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Biographies of Working Men by Grant Allen

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Thomas Edward's unremitting original work in natural history. A sadder
tale of unrequited labour in the cause of science has seldom been

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!

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