I have just listed for sale a mid 19th century bookplate that belonged to Sir John William Lubbock, 3rd Baronet. One of the things that I most like about bookplates are the interesting byways of history into which they lead. However it is a rare pleasure to find that I owe a debt of personal gratitude for the historical actions of another; a debt shared by everyone in the UK.
Born into a banking family in 1803, Sir John was a distinguished mathematician and astronomer. A fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society and a member of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge he became the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of London.
In 1840 he acquired the 3,000 acre High Elms estate near the village of Downe in Kent, where he rebuilt the house in the Italianate style to accommodate his growing family. He had married Harriet Hotham in 1833 and they had nine children.
Three of his sons, Alfred, Nevile and Edgar were to play first-class cricket for Kent; and Edgar was part of the old Etonian team that won the 1872 FA cup final. How wonderful it would be if a school team were to do so again today! Especially as 2012 is the centenary of the birth of J L Carr, who wrote the excellent satire “How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup”.
When in 1842 Charles Darwin bought Down House on the other side of the village he wrote to his sister of Sir John “I believe he is very reserved & shy & proud or fine – so I suspect he will be no catch, and will never honour us”. Ironically when Sir John had heard that Darwin was to become a neighbour he hinted to his family that there would soon be great news. His eldest son later recalled that he hoped that this news would prove to be a pony and was disappointed to discover that it was the arrival of Darwin.
The families became friends and in particular Sir John’s eldest son, also named John, became a frequent visitor to Down House and a close friend and pupil of Charles Darwin, who was to stir his interest in science.
Born in 1834 and succeeding his father as 4th Baronet in 1865 he became, in fine Victorian tradition, a banker and polymath who used the evidence from many disciplines, particularly archaeology (for which he wrote the standard textbooks and established as an academic discipline), to support evolutionary theory of which he was a doughty defender; even taking part in the famous 1860 Oxford evolution debate.
He acquired the Avebury estate in 1871 to protect the prehistoric monuments and it was as Lord Avebury that he took his seat in the House of Lords upon being created a Peer in 1900.
However impressive all this might be I was more interested to discover that whilst sitting as an MP for Maidstone between 1870 and 1878 he was responsible for 28 Acts of Parliament, including the Ancient Monuments Act. But it was one of his first that must surely have had the most significant and lasting impact upon the quality of life of the nation. In 1871 he introduced the “Bank Holidays Act” that established the first ever bank holiday. Widely proclaimed in the press as the most popular man in England (not an epithet that a banker or politician could even dream of today) and there were even suggestions that this August holiday should be proclaimed St Lubbock’s day.
As Punch put it: “How doth the banking busy bee improve his shining house by studying on bank holidays strange insects and wild flowers!”
When you consider that over a full career of, say, 45 years we in the UK will have enjoyed 45 August bank holidays as a result of Lord Avebury’s little act I think we all owe him thanks.
Ps- If any member of the family would like to put a copy of an image of the 3rd Baronet into the public domain I would be delighted to hear from them.
Pps – Upon his ennoblement in 1900 he was granted the right to supporters for his arms and for this he used the stork from the Lubbock crest. It is also interesting (to me at least) to compare the arms of father and son. The husband’s arms are on shown on the left half of the shield and the arms of the wife on the right (it is easy to remember as one’s wife is always right). In the 3rd Bartonet’s bookplate the arms on the right are those of Hotham whilst on Lord Avebury’s they are those of his 2nd wife Alice, daughter of Gen Augustus Fox-Pitt-Rivers of Rushmore, Wiltshire.