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1998.267.85 OUMNH staffSpencer's colleagues at the Oxford University Museum in 1884, Spencer is the person seated second from the leftExtract from Spencer's Last Journey: being the journal of an expedition to Tierra del Fuego by the late Sir Baldwin Spencer with a memoir. Edited by R.R. Marett and T.K. Penniman [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931]

I. Introduction: Baldwin Spencer as Anthropologist by Sir James Frazer

'The early life of Spencer may be said to have been a fortunate, though necessarily undesigned, preparation for the great work which he accomplished in the maturity of his powers. His training in biology and zoology familiarized him with the conception of physical evolution in the animal and human species, and at Oxford the teaching of Tylor, the true founder of anthropology in England, initiated him in the elements of mental and social evolution in the history of man. Thus, when the happy circumstance of a call to Melbourne led Spencer to settle in Australia, he was well prepared to grasp the significance of the primitive, or rather archaic forms of plant, animal, and human life, which the immemorial seclusion of that continent from the rest of the world has preserved as in a museum to satisfy the curiosity of later ages concerning the development of life on our planet. In his new home Spencer's attention was naturally drawn at first to those early forms of animal life which was his special duty, as Professor of Zoology at Melbourne University, to investigate. But, later on, his fortunate acquaintance with the Arunta [Arrernte], the great aboriginal tribe in the very heart of Australia, who, dwelling in the most isolated region of the most isolated continent, have survived to our time as if on purpose to hold up to us a mirror of the life of man as it was in ages long before the dawn of history. ... [Frazer describes Spencer and Gillen's work with the Arrernte, with particular reference to their work on their belief systems and totems] Elsewhere [apart from his work on 'classifactory systems', Frazer means] he has uniformily abstained from the discussion of origins, and in so doing he has given proof of his scientific caution. The whole bent of his mind was indeed to observation rather than to speculation; he collected an immense mass of new and important facts, but in general he left the interpretion of them to others. He laid the foundations of the science of man in a series of exact observations; it will be for future inquirers to complete the structure by rearing on his foundations a solid edifice compacted of sound inductions. That may prove a task which will demand the labours of generations yet to come.

Among the high qualities which Spencer brought to the execution of his life work we ought not to overlook his artistic temperament and skill. ... He was himself no mean draughtsman, and used to illustrate his journals and family letters profusely with sketches which testify alike to the keenness of his observation and to the deftness of his hand. ...'

II. Memoir by R.R. Marett

'The greatest lives are of strong but simple framework, and the life of Baldwin Spencer furnishes an illustration in point. No doubt his gifts were many and various, inasmuch as he was artist, biologist, and anthropologist in one. Yet the delicate sense of form fostered an appreciation of the niceties of animal structure; while the morphological interest in its turn stimulated research into the complex organization of primitive society. Thus the entire nature of the man found harmonious expression in his work; which in like degree bears the stamp of individuality and unity of purpose. ...

Walter Baldwin Spencer was born at Stretford in Lancashire on June 23, 1860. ... With his brothers, young Spencer attended Old Trafford School, a private institution of not more than a hundred boys ... Small as it was, this establishment must have been conducted on sound lines, since two of Spencer's fellow pupils were destined to share with him the title of F.R.S., ... As for Spencer himself, he seems to have given a good account of himself both at work and during play-time ... 

On leaving school his first idea was to adopt the profession of a painter, and with that end in mind he entered the Manchester School of Art ... It soon turned out, however, that the morphological studies of men and animals prescribed in order to improve his drawing interested the scientific side of his mind even more than the aesthetic; and he had thoughts of taking up medicine. Not that he ever regretted the year spent in the pursuit of Art. Alike in the field and in the lecture-room his ability to record and expound his observations in accurate and striking visual forms was of the greatest assistance to his scientific work. ...

Leaving the School of Art he entered Owens College, and there, under the influence of Professor Milnes Marshall, was presently convinced that Science should be sought for its own sake--in other words, that biology must be his life-study. ... When Spencer gained a scholarship at Oxford it was regarded by all as a feather in the cap of Milnes Marshall ... After being elected Scholar at Exeter College in October 1880, he remained with Milnes Marshall until he went up to Oxford a year later, engaging during this interval in original research ... 

For Spencer's Oxford days I am able, thanks to the kindness of Mr Howard Goulty, ... to draw freely on a series of vivid letters ... In his very first letter from Oxford he writes, 'this is such a grand place'; though he goes on to hint that pain as well as pleasure attended his visit in the capacity of a scholarship hunter:

I never before felt so unfortunate or so quite at sea in an Exam. To begin with the Physics paper were horribly mathematical and you know what that means. And then instead of biology we are having physiology in which to put it in a mild kind of way my knowledge is not very vast .. However I had it out with the Examiner afterwards ... I told him that I had come prepared to dissect creatures & he asked me if I should like him to give me some dissection--a proposal to which I readily assented.

The Examiner in question was probably W.L. Morgan, then Lecturer in Biology to the College, which at the same time counted among its Fellows Henry Nottidge Moseley, F.R.S., and Edwin Ray Lankester, F.R.S. both of them biologists of greater fame. The former, sometimes referred to irreverently in the letters as 'the Moa', had been Naturalist to the Challenger Expedition from 1872 to 1876, and becoming Linacre Professor of Anatomy in 1881 was to play a leading part in shaping Spencer's undergraduate career.

Coming up with the other freshmen in the Michaelmas Term of 1881, young Spencer finds himself in pleasant rooms overlooking 'the Broad', and is delighted with his companions, making friends at once ... 

... Spencer had come to Oxford to work. 'Six hours per diem', ... 'is very good at Exeter, seven hours denotes a "smug"; anything beyond that is considered the mark of a madman.' It would appear, however, that Spencer's own allowance of time for reading verged on that of the madman. He had to tackle preliminary examinations in classics and divinity, and is very glad when they are over, and he starts on biology for his Finals, and can report: 'I have begun real hard work, very different to that of last year; it is striking what a change it makes in the pleasure of reading when the subject is a pleasant one.' He dips into philosophy; finds time for some English literature, poetry as well as prose; has half a mind to take up history seriously; and after listening to a sermon by Jowett launches into theology and commends him for the clearness with which he announces his belief in the evolution of religion. What is perhaps more to the point in view of his future mental development, he attends anthropological lectues by Tylor in company with his great friend H.J. Mackinder of Christ Church ... The two of them discuss long and earnestly the choice of a career. 'He will go in for a more or less public life ... I have given up all idea of doing anything in public, and am going to be content with a more or less quiet life of a scientific man.' ...

Meanwhile Spencer is sticking hard to his main job, though the effort is sometimes painful. 'It is almost a sin to spend any of such glorious weather indoors ...' The thought of what is before him is slightly daunting. 'One of the horrors of an Oxford exam. is that you know there is a viva, in which you can most delightfully be made a fool of--in public, moreover!' ...

With a First Class to his credit, and with powerful backing from within his own College, Spencer was now fairly launched. Moseley immediately promised him some work, to begin next term as soon as he had refreshed his tired brains with a good long walk with Mackinder in the Continent. ... Back again in Oxford, he settles down with Mackinder in lodgings in Frewin Court. He has little cash in hand, but soon he ekes it out by coaching ... He longs for a Fellowship ... Meanwhile Moseley is losing an Assistant at Easter, and offers Spencer the post. A little later we read: 'I am beginning some special original or quasi-original work which Ray Lankester suggested to me, and the great man promised to publish it for me.' At the same time he is helping Professors Moseley and Tylor to remove the anthropological collections of General Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers [sic] from South Kensington to Oxford--a herculean task involving the labelling of some fifteen thousand objects. Thus already his biology and his anthropology progress in happy conjunction; for 'Tylor is the best anthropologist in England'. Somewhat inconsistently he proceeds to qualify this estimage.

'I have been much surprised however to find that, though Comparative Anatomy is Moseley's subject, yet he really knows considerably more concerning anthropology than even Tylor. In fact, Moseley is a very remarkable man and when brought at all closely into contact with him you soon feel that he is no ordinary man. Of course he has been almost everywhere & this alone gives a man considerable power if only he keeps his eyes open. He was a favourite of Darwin, though of course much the latter's junior and, like everybody else who ever came near him, has the greatest reverence for his 'master'.'

Yet this admiration for his teacher, so characteristic of Oxford which tries to base education on friendship after the Greek tradition, is not uncritical. For he goes on: 'Moseley however is, I think, too narrow in some ways. He thinks science to be the training for everything for business or profession and even for politics. One evening we had a long talk on this subject, and we agreed to differ.'

After a year's steady work, refreshed by a short trip to the Continent, Spencer obtained by open competition a Fellowship at Lincoln College. ... Things are moving rapidly with him, however, for next month he is getting testimonials for the Professorship of Biology at Melbourne. He is strongly supported by Milnes Marshall, Roscoe and Williamson from Manchester, and by Moseley, Lankester, Tylor, and other prominent men at Oxford, not to speak of numerous fellow-students including G.C. Bourne and H. Balfour, as well as undergraduates whom he has taught. Milnes Marshall calls him the 'best student I ever had'; Moseley refers to his teaching ability, wonderful drawing and talent for research. ... much later on, he writes to Balfour from Melbourne:

'It seems ages ago since you and Bourne and Sclater and little Pode [sic - Poole] and Tommy Roth and myself were working in the old lab., but it was a very pleasant time, and I wish that those of us who yet remain in the flesh could meet together for an evening's confab ... If we had a long enough notice, the original members of the "science club" of 1885 or 1886 might come together. Think this over, and if you can possibly arrange for such a meeting, I will "by hook or crook" be present.'

Fortunately, by Dr Bourne's kindness, a photographic group is reproduced here [shown at top of this webpage] which contains many of Spencer's associates of that period and includes an excellent portrait of Moseley.

... he is fully occupied at Melbourne with teaching and organizing. ... Later, he is proposing to get the National Museum [of Victoria] into order, since there is nothing like trying to arrange a big collection for revealing to you your colossal ignorance'. ...

... his services cannot be over-praised as a promoter and organizer of those vast collections of Australia's indigenous marvels at which, in company with the rest of the British Association in 1914, I gazed with feelings that verged on awe; so little had Europe prepared one for such a sight. In 1899, on the death of Sir Frederick McCoy, who for over thirty years had been Head of the National Museum [of Victoria], Spencer undertook to be its Honorary Director; his first act being to recommend its transfer to a new and more commodious building. Facing manfully the vast toil entailed by the consequent rearrangement--and here no doubt his early experience with the Pitt-Rivers Museum at Oxford stood him in good stead--he saw to it that the Australiasian exhibits were assembled together and given all the prominence that they deserved; while he quietly added to them many thousands of zoological specimens collected and preserved by his own hand. He likewise contributed a rich store of photographic and phonographic material gathered by himself in the course of his wanderings. To fall back on my own impressions of the Museum, nothing was so amazing as the Spencer Hall, where his ethnological spoils were displayed in all their gorgeous variety; for no one who has not actually seen could imagine what a show can be afforded by the Stone Age, when not only the more or less enduring materials, the stone or the wood, are preserved, but, surviving all difficulties of transport, the more delicate decorations, made up of hair, fur, feathers, and earthy paint, stuck together with some kind of doubtful gum or it may be with human blood, are set forth as they veritably figured in some native ceremony unwitnessed by any save the uninitiated--with Spencer among them. For some specimens are not easily obtained, as Spencer informs Balfour when making him a present for the Pitt-Rivers of various Australian objects, including a Nurtunja or sacred pole of the Arunta.

'When the Central Australian is civilized, he will doubtless make this for sale. Meanwhile the one sent is a genuine one, and it is a most difficult thing to secure, because it is made for the performance of a special ceremony, and is then under ordinary conditions taken to pieces; because the human hair which is wound round it belongs to certain individuals who are not at all anxious to part with it, and also the same Nurtunja is never used for the performance of more than one ceremony.'

Another letter to Balfour throws a sidelight on Spencer's interest in his museum work

'Your letter reached me when I was attempting to prepare a lecture that in a weak moment I consented to give on the Stone Age in Australia. As yet I have been collecting "recent" material together with, very rarely, older--but the latter is very difficult to find. However, I am going to devote time to this as soon as possible. As to recent stuff, I have now, apart from uncounted rough flakes, *c., some 16,000 specimens. I think that amongst them I have Chellean, Mousterian, Acheulean, and of course Neolithic forms, and all of them at the present day are in use among the natives. When the British Association comes out next year I hope to be able to show the anthropologists a series of stone implements that will astonish them.'

... That he was in no way inclined to over-value his own deserts comes out clearly in a letter written in 1913 to Henry Balfour, when the latter was about to present an armorial window to the Hall of Exeter College to commemorate some of the men of science who had been its alumni, and proposed to place Spencer's name among them.

'Needless to say, I very much appreciate the honour that you propose to do me; the only thing is that I do not think it quite right or justifiable that I should appear side by side with men like Lankester and Lyell. I know of course that, thanks to opportunities that come to few workers, I have been able to do some good anthropological work; and the capacity to do this I owe to Moseley and Tylor. It was just the merest chance that, when I was demonstrating for Moseley, the Pitt-Rivers Collection was left to the University, and Moseley asked me if I would help him pack it up. Of course I went, and for about a month I was daily with him and Tylor; and from both of them, but especially the latter, I learnt much--little dreaming that I should ever come to Australia. Any work that I have done has been due to this initial stimulus of Moseley and Tylor; and later, and still more, to that of Frazer.'

In the window in question Spencer's name appears in association wtih the arms of the University of Melbourne. Nearby in the same Hall hangs a striking portrait of Spencer in his academic robes painted by the Australian artist W.B. McInnes, and presented to Exeter College by Spencer's daughter, Mrs Young. 

[Talking of Spencer's motivation for going on his last fieldwork journey to Tierra del Fuego] ... Apparently it had been a dream of his early years to follow in the footsteps of the Naturalist of the 'Beagle'; and Darwin's Fuegians, standing derelict at one of the dead ends of the globe, were in a sufficiently like situation to the Australian natives in their secluded retreat to offer analogies that, as a loyal upholder of the Comparative Method, Spencer must all his life have longed to examine at first hand. ...

[Please note that Marett's transcriptions from the Goulty letters is not always 100 per cent accurate. For the SMA version of these letters, which is much fuller than the quotes above see here.]

Transcribed by AP January 2013

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