What more do you want? A knighthood?

Michael Barton blogged recently about a document that annoyed me to distraction when I first saw it. It’s a Yahoo Answers conversation about why Charles Darwin didn’t get a knighthood. Notwithstanding that nobody cites a whit of evidence for anything, the original questioner selects as “Best Answer” a typical lump of Conflict Thesis toffee: “leading churchmen” – boo, hiss! – made it impossible. One blameless citizen does offer a nice, contextual, sensible answer instead (knighthoods then were for soldiers, sailors and civil servants; men of science didn’t usually expect or want them, unless they’d done government work). The questioner retorts that he “must be on drugs or something because none of that is even accurate”.

Of course, as someone points out further down the conversation, the questioner surely knew full well what answer he wanted. There is no serious request for information here, merely a vote of protest against what he sees as the howling unfairness of the situation. I’ve since found out that there is also a petition to get Darwin a posthumous knighthood. This, alas, belongs to the Ron Obvious school of heroic endeavour, doomed by definition. There is no established concept of a posthumous knighthood, and if you’re looking for an institution that can revise centuries-old precedent in a hurry, you might be advised to give the British honours system a miss.

As Michael points out, the Nasty Church interpretation which spurs this kind of activism actually derives from one very specific account (too specific for my liking) of an episode dated to 1859 and involving Lord Palmerston, Prince Albert (trumpets, flags: Friend Of Science!) and Soapy Sam Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford (ominous organ chords!) The first known version of this tale appears in James Bunting’s slightly eccentric 1974 Darwin biography (edit: here’s the text). This was reproduced directly by Desmond and Moore (with a scrupulous, yet not-very-prominent disclaimer), and thence by any number of online sources. Until and unless anyone finds primary evidence, we must dismiss it, as Janet Browne did in The Power of Place.

And yet… it’s easy to see how the howl of frustration for a knighthood-less Darwin retains its force for people who are casually interested. Isn’t it at least likely that he was under consideration for a K? If not Darwin, for God or Nature’s sake, then whom? Or, as people here reason it: “Considering that people have been Knighted for far less, this is a no-brainer”; “If Mick Jagger is a Knight, Darwin should be King.”

There’s an interesting fallacy at work here, which is not quite presentism and isn’t particular to scientism. It’s the tendency to accept that something like the honours system could ever transparently indicate something wider and universal, as though having a knighthood placed you high up the Index of General Best-ness. If a convincing Generally Best Sort Of Person doesn’t get a knighthood, on this logic, the system must have gone wrong – the gremlin in this case being those Nasty Churchmen.

Needless to say, it doesn’t work like that.

Drugs or no drugs, the spurned Yahoo respondent is almost certainly near the truth. Excellent men of science in the nineteenth century were formally acknowledged in many different ways: fellowships, chairs, honorary degrees. (It was not necessarily considered tasteless to put up a public monument to an eminent man in his own lifetime: John Dalton got a marble statue, which must have been a rum do for a plain Quaker.) Yet the knights of science were, in almost all cases, those who happened formally to serve the State. The pattern is easy to confirm:

  • Sir Humphry Davy (1778–1829: Kt 1812; baronet 1819) was Professor of Chemistry to the Board of Agriculture as well as the Royal Institution (and, at the height of Napoleonic expansion, a reliable buttress for conservative and anti-materialist thought in England).
  • Sir Charles Lyell (1797–1875: Kt 1848; baronet 1864) was a frequent government advisor.
  • Sir Edward Sabine (1788–1883: KCB 1869) was a career soldier.
  • Sir George Biddell Airy (1801–1892: CB 1871; KCB 1872) had been Astronomer Royal since 1835.
  • Sir Lyon Playfair (1818–1898: KCB 1883; created Baron Playfair of St Andrews, 1892; GCB 1895) was a career politician, active in Parliament on science and technical-education issues.
  • Sir William Thomson (1824–1907: Kt 1866; created Baron Kelvin of Largs, 1892) quite specifically received his knighthood as part of a rash of honours conferred on men involved in the successful completion of the transatlantic telegraph project. He was later politically active as a Liberal Unionist, hence the peerage.
  • Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802–1875: Kt 1868), as an early pioneer of telegraphy, had been an advisor to the transatlantic project – a less immediate case for elevation, but it reached him before long.
  • Most impressively, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817–1911), Darwin’s friend and supporter, was almost incessantly garlanded (CB 1869; KCSI 1877; GCSI 1897; OM 1907). He was hardly less a Darwinist than Darwin; yet, where Darwin held no public appointment, Hooker was Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew from 1865 to 1885.

And the non-knights of science? Stand up (and on no account kneel) John Dalton; Adam Sedgwick; Michael Faraday; Charles Babbage; John Stevens Henslow; William Buckland; James Joule; William Spottiswoode; Alfred Russel Wallace; Thomas Henry Huxley; James Clerk Maxwell… I could go on. Oh yes: and William Whewell. Soapy Sam can’t have had the screws on all of them, for goodness’ sake.

Some of these non-knights, indeed, did government work too: there were various other reasons why they might not have been knighted. In the first place, to receive a knighthood, you had to want one. This meant publicity and social obligations to which not all research-minded men were temperamentally suited. It also tended to send (as it does today) a message that the holder supported, or at least was prepared to work with, the establishment in general and the governing party in particular. Above all, it placed the holder in the company of servicemen, politicos and court flunkeys – where, some would argue, he had no business being. As the radical Belfast Monthly Magazine thundered in 1812:

Shall we attribute the Knighthood of Sir Humphry Davy, to the laudable patronage of the great, extended to scientific knowledge, or to the effusions of personal vanity seeking rewards so uncongenial with the spirit of philosophy? It may be considered as another proof of the spirit of frivolity so characteristic of the age in which we live, when show and pomp are more highly estimated, than the substantial rewards which virtue confers on her unostentatious followers.

A further factor – one which surprises many people, as it was not exactly publicised at the time – is that knighthoods usually had to be paid for. The K, unlike the hereditary baronetcy, was not a significant income stream for the Crown, but the fees could still be hefty for an impecunious stargazer. George Airy accepted his knighthood only after declining it three times (1835, 1847, 1863) for this reason.

It goes without saying, finally, that more than one eminent scholar ruled herself out at the first hurdle by being a woman. Being a woman was a particularly poor career move, since it also tended to rule out university posts, degrees, and membership of most learned societies, along with any assigned role on nationally important work. (Women of science such as Mary Somerville and Caroline Herschel did start to get “honorary” fellowships in some learned societies from the 1830s, and occasionally civil pensions. Somerville also got one of those public monuments, a marble bust which, famously, was placed in the Great Hall of the Royal Society… which she wasn’t allowed to join.)

For all this, something like the modern concept of civil honours for scientific research was afoot. That concept, after all, didn’t pop up from nowhere in the twentieth century. It was adopted, and adapted, from reformist arguments of the nineteenth, which sometimes had an effect on the policy of the day. I stress the sometimes.

Around 1830, well-connected liberals such as Charles Babbage (arguing, as he always did, with all the tact and subtlety of a Nasmyth steam-hammer) pressed strongly to reorganise governmental support for the sciences. Their particular concern was the Royal Society, which seemed to be becoming a forum for clubby aristocrats rather than scientific devotees. The honours system was less important; yet, for Babbage, it symbolised all that was wrong with his nation:

It is somewhat singular, that whilst in most of the other kingdoms [footnote here citing Sweden, Denmark, Hanover and Prussia] of Europe, such orders exist for the purpose of rewarding, by honorary distinctions, the improvers of the arts of life, or successful discoverers in science, nothing of the kind has been established in England. Our orders of knighthood are favourable only to military distinction.

Babbage’s view of the position of science among his countrymen was actually so negative that he did not feel instituting such an order would be a useful first step: “in all probability, it would be filled up through the channels of patronage, and by mere jobbers in science.”

The cause, however, was taken up by that other vocal reformer, David Brewster. After the Whigs gained power in 1830, Brewster persuaded his political patron, Henry Brougham, to organise a show of State support for the sciences. Those to be knighted were Brewster himself; the astronomer John Herschel (who had been the reformers’ candidate in the 1830 election for President of the Royal Society, suffering a narrow defeat by the old guard’s choice, the Duke of Sussex); James Ivory, a reformist mathematician in the Babbage/Herschel camp; the physiologist Charles Bell, a longtime associate of Brougham’s; and the natural philosopher John Leslie, who was as nearly a public atheist as contemporary Scotland could tolerate. The only non-“man of science” in the batch was the antiquary Nicholas Harris Nicolas, a friend of Brewster’s.

Babbage was also approached, but declined: unlike the accommodating Herschel, he preferred to remain outside the tent. The scheme, however, followed the European models Babbage had pointed to, which assigned a particular honorific order for men of science, rather than lumping them in with the soldiers and statesmen. Creating a new order from scratch, apparently, was a tedious task, and an easier solution presented itself. Since William IV was simultaneously King of the German state of Hanover, the government effectively had in its gift a Hanoverian honour, the Royal Guelphic Order, which could be adapted for the purpose. Guelphic knighthoods were duly conferred on the lucky half-dozen in 1831.

What followed – on Brewster’s recollection, as recorded by his daughter Margaret Gordon – was pure farce. After the Whigs had publicly boomed their men as “Sir David”, “Sir John” and so forth, somebody noticed that the technically-still-foreign Guelphic Order did not convey the title “Sir”. For appearances’ sake, the administration thus had to scrabble around conferring ordinary British knighthoods bachelor on the chosen six. For this unsought honour, Brewster learned, he would have to pay fees of over £100, “which found their way into the pockets of the inferior servants of the Court.” This, he felt, was exactly the problem. Unsurprisingly, he decided to turn the knighthood down, which threw the administration over a barrel: to avoid embarrassment, the fee was quietly waived. Brewster duly went down to London along with Nicolas, only to learn that the King had literally not got that particular memo, and hadn’t brought his sword. Luckily, he had the presence of mind to borrow one.

Thus, there were knighthoods awarded more-or-less on grounds of general scientific eminence in the period… occasionally. As far as I can tell, the Guelphic experiment was not repeated: though the reformers eventually won most of their battles, a dedicated order of scientific merit did not emerge. Overall, there was a vague trend towards knighting more scientific notables across the century (usually still citing some State service, however loosely defined, at least as a pretext), but the numbers are far too small to suggest any standard route.

More importantly, only a reforming Whig ministry would have swung knighthoods for reforming Whigs like Brewster and his chums. Being politically useful to the administration of the day was often necessary for preferment – though not, of course, sufficient. In 1841, the geologist Roderick Murchison, a man not lacking in brass neck, wrote to the incoming Tory prime minister, Robert Peel, and asked openly to be made a baronet. His case rested on his general scientific achievement, the fact he had been honoured in Russia, and his loyal support for the Tories. This was not the English (or Scottish) way of doing things, and indeed it didn’t work. It took another five years, and some less direct lobbying, to gain Murchison the lesser honour of a knighthood bachelor. Murchison had a much better case as Director of the Geological Survey from 1855: this netted him a KCB in 1863, and the longed-for baronetcy in 1866.

In summary, it’s hard to imagine anything less universal and consistent in meaning than a knighthood, particularly where history is concerned. Looking at the roll of scientific honours is like looking at Trafalgar Square. Many of our ancestors’ honorific preoccupations are like the statues of Nelson and George IV: they make obvious and immediate sense – if a different kind of sense – in terms of present-day stories. Others are more like Havelock and Napier: they result from values alien enough that we need to spend time and effort puzzling out what was at stake. A few are like the Fourth Plinth: somebody was clearly trying to do something, but we don’t see what, because the goodwill or the money ran out. Interpreted as a message for the twenty-first century, the thing’s a mess. As a message about the nineteenth, it’s beautiful.

Let’s end on Darwin. What if, against the drastic balance of probabilities, posthumous knighthoods became a reality? Various very eminent men’s admirers would have to balance the boosting of achievements against the probable betrayal of firmly held principles. Babbage’s position we have already met; Faraday, as he made clear in public, would not have touched a British honour with an electrified bargepole. We can’t be so sure of Darwin. In 1859, Desmond and Moore assert, he “would have been delighted and astonished”, and perhaps he would. Yet we must at least assume he didn’t desperately want a knighthood in later years, for the simple reason that he could have got himself one without too much trouble.

There’s an incident from late in Darwin’s life which Browne suggests as the origin of at least one version of the rejected knighthood myth. In 1881 the prime minister, William Gladstone – to whom Darwin was politically close – asked him to become a trustee of the British Museum. Darwin replied pleading ill health, as he had long tended to do in similar cases. Darwin’s chronic illness was real, but so was his concern to keep out of London committee culture, avoid the most avoidable controversies, and preserve time for his research and family. Perhaps the trusteeship was offered as a step onto the path which, before too long, would lead to a Sir Charles; if so, Mr Darwin took a quick look about him and trotted off cheerfully in the opposite direction.

And why not? He was, after all, your actual Charles Darwin: by this stage a national hero, international luminary, and unofficial figurehead of the movement to re-found British science on a professional basis. To those who insist that Darwin’s achievements mean he “deserves” a knighthood, I would urge an alternative reading. What they really tell us is that he didn’t need one.


Honours and their dates confirmed from ODNB and the online London Gazette archive.

Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: the power of place, London: Jonathan Cape, 2002. pp483-484.

Terry Wyke and Harry Cocks, Public Sculpture of Greater Manchester, Liverpool University Press 2004. pp32-33 (Dalton bust).

Ben Marsden and Crosbie Smith, Engineering Empires, London: Palgrave Macmillan 2005. pp214-216 (telegraphic honours).

Belfast Monthly Magazine vol 8 (April 1812), p311

Wilfrid Airy, ed. The Autobiography of George Biddell Airy, Cambridge University Press 1896, pp111-113, 187, 254-255, 296.

Charles Babbage, Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, London 1830. pp198-199.

Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray, Gentlemen of Science, Oxford: Clarendon 1981. pp346-247 (Guelphic honours).

Nathan Reingold, “Babbage and Moll on the state of science in Great Britain”, BJHS 4 (1968), 58-64. p59 (Guelphic honours).

Thomas Pettigrew, Biographical Memoirs of the Most Celebrated Physicians, London 1839. p8 (Babbage’s refusal).

John L Morton, King of Siluria: how Roderick Murchison changed the face of geology. Horsham: Brocken Spectre, 2004, p141.

Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin, London: Michael Joseph, 1991. p488.

About James Sumner

Historian of science and technology at the University of Manchester. Works mainly on breweries and computers. Has heard all the jokes.
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13 Responses to What more do you want? A knighthood?

  1. John S. Wilkins says:


  2. Thony C. says:

    Welcome to Whewell’s Ghost and thank you for a superb post. Your list of 19th century scientific knights is missing at least one name a man who was not only knighted but had a mountain named after him, the geodetic surveyor Sir George Everest. Again granted for government service so it fits the mould

  3. James Sumner says:

    Thanks, Thony.

    Yup, my list is (I hope) indicative, but is highly incomplete. Feel free to comment with additions, everybody… *especially* if you know of any that don’t seem to fit the pattern.

  4. Rebekah Higgitt says:

    Great stuff, James – welcome aboard!

    It might be worth mentioning that Babbage stood as a reforming MP at the time of the Great Reform Act (and made a speech in The Crown pub in Clerkenwell – a favourite of mine when I used to work at London Metropolitan Archives, just around the corner). Also, Nicholas Harris Nicolas was known as “the Babbage of the Royal Society of Antiquaries”, which perhaps tells us all we need to know.

  5. Thony C. says:

    Another Victorian science knight was the hyper-intelligent polymath William Rowan Hamilton (1805 – 1865), Irish Astronomer Royal. As far as I can make out he was knighted in 1835 by the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland for having organised the 1835 meeting of the BAAS in Dublin; suggesting Irish politics rather than science as the ground.

    • James Sumner says:

      Good one. The BAAS didn’t manage to become an effective lobby group for directing honours to men of science, which had probably been part of Brewster and co’s initial plan. Morrell and Thackray (p347) suggest, however, that it did make a difference that helped the reformists’ cause more indirectly: work for the BAAS could be claimed as a service to the nation, broadening the criteria towards people with less of the traditional qualifications for knighthood.

      Hamilton’s seems to be the best early example of a K sought and gained on this basis. I would guess that the BAAS meeting, Hamilton’s position as Astronomer Royal of Ireland (from 1827) and the wider political situation were all weights in the scales, though I don’t know the case.

      Morrell and Thackray also mention that Murchison also flagged up his BAAS service in his doomed approach to Peel in 1841: he had first met Peel on BAAS business.

  6. James Sumner says:

    My other half, Leucha Veneer, adds what we think is a full list of knighthoods and baronetcies for men active in geology up to the end of the 1850s.

    Besides Murchison and Airy (above), we have:
    Henry De la Beche (1796–1855: Kt, 1842; CB, 1848). Founding director (1835) of the Geological Survey, originally run by the Board of Ordnance.
    Richard Griffith (1784–1878: baronet, 1858). Had been juggling numerous directorships of public works, surveying and valuations in Ireland for decades.
    William Logan (1798–1875: Kt, 1856). Founding director (1842) of the Geological Survey of Canada, and first native-born Canadian to be knighted.
    Proby Cautley (1802–1871: KCB, 1854). Military engineer and supervisor of canal projects in India.

    Active then, but knighted later, were:
    Andrew Ramsay (1814–1891: Kt, 1881). Murchison’s successor (1872) as Director of the Geological Survey.
    Richard Owen (1804–1892: CB, 1873; KCB, 1884). Better known as a comparative anatomist; superintended the Natural History Department of the British Museum from 1856, and engineered the creation of the separate natural history facility in South Kensington in the early 1880s.
    Joseph Prestwich (1812–1896: Kt, 1896). As an irrigation expert, consulted on State projects; served on a Royal Commission, 1864.

    Geology seems to run particularly true to rule: those directly in the service of the State got Ks; those working equally systematically in private amateur or university contexts (Buckland, Sedgwick, Darwin) didn’t.

  7. darwinsbulldog says:

    This is great, James, thanks for including my post.

  8. James Sumner says:

    A small update: I’ve dug out James Bunting’s original 1974 account of the Palmerston-Albert-Wilberforce episode and added it as a comment to Michael’s blog.

    Mention of those geologists above, by the way, suggests some interesting consequences for the Nasty Churchmen approach. Surely a cabal of priestlings plotting to muzzle Darwin by manipulating the honours system would — if they were serious about doing a proper job — have found time to sort out a couple of gongs for Adam Sedgwick and John Phillips (1800–1874), in recognition of their tireless attacks on the Origin? Or perhaps we should assume this wasn’t possible because Prince Albert blocked Wilberforce’s nominations every time Wilberforce blocked Albert’s? Well, it would have passed the time, I suppose.

    Stepping out of the realms of fantasy and into verifiable evidence, there is a “Darwin denied” story of this period available for anyone who wants one. In both 1862 and 1863, John Lubbock and William Benjamin Carpenter proposed Darwin for the Royal Society’s Copley Medal. In ’62, it went instead to the chemist Thomas Graham; in ’63 the vote was close, but the anti-Origin “Cambridge men” (marshalled by Edward Sabine) swung it for Sedgwick. Such was the awesome power of the old guard, indeed, that Darwin had to wait until the very next year to get the Copley (albeit with much controversy, stoked by both sides, as to whether this did or did not imply endorsement of the Origin‘s content).

  9. Jeremiah Kelley says:

    It strikes me that a burial in Westminster Abbey must count for something! Admittedly Darwin wasn’t around to enjoy the honor in person.

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  11. Tom Kennett says:

    Very interesting blog post. A possible anamoly, however, is Sir James Edward Smith (1759-1828). Smith was a popular and skilled botanist who brought the collections of Carl Linnaeus to England in 1784 and founded the Linnean Society of London in 1788. He was knighted on 28 July 1814 by the Prince Regent and had no record of service to the government. A possible contender for the first scientist to be knighted purely for his contribution to science?

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