The London Polymath Who Created August Bank Holiday

Laurence Scales
By Laurence Scales Last edited 15 months ago
The London Polymath Who Created August Bank Holiday

Our first August bank holiday was 145 years ago in 1871, created through act of parliament by eccentric London banker, Sir John Lubbock MP. Even for this he is largely forgotten. But from wisdom teeth to winsome wasps, here are 10 other reasons why Sir John should still make us smile today.

1. Cracked down on dodgy dentists

He helped us maintain our laughing gear. As a member of parliament Sir John was the force behind the 1878 Dentist's Act which outlawed the untrained molar manglers who touted for business dragging out decaying dentition.

Lubbock: had a pet wasp. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

2. Monument man

Though London may not have too many henges, we're still better off for Lubbock’s 1882 Protection of Ancient Monuments Act. He saved Avebury stone circle and Silbury Hill from being levelled. When raised to the peerage he took the name Lord Avebury. London's scheduled ancient monuments now include Barking Abbey, Merton Priory, Winchester Palace in Southwark and Crofton Roman Villa in Orpington. Even the words 'Neolithic' and 'Palaeolithic' we owe to Sir John.

3. Championed Darwin

Charles Darwin never received a knighthood or even an OBE. But Sir John, who had known Darwin from his own childhood, campaigned successfully for him to be buried in Westminster Abbey. At the famous 1860 debate at Oxford, pitting church fundamentalism against science, Sir John was there speaking up for Darwin.

4. Championed freedom of thought

Sir John was a champion of intellectual freedom. A member of the X-Club — a coterie of leading Victorian brains who dined at Brown's Hotel — they opposed the dominance of the Church of England over British intellectual life, particularly in science. John was nevertheless a great reader of sermons but admitted that they often put him to sleep.

5. Shunned Eton

We love a Victorian polymath. Lubbock overcame the terrible education provided at Eton. Yes, in those days Eton was educationally enfeebled, the curriculum a dusty diet of the classics — and his father was sufficiently unimpressed to remove him and put him to work in the family bank. Thereafter, John studied for his own enjoyment in every spare moment. He took to wearing elastic-sided boots, declaring that one might learn a new language in the accumulated time other people spend lacing their shoes.

Without Sir John, maybe there'd be no bank holiday carnival. Photo: pallab seth.

6. Played violin to insects

He proved that bees have colour vision. His great delight, crowed his mother, was in insects. He kept colonies of ants at home, indoors behind glass. He entertained thousands at his lectures on the subject at the Royal Institution and other places. In the interests of scientific investigation he played the violin to the little critters and intoxicated them with alcohol to see what would happen.

7. Ridiculous amount of titles

Sir John was a ludicrously high achiever. Darwin thought that, if he had put his mind to it, John could have become Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Mayor of London or President of the Royal Society. But John did not concentrate on one thing. He was well respected at a huge number of London's learned societies. His scaling of their highest ranks often served the X-Club's aims. At various times he was President of the Anthropological Institute, Bankers Institute, Entomological, Ethnological, African, Statistical and Linnean Societies, the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Microscopical Society, and the Royal Historical Society. His family joked that he had an annual meeting every day. He only became Vice President of the Royal Society.

8. An etymologist as well as an entomologist

Reading so much, he was able to contribute material to the Oxford English Dictionary, a great project started in the Victorian era. He therefore pulled off an unusual double, by being both an entomologist and an etymologist.

Lubbock's pet wasp only stung him once. Photo: slgckgc.

9. Pet wasp

He found love for a wasp. He had one as a pet. Her mortal remains lie in the Natural History Museum. She's less showy than Guy the gorilla, so she's cared for there unseen in the vaults. He took the wasp around in a bottle and let her fly around his compartment on the train. The only time she stung him was when the ticket inspector came and he had to bundle her quickly into her jar.

10. Impressing Gladstone

There's a lot more we could say about his being chairman of this, trustee of that, or director of the other. But our final accolade goes for Sir John's efforts with regard to training his dog, Van. That most sour-faced of politicians, William Ewart Gladstone, is even known to have taken an interest. Sir John spent 10 weeks trying to teach his canine companion to read. 101 Dalmations had not been written then. But even if it had we fear that, from the evidence in Lubbock's paper Notes on the Intelligence of a Dog — delivered to the British Association in 1885 — Van would not have progressed much beyond chewing the cover.

So remember Sir John next August bank holiday — the day that the grateful masses used to call St Lubbock's Day.

Last Updated 17 August 2016