William Robert Grove: Victorian Gentleman of Science

William Robert Grove: Victorian Gentleman of Science

by Iwan Rhys Morus

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This book provides an accessible and authoritative biography of the Welsh man of science, William Robert Grove. Grove was an important and highly influential figure in Victorian science. His career as both man of science and leading barrister and judge spanned the Victorian age, and he also played a vital role in the movement to reform the Royal Society. This biography will set Grove’s career and contributions in context, paying particular attention to the important role of Welsh industrial culture in forming his scientific outlook. The place of science in culture changed radically during the course of the nineteenth century, and Grove himself played a key role in some of those transformations. Looking at his life in science can, however, do more than illuminate an individual scientific career – it can offer a way of gaining new insights into the changing face of Victorian science.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786830067
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 01/05/2017
Series: Scientists of Wales
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 14 MB
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About the Author

Iwan Rhys Morus is a Historian of Science and Professor of History at Aberystwyth University.

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William Robert Grove

Victorian Gentleman of Science

By Iwan Rhys Morus

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2017 Iwan Rhys Morus
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78683-006-7



William Robert Grove was born in Swansea on 11 June 1811. His father, John Grove, was a well-heeled and well-connected local merchant whose family had been becoming increasingly influential figures in civic affairs for a number of years, if not decades. John Grove married Anne Bevan on 25 January 1810 in the parish of Llangyfelach on the outskirts of Swansea. The Bevans were themselves an influential local clan whose roots around Llangyfelach and the Gower could be traced back several centuries. The young couple settled at Mount Pleasant in the substantial townhouse called 'The Laurels' owned by John's father, William (and which stood approximately where the central police station is now). They shared Mount Pleasant with some prestigious neighbours. A few houses away was the palatial Georgian mansion, the Willows, where lived Lewis Weston Dillwyn, owner of the Cambrian Pottery and a fellow of the Royal Society. Swansea was growing during these early decades of the new century, and the spread of big, comfortable houses for prosperous men and their families is a reminder that the town was getting wealthier too. An 1818 engraving of Mount Pleasant, drawn by Thomas Baxter (who was employed by Dillwyn at his pottery works), depicts an idyllic scene for the young Grove's upbringing. It was a scene that would shortly disappear though, as Swansea became an increasingly industrial town, dominated by copper as well as the devastating effects of the smelting industry on the landscape.

By the time young William Robert arrived in the summer of 1811, the Groves were clearly well established and influential in the town. His father, John, was on the governing board of the newly established Swansea Dispensary in 1808, and one of the town's paving commissioners a year later. By the 1830s he was a member of the newly instituted town council and an alderman. At various times during his career John Grove was the portreeve, the town mayor and the deputy lieutenant of Glamorganshire, as well as a Justice of the Peace. One of John Grove's brothers, Thomas, was also a member of the town council and an alderman during the 1830s. Another member of the dynasty, William Grove, John's father, was an alderman in 1802 as well as serving at least three times as the town's portreeve, in 1790, 1800 and 1810. The portreeve was the equivalent of the town mayor before the municipal government was reformed and the borough corporation replaced by a town council during the 1830s. He was also a leading member of the Fund to Obviate the Inconvenience Arising from Copper Smoke, which had been established to investigate ways of reducing the pollution spewed out by the copper smelting that was in the process of transforming Swansea's economic fortunes and its environment. A William Grove was also portreeve in 1818 and 1822, but this may have been his son, and our Grove's uncle and namesake, William Robert.

The information is sketchy, but it is enough to paint a picture of a family that was deeply involved in Swansea's cultural and political life during the early decades of the nineteenth century. The Groves were described as merchants, but it seems clear that they were involved in a wide and varied range of commercial activities in the town and beyond. Amongst other things, they were clearly quite substantial property owners in Swansea itself. At his death in 1896 William Robert Grove owned land and property in the town and elsewhere in south and west Wales. Some of that had presumably been acquired during his own lifetime, but a good proportion was inherited from his father. Besides property, and acting as agents for other landholders, the firm of William Grove & Son dealt in a variety of goods. In 1804 they sold a Boulton & Watt stationary steam engine, for example. A few years later William Grove was the agent responsible for hiring masons for bridge repair at Killay. At various times they sold a malthouse in Cowbridge and even a colliery in Loughor. Unsurprisingly in a maritime town, much of their business was to do with ships. They often acted as agents selling ships' cargo or even the ships themselves. This was a family firmly embedded in the economic life of the town.

As to where the Groves came from, according to a correspondent in the Cambrian, writing shortly after William Robert Grove's death in 1896, they were relatively recent imports to Swansea from the nearby Gower peninsula. George Gibbs, the Cambrian's correspondent in the matter, wrote that Grove's 'ancestors lived on a farm in the parish of Reynoldston, Gower, then owned by Thomas M. Talbot, Esq.' After one of the family's sons stepped in to help a Swansea surveyor working for the Talbots' Penrice estate, he so impressed the man with his 'energy and efficiency' that the surveyor, a Mr Hall 'imported him to his office at Swansea, where by dint of persevering attention to business, and good conduct, he rapidly rose to fortune, and laid the basis of that eminence which his descendant attained'. These events are supposed to have occurred 'towards the end of the last century'. If true, they must in fact have taken place somewhat earlier than that (possibly to Grove's grandfather or great grandfather) since the Groves' assured place in Swansea civic culture by the beginning of the nineteenth century suggests that they were not recent arrivals. There is at least one more reference to another Grove as having been descended from 'the old Gower family, from which has sprung the greatest scientific philosopher of our times, namely, Sir William Robert Grove'. Most of the scanty biographical sources and obituaries that give any account of Grove's upbringing agree that he received his early education at the hands of the Rev. Evan Griffiths. Griffiths was at this time the headmaster of the Swansea Free Grammar School and one or two later accounts describe Grove as having been a pupil. Whether or not this was so seems debatable, however. Having been originally established in 1682 by Hugh Gore, bishop of Waterford and Lismore, the grammar school was in poor shape by the early decades of the nineteenth century, and closed in 1842 following Griffiths's death. A letter in the Welshman the previous year complained that the school was effectively moribund, its buildings rented out and the funds used entirely to pay the headmaster's salary rather than providing for the poor pupils who were meant to be its beneficiaries. Grove is more likely to have been one of the 'pay scholars whom he [Griffiths] is at liberty to receive without limitation'. Whatever education Grove received from Griffiths (Latin and Greek only according to the Welshman's correspondent), he was then sent to Bath to be tutored by the Rev. J. Kilvert. The links with Bath and the Kilvert family is intriguing. Lewis Weston Dillwyn, John Grove's near neighbour in Mount Pleasant, was a friend of the Kilverts and might well have been instrumental in the choice of tutor for the young Grove as he prepared for Oxford and Brasenose College.

Grove himself traced his own interest in science to reading at the age of twelve a story in which 'a boy, for the purpose of curing superstition in a younger brother, made an electrical machine, and astonished him with a display of its wonders, and how he invoked the aid of phosphorus to increase the child's astonishment'. Inspired, he started to make his own apparatus from odds and ends like old apothecaries' bottles and syringes and carried out his own experiments. His scientific exploits were sufficiently destructive that 'his father was led to discourage, although he did not actually forbid his scientific pursuits'. These sorts of stories of early experimental precociousness are commonplace and need to be taken with a suitable pinch of salt. But Grove himself noted that his 'grandfather had scientific tastes to some degree', and that his 'grandmother's brother ... was a good amateur chemist and astronomer'. The grandfather was almost certainly the William Grove mentioned earlier who was active in the Fund to Obviate the Inconvenience Arising from Copper Smoke. The 'grandmother's brother' is more difficult to identify. Though the dates do not seem quite right he may have been the engineer Benjamin Hill from Clydach, mentioned in some obituaries as an early scientific acquaintance and who was noted locally as a chemist and astronomer as Grove describes him. The Kilvert connection in Bath may be relevant in this context as well, since the Kilvert family were certainly active in scientific circles there.

Given John Grove's (alleged) dislike for his son's scientific pursuits, it is worth pausing briefly to consider the young William Robert's education and prospects in a family context. One source suggests that Grove was 'intended by his father for the Church' but that 'conscientious scruples interfered with the father's desires' leading to the decision to aim for a career in law instead. Grove was almost certainly the first of his family to acquire a university education and it is worth speculating as to why his father felt one to be a useful acquisition for his son, or why a career in the Church was considered at all. The more obvious path for a prosperous Swansea merchant's son to follow would have been in his father's footsteps. Sending a son to Oxford was an important step for someone like John Grove, and should be understood as a mark of substantial dynastic ambition on his part. This rather looks like an attempt to signal a decisive break from a commercial past to a professional and gentlemanly future. William Robert Grove's arrival at Brasenose College Oxford in the autumn of 1830 therefore marked a potential new beginning for the family as a whole. It was a new beginning that was nevertheless still firmly rooted in the broader civic ambitions of Swansea itself.

Swansea Science

There can be little doubt of the ambitions that Swansea's civic leaders – and John Grove presumably among them – had for their town during the opening decades of the nineteenth century. At the end of the previous century, Swansea was a comparatively small seaside town with a population of about six thousand. It had been a thriving port since Tudor times, at least, and during the second half of the eighteenth century had developed a growing reputation as a tourist resort. Well-heeled English travellers came to enjoy the scenery and the recent fashion for sea bathing. The town's inhabitants were accustomed to supplement their incomes by renting out rooms to these moneyed visitors. By the standards of Welsh towns at the beginning of the nineteenth century, 6,000 was in fact quite a substantial population. Swansea was certainly a bigger and more prosperous town than Cardiff, its rival port thirty miles or so further east along the coast of the Bristol Channel, for example. As far as many of its inhabitants were concerned Swansea clearly was the pre-eminent town in Wales. If anywhere merited the title of the Welsh metropolis, it was their town.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Swansea was as much an industrial centre as it was a port and seaside resort. Since the 1720s the town had been steadily growing as an important centre for the copper smelting industry. Swansea's proximity to the copper mining districts of Cornwall on the other side of the Bristol Channel, with the port allowing easy import of the ore and export of the finished product, along with the availability of coal mined in the Swansea valley made the town ideal for the purpose. The town also had a thriving pottery industry. Copper smelting in particular had a huge impact on the town and the environment. The Fund to Obviate the Inconvenience Arising from Copper Smoke with which William Grove senior had been involved was an effort to find ways of reducing this impact without overly reducing the profits flowing into the copper kings' pockets. The wealth that flowed into Swansea through the copper trade would play a large part in the town's expansion and improvement during the nineteenth century's opening decades, after all. The role copper played in the local economy also meant that Swansea was a town where the sorts of practical chemical skills associated with smelting were highly valued. It was a town that understood how science might be made useful.

Swansea's civic leaders during the opening decades of the nineteenth century, whilst Grove was growing up, were intent on improvement. The town corporation took on plans to widen and pave streets and improve sanitation. In 1808 they passed a resolution

that it will be highly advantageous to the town and borough of Swansea to obtain an Act for paving, repairing, cleansing, lighting and watching the streets and other public passages and placed within the said town and borough, and for removing and preventing nuisances and obstructions within.

Local gentry joined together to fund a new theatre and assembly rooms, setting up the Swansea Tontine Society for that purpose. The tontine's subscribers included individuals from as far afield as Bath and Gloucester – an indication of the increasingly important economic and cultural role that the town played not just across south Wales but for the Welsh marches and south-west England as well. There was plenty there to feed the intellect too. Swansea had two circulating libraries by the beginning of the nineteenth century. By 1808 the town had a public subscription library whose proprietors included a list of local dignitaries such as Lewis Weston Dillwyn. As well as libraries, Swansea also had a flourishing book trade and in 1807 saw the publication of the Cambrian, describing itself as 'the first and only newspaper published in Wales'.

The circles in which the Grove family moved during young William Robert's childhood must have included the leading lights of Swansea society. Lewis Weston Dillwyn was a close family neighbour. John Grove's involvement in Swansea's civic affairs would certainly also have brought him into contact with Dillwyn as well as other notables such as John Henry Vivian, both of whom were with Grove senior members of the first town council in 1836. Vivian was a fellow deputy lieutenant of the county. Both these men were prominent industrialists, the Dillwyn family having made their fortunes through potteries whilst the Vivians were copper smelters. Significantly, both Dillwyn and Vivian were fellows of the Royal Society who had wide-ranging scientific interests as well as an extensive circle of scientific acquaintances. Vivian was the first Member of Parliament elected for Swansea following the introduction of the Reform Act in 1832. He remained as MP until his death in 1855, when he was replaced by Lewis Llewellyn Dillwyn, Lewis Weston Dillwyn's son. Lewis Weston Dillwyn himself was the first reform MP for the county of Glamorgan. The Vivians, unsurprisingly given their copper interests, were relatively recent immigrants to the town from Truro in Cornwall. The Dillwyns were also quite recent arrivals. Lewis Weston Dillwyn's father was a Philadelphia Quaker who had returned to Britain during the war of independence and settled in Essex.

Whilst there is little to show what the political colours of the Grove dynasty might have been, the Dillwyns and the Vivians were reform-minded and liberal in their politics. In this they were fairly typical of the rising class of prosperous, often nonconformist industrial men that emerged out of the Industrial Revolution and who came to dominate public life in newly industrialising towns and cities not only in south Wales but in Britain more generally. An interest in science was a common feature of this new industrial middle class. The first Literary & Philosophical Institute was established in Manchester in 1781 and was followed by others in Bath, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle, amongst others. Societies like these offered their members a steady diet of scientific lectures by local enthusiasts as well as visitors from further afield. Their libraries stocked the latest scientific journals. This was the kind of thing that Swansea's scientific enthusiasts had in mind when they took steps towards the end of 1835 to establish the Swansea Scientific & Literary Institution. The new institution's founding members included Dillwyn and Vivian, of course. But they also included a young William Robert Grove, who had completed his studies at Oxford in 1833 and entered Lincoln's Inn in London to study for the bar, as well as his father John.

Swansea's was certainly not the first scientific society in south Wales and it is not surprising that such societies proliferated there during the first half of the nineteenth century. South Wales was exactly the sort of nonconformist, industrialising territory that was fertile ground for such activities and organisations. From the middle of the eighteenth century, at least, natural philosophy had started to become an increasingly central aspect of the rising professional and industrial middle class's cultural worldview. There is clear evidence that literary and scientific societies were being established in towns and cities across Wales from the 1830s onwards as well as indications of earlier gatherings. It is possible to follow the tracks of travelling scientific lecturers across the country from newspaper reports of their activities. Local scientific societies also offered their own members opportunities to demonstrate their prowess as natural historians, electrical experimenters or chemists. Not only the scientific bigwigs like Dillwyn or Vivian, who operated on a national stage, but enthusiasts with more modest pretensions had their chance in the limelight at their meetings. Local dignitaries donated collections of scientific instruments, botanical or geological specimens, or books for libraries. In Wales, as elsewhere, scientific societies were symbols of a town's civic aspirations and claims to culture.


Excerpted from William Robert Grove by Iwan Rhys Morus. Copyright © 2017 Iwan Rhys Morus. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents


Series Editor's Foreword,
List of Illustrations,
1 A Scientific People,
2 The Metropolis of Science,
3 The Correlation of Physical Forces,
4 Scientific Reform,
5 Swansea Science,
6 Unifying Science,
7 A Scientific Statesman,

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