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!