discipline; and after he had had two or three serious tussles with his instructors, he was at last so cruelly beaten by one of his masters that he refused to return, and his parents, who were themselves by no means lacking in old Scotch severity, upheld him in his determination. He had picked up reading by this time, and now for a while he was left alone to hunt about to his heart’s content among his favourite fields and meadows. But by the time he was six years old, he felt he ought to be going to work, brave little mortal that he was; and as his father and mother thought so too, the poor wee mite was sent to join his elder brother in working at a tobacco factory in the town, at the wages of fourteen-pence a week. So, for the next two years, little Tam waited upon a spinner (as the workers are called) and began life in earnest as a working man. At the end of two years, however, the brothers heard that better wages were being given, a couple of miles away, at Grandholm, up the river Don. So off the lads tramped, one fast-day (a recognized Scotch institution), to ask the manager of the Grandholm factory if he could give them employment. They told nobody of their intention, but trudged away on their own account; and when they came back and told their parents what they had done, the father was not very well satisfied with the proposal, because he thought it too far for so small a boy as Tam to walk every day to and from his work. Tam, however, was very anxious to go, not only on account of the increased wages, but also (though this was a secret) because of the beautiful woods and crags round Grandholm, through which he hoped to wander during the short dinner hour. In the end, John Edward gave way, and the boys were allowed to follow their own fancy in going to the new factory.

It was very hard work; the hours were from six in the morning till eight at night, for there was no Factory Act then to guard the interest of helpless children; so the boys had to be up at four in the morning, and were seldom home again till nine at night. In winter, the snow lies long and deep on those chilly Aberdeenshire roads, and the east winds from the German Ocean blow cold and cutting up the narrow valley of the Don; and it was dreary work toiling along them in the dark of morning or of night in bleak and cheerless December weather. Still, Tam liked it on the whole extremely well. His wages were now three shillings a week; and then, twice a day in summer, there was the beautiful walk to and fro along the leafy high-road. “People may say of factories what they please,” Edward wrote much later, “but I liked this factory. It was a happy time for me whilst I remained there. 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.” The boy revelled in the beauty of the birds and beasts he saw here, and he retained a delightful recollection of them throughout his whole after life.

This happy time, however, was not to last for ever. When young Edward was eleven years old, his father took him away from Grandholm, and apprenticed him to a working shoemaker. The apprenticeship was to go on for six years; the wages to begin at eighteen-pence a week; and the hours, too sadly long, to be from six in the morning till nine at night. Tam’s master, one Charles Begg, was a drunken London workman, who had wandered gradually north; a good shoemaker, but a quarrelsome, rowdy fellow, loving nothing on earth so much as a round with his fists on the slightest provocation. From this unpromising teacher, Edward took his first lessons in the useful art of shoemaking; and though he learned fast–for he was not slothful in business–he would have learned faster, no doubt, but for his employer’s very drunken and careless ways. When Begg came home from the public-house, much the worse for whisky, he would first beat Tam, and then proceed upstairs to beat his wife. For three years young Edward lived under this intolerable tyranny, till he could stand it no longer. At last, Begg beat and ill-treated him so terribly that Tam refused outright to complete his apprenticeship. Begg was afraid to compel him to do so–doubtless fearing to expose his ill-usage of the lad. So Tam went to a new master, a kindly man, with whom he worked in future far more happily.

The boy now began to make himself a little botanical garden in the back yard of his mother’s house–a piece of waste ground covered with rubbish, such as one often sees behind the poorer class of cottages in towns. Tam determined to alter all that, so he piled up all the stones into a small rockery, dug up the plot, manured it, and filled it with wild and garden flowers. The wild flowers, of course, he found in the woods and hedgerows around him; but the cultivated kinds he got in a very ingenious fashion, by visiting all the rubbish heaps of the neighbourhood, on which garden refuse was usually piled. A good many roots and plants can generally be found in such places, and by digging them up, Tam was soon able to make himself a number of bright and lively beds. Such self-help in natural history always lay very much in Edward’s way.

At the same time, young Edward was now beginning to feel the desire for knowing something more about the beasts and birds of which he was so fond. He used to go in all his spare moments among the shops in the town, to look at the pictures in the windows, especially the pictures of animals; and though his earnings were still small, he bought a book whenever he was able to afford one. In those days cheap papers for the people were only just beginning to come into existence; and Tam, who was now eighteen, bought the first number of the Penny Magazine, an excellent journal of that time, which he liked so much that he continued to take in the succeeding numbers. Some of the papers in it were about natural history, and these, of course, particularly delighted the young man’s heart. He also bought the Weekly Visitor, which he read through over and over again.

In 1831, when Tam was still eighteen, he enlisted in the Aberdeenshire militia, and during his brief period of service an amusing circumstance occurred which well displays the almost irresistible character of Edward’s love of nature. While he was drilling with the awkward squad one morning, a butterfly of a kind that he had never seen before happened to flit in front of him as he stood in the ranks. It was a beautiful large brown butterfly, and Edward was so fascinated by its appearance that he entirely forgot, in a moment, where he was and what he was doing. Without a second’s thought, he darted wildly out of the ranks, and rushed after the butterfly, cap in hand. It led him a pretty chase, over sandhills and shore, for five minutes. He was just on the point of catching it at last, when he suddenly felt a heavy hand laid upon his shoulder, and looking round, he saw the corporal of the company and several soldiers come to arrest him. Such a serious offence against military discipline might have cost him dear indeed, for corporals have little sympathy with butterfly hunting; but luckily for Edward, as he was crossing the parade ground under arrest, he happened to meet an officer walking with some ladies. The officer asked the nature of his offence, and when the ladies heard what it was they were so much interested in such a strange creature as a butterfly-loving militiaman, that they interceded for him, and finally begged him off his expected punishment. The story shows us what sort of stuff Edward was really made of. He felt so deep an interest in all the beautiful living creatures around him for their own sake, that he could hardly restrain his feelings even under the most untoward circumstances.

When Edward was twenty, he removed from Aberdeen to Banff, where he worked as a journeyman for a new master. The hours were very long, but by taking advantage of the summer evenings, he was still able to hunt for his beloved birds, caterpillars, and butterflies. Still, the low wages in the trade discouraged him much, and he almost made up his mind to save money and emigrate to America. But one small accident alone prevented him from carrying out this purpose. Like a good many other young men, the naturalist shoemaker fell in love. Not only so, but his falling in love took practical shape a little later in his getting married; and at twenty-three, the lonely butterfly hunter brought back a suitable young wife to his little home. The marriage was a very happy one. Mrs. Edward not only loved her husband deeply, but showed him sympathy in his favourite pursuits, and knew how to appreciate his sterling worth. Long afterwards she said, that though many of her neighbours could not understand her husband’s strange behaviour, she had always felt how much better it was to have one who spent his spare time on the study of nature than one who spent it on the public-house.

As soon as Edward got a home of his own, he began to make a regular collection of all the animals and plants in Banffshire. This was a difficult thing for him to do, for he knew little of books, and had access to very few, so that he couldn’t even find out the names of all the creatures he caught and preserved. But, though he didn’t always know what they were called, he did know their natures and habits and all about them; and such first-hand knowledge in natural history is really the rarest and the most valuable of all. He saw little of his fellow-workmen. They were usually a drunken, careless lot; Edward was sober and thoughtful, and had other things to think of than those that they cared to talk about with one another. But he went out much into the fields, with invincible determination, having made up his mind that he would get to know all about the plants and beasties, however much the knowledge might cost him.

For this object, he bought a rusty old gun for four-and-sixpence, and invested in a few boxes and bottles for catching insects. His working hours were from six in the morning till nine at night, and for that long day he always worked hard to support his wife, and (when they came) his children. He had therefore only the night hours between nine and six to do all his collecting. Any other man, almost, would have given up the attempt as hopeless; but Edward resolved never to waste a single moment or a single penny, and by care and indomitable energy he succeeded in making his wished-for collection. Sometimes he was out tramping the whole night; sometimes he slept anyhow, under a hedge or haystack; sometimes he took up temporary quarters in a barn, an outhouse, or a ruined castle. But night after night he went on collecting, whenever he was able; and he watched the habits and manners of the fox, the badger, the otter, the weasel, the stoat, the pole-cat, and many other regular night-roamers as no one else, in all probability, had ever before watched them in the whole world.

Sometimes he suffered terrible disappointments, due directly or indirectly to his great poverty. Once, he took all his cases of insects, containing nine hundred and sixteen specimens, and representing the work of four years, up to his garret to keep them there till he was able to glaze them. When he came to take them down again he found to his horror that rats had got at the boxes, eaten almost every insect in the whole collection, and left nothing behind but the bare pins, with a few scattered legs, wings, and bodies, sticking amongst them. Most men would have been so disgusted with this miserable end to so much labour, that they would have given up moth hunting for ever. But Edward was made of different stuff. He went to work again as zealously as ever, and in four years more, he had got most of the beetles, flies, and chafers as carefully collected as before.

By the year 1845, Edward had gathered together about two thousand specimens of beasts, birds, and insects found in the neighbourhood of his own town of Banff. He made the cases to hold them himself, and did it so neatly that, in the case of his shells, each kind had even a separate little compartment all of its own. And now he unfortunately began to think of making money by exhibiting his small museum. If only he could get a few pounds to help him in buying books, materials, perhaps even a microscope, to help him in prosecuting his scientific work, what a magnificent thing that would be for him! Filled with this grand idea, he took a room in the Trades Hall at Banff, and exhibited his collection during a local fair. A good many people came to see it, and the Banff paper congratulated the poor shoemaker on his energy in gathering together such a museum of curiosities “without aid, and under discouraging circumstances which few would have successfully encountered.” He was so far lucky in this first venture that he covered his expenses and was able even to put away a little money for future needs. Encouraged by this small triumph, the unwearied naturalist set to work during the next year, and added several new attractions to his little show. At the succeeding fair he again exhibited, and made still mere money out of his speculation. Unhappily, the petty success thus secured led him to hope he might do even better by moving his collection to Aberdeen.

To Aberdeen, accordingly, Edward went. He took a shop in the great gay thoroughfare of that cold northern city–Union Street–and prepared to receive the world at large, and to get the money for the longed-for books and the much-desired microscope. Now, Aberdeen is a big, busy, bustling town; it has plenty of amusements and recreations; it has two colleges and many learned men of its own; and the people did not care to come and see the working shoemaker’s poor small collection. If he had been a president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, now–some learned knight or baronet come down by special train from London–the Aberdeen doctors and professors might have rushed to hear his address; or if he had been a famous music-hall singer or an imitation negro minstrel, the public at large might have flocked to be amused and degraded by his parrot-like buffoonery; but as he was only a working shoemaker from Banff, with a heaven-born instinct for watching and discovering all the strange beasts and birds of Scotland, and the ways and thoughts of them, why, of course, respectable Aberdeen, high or low, would have nothing in particular to say to him. Day after day went by, and hardly anybody came, till at last poor Edward’s heart sank terribly within him. Even the few who did come were loth to believe that a working shoemaker could ever have gathered together such a large collection by his own exertions.

“Do you mean to say,” said one of the Aberdeen physicians to Edward, “that you’ve maintained your wife and family by working at your trade, all the while that you’ve been making this collection?”

“Yes, I do,” Edward answered.

“Oh, nonsense!” the doctor said. “How is it possible you could have done that?”

“By never losing a single minute or part of a minute,” was the brave reply, “that I could by any means improve.”

It is wonderful indeed that when once Edward had begun to attract anybody’s attention at all, he and his exhibition should ever have been allowed to pass so unnoticed in a great, rich, learned city like Aberdeen. But it only shows how very hard it is for unassuming merit to push its way; for the Aberdeen people still went unheeding past the shop in Union Street, till Edward at last began to fear and tremble as to how he should ever meet the expenses of the exhibition. After the show had been open four weeks, one black Friday came when Edward never took a penny the whole day. As he sat there alone and despondent in the empty room, the postman brought him a letter. It was from his master at Banff. “Return immediately,” it said, “or you will be discharged.” What on earth could he do? He couldn’t remove his collection; he couldn’t pay his debt. A few more days passed, and he saw no way out of it. At last, in blank despair, he offered the whole collection for sale. A gentleman proposed to pay him the paltry sum of L20 10s for the entire lot, the slow accumulations of ten long years. It was a miserable and totally inadequate price, but Edward could get no more. In the depths of his misery, he accepted it. The gentleman took the collection home, gave it to his boy, and finally allowed it all, for want of care and attention, to go to rack and ruin. And so that was the end of ten years of poor Thomas Edward’s unremitting original work in natural history. A sadder tale of unrequited labour in the cause of science has seldom been written.

How he ever recovered from such a downfall to all his hopes and expectations is extraordinary. But the man had a wonderful power of bearing up against adverse circumstances; and when, after six weeks’ absence, he returned to Banff, ruined and dispirited, he set to work once more, as best he might, at the old, old trade of shoemaking. He was obliged to leave his wife and children in Aberdeen, and to tramp himself on foot to Banff, so that he might earn the necessary money to bring them back; for the cash he had got for the collection had all gone in paying expenses. It is almost too sad to relate; and no wonder poor Edward felt crushed indeed when he got back once more to his lonely shoemaker’s bench and fireless fireside. He was very lonely until his wife and children came. But when the carrier generously brought them back free (with that kindliness which the poor so often show to the poor), and the home was occupied once more, and the fire lighted, he felt as if life might still be worth living, at least for his wife and children. So he went back to his trade as heartily as he might, and worked at it well and successfully. For it is to be noted, that though Thomas Edward was so assiduous a naturalist and collector, he was the best hand, too, at making first-class shoes in all Banff. The good workman is generally the best man at whatever he undertakes. Certainly the best man is almost always a good workman at his own trade.

But of course he made no more natural history collections? Not a bit of it. Once a naturalist, always a naturalist. Edward set to work once more, nothing daunted, and by next spring he was out everywhere with his gun, exactly as before, replacing the sold collection as fast as ever his hand was able.

By this time Edward began to make a few good friends. Several magistrates for the county signed a paper for him, stating that they knew him to be a naturalist, and no poacher; and on presenting this paper to the gamekeepers, he was generally allowed to pursue his researches wherever he liked, and shoot any birds or animals he needed for his new museum. Soon after his return from Aberdeen, too, he made the acquaintance of a neighbouring Scotch minister, Mr. Smith of Monquhitter, who proved a very kind and useful friend to him. Mr. Smith was a brother naturalist, and he had books–those precious books–which he lent Edward, freely; and there for the first time the shoemaker zoologist learned the scientific names of many among the birds and animals with whose lives and habits he had been so long familiar. Another thing the good minister did for his shoemaker friend: he constantly begged him to write to scientific journals the results of his observations in natural history. At first Edward was very timid; he didn’t like to appear in print; thought his grammar and style wouldn’t be good enough; fought shy of the proposal altogether. But at last Edward made up his mind to contribute a few notes to the Banffshire Journal, and from that he went on slowly to other papers, until at last he came to be one of the most valued occasional writers for several of the leading scientific periodicals in England. Unfortunately, science doesn’t pay. All this work was done for love only; and Edward’s only reward was the pleasure he himself derived from thus jotting down the facts he had observed about the beautiful creatures he loved so well.

Soon Mr. Smith induced the indefatigable shoemaker to send a few papers on the birds and beasts to the Zoologist. Readers began to perceive that these contributions were sent by a man of the right sort–a man who didn’t merely read what other men had said about the creatures in books, but who watched their ways on his own account, and knew all about their habits and manners in their own homes. Other friends now began to interest themselves in him; and Edward obtained at last, what to a man of his tastes must have been almost as much as money or position–the society of people who could appreciate him, and could sympathize in all that interested him. Mr. Smith in particular always treated him, says Dr. Smiles, “as one intelligent man treats another.” The paltry distinctions of artificial rank were all forgotten between them, and the two naturalists talked together with endless interest about all those lovely creatures that surround us every one on every side, but that so very few people comparatively have ever eyes to see or hearts to understand. It was a very great loss to Edward when Mr. Smith died, in 1854.

In the year 1858 the untiring shoemaker had gathered his third and last collection, the finest and best of all. By this time he had become an expert stuffer of birds, and a good preserver of fish and flowers. But his health was now beginning to fail. He was forty-four, and he had used his constitution very severely, going out at nights in cold and wet, and cheating himself of sleep during the natural hours of rest and recuperation. Happily, during all these years, he had resisted the advice of his Scotch labouring friends, to take out whisky with him on his nightly excursions. He never took a drop of it, at home or abroad. If he had done so, he himself believed, he could not have stood the cold, the damp, and the exposure in the way he did. His food was chiefly oatmeal-cake; his drink was water. “Sometimes, when I could afford it,” he says, “my wife boiled an egg or two, and these were my only luxuries.” He had a large family, and the task of providing for them was quite enough for his slender means, without leaving much margin for beer or whisky.

But the best constitution won’t stand privation and exposure for ever. By-and-by Edward fell ill, and had a fever. He was ill for a month, and when he came round again the doctor told him that he must at once give up his nightly wandering. This was a real and serious blow to poor Edward; it was asking him to give up his one real pleasure and interest in life. All the happiest moments he had ever known were those which he had spent in the woods and fields, or among the lonely mountains with the falcons, and the herons, and the pine-martens, and the ermines. All this delightful life he was now told he must abandon for ever. Nor was that all. Illness costs money. While a man is earning nothing, he is running up a doctor’s bill. Edward now saw that he must at last fall back upon his savings bank, as he rightly called it–his loved and cherished collection of Banffshire animals. He had to draw upon it heavily. Forty cases of birds were sold; and Edward now knew that he would never be able to replace the specimens he had parted with.

Still, his endless patience wasn’t yet exhausted. No more of wandering by night, to be sure, upon moor or fell, gun in hand, chasing the merlin or the polecat to its hidden lair; no more of long watching after the snowy owl or the long-tailed titmouse among the frozen winter woods; but there remained one almost untried field on which Edward could expend his remaining energy, and in which he was to do better work for science than in all the rest–the sea.

This new field he began to cultivate in a novel and ingenious way. He got together all the old broken pails, pots, pans, and kettles he could find in the neighbourhood, filled them with straw or bits of rag, and then sank them with a heavy stone into the rocky pools that abound along that weather-beaten coast. A rope was tied to one end, by which he could raise them again; and once a month he used to go his rounds to visit these very primitive but effectual sea-traps. Lots of living things had meanwhile congregated in the safe nests thus provided for them, and Edward sorted them all over, taking home with him all the newer or more valuable specimens. In this way he was enabled to make several additions to our knowledge of the living things that inhabit the sea off the north-east coast of Scotland.

The fishermen also helped him not a little, by giving him many rare kinds of fish or refuse from their nets, which he duly examined and classified. As a rule, the hardy men who go on the smacks have a profound contempt for natural history, and will not be tempted, even by offers of money, to assist those whom they consider as half-daft gentlefolk in what seems to them a perfectly useless and almost childish amusement. But it was different with Tam Edward, the strange shoemaker whom they all knew so well; if he wanted fish or rubbish for his neat collection in the home-made glass cases, why, of course he could have them, and welcome. So they brought him rare sandsuckers, and blue-striped wrasse, and saury pike, and gigantic cuttle-fish, four feet long, to his heart’s content. Edward’s daughters were now also old enough to help him in his scientific studies. They used to watch for the clearing of the nets, and pick out of the refuse whatever they thought would interest or please their father. But the fish themselves were Edward’s greatest helpers and assistants. As Dr. Smiles quaintly puts it, they were
the best of all possible dredgers. His daughters used to secure him as many stomachs as possible, and from their contents he picked out an immense number of beautiful and valuable specimens. The bill of fare of the cod alone comprised an incredible variety of small crabs, shells, shrimps, sea-mice, star-fish, jelly-fish, sea anemones, eggs, and zoophytes. All these went to swell Edward’s new collection of marine animals.

To identify and name so many small and little-known creatures was a very difficult task for the poor shoemaker, with so few books, and no opportunities for visiting museums and learned societies. But his industry and ingenuity managed to surmount all obstacles. Naturalists everywhere are very willing to aid and instruct one another; especially are the highest authorities almost always eager to give every help and encouragement in their power to local amateurs. Edward used to wait till he had collected a batch of specimens of a single class or order, and then he would send them by post to learned men in different parts of the country, who named them for him, and sent them back with some information as to their proper place in the classification of the group to which they belonged. Mr. Spence Bate of Plymouth is the greatest living authority on crustaceans, such as the lobsters, shrimps, sea-fleas, and hermit crabs; and to him Edward sent all the queer crawling things of that description that he found in his original sea-traps. Mr. Couch, of Polperro in Cornwall, was equally versed in the true backboned fishes; and to him Edward sent any doubtful midges, or gurnards, or gobies, or whiffs. So numerous are the animals and plants of the sea-shore, even in the north of Scotland alone, that if one were to make a complete list of all Edward’s finds it would occupy an entire book almost as large as this volume.

Naturalists now began to help Edward in another way, the way that he most needed, by kind presents of books, especially their own writings–a kind of gift which cost them nothing, but was worth to him a very great deal. Mr. Newman, the editor of the Zoologist paper, was one of his most useful correspondents, and gave him several excellent books on natural history. Mr. Bate made him a still more coveted present–a microscope, with which he could examine several minute animals, too small to be looked at by the naked eye. The same good friend also gave him a little pocket-lens (or magnifying glass) for use on the sea-shore.

As Edward went on, his knowledge increased rapidly, and his discoveries fully kept pace with it. The wretchedly paid Banff shoemaker was now corresponding familiarly with half the most eminent men of science in the kingdom, and was a valued contributor to all the most important scientific journals. Several new animals which he had discovered were named in his honour, and frequent references were made to him in printed works of the first importance. It occurred to Mr. Couch and Mr. Bate, therefore, both of whom were greatly indebted to the working-man naturalist for specimens and information, that Edward ought to be elected a member of some leading scientific society. There is no such body of greater distinction in the world of science than the Linnean Society; and of this learned institution Edward was duly elected an associate in 1866. The honour was one which he had richly deserved, and which no doubt he fully appreciated.

And yet he was nothing more even now than a working shoemaker, who was earning not more but less wages even than he once used to do. He had brought up a large family honestly and respectably; he had paid his way without running into debt; his children were all growing up; and he had acquired a wide reputation among naturalists as a thoroughly trustworthy observer and an original worker in many different fields of botany and zoology. But his wages were now only eight shillings a week, and his science had brought him, as many people would say, only the barren honour of being an associate of the Linnean Society, or the respected friend of many among the noblest and greatest men of his country. He began life as a shoemaker, and he remained a shoemaker to the end. “Had I pursued money,” he said, “with half the ardour and perseverance that I have pursued nature, I have no hesitation in saying that by this time I should have been a rich man.”

In 1876, Dr. Smiles, the historian of so many truly great working men, attracted by Edward’s remarkable and self-sacrificing life, determined to write the good shoemaker’s biography while he was still alive. Edward himself gave Dr. Smiles full particulars as to his early days and his later struggles; and that information the genial biographer wove into a delightful book, from which all the facts here related have been borrowed. The “Life of a Scotch Naturalist” attracted an immense deal of attention when it was first published, and led many people, scientific or otherwise, to feel a deep interest in the man who had thus made himself poor for the love of nature. The result was such a spontaneous expression of generous feeling towards Edward that he was enabled to pass the evening of his days not only in honour, but also in substantial ease and comfort.

And shall we call such a life as this a failure? Shall we speak of it carelessly as unsuccessful? Surely not. Edward had lived his life happily, usefully, and nobly; he had attained the end he set before himself; he had conquered all his difficulties by his indomitable resolution; and he lived to see his just reward in the respect and admiration of all those whose good opinion was worth the having. If he had toiled and moiled all the best days of his life, at some work, perhaps, which did not even benefit in any way his fellow-men; if he had given up all his time to enriching himself anyhow, by fair means or foul; if he had gathered up a great business by crushing out competition and absorbing to himself the honest livelihood of a dozen other men; if he had speculated in stocks and shares, and piled up at last a vast fortune by doubtful transactions, all the world would have said, in its unthinking fashion, that Mr. Edward was a wonderfully successful man. But success in life does not consist in that only, if in that at all. Edward lived for an aim, and that aim he amply attained. He never neglected his home duties or his regular work; but in his stray moments he found time to amass an amount of knowledge which rendered him the intellectual equal of men whose opportunities and education had been far more fortunate than his own. The pleasure he found in his work was the real reward that science gave him. All his life long he had that pleasure: he saw the fields grow green in spring, the birds build nests in early summer, the insects flit before his eyes on autumn evenings, the stoat and hare put on their snow-white coat to his delight in winter weather. And shall we say that the riches he thus beheld spread ever before him were any less real or less satisfying to a soul like his than the mere worldly wealth that other men labour and strive for? Oh no. Thomas Edward was one of those who work for higher and better ends than outward show, and verily he had his reward. The monument raised up to that simple and earnest working shoemaker in the “Life of a Scotch Naturalist” is one of which any scientific worker in the whole world might well be proud. In his old age, he had the meed of public encouragement and public recognition, the one thing that the world at large can add to a scientific worker’s happiness; and his name will be long remembered hereafter, when those of more pretentious but less useful labourers are altogether forgotten. How many men whom the world calls successful might gladly have changed places with that “fool to nature,” the Banffshire shoemaker!




Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Access Genealogy

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading

Scroll to Top