Tag Archives: Kent

The Powell-Cotton Museum, Quex Park, Kent

By Lisa Glass, University of Kent

From the outside, the building in which the Powell-Cotton Museum resides looks like any typical English stately home. Step inside, however, and you will find yourself immersed in a world of late-Victorian natural history in a visual display that spans the entirety of eight galleries from floor to ceiling. It was the explorer, Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton (1866–1940), a hunter and early conservationist, who filled his family’s home with a collection of natural specimens from around the world. The collection is displayed in a series of dioramas, featuring animals against backdrops that represent their natural habitats, including the oldest untouched diorama – that is, a model of a scene including three-dimensional figures (in this case, real animals preserved through taxidermy) – of its type in any museum around the world.

Percy Powell-Cotton was born in Garlinge in Margate, Kent. His family took ownership of Quex House in nearby Birchington when Percy was 15 years old. He began breeding chickens, hunting rabbits and photographing wildlife, keeping meticulous records of these endeavours. His early habits stayed with him when, in 1890, he embarked on the first of many expeditions, collecting natural history specimens in Kashmir, Northern India, and Tibet.

Over the ensuing 50 years, he embarked on around 30 similar expeditions across Africa and Asia, to gather and categorise zoological and ethnographical specimens. Unlike other Victorian explorers, Percy was primarily concerned with contributing to scientific knowledge through preservation and documentation, not with indiscriminately collecting trophies. He kept meticulous records for all the animals he gathered, including map references, longitude and latitude locations, detailed body dimensions, age, sex and external pathology. The specimens collected were transported back to Quex Park, prepared for display by the expert taxidermist Rowland Ward, and then placed in a specially designed pavilion in the gardens of the park, which Powell-Cotton had commissioned his brother to construct. The wide range of animal specimens has proved to be a valuable resource in taxonomic research, even to the present day. Consequently, Powell-Cotton has had several species named in honour of him.

Among familiar sights such as lions, elephants, apes, primates and many more, some of the animals on display at the museum are now highly endangered species; for example, the Ethiopian wolf, the Angolan giant sable and the white rhino. Notably, the collection also includes over 2,000 specimens of primates. Indeed, during his expeditions, Percy was responsible for identifying over ten new species or sub-species of primate, some of which he named after himself.

Percy was so dedicated to finding, documenting and preserving natural history specimens through his expeditions that not even marriage could interrupt him in his calling. In November 1905, while on an expedition in Kenya, he married Hannah Brayton Slater in Nairobi Cathedral and, rather than interrupt his ninth expedition, his new wife joined him on it, for a honeymoon that lasted two years. It was during this honeymoon, in 1907, that Powell-Cotton was badly mauled by a lion. Thinking the animal incapacitated by a good shot, as he approached it, the animal leapt on him, attacking with its claws and jaws. However, Powell-Cotton escaped relatively unharmed thanks to a rolled-up copy of Punch magazine that was in his breast pocket, and protected him from the worst of the onslaught. The lion, the suit that Powell-Cotton was wearing and the copy of Punch are now all on display at the museum.

The museum still regularly attracts huge numbers of visitors yearly. Wandering through the galleries of the museum, which teem with a diverse array of wildlife, it is possible to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of taxidermied animals. While it may not to everyone’s taste as a form of entertainment, as a slice of scientific history, the Powell-Cotton museum is certainly very important. To modern attitudes, this particular form of conservation may seem counterintuitive and even distasteful. However, the aim was not merely to display Percy’s prowess as a hunter, he was aiming to build up an encyclopaedia of animals, to preserve them for scientific purposes, and to allow members of the public to see them, by perhaps the only means they were able to, apart from in grainy photographs.

Indeed, making the collection available to the public is a strong underlying ethos of the museum. One of the most attractive features of it as it is today is the handling collection, which is kept in gallery 6 of the museum. Having received Arts Council funding in 2013, the museum is able to make accessible a selection of natural history and ethnographical objects for visitors to touch and play with, creating an ever-changing and evolving display. With this in mind, it is possible to argue that Major Powell-Cotton was one of the earliest and most successful science communicators, whose work reaches out from its origins in the Victorian era, right up to the present day.

Further reading:

http://www.quexpark.co.uk/museum/

Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton. 2012. In Unknown Africa: A Narrative of Twenty Months Travel and Sport in Unknown Lands and Among New Tribes – Scholar’s Choice Edition. RareBooksClub.com.

Lisa Glass is a freelance writer specialising in scientific writing. She is currently a student at the University of Kent, on the Science, Communication and Society MSc programme.

William Harvey Statue

By Jane Seaman

In Langhorne Gardens, a residential area near Folkestone seafront, an imposing stone figure gazes across the English Channel. The statue of William Harvey, often described as “the father of modern medicine”, is situated incongruously between a lively bar and several hotels, flanked by a busy car park and period buildings now converted into flats and bedsits. To Harvey’s right, the clifftop path offers a bracing walk along the windswept Leas to the historic Grand; to his left is concert and entertainment venue, the Leas Cliff Hall. On a fine day, it’s the perfect place to sit outside, watching the sea and reflecting on the natural world, while enjoying an espresso. Sharing the view with Harvey. Although he was 72 years old before coffee became a popular drink in England, he was already a caffeine aficionado, enthusiastically extolling its ability to stimulate the brain.

A classically educated physician, anatomist, scientist and clinical experimenter, William Harvey was born in 1578 in a different Folkestone to the present day. Best known now as home of the channel tunnel, in the sixteenth century, Folkestone was an important and prosperous seaport, and Harvey’s father was a prominent citizen, becoming mayor several times.

The Harvey statue (copyright Jane Seaman 2013, all rights reserved)

After attending Kings School in Canterbury, William Harvey went on to study medicine at Padua, then the most famous medical University in Europe. His anatomy teacher was the celebrated Girolamo Fabricius (1537-1619), who, in 1574, discovered the valves in the veins, which permit blood to flow in only one direction.

Upon returning to England, Harvey set up in medical practice in London, and in 1607, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. By 1618, he was physician to King James and in 1629, Harvey published his famous “Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus” (Anatomical Disquisition on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals).

In this work, Harvey proposed, and demonstrated by meticulously documented observation and experiments, that blood circulated around the body; a revolutionary theory which was contrary to the teachings of Galen, the second century Greco-Roman physician, who had claimed blood flowed in a back and forth motion, like the ebb and flow of a tide. Galenic ideas had influenced accepted medical knowledge for over a thousand years. Although Ibn al-Nafis, a Syrian physician, described the process of pulmonary transit as early as the thirteenth century, Harvey had discovered, in the process of his research into the workings of the heart, that this was what pumped the blood and circulated it; effectively revealing that the cardiovascular system was hydraulic.

Significantly, this was a time when mathematical practitioners and experimentalists in England were exploring the mechanics of pumps and valves, in a country excited by novel developments in science, navigation, technology, commerce and agriculture.

Looking up at the Harvey statue, made by A.B. Joy in 1881 and erected the same year, it is easy to forget how much medical science owes to his discovery. The statue’s supporting pillar reads simply:

William Harvey

Discoverer of the circulation of the blood

Born in Folkestone April 1 1578

Died in London June 3 1657

Buried at Hempstead, Essex

Inscription on Harvey statue (copyright Jane Seaman 2013, all rights reserved)

In 1973, on behalf of the British Medical Association, an honorary plaque was added, in the presence of the Harveian society. Founded in 1831, members meet every June in Folkestone for the town’s Harvey Sunday parade.

Plaque on Harvey statue (copyright Jane Seaman 2013, all rights reserved)

Sadly, all of Harvey’s extensive research notes were lost when his house was burgled in 1642, and he died in 1657 at his brother Eliab’s house in Roehampton.

But his legacy lives on, with the Harvey Grammar School set up by Eliab after his brother’s death (there was no school in the town when William was a boy, a matter he remedied in his will), a popular pub called Harvey’s at the end of Langhorne Gardens, and the block of flats just a few doors away called Harvey Mansions, which was my home for a year.  And, fittingly, his name is given to the William Harvey hospital in nearby Ashford.

It seems serendipitous that Harvey’s statue gazes eternally at the ebb and flow of the waves – how blood was once perceived to behave – until his discovery changed the future of medicine forever.

Harvey’s view from the Leas (photo copyright Jane Seaman 2013, all rights reserved)

Address: Langhorne Gardens, Folkestone, Kent, CT20 2EA. Walk down from the point indicated on the map towards the sea and the statue is found just before you reach the Leas Cliff Hall.

 

Further information

Books

Dear, Peter. 2001. Revolutionising the Sciences: European Knowledge and its ambitions, 1500-1700. Palgrave

Keynes, Geoffrey. 1966. The Life of William Harvey. Oxford University Press

Webster, Charles. 1979. William Harvey and the crisis of medicine in Jacobean England. In Bylebyl, Jerome J, ed. William Harvey and his age: The professional and social context of the discovery of the circulation. John Hopkins University Press

Bylebyl, Jerome J. 1979. The medical side of Harvey’s discovery: the normal and the abnormal. In Bylebyl, Jerome J, ed. William Harvey and his age: The professional and social context of the discovery of the circulation. John Hopkins University Press

Al-Khalili, Jim. 2010. Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science. Allen Lane

Websites

http://www.harveiansocietyoflondon.btck.co.uk/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Harvey

http://www.historyofbiologyandmedicine.com/britain.htm

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABTvNR59K5Q – a YouTube video which explains blood circulation

Charles Darwin’s Home – Down House, Kent

By Charlotte Sleigh

The Home of Charles Darwin, Down House

In 1842 Charles and Emma Darwin settled in the rural Kentish village of Downe. Down House (spelled differently from the village) was to remain their home for forty years, an occupation ending only with Emma’s death in 1896. (Charles died there in 1882.)

Darwin recorded in his autobiography that when they first found the house he ‘was pleased with the diversified appearance of the vegetation proper to a chalk district … and still more pleased with the extreme quietness and rusticity of the place’. At Down he hid away from visitors, even locating a mirror outside his study to warn him when someone was approaching.

Yet in this quiet place Darwin received communications and visitations from naturalists and men of science worldwide, weaving together his grand picture of nature that was expounded in The Origin of Species (1859) and later writings. Down House was also the site of his own experiments and observations; no problem was too trivial or too minute to be worthy of his patient elaboration. Dotted around the grounds of the house are the sites of these experiments, concerning worm burrowing and, in the hothouse, carnivorous plants and orchids.

The sandwalk, Darwin's thinking path.

Elsewhere in the gardens one can retrace Darwin’s steps along the peaceful Sand-walk, where he paced daily to mull over his information and formulate his arguments. Charles and Emma planted this avenue shortly after their arrival, choosing a variety of native trees and flowers. Its constant susceptibility to invasive species of weed proved an immediate and frustrating instance of natural selection in action.

The house itself offers glimpses of the sentimental Darwin; permitting his children to toboggan down the stairs on a tea-tray must surely have interrupted his peaceful contemplations. This was not a house but a home. Each room has been reconstructed as far as possible based on photographs taken in the 1870s; Darwin’s study is recreated as it would have been, complete with bucket in the corner for those moments when his mysterious illness overtook him.

Charles Darwin's study at Down House, restored with original furniture including his wheeled armchair and writing board.

As a historian, I find myself slightly uncomfortable with the canonisation that inevitably accompanies the reconstruction of sites such as Down House. The English Heritage web site (9 March 2011) even refers to it as a ‘place of pilgrimage’. Such a construction of historic sites can result in unintentional bathos (here’s where the great man’s bottom sat), or more seriously in historic bias, creating the impression that only Darwin was the source of evolution by natural selection, and that his ideas came to him clear and perfect, the same in form as we know today.

But even so … it’s undeniably something very special to come here, to see the home and gardens that produced some of the most enduring science, history and even myth of our times. Here you can catch a glimpse of the oft-forgotten cast of women, children, servants, visitors et al who are all a part of the ‘Darwin’ story. Highly recommended.

Further information:

Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Princeton University Press, 2003).
http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/home-of-charles-darwin-down-house
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Down_House