Paul Johnson

Dirty rotten scholars

Brilliance, bitterness and filth in the loftiest of ivory towers

Dirty rotten scholars
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Who was the dirtiest don in history? There must be many claimants for this title, especially in the 17th century, when all dons (except heads of houses) were bachelors. The diaries of Anthony à Wood bear witness. Actually my candidate for the title lived until 1940, and had a wife, too, though she was instrumental in his filth-accumulation. I know a bit about foul dons, having been up at Oxford over 60 years ago, when bathrooms were rare. I was tutored, happily briefly, by an ancient monster from outside my college, whose fingernails were an archaeological site and whose neck exhibited what Morland nannies used to call ‘tidemarks’. He once walked to the room in New Buildings where he taught me across the long grass of Magdalen deer park. It had been raining and he arrived with his flannel bags wet to the knees. Whereupon, ‘to avoid double-pneumonia and trench foot, to which I am prone’, he took them off and held them up, steaming, in front of the one-bar electric fire, thus giving me a glimpse of his ancient long johns.

Of course Cambridge could beat this kind of thing easily. As Hugh Trevor-Roper used to say, though the provision of hot water in Oxford might be exiguous, it was torrential compared with Peterhouse. It is all different now, to be sure, though grime was slower to relax its grip on Cambridge. And naturally the dirtiest don on record was a Cambridge man. What is more remarkable is that he was master, for 22 years, of the country’s most palatial college, Trinity, occupying lodgings which a duke might find honourable. Sir Joseph Thomson (1856-1940) came from Manchester, as I do, and his father, a publisher-bookseller, was by no means poor. Thomson was a prodigy and got into Owens College at the age of 14. It was then at the height of its amazing fecundity, and while still a student Thomson had a paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. It was natural for him to win a scholarship to Trinity, to graduate as second wrangler in the maths tripos, and Smith’s prizeman, and to be awarded a fellowship at the college.

Thomson went on to have one of the most remarkable careers in the history of physics. He opened up and dominated the field of sub-atomic particles. He discovered the electrons, and much else. He created the Cavendish Laboratory in its modern form. He was President of the Royal Society. He won the Nobel Prize, as did seven of his pupils, subordinates and colleagues. He helped create the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and presided over a commission on education. As a reward, in 1918 Lloyd George made him Master of Trinity, then as now in the gift of the Crown. Thomson took over from the fastidious Dr Montagu Butler, and dumped himself, his dirt and his wife in the lodge for the next generation.

Even Thomson’s entry in the old Dictionary of National Biography, which is solemn and strait-laced to a fault, hints there was something amiss. Alongside his awards and honours, it found space to notice his ‘peculiar grin’ and the fact that he was ‘most careless in his attire and appearance, and behaved as though it were a matter of no interest either to himself or others’. The obituary in Country Life said he had ‘the appearance of a grocer’s errand boy’. However it was left to one of his Trinity colleagues, A. S. F. Gow, to administer the sharpest rebuke, though he couched it ‘in the decent obscurity of a learned language’:

In memoriam Josephi Thomson, qui, propter minimarum particularum scientiam maximo utriusque universitatio collegio praepositus, alteram officii partem omnino neglexit, altera ita functus est ut neglectam maluisses. Raucus, edentulous, ipexus, urorem duxit non amabileum, cuius ope et auxilio suffultus, heredibus LXXX milia librarum sterling-arum, collegio domicilium hara immundius, posteri exemplum memorabile avaritiae reliquit.

George Lyttelton, who had been a master at Eton alongside Gow, before he moved to Trinity, copied this into his commonplace book, providing a translation:

In memory of Joseph Thomson who, by virtue of his knowledge of the smallest particles, attained the mastership of the greatest college in either university. He totally neglected the one part of his duties and discharged the other in such a way that it would have been better if he had neglected that also. Loud-mouthed, toothless and unkempt, he married an unpleasant wife, thanks to whose money he was able to leave £80,000 sterling to his heirs, a house filthier than a pigsty to the college, and to posterity a model of avarice never to be forgotten.

Who was the censorious Gow? Andrew Sydenham Farrar Gow (1886-1978) was the son of a headmaster of Westminster, educated at Rugby and Trinity, where he took a double first and then won a prize fellowship. He served as a master at Eton, 1914-25, then returned to Trinity for the rest of his life. Altogether he lived 60 years in college: no wonder he resented Thomson. He was terrifying to look at, with sprouting eyebrows and bushy side-whiskers. As a schoolmaster his fury at shoddy work was formidable, marked by his comment: ‘Oh, death, boy!’ His highest praise was: ‘Not wholly bad.’ Yet he never struck or beat a pupil, and being a bachelor-and-a-half he was known to Etonians as ‘Granny Gow’.

Gow, like his Trinity colleague A.E. Housman, specialised in the deeper obscurities of classical learning. Housman was much the older, and when he died made Gow his literary executor. Indeed Gow wrote a brief memoir, much the best thing ever written about the poet. While Housman became the greatest expert on Manilius, Gow chose Theocritus, though afterwards moved to Hellenistic epigrams. He and Housman competed in finding, editing and glorifying the dimmest authors of antiquity. They also sought to outdo each other in excoriating inaccuracy, and putting down the smallest exhibition of literary pretentiousness. Both were masters of the laconic snub, the brief, dismissive letter and the monosyllabic, albeit courteous, rejection of honours. One of the things they objected to in Thomson was that he grabbed at anything going. Housman surely approved of Gow’s fustigation, though if he had written it, the Latin would have been more elegant.

You may ask: what right had a backward-looking classicist like Gow to go for a world-conquering scientist? It depends what you mean by culture. Gow had a dicky heart and was rejected for service in the first world war. Handed a white feather by a bellicose woman, and asked aggressively, ‘What are you doing to defend our civilisation?’ he replied, ‘Madam, I am that civilisation.’ (The story is told of other scholars.) The repellent Thomson left Cambridge the Cavendish lab. Old Gow, despite bare means, was a perceptive art collector, and when he died left the Fitzwilliam 24 works by Degas, six by Rodin and six by Forain. He kept himself spotlessly clean, too.