The Shoemaker of Banff

Samuel Smiles, biographer and enthusiast for those who demonstrated the ability to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, was very taken with Thomas Edward, of Banff, Scotland. He name-checked him in Self-Help (1859), as follows:

‘Within the last few years, a profound naturalist has been discovered in the person of a shoemaker at Banff, named Thomas Edwards, who, while maintaining himself by his trade, has devoted his leisure to the study of natural science in all its branches, his researches in connexion with the smaller crustaceae having been rewarded by the discovery of a new species, to which the name of Praniza Edwardsii has been given by naturalists.’

And in 1876 he published a biography of his still-living exemplar (there’s an imperfect version online here). He was not alone: James Cash (1839–1909), in his flamboyantly titled Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way! Or, Science in the Cottage; An Account of the Labours of Naturalists in Humble Life (1873) has a chapter on ‘Two Scottish naturalists in humble life: the ‘Mad Baker’ of Thurso, Thomas Edward of Banff’. (The ‘Mad Baker’ of Thurso was Robert Dick (1810(?)–66), whose cruel stepmother dashed his hopes of education by apprenticing him to a baker at the age of thirteen, but who became an expert in the botany, fauna and geology of his native Caithness, corresponding with Hugh Miller and Sir Roderick Murchison.)

Dick was somewhat without honour in his own country, regarded as a complete eccentric by his neighbours, who were baffled at the turn-out for his funeral. Smiles published his biography in 1878, and in its preface he refers to his earlier work on Edward: ‘It has … been objected that I should have culled my last example of Self-Help from a career not already concluded, and exposed the Scotch Naturalist, after his long unmerited neglect, to the harder trial of intrusive patronage, to which my premature biography was likely to expose him.’

Thomas Edward, c.1876, from the frontispiece to Smiles’s biography.

Smiles’s publicity, according to the ODNB, caused scientists of the stature of Darwin, Owen and J.D. Hooker to petition the Queen for a Civil List pension of £50 per annum; he was also presented with a lump sum of £333 by the good people of Aberdeen, though curiously he was never asked to join the Banff Institution (founded 1828, dissolved 1875).

But the book portrays an extraordinary character. Born in Gosport, Hampshire, on Christmas Day 1814 (his father, in the Fifeshire militia, had been sent to guard the vital harbour of Portsmouth while troops of the regular army were in the Low Countries), Thomas returned to Scotland with his family at the end of the war, and his father, on his discharge from the militia, returned to his trade as a hand-loom weaver in Aberdeen.

The infant Thomas sounds to have been a complete nightmare. An early walker, he screamed when anyone touched him, and on every possible occasion he was out of the house, trying to make the acquaintance of cats, dogs, chickens, butterflies and birds. He once went missing overnight: his parents feared he had been kidnapped by gipsies and set up a hue and cry. He was eventually found the following morning in the sty of the next-door pig, sleeping among the piglets.

An ‘improved sow’, by Thomas Bewick.

His parents attempted to send him to school: he ran away. His grandmother went with him to the school: he ran away at the door, and on one occasion, when she fell into a stream in her efforts to catch up with him, he simply ran on, heedless of whether she drowned or not. He was expelled from his dame school (where he was already notorious for smuggling in wild animals) when a crow escaped from his britches during prayers.

He did not last long at his second school after an incident involving horse-leeches, though he managed to conceal his expulsion from his parents for quite a long time, during which he spent entire days at the estuary of the Dee. The third attempt was at a ‘Lancaster’ school, where he obtained a minimal education during the 18 months he lasted: reading was taught from the Bible, he was not taught to write, and could just about add, but couldn’t multiply. The inevitable expulsion, when it occurred, was – he claimed – not his fault. A large ‘Maggy Monny Feet’, or centipede, had got into the classroom, and despite his denials that it was his, he was severely beaten with the tawse and sent home with his slate.

He never went back to school, and at the age of six(!) went to work in a tobacco factory, moving two years later with his brother to a linen mill two miles north, on the banks of the Don. The attraction for Thomas was the walk there and back, through beautiful woodland country. In a long passage given as verbatim by Smiles, Edward describes this as one of the happiest periods of his life, especially the summer months when shortage of water meant that the mill was worked on a shift pattern, day and night. After the night shift, he would spend the whole day in the hills, returning home to eat in the evening and immediately setting off for the next night’s work.

The Grandholm linen mill, where Edward worked as a child.

This idyllic period ended when Thomas was eleven. He was apprenticed for six years to Charles Begg, a shoemaker. The hours were 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., with two hours allowed for meals. He learned the trade, but unfortunately Begg was brutal when drunk, which was often. Thomas tried running away to sea, and running away to relatives, but neither stratagem worked. He enlisted in the militia, and planned to join the regular army, but was dissuaded by his mother. Eventually, having completed his apprenticeship, he moved to Banff to work under a new master. There, at the age of twenty-three, he fell in love and married.

Smiles does not give the name of his wife, Sophia Reid, but she was the making of him in many senses: his response to the Aberdeen presentation was, apparently, a rambling dialect speech in praise of her. They had ten daughters and a son; and she tolerated his behaviour, which included coming home from work at about 9 p.m., equipping himself with ‘his insect boxes and bottles, his botanical book and his gun’, picking up something to eat and leaving the house again, looking for anything that he could find or observe in the fields and hills, or along the shore. He would sleep outside, and return home in time to go off to work again (except on Saturdays, when he had to be back at midnight so as not to break the Sabbath).

There are several stories of near-death situations on these rambles; and money was always a major issue. Thomas built up three separate natural history collections, but was forced to sell each of them to obtain cash. On one occasion, he was so depressed that he planned to drown himself, but was characteristically diverted by spotting and pursuing an unusual bird along the sea-shore.

Banff harbour in the 1940s. (Credit: the Happy Haggis)

By the time he was forty, he was no longer physically strong enough to continue his night-time investigations, and turned first to marine life, collecting along the sea-shore and getting unusual specimens from the local fishermen; he later attempted to set up as a portrait photographer alongside his shoe-making. He developed an interest in local history, and served for a pittance for several years as curator of the Banff Museum. He despatched dozens of bottled specimens to Charles Spence Bate, a dentist and natural historian who admired his work (and sent him a microscope): of these, twenty-one turned out to be previously unknown.

Thomas Edward died in April 1886, poor to the last, collecting almost to the last, and (again according to the ODNB) complaining that he had been badly treated by the more famous naturalists with whom he corresponded. One can’t help wondering whether the obsessive behaviour which he exhibited throughout his life, and the ‘shyness’ and ‘awkwardness’ which Smiles noted, would these days have him diagnosed as ‘somewhere on the spectrum’? It’s difficult, however, not to admire his determination, and even more the stoicism of his wife.


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