The name ‘Bridgewater’ is most likely to bring to mind the third duke (1736–1803), whose canal-building activities (begun, apparently, when he decided to retire to his estates, having been crossed in love) kick-started the Industrial Revolution in the north of England. But the Bridgewater we are concerned with today was not the canal duke but the son of his cousin, Francis Henry Egerton (1756–1829), who was perhaps more famous after his death for the contents of his will than he was during his own lifetime.
Being first cousin once removed to a duke, and the son of the bishop of Durham (in the days when the bishop of Durham was also a prince), did his career prospects little harm. Eton, Christchurch, fellowship of All Souls, prebendary of (where else but) Durham, until, at the age of 26, he was presented with the living of Middle in Shropshire by his ducal relative, who added the living of Whitchurch to it in 1797. As the ODNB puts it, ‘Far from assiduous in his parochial duties, he spent long periods away from his parishes, both in England and abroad, pursuing a wide range of scholarly interests, … but his writings on classical, historical, and technical subjects, generally published privately, exhibited steadily increasing eccentricity.’
Egerton had the misfortune to be in France when the Treaty of Amiens fell apart, and was kept under house arrest in Paris until 1806, when the influence of Sir Joseph Banks (hurrah!), and the remarkably civilised approach to science exhibited by the warring parties, secured his release. He then published an anonymous pamphlet explaining the prophetic significance of the Napoleonic wars. Shortly afterwards he asked for and was granted leave from his clerical duties on grounds of ill health (I’m sure his curates were deeply moved and saddened).
He returned to Paris, where he died in 1829. As the ODNB somewhat waspishly remarks, ‘Although his health was undoubtedly poor and continued to deteriorate, he is known to have fathered five illegitimate children, at least some of whom were born while he was in Paris.’ He had become eighth earl of Bridgewater on the death of his elder brother in 1823, and inherited a very large fortune.
He died without (legitimate) heirs: his will, among charitable donations and the bequest of his considerable collection of manuscripts to the British Museum, specified that £8,000 was to be used to commission of a work on the ‘power, wisdom, and goodness of God as manifested in the creation… illustrating such work by all reasonable arguments, as, for instance, the variety and formation of God’s creatures in the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms; the effect of digestion, and thereby of conversion; the construction of the hand of man, and an infinite variety of other arguments: as also by discoveries, ancient and modern, in arts, sciences, and the whole extent of literature’.
The authors of the work were to be selected by the president of the Royal Society (who one can imagine leaping for joy at the prospect). Davies Gilbert (born Giddy, but changed his name to secure an inheritance – what a shame!), Sir Joseph’s planned successor in the post (though in fact Sir Humphry Davy held it from 1820 to 1827), hastily brought on board the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London, and eight authors were selected to write the books, which were published between 1833 and 1837. The topics were picked quite literally from the wording of the bequest: the ‘infinite variety of other arguments’ was rather ignored.
We have reissued seven of the eight treatises – by Chalmers, Whewell, Bell, Roget, Kirby, Prout and Kidd. Sadly, we have had to postpone Buckland on geology, as the whole of the second volume consists of wonderful colour plates, without which the first volume is rather diminished. So was the earl successful in his aim of promoting scientific discovery as a new way of demonstrating the ‘power, wisdom, and goodness of God as manifested in the creation’? Sadly, the modern scholar John van Wyhe doesn’t think so, on two grounds: ‘The Bridgewater treatises represent the state of safe, orthodox, science in early Victorian Britain. However, the volumes were too expensive to sell very widely and hence their effects were limited.’
There is a postscript to this, in that in 1837, Charles Babbage, already notorious as a polemicist, published a ninth Bridgewater Treatise (called precisely that). Surprisingly, perhaps, Babbage wrote ‘that there exists no such fatal collision between the words of Scripture and the facts of nature’, drawing a parallel between his work on the calculating engine and God as the divine programmer of the universe.