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No ‘Heathen's Corner’ here: the failed campaign to memorialize Herbert Spencer in Westminster Abbey

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 March 1998

HANNAH GAY
Affiliation:
Department of History, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada, VSA 156

Abstract

Recently, while reading papers left by the chemist Raphael Meldola (1849–1915), I came across seventy-two letters that relate to a 1904 campaign, led by Meldola, to have a memorial tablet for Herbert Spencer placed in Westminster Abbey. A list of those who eventually signed Meldola's petition to the Dean of Westminster can be found in David Duncan's Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer. The Meldola Papers include letters from some, but not all, of the signatories, from people who refused to sign, and from one or two who agreed to sign, but whose names do not appear on the published list. The surviving correspondence is probably incomplete, as can be inferred from references in the existing letters and from the fact that the Meldola Papers appear to have been somewhat haphazardly collected. Together, the letters show how Spencer's work was viewed by some of Britain's leading intellectuals, shortly after his death in 1903. They reveal that the details of Spencer's work were largely forgotten and that Meldola's correspondents were divided on whether Spencer had been simply a controversialist or had done something worthwhile. Even those (the majority) who believed the latter were unable to articulate exactly what was worthwhile in Spencer's work.

This paper records some of the content of the letters as well as some details of the memorial campaign and of the people involved. My main purpose is to bring these interesting letters to light. James Moore has written of the successful effort to have Charles Darwin buried in Westminster Abbey and of the subsequent campaign for an Abbey memorial plaque, and for a statue to be placed in the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. The unsuccessful campaign on behalf of Spencer, twenty-two years later, provides an interesting comparison. It is not my purpose fully to explore the cultural implications. However, the letters suggest that this and one or two other avenues of inquiry might be worth pursuing.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
© 1998 British Society for the History of Science

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No ‘Heathen's Corner’ here: the failed campaign to memorialize Herbert Spencer in Westminster Abbey
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