A centenary to celebrate! Sir Cecil Chubb (1876 – 1934) and his wife Mary donated Stonehenge to the nation on 26 October 1918. The monument is now cared for by English Heritage and their excellent website illustrates the events, exhibitions and activities there are to mark the centenary.
Cecil Chubb was born at Shrewton, a few miles from Stonehenge, and became a barrister, Justice of the Peace, Chairman of Fisherton House, Salisbury (one of the largest private psychiatric hospitals in Europe during the 1920s), a racehorse owner and breeder of shorthorn cattle. He had purchased the monument for £6,600 at auction in 1915, from the Antrobus family, after their last male heir was killed during the First World War.
So what has this to do with Birmingham?
According to his son, William Withering jr., Dr. William Withering (1741-1799) of Edgbaston Hall, botanist, chemist, geologist and physician, had visited Stonehenge on his return from his second visit to Lisbon in 1794. His lung health was poor and he had hoped the warmer winter temperatures in Portugal would alleviate his illness. His return journey from Cornwall to Birmingham took in Devon, Dorset, the Isle of Wight and the Stonehenge monument. In the Memoir of his father’s life, Withering jr. writes:
Stonehenge was viewed with no ordinary interest. The mysterious origin, and surprising magnitude of the masses which constitute this edifice, not less than their peculiar arrangement, engaged more than a momentary attention. This monument had long been deemed by Dr Withering, to Great Britain, what the Pyramids are to Egypt, – the antiquarian wonder of the land.
On 3 January 1797, two of the trilithons at Stonehenge and their lintel – the stones of the inner horseshoe – collapsed. Dr William Withering, corresponded in detail with one James Norris of Nonsuch House, Wiltshire, asking, among other things, if there were any unusual lichens on the upper stones, ‘which have been out of the ordinary reach of man for so many thousand years’. The third edition of Withering’s work titled ‘An Arrangement of British Plants’ had been published in 1796, so his curiosity in such matters is obvious. Norris attributed the collapse of the stones to a colony of rabbits burrowing in the area. Withering went further in his interest in the stones:
William Withering to James Norris, 30 July 1797
On conversing with my friend Mr. Watt respecting the late downfall at Stonehenge, he thinks that the three stones might be replaced at an expense not exceeding one hundred pounds. His extensive practical knowledge as an engineer, and his great abilities, are probably not unknown to you. He proposes to employ workmen from Portland island, who are much in the practice of moving large masses of stone, and have the requisite implements. He supposes that the large stones were originally raised up an inclined plane, made of a bank of earth, and should it be necessary he would again raise them in the same way. If I lived in your part of the country I would endeavour to obtain a subscription for the purpose. Surely fifty or a hundred persons might be found to subscribe such a sum. You may rely on my mite towards its accomplishment. Should you ultimately not find an engineer to your mind, I would try to engage Mr. Warltire to undertake the execution of the work, with more particular directions from Mr. Watt.
This may refer to John Warltire (c. 1725 – 1810), an itinerant lecturer on natural philosophy and chemistry at this time.
Regrettably, it has not proved possible to find any correspondence between Withering and Watt at this period, so I have to assume that their conversation was indeed only verbal.
Those three stones were eventually re-erected in 1958. By then the cost had risen to £8,500.
The Norris/Withering correspondence can be found in: The Miscellaneous Tracts of the late William Withering M.D. F.R.S. to which is prefixed a Memoir of his life, Character and Writings by William Withering jr. 2 vols. London. 1822.
I thank the late Chris Upton for his introduction to this Norris/Withering/Watt connection.
If you would like to find out more about William Withering, you can find the following in the Birmingham Collection in the Heritage Research Area on level 4 of the library:
All images from Stukeley, William. Stonehenge, a temple restor’d to the British druids. London : Printed for W. Innys and R. Manby, at the West End of St. Paul’s, 1740, held by Widener Library, Harvard University, are available at http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:FHCL:10937246