The strangest story told for a long time is that of Thomas Edward, shoemaker and naturalist, to whom the Queen of England recently gave a pension of fifty pounds a year. He was not a shoemaker who kept a shop and gave out work to others, but actually worked at the bench from childhood to old age, supporting a very large family on the eight or nine or ten shillings a week that he earned. And yet we find him a member of several societies of naturalists, the Linnæan Society among others, and an honored pensioner of the Queen.
His father was a Scottish linen weaver, and for some time a private soldier in a militia regiment which was called into active service during the wars with Napoleon; and it was while the regiment was stationed at an English sea-port that this remarkable child was born. A few months after, when the Waterloo victory had given peace to Europe, the regiment was ordered home and disbanded, and this family settled at Aberdeen, where the father resumed his former occupation. Now the peculiar character of Thomas Edward began to exhibit itself. He showed an extraordinary fondness for animals, to the sore distress and torment of his parents and their neighbors.
It was a taste purely natural, for not only was it not encouraged, it was strongly discouraged by every one who could be supposed to have influence over the boy. He disappeared one day when he was scarcely able to walk, and when he had been gone for some hours he was found in a pig-sty fast asleep, near a particularly savage sow and her pigs. As soon as he could walk well enough his delight was to ramble along the shore and into the country, gathering tadpoles, beetles, frogs, crabs, mice, rats, and spiders, to the horror of his mother, to say nothing of the neighbors, for these awful creatures escaped into houses near by and appeared to the inmates at the most unexpected moments.
His parents scolded and whipped him, but his love of animal life was unconquerable, and the only effect of opposing it was to make him more cunning in its gratification. They tied the little fellow by his leg to a table, but he drew the table up near the fire, burnt the rope in halves, and was off for the fields. They hid his coat, but he took his elder brother’s coat and ran. Then they hid all his clothes, but he slipped on an old petticoat and had another glorious day out of doors, returning with a fever in his veins which brought him to death’s door.
All these things, and many others like them, happened when he was still a boy under five years of age. Recovering from his fever he resumed his old tricks, and brought home one day, wrapped in his shirt, a wasp’s nest, which his father took from him and plunged into hot water. Between four and five he was sent to school, his parents thinking to keep him out of mischief of this kind. But he had not the least interest in school knowledge, and constantly played truant; and when he did come to school he brought with him all kinds of horrid insects, reptiles, and birds. One morning during prayers a jackdaw began to caw, and as the bird was traced to the ownership of Thomas Edward, he was dismissed from the school in great disgrace. His perplexed parents sent him to another school, the teacher of which used more vigorous measures to cure him of his propensity, applying to his back an instrument of torture called „the taws.” It was in vain. From this second school he was expelled, because some horse-leeches, which he had brought to school in a bottle, escaped, crept up the legs of the other boys, and drew blood from them.
„I would not take him back for twenty pounds!” said the schoolmaster in horror.
A third time his father put him at school; and now he experienced the ill consequences of having a bad name. A centipede was found upon another boy’s desk, and he was of course suspected of having brought it into the school-room. But it so happened that on this one occasion he was innocent; it was another boy’s centipede; and Thomas denied the charge. The schoolmaster whipped him severely for the supposed falsehood, and sent him away saying: –
„Go home, and tell your father to get you on board a man-of-war, as that is the best school for irreclaimables such as you.”
He went home and declared he would go to no more schools, but would rather work. He had now reached the mature age of six years, and had been turned out of school three times, without having learned to write his own name. Soon after, he went to work in a tobacco factory on the river Don, a short distance out of Aberdeen, and there for two happy years he was free to employ all his leisure time in investigating animated nature around him. His love of natural history grew with his growth and strengthened with his strength, so that by the time he had completed his eighth year he was familiarly acquainted with the animals of that region, and had the most lively admiration for the more interesting specimens. He watched with delight the kingfisher, and loved to distinguish the voices of the different birds.
But his parents objecting to the tobacconist’s trade, he was apprenticed about his ninth year to a shoemaker, – a violent, disreputable character, who made ruthless war upon the lad’s birds and reptiles, searching his pockets for them, and killing them whenever found. The lad bore this misery for three years, and then his patience being exhausted, and having in his pocket the sum of seven pence, he ran away and walked a hundred miles into the country to the house of one of his uncles. His uncle received him kindly, entertained him a day or two, and gave him eighteen pence, upon which the boy returned home, and made a bargain with his master by which he received small wages and had complete control of his leisure time. At eighteen we may regard him as fairly launched upon life, a journeyman shoemaker, able to earn in good times nine shillings a week by laboring from six in the morning till nine at night. At that time all mechanics worked more hours than they do at present, and particularly shoemakers, whose sedentary occupation does not expend vitality so rapidly as out-of-door trades. And what made his case the more difficult was, he was a thorough-going Scotchman, and consequently a strict observer of Sunday. Confined though he was to his work fifteen hours a day, he abstained on principle from pursuing his natural studies on the only day he could call his own.
He was a night-bird, this Thomas Edward; and as in Scotland the twilight lasts till ten in the evening and the day dawns at three in the morning, there were some hours out of the twenty-four which he could employ, and did employ, in his rambles. At twenty-three he fell in love with a pretty girl, and married her, his income being still but nine and sixpence a week. His married life was a happy one, for his wife had the good sense to make no opposition to his darling pursuits, and let him fill their cottage and garden with as many creatures as he chose, not even scolding him for his very frequent absences during the night. Some one asked her recently about this, and her reply was: –
„Weel, he took such an interest in beasts that I didna compleen. Shoemakers were then a very drucken set, but his beasts keepit him frae them. My mon’s been a sober mon all his life, and he never negleckit his wark. Sae I let him be.” –
Children were born to them, eleven in all, and yet he found time to learn to write, to read some books, and to increase constantly his knowledge of nature. In order to procure specimens for his collection, he bought an old shot-gun for a sum equal to about a dollar, – such a battered old piece that he had to tie the barrel to the stock with a piece of string. A cow’s horn served for his powder; he measured his charge with a tobacco pipe, and carried his shot in a paper-bag. About nine in the evening, carrying his supper with him, he would start out and search the country round for animals and rare plants as long as he could see; then eat his supper and lie down and sleep till the light returned, when he would continue his hunting till it was time for work. Many a fight he had in the darkness with badgers and pole-cats.
When he had thus been employed eight or nine years, his collection contained two thousand specimens of animals and two thousand plants, all nicely arranged in three hundred cases made with his own hands. Upon this collection he had founded hopes of getting money upon which to pursue his studies more extensively. So he took it to Aberdeen, six cart loads in all, accompanied by the whole family, – wife and five children. It needs scarcely to be said that his collection did not succeed, and he was obliged to sell the fruit of nine years’ labor for twenty pounds. Nothing daunted, he returned to his cobbler’s stall, and began again to collect, occasionally encouraged by a neighboring naturalist, and sometimes getting a little money for a rare specimen. Often he tried to procure employment as a naturalist, but unsuccessfully, and as late as 1875 we find him writing thus: –
„As a last and only remaining resource, I betook myself to my old and time-honored friend, a friend of fifty years’ standing, who has never yet forsaken me nor refused help to my body when weary, nor rest to my limbs when tired – my well-worn cobbler’s stool. And although I am now like a beast tethered to his pasture, with a portion of my faculties somewhat impaired, I can still appreciate and admire as much as ever the beauties and wonders of nature as exhibited in the incomparable works of our adorable Creator.”
These are cheerful words to come from an old man who has enriched the science of his country by additions to its sources of knowledge. In another letter, written a year or two since, he says: –
„Had the object of my life been money instead of nature, I have no hesitation in saying that by this time I would have been a rich man. But it is not the things I have done that vex me so much as the things I have not done. I feel that I could have accomplished so much more. I had the will, but I wanted the means.”
It is in this way that such men feel toward the close of their lives. Thomas Edward still lives, in his sixty-seventh year, at Banff, in Scotland, rich in his pension of fifty pounds a year, which is more than twice as much as the income he had when he supported by his labor a wife and eleven children. Even his specimens now command a price, and he is every way a prosperous gentleman. It seems a pity that such men cannot have their precious little fifty pounds to begin with, instead of to end with. But who could pick them out? What mortal eye can discern in a man the genuine celestial fire before he has proved its existence by the devotion of a lifetime to his object? And even if it could be discerned in a young man, the fifty pounds a year might quench it.