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  Darwin’s Clever Neighbour

George Ward Norman and his Circle


Edited by D.P. O’Brien and John Creedy


Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2010

Hardcover. lvi+444 p. ISBN 9781848445574. £95.00


Reviewed by Martin Hewitt

Manchester Metropolitan University



Potential readers and purchasers of this book beware. Despite the title, this is not a historical study of a milieu associated with the nineteenth century’s most famous English intellectual. In fact, it is an edition of the hitherto unpublished autobiography of George Ward Norman (extending to 425 pages), supplemented with a fifty-page introduction and a set of extensive notes. Darwin’s only appearance in this book is in a quote from a letter of Darwin’s to J.D. Hooker, in which the characterisation ‘my clever neighbour’ is deployed. Otherwise, the material contains no indication of possible connection between the book’s subject and the circles in which Darwin moved.

George Ward Norman is hardly a household name. It has to be said he was not a household name during his lifetime, despite having minor claim to significance in the world of nineteenth-century banking and currency. Born in 1793, and living until 1882, Norman was a timber merchant (a business he eventually quit in 1830, shortly after the death of his father and his subsequent marriage), a long-time member of the Court of Directors of the Bank of England, and a minor writer on economic issues, especially related to trade and currency. According to the editors of this volume, he shares the credit, along with Samuel Jones Loyd (Lord Overstone) and Robert Torrens, as ‘architect of the intellectual framework of the Bank Charter Act of 1844’, the nineteenth century’s foundational currency legislation, especially the idea of splitting the Bank of England into separate departments of Issue and Banking. Norman was a close associate of Overstone, perhaps the most influential figure in British financial policy in the nineteenth century, and their correspondence has previously been published in O’Brien’s substantial edition of Overstone’s letters. A bout of deep depression in 1822 left him dogged by periods of ill-health, physical and mental, for the rest of his life, otherwise he would likely have been Governor of the Bank of England. Nevertheless, he wrote a number of pamphlets on economic matters, including Hints on the Timber Trade (1817), A Letter to Sir Charles Wood (1841), as well as Papers on Various Subjects (1869), and an account of Norway published posthumously in Norwegian in 1898, and he appeared before a number of Parliamentary Committees, including the 1840 Select Committee on Banks of Issue, the 1848 Committee of the Lords into the Currency, and he played an active role in discussions between the Bank and the government during the commercial crisis of 1847 [416-417].

Norman’s contemporary significance is not easily established. His championing of direct taxation (a position which of course put him very much in the minority in the first half the century) was well-researched, but did not involve complex economic analysis. One of his two major contributions, Remarks on the Incidence of Import Duties was only published as a pamphlet seventeen years after it was written, and seems to have had a tiny circulation. His ‘Essay on Taxation’ fared even worse, remaining in manuscript, and not being published until 2009 at the same time as the autobiography (and with the same editors and publisher). At times Norman offers an exaggerated sense of his own significance. For instance, in his work on taxation Norman claimed that his 1833 pamphlet on the currency originated the principle that a mixed currency of notes and coins should fluctuate exactly as a similarly circumstanced metallic currency would; the editors demonstrate that this was not the case [369-370]. He was clearly an influential figure in West Kent liberalism, playing an active role in organising and financing resistance to the natural Tory dominance of the county. His Liberalism initially showed fairly radical leanings, but these cooled steadily, as disillusionment with the effects of European revolutions, the 1832 Reform Act, American democracy, and the ‘communistic’ threat of Chartism, all took their toll. He had little time for Peel, whom he attacks on several occasions in the memoir for remaining loyal to protectionist policies long after he had realised they were indefensible, because of party interest [407-408].

Notwithstanding this ambivalent status in terms of direct influence, there is certainly potential here, therefore, for a memoir which offers readers insights into the world of finance, trade, the gentlemanly capitalists of London and the south east whom recent scholarship has identified as the powerhouse of British economic expansion in this period. Unfortunately the autobiography (though generous of reference to fishing and amateur archaeology) has relatively little to say about Norman’s main claims to significance. It is almost entirely lacking reference to his career as timber merchant in the family firm; except for the descriptions of periods living in Norway in pursuit of creditors, and the regrets expressed when periods of illness prevent him participating in the family business. Likewise, his references to his career on the Bank of England’s Court of Directors are episodic and not especially illuminating. The most substantial section offers a discussion of his election to the Bank, his reflections on the Directors, and his economic writings [243-257], which comprises 241 lines, approximately 3,500 words, plus notes. There is reference to his emoluments as manager of the Sun Fire Office and as director of the Life Office of £400 pa, but no indication of what he did, or how much time involved, except that he ‘always felt a great interest in the Sun business and have devoted much time and attention to it’ [324, 323-324]. Norman does offer some commentary on the evolution of the Bank of England in discussing his appearance before the Select Committee on Currency in 1832, but without offering anything that would significantly gloss existing orthodoxies in the history of monetary policy or the Bank as an institution. Likewise he notes that in 1847 he attracted considerable hostility through his advocacy of early Bank intervention in crises, especially by raising the discount rate, but does not dilate [417-418].

Part of the problem is that, not unusually for Victorian autobiographers, Norman is an indifferent writer and his prose leaves much to be desired. The narrative is incidental in more than one sense of the word, a long litany of incident, without any great organisation, certainly without any analytical verve. There are few departures from the chronological structure. There is little insight into even the figures who merit more than a passing reference. George Grote, the historian, and a friend from childhood, is offered in panegyric, as are acquaintances like Lord Auckland ‘a tall, thin man, with an expression of countenance denoting knowledge and ability’ [165]. Others are given similar but less positive shrift. Jeremiah Harman, one of the Committee of Treasury of the Bank of England when Norman joined in 1821, was ‘ignorant, pompous, prejudiced and overbearing’ [245]. A few, like Sir Francis Chantrey, the sculptor, get slightly more extended assessment ‘little poetry, … no due appreciation of the great masters of art… proud of his fame as a good shot and angler… charitable and benevolent’ [397], but these are not the penetrating insights of intimacy, but rather the superficial observations of casual acquaintance. A little too often he has to confess, ‘I do not remember any point of my personal history worth recording’ [153,163], and indeed by the time he reaches the later 1830s there is a real sense of him running out of steam. He notes, for example, nothing much to remember for 1838, 1839, 1840 [387-395] and 1846 [415]. The narrative closes without announcement in 1848, with a brief account and reflection on the Chartist challenge of that year, and the failure of the Kennington Common meeting in May.

One of the frustrations with the autobiography is that it was not a self-contained document. Instead, as is often the case with Victorian life-writers, it was only one element of a rich personal archive of ‘testamentary acts’ as Michael Millgate has described them.(1) The text of the autobiography itself is relatively one dimensional: it seems to have been largely written in 1858, with some occasional notes added later (e.g. in July 1864, p. 240), but no significant later additions or corrections. But for Norman the autobiography was nested in a complex range of textual allusion and supplement. These include as well as journals of various tours, a ‘Bromley Memoir’ of recollections relating to the neighbourhood, a book of sporting memoranda [387], a game book (perhaps the same?) [388], sets of personal accounts from 1831 to 1882 (but not, it would seem, an extended daily journal, although there are references to a later diary of this sort [405 n148]). Some are extant in the Norman papers now held at the Bromley Public Library, but others, including a memoir of his father [319], and his eldest son Hermann (who died in the Crimea) [345, 405] do not seem to have survived a fire at the family home. (Although the papers may also have suffered from later deliberate destruction; at one point Norman does remark of the journal of his first Norwegian visit that he has ‘often been tempted to burn’ it, but has kept in part because ‘I propose sometime or other to look over and erase the obnoxious passages’ [210].) He was engaged to some extent with his archive while writing, though not systematically. He notes at one point the discovery of some previous account of an incident he is describing in the preceding paragraph [303]. But surprisingly—and frustratingly—he seems to have been unwilling to consult his records systematically with a view to informing and enriching his memories, in some cases reasoning that they would be too distressing [355-356]. He did not, for example, consult an extensive correspondence with his friend C.H. Cameron from 1835-48 (although he had exchanged Cameron’s letters to him in return for his to Cameron, and they were in the family archive). At one point he guesses at the point at which his intimacy with his friend Cowell ceased: ‘I could hunt up the correspondence relating to it, but do not think that perfect exactness would pay for the trouble’ [391].

Such judgements suggest Norman had a sense of function and readership of his autobiography, but what this might have been is not immediately apparent. The construction of the text offers little sense of a readership wider than his immediate family, as illustrated both by the obscure allusions to local figures without any form of explanation which have offered such a field of endeavour for his editors, and indeed by various cross-references to other parts of the Norman archive, journals of particular journeys, for example. There is little sense of striving for literary polish, the lack of concern particularly visible in Norman’s habit of backtracking (‘I may mention what I forgot in its proper place, that in 1813 …) [166]. As a result, the autobiography offers a ‘personal’ history, but not one which involves great insight into the character and motivations of the writer. Perhaps inevitably, it suffers from the frequent reticences of Victorian autobiographers, which are noticeable in its treatment of relationships, platonic or otherwise, in which Norman is perfectly frank about his attraction to certain of the women he knew as a young man, but offers no insight into the nature of these relationships. There are a few partial exceptions. Norman has some interesting things to say about the parenting he received and the influence this had on his own, liberal, philosophy of fatherhood. Also about the trials of his religious faith, given the widespread scepticism that prevailed in the circles in which he moved [223-230, 400-401].

Where this volume is likely to be used, therefore, is as a source book of observation and insight on aspects of the life of a Home Counties merchant and financier in the first half of the nineteenth century. And here it provides some promising material, although the ore-bearing strata are of low grade, and there are all kinds of tantalising references which Norman does not take the opportunity to flesh out, or fairly conventional comments on topics such as radical demagoguery [200-201, 315-316]. (He himself was not a successful speaker, as he concedes, though this does not prevent him offering advice to would-be public figures—‘speak loud and slow’ [342].) There is considerable material on his rather erratic and far from unsatisfactory education, both at a private school at Eltham and at Eton (1805- ) [69-108]. And there are a few interesting later comments on Sandhurst, derived from his son’s time there in the 1840s [414-415]. There is a considerable, if scattered, reference to Norman’s enthusiasms for cricket, which he felt was ‘the finest game ever invented by man’ not least because of its ability to bring together men of different classes [403]. There are some interesting recollections of a long walking tour in Wales in the spring of 1823, indicating the thoughts of an early tourist. And also some reflections on the enjoyment he obtained from fly fishing, which he took up after his marriage [347-348]. Fishing became his favourite sport: ‘To walk by a beautiful stream in the month of May or June with birds singing and flowers blowing around, and then to listen to the rippling sound of the clear water is in itself delightful …’ [410].

So, what are we to make of this volume? As Forrest Capie writes in the cover blurb, it is a work of considerable scholarship. A huge number of references to contemporaries of Norman have been tracked down, often through painstaking archival research. A considerable number of these references are several hundred words long themselves, and occupy almost the whole of the page. The editors certainly cannot be faulted on this score, except perhaps on the grounds of over scrupulousness. The text of the autobiography provides a reference for aspects of the life of the merchant classes in the Romantic and Victorian periods, and offers scattered commentary on a wide range of issues. Historians of economic thought and policy may possibly find something of import here. Students of life writing may find in Norman an interesting case study. But this is not a volume which is likely to attract wide readership or repay more than a cursory mining.


(1) Michael Millgate, Testamentary Acts. Browning, Tennyson, James, Hardy (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1992).




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