In Volume XXIII of the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club’ published in 1902, there appeared an obituary to the Late John Clavell Mansel-Pleydell Esq. of Whatcombe, who had been its president.
The Late John Clavell Mansel-Pleydell Esq.
B.A., J.P., and D.L., F.G.S., F.L.S.,
President of the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club
By the Hon. Morton G. Stuart-Gray
The Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club has suffered a well nigh irretrievable loss this year in the death of the dearly-loved President, Mr. Mansel-Pleydell, which occurred at his family seat at Whatcombe on May 3rd at the age of 84. Mr. Mansel-Pleydell, in conjunction with Professor Buckman and the Rev. H. H. Wood, founded the Club in. 1875, and during the long period of 27 years he was annually re-elected its President. He took unceasing interest in its well-being and spent a vast amount of time in the furtherance of its objects, contributing innumerable papers to its publications, and by his constant attendance at the Field Meetings he added immensely to its efficiency and popularity. Although at his own request he was relieved from time to time by the common consent of the members from some of the more onerous duties, which he considered inseparable from the presidential office, his labours subsequently were none the less arduous, nor were his contributions perceptibly diminished.
Among the many and varied interests and duties of his pre-eminently useful life the Dorset Field Club occupied a very leading place. To write a memoir of Mr. Mansel-Pleydell, which is at all adequate to the subject and to the pages of this XXIII. Volume of ” Proceedings,” is a task of considerable difficulty. This task I should have hesitated to undertake if I had not been urged to do so in a letter which I received from the Rev. J. C. Mansel-Pleydell, Vicar of Sturminster Newton, which conveyed the wishes of his family on this subject, and, as I believe, of various members of the Field Club. And since I have been connected with the Club from its foundation, and held the post of Secretary for some years, together with the fact of my being closely related to the late President, I felt that this was a last act of loving duty, which could not be refused.
Notices touching on one or other aspect of Mr. Mansel-Pleydell’s life have already appeared, e.g., in the ” Times,” in the ” Journal of Botany” for July by the Rev. E. F. Linton, in the “Dorset County Chronicle” by Mr. Henry Moule and Mr. R. Bosworth-Smith. In these pages it is impossible to give an account of a life of such varied interests. As the owner of a large landed property, Mr. Mansel-Pleydell fulfilled to the uttermost the duties connected with it as Magistrate, County Councillor, and Poor Law Guardian. As a student of the natural sciences, he possessed a wide and detailed knowledge of various branches, though it is on his works on botany and geology that his fame chiefly rests. As a philanthropist, his foundation in 1856 of the Reformatory for Boys at Milborne, which in later years developed into the Industrial School and Boys’ Farm Home of the present day, showed him to be in advance of his times. His advice and assistance in the management of the Dorset Friendly Society in years gone by earned him the deep gratitude of its members. He was a steadfast supporter and a devoted adherent of the Church of England. During the later years of his life he took great interest in the formation of the Wilts and Dorset Branch of the Clerical and Lay Union, and undertook an infinite amount of work and correspondence in the capacity of its President.
With this brief survey of his career I propose to confine myself as far as possible to those chapters of Mr. Mansel-Pleydell’s life which describe his connection with the Dorset Field Club and his investigations in the subjects which fall within the scope of its enquiries.
Societies for the study of natural history and archaeology have long been in existence in various counties. In Dorsetshire, however, this had not been the case, although no county is better suited for these researches. In Geology it possesses an almost unbroken series of Mesozoic Beds, and of the older Tertiary’s; its Flora is rich and varied, and its Avifauna highly interesting. Throughout its length and breadth the remains of the Prehistoric period and of the Roman occupation are numerous and important. In the limited area of Purbeck, it is true, the Purbeck Society had had a brilliant existence. The first meeting of this body was held at Durnford House, Langton Matravers, on April 5th, 1855, and, although after the first ten years the meetings ceased, the collections formed by the society were still retained in the building at Corfe, which was rented for the purpose, until 1894, when they were transferred to the County Museum at Dorchester. The publications of this society were entitled ” Papers read before the Purbeck Society,” Vol. I. and Vol. II., Part 1. Mr. Mansel-Pleydell was Vice-President in 1858. He contributed papers to the society on “The Blashenwell Chalk Marl,” on “Kimmeridge Coal Money,” and on “Tertiary Fossil Leaves.” In the year 1874 a movement was made towards the formation of a Dorsetshire society for research in natural history and archaeology. This originated largely with Professor Buckman, then resident at Bradford Abbas. He had been elected to the post of Professor of Natural History at the opening of the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, and, in addition to his collegiate duties, had devoted much time to the discovery and preservation of Roman remains, in which that district of Gloucestershire is so rich. Professor Buckman’s proposals, in the first instance, were made to the Rev. H. H. Wood, Rector of Holwell, who, having been successively Fellow, Tutor, and Librarian of Queen’s College, Oxford, had taken the College living of Holwell in 1857. He, moreover, was a botanist and geologist. The Dorset Field Club owes its origin to the initiative of these two men. The general plan gained in definition as it gained numerically in supporters, and towards the end of 1874 it seemed likely to take shape, if only a suitable leader could be found.
Mr. Mansel-Pleydell was born in 1817, and was educated at Hazelbury Bryan under the Rev. Henry Walter, a former Professor of Natural Philosophy at Cambridge/ He entered at St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he took his B.A. degree in 1839, and subsequently read for the Bar. His parents resided at Smedmore, near Corfe, until 1863, when, on the death of his mother, it passed into his own possession. Here in the parish of Kimmeridge he made one of his greatest discoveries by unearthing from a low cliff facing the sea the paddle of Pliosaurus macromerus, which is now preserved in the County Museum, Dorchester. Casts of this paddle are included in the collection of the British Museum, the Woodwardian Museum at Cambridge, and elsewhere. Here, too, on the margin of the sea coast he was able to prosecute operations in dredging which were to bear fruit later on in his accounts of the Mollusca of Dorset. By the year 1874 he had already published his first edition of the “Flora of Dorset,” which included many species added to the county by his own industry and observation, preceded by a sketch of its geology. He had written a sketch of the geology and flora of the county, together with prefaces to the ornithology and conchology for the 3rd Edition of Hutchins’s History of Dorset, published by the late William Shipp, of Blandford. He had written a similar account of the geology of Dorset for the “Geological Magazine” of 1874, which I remember was strongly commended to my notice by my tutor at Cambridge. The Rev. E. F. Linton mentions in his account of Mr. Mansel-Pleydell in the “Journal of Botany” for July, 1902, that “his first contribution to this journal appeared in 1866, when (as J. C. Mansel) he gave an account of Leucojum vernum in Dorset, and his last, on Arum Italicum as a Dorset plant, appeared in 19oo, and between these dates he published many notes. During his visits to London he was frequently at the Natural History Museum and a welcome visitor to the Department of Botany, with whose officials (present and past) he was on terms of friendship.” For years Mr. Mansel-Pleydell had taken daily observations on rainfall and meteorological phenomena. In 1874 he was in possession of the Whatcombe property, residing at Longthorns, midway between Dorchester and Blandford. As a landowner who had lived in the county from childhood, who was so thoroughly acquainted with its every aspect — one, moreover, who had done so much in scientific study and research — Mr. Mansel-Pleydell was clearly the man to be approached with a view to inducing him to take the lead in the new society. This was done, and, with the enthusiasm which characterised everything he undertook, he threw himself heart and soul into the formation of the Dorset Field Club.
On Tuesday, March 16th, 1875, a meeting was held at the Digby Hotel, Sherborne, at which about twenty persons sat down to dinner, after which a paper was read on the ” Aims and Objects of Natural History Field Clubs,” followed by “Notes on the Working of some Established Field Clubs.” At this meeting, I believe, the foundation of the Field Club took place, Mr. Mansel-Pleydell being elected President, Professor Buckman Secretary, and the Rev. H. H. Wood Treasurer. Four meetings were arranged for the ensuing summer months. The first annual meeting was held at Sherborne on May 3oth, 1876, when Mr. Mansel-Pleydell delivered his presidential address, in which, after sketching the meetings of the Field Club during the past twelve months, he described the additions made to the flora of the county during the year, the progress of the Wealden boring, questions of interest arising from published returns of rainfall by Mr. G. J. Symonds, the Challenger Expedition and its possible results, the Arctic Expedition under Captain Nares, which had then lately left England, and Lieut. Cameron’s journey through Central Africa — subjects all of which were engrossing the scientific attention of the country at that time. The first volume of the “Proceedings” was published in 1877, and contained as its frontispiece a photograph of the President in the uniform of a Captain of the Q.O.D. Yeomanry Cavalry, in the Melbury Troop of which he served for about thirty years.
Interest in these early days chiefly centred in the Field Meetings, and very pleasant they were. The authorised programme was usually very simple, but the unauthorised programme might extend to any length; members dropped off when they chose, the President being always one of the last to leave. A meeting was held at Dorchester in the autumn, 1875. During the day we reached Maiden Castle. The Rev. W. Barnes, “The Dorset Poet,” was present — a figure well known in those days in the dress he always wore. He was quite ready when occasion required it to open out on any subject connected with archaeology, which he approached from the etymological side through his knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and Early English. I remember during the afternoon picking up a flint with a sponge, Ventriculites, embedded in it, and showing it to the President. He immediately called the attention of the party to it and delivered an extempore address on its features. Later we dropped in by twos and threes to the King’s Arms to a repast, and the meeting was carried on afterwards. By and bye we found ourselves such a small circle that the carriage was ordered, and he and I drove back to Longthorns, which we reached at 10.15, but I was to have gone six miles further to Blandford. “No, no! you must stop here. How could you have expected to get back the same night after a Field Club meeting ? “
He was at his best, or nearly so, when presiding at the head of the table during the hour of repast, and would thoroughly enter into the spirit of any pleasant surprise. On one occasion, at Stalbridge in the autumn of 1876, if I remember right, some sections of the Cornbrash had been examined during the early part of the day, and, as the afternoon grew dark, the party was conducted to the village inn, where Professor Buckman gave a discourse on edible and poisonous fungi, after which tea or supper was served. During its progress the Professor had arranged to give the practical illustration to his previous remarks, for he had carefully provided that four dishes of as many species of fungi should be cooked and brought in towards the end, and was greatly disappointed to find that his eloquence had been wasted, for scarcely any one would venture to taste them. The President was greatly pleased at this method of turning even the refreshment of the Club to a scientific end, and laughed heartily over it; but I cannot remember that he felt himself sufficiently convinced to take the first helping.
Criticism on his speeches or addresses he welcomed, but at Field Meetings it is not often forthcoming. On one occasion which I remember it appealed strongly to his sense of humour, and he was delighted. It was at a meeting held at Swanage in September, 1876. After some preliminaries, the party converged on Peveril Point, where the President delivered an unwritten address on the geological character of the Isle of Purbeck, as far as it was visible towards the east and north-east, referring to the great upheaval of the chalk and its extremely faulted condition, which is clearly visible in many places from the decks of the passing steamboats. Then, turning round, he described the succession of the Purbeck Beds lying to the west and southwest, and entered into a detailed account of the strata, particularly of the insect and cinder beds. On sitting down, a Swanage visitor, who happened to be a distinguished geologist, asked if he might be allowed to make some remarks, which was at once granted. He spoke to the following effect (I am quoting from memory at an interval of 27 years): — “I am a stranger to Dorset. I arrived here only a day or two ago, attracted by the reports I have heard of the county — of Purbeck in particular — and of the inhabitants, who were described to me as models of simplicity, cleanliness, and other domestic virtues. I caught sight of your party just now and came to pick up anything I could by way of information. I have listened to you, sir, who, I am told, are intimately acquainted with the county you are describing, and I gather that all that part of Purbeck I can see in front of me is faulty to a degree, whilst for the rest of it, if I take the trouble to examine — the beds even — I shall find they are full of insects.” The speaker then passed on to an elaborate discussion of various questions touched on by the President. Many a time for months afterwards, when we were together, a smile would cross his face, and, on inquiring the reason, he would answer : ” I was thinking of that facetious fellow — that day at Swanage — and his remarks about the insects in the beds.”
In 1882 the Rev. H. H. Wood, who had held the post of Treasurer since the inauguration of the Club, died. The Rev. O. P. Cambridge was elected Treasurer in his place. Two volumes written by him on “The Spiders of Dorset” were published by the Club in 1882. Another loss was experienced not long afterwards by the death of the Secretary, Professor Buckman, in the autumn of 1884. About this time there was a matter of large interest both to the President and to the welfare of the Field Club itself, which took place in 1883. I refer to the removal of the collections of the old Dorset Museum into the well-built and commodious premises which they at present occupy, which was largely due to the generosity of the late Mr. R. Williams, of Bridehead. Mr. Mansel-Pleydell had always been a supporter of the County Museum, but, on entering its new home, he evinced the greatest interest in its success. His constant wish was that its collections should be as representative as he could make them of all that was best in the County of Dorset, and with this object he spared neither time nor pains to obtain specimens or collections by purchase or otherwise which were in danger of going out of the county, subscribing himself most liberally to that end. Amongst the gifts which he made from time to time to the Museum were the Pliosaurus paddle previously mentioned; the tusks and molars of Elephas mtridionalis found by him at Dewlish, until then unknown to Britain, except on the Norfolk coast; a footprint of Iguanodon from the Middle Purbecks, in which it is rare, though not so in the Wealden. To him also the Dorset Museum is indebted for what is believed to be the best specimen in the kingdom of Histionotus angularis, Mid Purbecks. Several good specimens of Dorset birds were presented by him, including the honey buzzard. Amongst the antiquarian collections many objects were gifts from him; for instance, a funeral urn from the noted Deverel Barrow on the Whatcomhe property opened many years ago; the results of his excavations in the Roman well at Winterborne Kingston; and those from the site of the Roman pottery works at Bagber. Finally, he left to the Museum his large and valuable herbarium.
From 1883 the County Museum became the home of the Dorset Field Club. Here the annual meeting has always been held in the month of May, and, by an addition to the original annual programme, at first one and subsequently two meetings have been held during the winter months within its walls, through the generous co-operation of the Secretary and Trustees. To the programmes of these indoor meetings the President contributed numberless papers and addresses, many of which were elaborate and of considerable length, and unsuited in character for the Field Meetings. For these the quiet atmosphere of the Museum building on a winter morning was eminently fitted. They are far too numerous to even mention, but will be found broadcast in the volumes from VII. -XXII. of the “Proceedings” of the Club. In 1888 the President published ” The Birds of Dorsetshire : A Contribution to the Natural History of the County.” This was followed in 1895 by the publication of the second edition of his “Flora of Dorset,” a far more important volume than the first, and in 1898 appeared “The Mollusca of Dorset.” A copy of each of these books was presented by the generosity of the author to all the members of the Field Club.
These papers and addresses, but particularly the presidential addresses at the annual meetings, were models of their kind, involving great labour and research. His constant aim in these, after reference to general matters, was to give, as far as possible, a synopsis of the whole field of scientific investigation during the past twelve months, after which he would take up some particular subject as the topic of the address. From reading over these addresses, which will be found in the ” Proceedings,” it will be seen that this was his rule. Such was the plan of the last address he delivered in IQoI. It is pathetic to think that it was during the drive from Whatcombe to Dorchester, on the 2nd of May, for the purpose of attending the annual meeting of the Club, where he was to deliver the address, which is printed in this volume, he was seized with the first symptoms of the attack, which ended fatally in the early hours of the succeeding morning.
No one will be more sincerely mourned, and no place will be more difficult to fill than that of Mr. Mansel-Pleydell. Of what the loss is to the immediate circle of his family I cannot here speak.
For myself, it is the loss of a very dearly-loved friend, and, when I think of the many, many happy days spent together in his favourite pursuits, dating back to a summer vacation at Cambridge, it seems to me a loss that can never be replaced. I can remember with a vividness as of yesterday days spent along the sandbanks at the mouth of Poole Harbour, around the margins of the brackish lagoon of Littlesea, amongst the Punfield Beds of Punfield Cove near Swanage, or the Purbecks above the cliffs of Tilly Whim and Dancing Ledge, or the Kimmeridge Clay around the shores of the bay, from which it takes its name. Other days there were nearer home, when the shooting van was brought out from its summer repose, and we started in it directly after breakfast for Morden Decoy, for Bere Heath, and the water meadows around Chamberlain’s Mill; or, perhaps, our course was turned towards the Vale of Blackmoor to hunt for plants along the outcrop of the beds beneath the chalk. On these occasions he was quite untiring, walking fast the whole day; no rest was given for luncheon — it was eaten as we went;’ his mind was on the alert for everything he saw around him; and his conversation inspiring and sparkling with numberless anecdotes, chiefly of Dorset character and recollections. Yet, underlying all, and never absent, was the spiritual nature of the man, which manifested itself as freely and as naturally in his converse as the subject on which he was at the time engaged. So, too, over an object which had attracted his attention, and in which on further examination he recognised some more than usual beauty of structure or design, one would frequently hear an exclamation uttered with the deepest devotion, even as of thanksgiving from an over-full heart, ” How wonderful are Thy works, O God ! ” In writing this memoir, I have been under great obligation to Mr. Moule, the Curator of the Dorset Museum, for many particulars which are embodied in the foregoing paragraphs. He, from his official position, was in close intercourse for nearly 20 years with Mr. Mansel-Pleydell. With his permission I quote the following lines from his letter, for I think nothing could express the sense of the loss to his department so well : —
“His hearty interest and sympathy in all my work there (the Museum) were of priceless value to me. And I need not say that his knowledge of natural science, as regards both its extent and accuracy, and also his willingness – nay, rather, friendly eagerness to impart it to me in answer to many, many requests for advice, was simply invaluable; and then in money help he was generosity itself. I can hear him now with his cheery ‘ I’m good for a fiver ‘ in answer to, not a request, but often to the merest passing word about some work looming in the distance as needful. As to the Field Club, I have said a word about his papers, but his personal presence at Field Meetings was ever a delight to me. To get near enough on these occasions to hear bim give an impromptu object lesson was a delight to me that I shall never forget. Two among many such occasions I specially remember. Once when I literally ‘ sat ab his feet ‘ and heard him at Lulworth Cove talk about the strata facing us; the other time was in the Gardens at Abbotsbury. Then he walked from sub-tropical plant to plant — Aralia to Eucalyptus, bamboo to camellia – and told us about them in a way that was a perfect joy to me.”
I have endeavoured to sketch some personal recollections, and yet I can but feel how very incomplete they are. To realise this fully, one must have known the man. As Mr. Bosworth Smith has so well said, ” He was greater and better in himself than in anything he either said or did; ” and, in concluding this memoir of Mr. Mansel-Pleydell, I will borrow a description of him from the same writer, which seems to me to sum up his character with epigrammatic conciseness, as that of ” a saint who already saw Heaven opened.”