Conway, from wikipedia

Moncure Daniel Conway (1832-1907) was an American abolitionist, Unitarian clergyman and author. He moved to London in 1863 as part of his abolitionist activities. He was a strong proponent of women's suffrage. He had many literary and intellectual friends in England including Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Lyell and, as will be seen below, Pitt-Rivers.

An American and Pitt-Rivers
Anthropological Reminiscences of Moncure Daniel Conway in Late Victorian England

Nathan Schlanger, AREA – Paris 1, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

In 1863, during the American civil war, Moncure Daniel Conway (1832-1907) reached England to rally official support and popular opinion to the cause of the unionist, anti-slavery North. However, tactical divergences within the abolitionist camp soon left him disillusioned, and the Virginia-born clergyman thence remained for much of his life in Europe, mostly in England and in his later years in Paris, where he wrote his two volume autobiography. Besides pursuing his religious and theological interests as a Unitarian minister, and advancing his own literary career and that of others (he notably acted as Mark Twain's agent), Conway became increasingly involved with local intellectual and artistic circles. It was indeed with "religious earnestness" that the Harvard-educated neophyte entered "into the scientific life of London". Well connected and properly introduced, he soon integrated the local scene to become its keen and benevolent onlooker, approaching it with a mixture of empathy and distance, as would any participant-observing anthropologist among the natives.

In his memoirs, Conway offers short portraits and assessments of the numerous scientists he met over the years, including Darwin, Huxley, Lyell, and so forth. He mingled with these estimable luminaries both in the institutional contexts of learned societies and formal meetings, and also in more mundane or relaxed circumstances during receptions, spiritual gatherings, or weekends at the country estate, playing billiards with Herbert Spencer. Conway furthermore witnessed and reported on a series of scientific events – including debates surrounding the Antiquity of Man and the Moulin-Quignon jaw – and he was also invited to join in such bracing activities as cave explorations (at Kent's Cavern), flint hunting expeditions, or geological rambles – not to forget morning walks to the Cranborne Chase barrows, capped by an al fresco picnic (see Conway's Autobiography, vol. II, pp. 157 ff., passim).

So far as anthropology was concerned, Conway's arrival in England coincided with particularly important institutional and theoretical debates, concerning such issues as monogenism and polygenism, the centrality of the race concept, and the impact of still disputed Darwinian ideas. Conway recorded many of these developments, and he did so in a way that rather humanised both the stakes and the personalities involved – including, as in the extracts given here, A. H. Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. Beyond his invaluable first-hand, decades-spanning account, there is in Conway's memoirs also a broader methodological lesson or appeal. Beyond the internal, insider reports produced by the actors themselves, it will prove profitable for us to seek more diversified and nuanced understandings of these well known individuals, institutions and episodes in the history of the human sciences.

Here is an extract from Conway's Autobiography. All notes added by author of this webpage. See bibliography for further information on Conway:

Moncure Daniel Conway, Autobiography, memories and experiences (volume 2), 1904, London, Cassell.

Extract pp. 303 – 310 (corresponding to pp. 333 - 340 in the 1904 American edition, at Boston and New York, Houghton, Mifflin and company).


Anthropology - Colonel Lane Fox (General Pitt Rivers) - Museum at Oxford - Admission of Women to Membership of the Royal Institute - Hunting for Flint Arrows - Sir John Evans on Ancient Coins - Hospitalities at Rushmere - Exploring Barrows - Contemporary Stone and Bronze Ages - Faraday - Helmholtz in London - Psychological Wonders - A. J. Ellis on Language - J. M. Spear - London School for Spirit Mediums - Irvingites and their Heretics - George Macdonald as Bunyan's Christian.

In my ministry Theology was naturally replaced by Anthropology. This science had not in 1863 been recognised by the British Association; the facts with which it was concerned were brought out in other sections, and the society in London discussing the negro with an eye to America had not yet merited recognition. But my combat about the negro in that society was the means of giving me a place in the Royal Anthropological Institute when it arose. [1] The works of Tylor and Lubbock and the generalisations of Herbert Spencer concerning primitive man breathed on all the dry bones in the museums, and Anthropology presently leaped into the front rank of sciences.

The materials for such investigations were largely supplied by Colonel Lane Fox, an officer who, having won promotion in the Crimean War, found that his genius was for the study and not the destruction of man. He then conquered tribes and races by friendliness; he had gained their confidence, and returned from his official expeditions with a vast number of guns got not by capturing but captivating the tribes. [2] He had even learned the arts of primitive man: he was probably the only Englishman who could make a primitive flint arrow and throw a boomerang so as to make it return. [3]

Colonel Lane Fox and his wife (a daughter of Lord Stanley of Alderley) were aristocrats without airs. They were free from dogmatic notions, and often came to my chapel. We found them / 304 / delightful neighbours. They were not wealthy, but one day we were startled by the tidings that Colonel Lane Fox was henceforth to be known as General Pitt Rivers, having inherited Rushmore, the magnificent estate of his grand-uncle, Lord Rivers, in Wiltshire. He told me that nothing could have appeared to him more improbable than this succession, there being two sons of Lord Rivers to inherit the estate before it could pass to the female line represented by himself.

The unexpected death of Lord Rivers' sons as they successively approached majority could not fail to start a local legend; it was said that a noble maiden whom Lord Rivers was expected to wed died of a broken heart on hearing of his marriage, her last words being, " None of their children will inherit Rushmore." If scientific men had not lost the Eastern faith they might have believed that the angel of death had been commissioned to secure for science the inheritance of Rushmore. [4] To science it came. The vast estate was rich in barrows and other relics of primitive man, and all these fell precisely to the man most competent to summon them from their slumber of ages and interpret their story of an extinct human world. The six large illustrated volumes recording his researches, distributed to those who could utilise them for the advancement of knowledge, the museum he built at Farnham, and his great collections given to Oxford, constitute the fit monument of General Pitt Rivers. Had not his modesty been equal to his merit, or had he been capable of partisanship, he would have been made Lord Rivers. But, as Schiller said, "The question is not, art thou in the nobility? but, is there nobility in thee? "

General Pitt Rivers was conservative in temperament, and my admiration was not due to any special sympathy on his part with my opinions. Even where we generally agreed that is on religious subjects he inclined to think that a little admixture of superstition was more useful than I thought if the superstition were not cruel, like the biblical ferocities. I was afraid of even the so-called pretty superstitions.

The estates and revenues of Rushmore came into the possession of General Pitt Rivers freed from entail, and it was a droll circumstance that several Church livings came into the absolute ownership of this scientific rationalist. He asked me if I would / 305 / like to have one of them! He told me that the bishop once came for some official duty and stayed at Rushmore. On Sunday they drove to church, where the bishop preached, and one of the lessons for the day happened to be a belligerent psalm. On their way home the General remarked, "That lesson seems rather more related to my profession than to that of your lordship." The bishop smiled, but said nothing.

In walking through the Anthropological Museum at Oxford, presented to the university by General Pitt Rivers, in company with my friend E. B. Tylor, we recalled at every step the illumination given to the various objects at the Institute in London where the General was its president. [5]  His military knowledge was utilised to show us the "survival" of the crossbow in the Oriental rifle; [6] and he had collected a variety of Patagonian paddles painted with queer fragmentary designs, utterly meaningless until by putting them together they were shown to be the gradually distributed parts of a sacred image a tribal totem. [7] But he did not omit regions nearer home from his researches. He made a collection of the caps of women in Brittany; and I well remember how the mirth caused by their display to a company of ladies and gentlemen in London changed to grave interest as he revealed to us the significance of these caps. [8] The peasant or villager of one parish must not wear the cap of another parish to which she has casually gone. The parish caps vary, and each has in itself arrangements for variation; some ornamental appendages are let out when the wearer attends a wedding or a fete, and some usual fringes are turned in for a funeral. A nun's headdress was shown, and the General pointed out the indications that all of the French caps were developed from that of the nun. Nothing was too small for his study.

I do not think the General ever printed anything about these caps; his theory of their origin (the nun's headdress) he regarded as conjectural. It was his way to suggest things in conversation which lasted in the memories of his friends. One day, when we were talking of the precipitous way in which the French had hurled themselves against the Germans, he remarked that it might be due to the brachycephalous character of the Gallic cranium. In their heads the blood flies straight up like a fountain. In the long-headed man the blood has to go a roundabout way / 306 / before it mounts, and gives him time to think twice before he acts. But he liked the French, and highly appreciated their anthropologists.

In presiding over any discussion in the Anthropological Institute the General showed as much skill in getting at the ideas of his colleagues as in securing secrets from remote tribes. And they were men whose ideas were worth having. There sat Huxley, Busk, Lubbock, Tylor, Leitner, Francis and Douglas Galton, Palgrave, Sir John Evans, Professor Newton, and generally some eminent man from America or from the Continent. Professor Whitney once addressed us, and Eugene Schuyler described curious manners and customs in Turco- Slav regions.

A motion to admit ladies to membership sprung on the Institute a "burning issue," and an evening was devoted to it. There had been receptions of members in private houses, and the intelligence of many of their ladies was well known. The Hon. Mrs. Pitt Rivers, Mrs. Tylor, Mrs. Huxley, and others were felt by the best men to be persons of serious interest in our pursuits, and these would have been admitted without controversy. But to admit only a few was hardly possible. Professor Huxley made a vigorous speech in favour of the admission of women; he spoke with unusual animation, brushing away some of the objections made on the score of feminine delicacy. Several members feared that readers of papers on manners and customs of distant tribes might, were ladies present, suppress pictures or details of importance. Professor Huxley did not believe that any lady interested in science could have mock modesty; she was as much entitled to know the facts of nature as a man. Tylor, to whom we looked for an appreciative analysis of the points made in any discussion, made in his graceful way the summing up, which for a time delighted the group opposed to the innovation ; but he closed by saying, " Should the society conclude to admit ladies, I beg to propose the name of Mrs. E. B. Tylor." This, of course, raised a laugh and ended the discussion. Ladies thenceforth began to appear at our meetings, and there was no reason to suppose that any narratives were modified or pictures suppressed because of their presence. [9]

One day I accompanied General Pitt Rivers and Sir John / 307 / Evans on a day's exploration in the Thames Valley, where some flint implements had been newly discovered. [10] We moved along the sharp flinty roads, softened only by enthusiasm, never removing our eyes from the ground, however the larks might sing or the gorse blossom. I gathered sundry bits of stone whose smooth sides or points suggested manipulations by man, and separately others I thought more doubtful. But Sir John no sooner put them beneath his spectacles than all my unquestionable ones were hurled into the air, while of the doubtful ones two were thought to bear some trace of workmanship. We entered the house of a gentleman not without some skill in such things, who had accumulated six hundred specimens. The stones were laid out on a table; Sir John sat at the head, Pitt Rivers at the foot, and their eyes sparkled; but of the six hundred pieces only two or three dozen had been touched by primitive man.

The numismatic knowledge of Sir John Evans was unsurpassed; he was a charming speaker, and I never knew an audience at the Royal Institution more enchained than by a lecture of his on "Coinage of the Ancient Britons and Natural Selection". [11] From pictorial representations he read us a connected story of evolution: the forms of ancient coins had grown, changed, passed into totally new species, occasionally relapsing into the original type, and generally preserving some trace of their origin. One series picked up in odd places and fitted together told a very quaint story. The original, struck under Philip of Macedon, had a laurelled head of Hercules on the obverse, and on the reverse a chariot with two horses driven by Victory. This was the most important Macedonian coin commercially, and the engraving fine. As trading communities sprang up in the Western regions whither the race was migrating, it was necessary to have a coin interchangeable with that of Macedon, but impossible in new centres to engrave the figure so perfectly. The result was mere indications of the devices on the coin sufficient to identify its value, and these gradually reduced. A stage was reached when the chariot was represented by one wheel; another when of the two horses eight amputated legs remained. In time the original meaning of these signs was lost. But skilful engravers had appeared in the West, one of whom made a guess at the / 308 / meaning of the horse-legs and produced from them a head of Medusa. On the obverse, from the laurelled head of Hercules the face gradually disappeared, leaving only the headdress and fillet. The Western engravers supposed this headdress and fillet to be an early attempt to represent the cross, which duly supplanted the last trace of Hercules.

My wife and I enjoyed the hospitalities of Rushmore, and Mrs. Pitt Rivers took us on delightful drives among them to visit descendants of the old Lord Baltimore who in 1648 appointed my ancestor William Stone governor of Maryland. But my anthropological interest brought me nearer to the chiefs buried in the Cranborne Chase barrows than to any ancestor, and I enjoyed most my morning walks or drives with the General to the points where his workmen with their picks were digging with tender caution.

I had the happiness to be included among those invited to Rushmore soon after the family moved there to pass some days in witnessing the opening of a number of tumuli which the General believed likely to yield interesting results. The other guests were Herbert Spencer, Norman Lockyer, Sir John Evans, Sir Francis Galton, and Sir John Lubbock (now Lord Avebury, whose wife is a daughter of General Pitt Rivers).

Some of the barrows being far, luncheon was sometimes taken with us, and the visit made a kind of picnic. Near each dead chieftain were little piles of cinders left from sacrifices offered in his honour or for his repose. The cinders, the shape of the mound, the weapons and implements found, were discussed while we partook of the animals sacrificed for our own comfort as possibly those represented by the barrow-cinders were for the funeral guests. [12]

In returning from immemorial antiquity our minds were accommodated to the present by watching the ladies at tennis or other sports on the Rushmore lawns, or dispersing ourselves to read or write, and to dress for dinner. For the dinner at Rushmore was a brilliant event. The family was large six sons and three daughters. The ladies in their artistic dresses, and the men of science (who generally appreciate the time for relaxation better than business men or theologians) made the most of these occasions. Mrs. Pitt Rivers, with her culture and entertaining / 309 /conversation, was the fit hostess for such assemblies. In the latter part of the evening we filed into the billiard-room, where I observed with pleasure the skill of Herbert Spencer. All have heard that he did not like defeat, and once said to an opponent who easily vanquished him that his unusual skill "argued a wasted life". The legend was probably based on the gravity with which Herbert Spencer made every stroke. Some of my friends were surprised too at my own eagerness, if not proficiency, in the game. My friend Fletcher Moulton, Q.C., suggested for me as a coat of arms a pulpit impaled by a billiard cue. But I never touched a cue before going to England, and at Aubrey House learned to play from grave men like John Bright and Peter Taylor, M.P.

The modern man calls himself civilised because of his improved machinery, but Solomon and Confucius and Buddha and Jesus were considerable men without any telegraphs or electric lights. When the archaeologists used to speak of stone age or bronze age, meaning thereby ignorant and morally savage people, I knew perfectly well that those several types were living side by side in our great cities. In 1881 London was able to witness the flagellation of Judas in the docks ; a clergyman of the English Church leading a devout procession along the streets in celebration of the " Stations of the Cross " ; a clerical manifesto against the " pagan blasphemy " of eating cross-buns on Good Friday ; the opening of a grand Natural History Museum on Easter Day while the cathedrals were celebrating the resurrection of a prophet from his tumulus ; and lectures in the Royal Institution by Helmholtz, Tyndall, and Maine. Stone age, bronze age, age of gold, age of reason, all elbowing each other in that sum total of all epochs called London.* [ Conway's note * Morally and intellectually considered, the "ages" are not chronological, but are mixed up in most brains, even the best (…). ]


[1] The study of 'primitives' has been related to abolitionist and aboriginal protection societies since the 1830s, and Conway's recollections provide an interesting perspective on the disciplinary and institutional developments of the subsequent generation. Indeed the Negro question had just been infamously addressed by raciologist James Hunt, who sought to create a 'properly scientific' Anthropological society against the humanitarian, liberal-thinking and largely Darwinist Ethnological society. These currents were brought together by the Anthropological Institute, from 1870 onwards. At the British Association for the Advancement of Science, anthropology (or ethnology) was long subsumed under biology, then associated with geography, until acceding to full section status in 1884 (See Stocking 1987).

[2] Apart from his military travels (Malta, Crimea, Canada, Ireland) and some journeys to Scandinavia and Egypt, Pitt-Rivers did not venture on 'official expeditions' among savage tribes. Whether the embellishment is Conway's or Pitt-Rivers' remains unclear.

[3] Pitt-Rivers had been collecting and displaying boomerangs from early on (e.g. 1868/1906:121 ff.) and his discussion of their flight mechanics suggests some throwing experience. On flintknapping, on the other hand, Pitt-Rivers' experimental understanding left somewhat to be desired (notably his interpretation of the Cissbury finds): whatever skills he possessed had in any case reached him from John Evans, whose authority in this domain was undisputed (see below in Conway's text, Pitt-Rivers' own accounts, e.g. 1868/1906:116, n.1, 1875/1906:34, and the origins of Evans' flintknapping skills in Schlanger 2010, 2011).

[4] Here Conway refers back to his discussion, at the end of the previous chapter, of his book The Sacred Anthology. A Book of Ethnical Scripture (1874), which had considerable influence in presenting oriental faith and philosophy, notably on Oxford linguist Max Müller.

[5] Vice-president of the Anthropological Institute in 1873 and 1874, Pitt-Rivers became its president in 1875 and again in 1881.

[6] See Pitt-Rivers' successive lectures on "Primitive Warfare" (1867, 1868, 1869).

[7] Although Pitt-Rivers wrote on Patagonia and the Rio Grande, he did not collect paddles from this region ... where he considered on the contrary that canoes had not been in use (1874/1906:194). On the other hand, Pitt-Rivers' paddles from New Ireland (which he also called 'Papuans' – hence, probably, the confusion with 'Patagonian') are notorious (Pitt-Rivers 1874, cf. Petch 2011). The 'totemic' interpretation is however quite puzzling, and may well be Conway's own.

[8] As Conway indicates below, Pitt-Rivers does not appear to have published anything on these Breton caps. It may well be that he collected them himself during his extended trips to Brittany in 1878 and 1879, and that they were subsequently exhibited in Room 1 ('Peasant costumes') of the Farnham Museum. Be it as it may, this information confirms the breadth of Pitt Rivers' interests in local 'ethnography', and also attests to his sense of showmanship.

[9] Since Conway was from early on at the vanguard of the suffrage movement, he obviously sided with Huxley, Tylor (and his wife), making light of the prudish modesty implied in the exclusion of women from the Anthropological Institute. However, women's rights aside, this question actually reflected also a deeper ongoing debate over the nature of the anthropological discipline itself – a liberal-humanitarian endeavour, or a full-fledged descriptive science (cf. Stocking 1987:253, passim).

[10] This outing may have taken place in the late 1860, when Pitt-Rivers and Evans organised 'flint-hunting' expeditions at Cissbury or at Currie Wood, East of London, where John Lubbock and A. W. Franks were of the party (cf. Evans 1872:531).

[11] John Evans' lecture took place on Friday 14 May 1875, and was published the same year (Evans 1875): equally in the audience, and equally impressed was Pitt-Rivers (Pitt-Rivers 1875/1906:40-1). Evans here recast in Darwinian language an argument advanced 25 years earlier on the 'degeneration' of pre Roman British coins (Evans 1850, see Schlanger 2010). The account given here by Conway is rich and detailed, but differs somewhat from Evans' (printed) version.

[12] With his gentle irony, Conway confirms the specificity of Victorian prehistoric science as a 'bloodless field-sport' in tune with the gregarious and ostentatious traditions of its leisured practitioners.

Bibliography for this article

Burtis, Mary Elizabeth. 1952  Moncure Conway, 1832-1907. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press.

Conway, Moncure Daniel. 1904 Autobiography, memories and experiences (volume 2) London, Cassell.

d'Entremont J. 'Conway, Moncure Daniel (1832-1907)', in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Evans, J. 1850. On the date of British coins, Numismatic Chronicle 12:127-37.

Evans, J. 1872. The ancient stone implements, weapons, and ornaments, of Great Britain, London, Longmans.

Evans J. 1875, "The Coinage of the Ancient Britons and Natural Selection", Notices of the Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, 7:476-8.

Fox, A.H. Lane. 1867 ‘Primitive Warfare. Parts I - III’. Journal of the Royal United Services Institution 11 [1867] pp. 612-43 and Journal of the Royal United Services Institution 12 [1868] pp. 399-439 and Journal of the Royal United Services Institution 13 [1868] pp. 509-539.

Fox, A.H. Lane.  1875 ‘On the principles of classification adopted in the arrangement of his anthropological collection, now exhibited in the Bethnal Green Museum’ Journal of Anthropological Institute 4, pp. 293-308.

Fox, A.H. Lane.  1874b ‘On Early Modes of Navigation’ Journal of Anthropological Institute 4, pp. 399-435.

Fox, A.H. Lane.  1875 ‘On the Evolution of Culture’ Journal of the Royal Institute 7, pp. 357-389.

Howe C. A. 'Conway, Moncure Daniel', in Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography.

Petch A. 2011, "Degeneration and transformation: paddles from the Pacific", Part 1 & 2.

Schlanger, N. 2010. Series in Progress. Antiquities of Nature, Numismatics and Stone Implements in the Emergence of Prehistoric Archaeology (1776-1891), History of Science 48:344-69.

Schlanger N. 2011 (In prep) Coins to flint. John Evans and the numismatic moment in the history of archaeology.

Schools, N.'Conway, Moncure Daniel (1832–1907)' In Encyclopaedia Virginia.

Stocking G. W. Jr. 1987, Victorian Anthropology, Free Press, New York.

We are most grateful to Nathan for agreeing to allow us to publish this most interesting account. March 2011.

prm logo