The Librarian Who Caused a Scandalous Riot

There have been several references in this blog to the man who became, in 1882, Oxford University’s first Waynflete Professor of Physiology, John Scott Burdon Sanderson, but little mention has been made of the man regarded as his chief opponent during the ensuing controversy over vivisection at the university. This man, Edward Nicholson, was appointed, in that same year, chief librarian to the university (Bodley’s Librarian). It was a portentous year, for then also John Ruskin was elected to a second and hectic stint as Slade Professor of Fine Art, a stint brought to an abrupt end by the same controversy.

Nicholson’s long period in office was one of the most crucial modernizing phases in the Bodleian’s history. He turned the Bodleian from a gentleman-scholars’ club into a busy and efficient university-wide institution. But his reforms, and of course his leadership of the anti-vivisection campaign in the 1880s, made him many enemies in the university. Accordingly there was afterwards something like a conspiracy to deny him the memorials to which he was surely entitled: a commissioned portrait, for instance, such as was accorded to both his predecessor and his successor, or his name attached to the collection of papers which he bequeathed to the library (they were jumbled into other collections, such as ‘Eng. Misc.’, and remain so). But he needs and deserves remembering – here in particular for the heroic stand he made against vivisection at Oxford University in the 1880s.

Burdon Sanderson came to Oxford with an established reputation as “the arch-priest of vivisection”. Nicholson too had made himself known on the subject, in a pioneering book titled The Rights of an Animal: a new Essay in Ethics, published in 1879. And it surely was new; Nicholson himself called it “so far as I know, the first systematic attempt in our language – may be in any language – to treat the question of man’s social relations to animals as a branch of moral philosophy.” But it was not the merely intellectual treatment of the subject which its sub‐title suggests. It was purposeful and practical, as indeed that telling formulation in the title – an animal –  implies: not a generality of animals, but every particular animal was claiming its rights of us. So at the end of the book Nicholson gives advice on how to turn ethics into useful effort. And that was what Nicholson was now finding himself required to do at Oxford.  

nicholson cartoon

It was not Burdon Sanderson himself, nor even the laboratory being planned for his use, that Nicholson opposed, though the controversy came to simplify itself in that way, as the cartoon illustration indicates (more about that in the notes). What he wanted was that the university should impose two conditions upon the work done by Burdon Sanderson and by all his successors at Oxford: first, that anaesthetics would be used in all experiments which would otherwise cause pain, and second, that there would be no experiments at all using domesticated animals. You’ll notice that these are conditions which UK law has yet to catch up with even now, but to Nicholson well over a century ago they seemed “morally indispensable”.

That phrase comes from the petition which Nicholson organized and presented to the university’s governing Hebdomadal Council in 1883, requesting that a distinct motion on these conditions should be put to Convocation (at that time the university’s legislature). The petition had 143 signatures to it, for Nicholson had enlisted the support of many heads of colleges, many professors (including John Ruskin) and fellows (including Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll), and the Bishop of Oxford, John Mackarness, to say nothing of all the Oxford graduates whose MAs entitled them to vote in Convocation. But the Council rejected the petition – “an intolerable wrong”, Nicholson thought, with typical passion. He believed that his party would have won the vote; probably the Council had thought so too.

Still, to obtain the necessary land and funds for the laboratory, the Council had to get the approval of Convocation. There had already been two sessions for this purpose, but a third and fourth would yet be needed. Nicholson therefore announced that the coming sessions would be turned into that debate on vivisection which the Council had refused, and he at once began preparing for them.

Evening after evening, after his strenuous days in the Bodleian Library, Nicholson put his talents as an organiser and publicist into the push against the laboratory. Printed letters and cards, circulars and other documents went out from his house at number 2 Canterbury Road, telling academics and graduates of the university, in Oxford and far beyond, what they needed to know about the rejected petition, about Burdon Sanderson’s record as a physiologist and as a witness at the 1875 Royal Commission on vivisection, about the coming votes in Convocation, and about what the University’s Council was doing. As to this last, the Council itself had finally felt obliged to campaign for its own policy, rather than move ahead with patrician self-sufficiency (its preferred method then as now). So by the time of the second vote in 1885, as one contemporary recalled, Oxford MAs “had been inundated with leaflets from both sides, with the names of prominent men attached, for weeks before the day of debate.”

Before taking a view of the debates themselves, which were two of the most crowded and disorderly ever to have taken place in Convocation, we should pause to notice Nicholson’s courage in thus discomposing the university. He was a new and untested presence there, by no means a unanimous choice among the library’s curators (one of them thought him “vain, egotistical, and vulgar”: not a gentleman-scholar, then). The Times newspaper, with its many Oxford connections, reported the matter with some acidity: “It would be mere affectation to deny that this appointment will be viewed by many with considerable surprise.” More immediately, Vice-Chancellor Benjamin Jowett gave Nicholson warning that his activities in the campaign might be considered damaging to the library, and by implication to Nicholson’s own career with it. As to that, there survives among Nicholson’s papers a draft letter from 1884 in which sets out his response. Here are some sentences from it:

Dear Mr Vice‐Chancellor, It will be a satisfaction to me if you will allow me to make quite clear to you my feelings and intentions in regard to the matter which you spoke of this morning . . . On the matter of principle I feel as strongly as it is possible to feel, and so I consider it a duty from which I cannot deviate for one moment to do all I can to avert the practice [of vivisection] in Oxford. If the majority on February 5th [that was the third of the four Convocations] had been able and willing to compel me to resign my office on account of my action in this matter, I should have taken that action just the same . . . if Council were to propose any further grant without allowing a vote on the principle [as we know the Council in fact did] it would be our duty to oppose the grant.

I can’t find whether Nicholson actually sent, to the man who had originally been his main ally among the Curators, this bold and uncompromising letter, but he certainly acted on it.

The Convocations, then. That debate on 5 February was rowdy enough, or became so. Jowett himself presided, and the proceedings were opened by Dean Henry Liddell of Christ Church (father of Lewis Carroll’s Alice). The professor of medicine, Henry Acland, then spoke in praise of Burdon Sanderson’s high moral character (that familiar argument: ‘trust the professionals’). Speakers against the laboratory included Dr Pope – “who, we are credibly informed,” reported the students’ Oxford Magazine, of course relishing the commotion, “spoke with a loaded revolver in his pocket” – and Nicholson himself, characteristically “bristling with little books and papers”. Unfortunately the debate got entangled in one particular animal procedure which Burdon Sanderson had spoken of in his evidence to the Royal Commission. He had called it “a beautiful experiment” and one which he had enjoyed “great pleasure in repeating” a number of times (he’s quoted thus in the cartoon). This naturally caused some vocal indignation. But now the Waynflete Professor himself, who had hitherto “leaned against the side of the arena, gaunt, grim, notable”, came forward (“received with a storm of applause and hisses”), and explained that the animal had been a brain-dead frog. The debate proper did not recover from this anti-climax (if it really was one), and the vote went against Nicholson’s party.

But a fourth Convocation was needed, and it took place on 10 March the next year. This time the university’s Sheldonian Theatre was even more crowded and the debate even more unruly. The Times on that day had printed statements from the opposing parties, making clear that it would be a major Oxford University event. One of those present recalled years later that “hundreds of non-resident graduates had come up to vote from London and the shires . . . the Sheldonian Theatre was crammed, the upper undergraduate gallery no less than the lower.” There was “row on row of ladies interested in the scene”. Those Sheldonian galleries climb steeply up into the dome; it’s a room which can look and sound precariously crowded – or excitingly so, as seems to have been the case on that occasion.

Again, Vice-Chancellor Jowett presided and Dean Liddell opened the proceedings. That imposing and celebrated Oxford figure was given a respectful hearing, but he seems to have been the last of the speakers to enjoy the privilege. Canon Liddon, a celebrated orator, came after the Dean, spoke against vivisection, and was booed. When Bishop Mackarness started to describe some of the revolting experiments being done in France and Germany, someone (so the historian Charles Oman recalls in Memories of Victorian Oxford)

got upon a chair, and led, waving his arms, a regular chorus of the word ‘name’ or ‘shame’ – I could not quite make out which. The Bishop kept his feet and tried to proceed, but the rhythmical din continued.

Another speaker against the motion, the new Professor of Modern History, Edward Freeman, well-known for his publications against animal cruelty, “was absolutely howled down.” Those who spoke in favour of the motion were no better treated, and when a clergyman sprang up and “got in enough sentences to demonstrate that he was about to defend vivisection by the example of Christ”, this absurdity so aggravated the disorder that Benjamin Jowett brought a premature end to the debate and the matter was put to a decision. The university got its way by 412 votes to 244. (The total of votes did not represent the numbers present, of course: only graduates and fellows of colleges were entitled to vote.) Charles Oman calls the event “a scandalous riot”.

A defeat then, but also a very great achievement, as Oman’s disapproval itself suggests. For Nicholson turned a project whose first two supply votes had passed through Convocation hardly noticed into a controversy which in 1884 and 1885 generated some of the fiercest passions ever witnessed in the Sheldonian. (The much more famous debate about evolution, held in the University Museum in 1860, was really a very mild affair in comparison.) He forced the whole university to take the rights of animals seriously, and to suffer a convulsion commensurate with the importance of the decision it was taking. In doing so, he gave that Oxford generation a lesson in ethics which very few of them can altogether have missed or forgotten.

One of Nicholson’s supporters in the campaign against vivisection at Oxford, writing to console him on the evening of the 1885 defeat, said “the protest will remain a valuable one, and one which we may hope will not be forgotten in the future history of the Laboratory.” Yes, a most valuable protest, and a courageous and visionary man: there are good reasons – indeed, moral obligations – to remember both.    

Notes and references:

This post has been adapted from a longer article first published in the Oxford Magazine. The full text can be read here, including a more detailed set of footnotes:

John Ruskin’s time as Slade Professor, and its abrupt end, are recounted in this blog here:

Burdon Sanderson was called “the arch-priest” in The Oxford University Herald on 27 October 1883, about the time he took up his duties as Waynflete Professor. Nicholson’s description of The Rights of an Animal comes from contemporary publicity material for the book.

The Times’s comments on Nicholson’s appointment were published on 6 February, 1882

Quotations about the Convocation debates come from Charles Oman, Memories of Victorian Oxford, London, 1941, and from two university journals of the time: the Oxford Magazine, then primarily a student paper, for 13 February 1884 and 11 March 1885, and the Oxford Review for 7 February 1884

The hostile curator was Mark Pattison, writing in his journal, as quoted in an unpublished thesis in the Bodleian Library about Nicholson’s professional career, written by K.A.Manley, 1977).

The consolatory letter was written to Nicholson by the Regius Professor of Hebrew, Samuel Driver.

The contemporary cartoon shows Burdon Sanderson ‘experimenting’ upon Edward Nicholson. The ‘Blue Book’ of the caption, on a copy of which Nicholson’s hand is resting, is the Royal Commission Report on vivisection, published in 1876. As the frog indicates, the reference there and in the speech-bubble is to the “beautiful experiment” that became a theme of the 1884 Convocation debate (though the date given for this vivisection of Nicholson at the “Sheldonian Laboratories” seems to be miswritten “5th Jan”). Unfortunately I have mislaid the source for this illustration, but I thank the archive concerned and hope that the unattributed use will be forgiven.

Putting Sentience Back into Law

Today is World Animal Day, described by its present sponsor, Naturewatch Foundation, as “an international day of action for animal rights and welfare”, with the aim to “make the world a better place for all animals . . . a world where animals are always recognised as sentient beings.” Today is also the feast day of St Francis of Assisi who, in legend at least, saw and addressed sentience in all of nature – a noble over-estimate, if it is one at all. He is the patron saint of sentience.

St Francis 2

That term ‘sentient beings’ ought to be a tautology, but we know that in fact the truth in it needs constantly insisting upon, if we are indeed to re-make a world where so many human practices and interests have depended upon disregarding it. The formal recognition of animal sentience in law is therefore a most important and also a contentious achievement. That achievement is one that the UK government is now in the middle of attempting, with its Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill – part of the government’s Action Plan for Animal Welfare (discussed in this blog on 1 June). The Bill was introduced in the House of Lords on 13 May, and first debated on 16 June. It was given more detailed attention in the committee stage on 6 July, and is now waiting to be further debated at the ‘report’ stage. When the House of Lords has finished debating and revising it, the Bill will start round again in the House of Commons.

It’s a very short document, consisting of just six clauses and essentially two themes: first, the concept or fact of sentience in animals, which was there in the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty but lost to UK law by Brexit; and second, the establishment of a permanent Animal Sentience Committee to alert the government to any effects which its policies may have on “the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings”. Still, this short bill has so far occupied the Lords for over eight hours of debate, with many more to come. It is evidently, then, a controversial proposal. Good, because that must mean that it really does imply change.

Of course most of the speakers in the House of Lords debates have expressly and willingly accepted that animals, vertebrate ones at least, are indeed sentient. They have said, what is quite true, that sentience is implicitly acknowledged in all British animal welfare law going back to the early nineteenth century. But I suspect that this emphasis on history, and its corollary that recognising sentience is nothing new, has a political sub-text: it keeps sentience within the traditional ethical context, where humans decide what duties they should feel towards animals. The Countryside Alliance, which has strong interests in the continuation of that ethical tradition, composed a ‘Briefing Note’ for their Lordships before the debates, in which the point is clearly made: “Of course, recognition of sentience and the welfare needs of animals is not the same as recognising that animals have rights, in the sense that human beings have rights.” And therefore, as Baroness Mallalieu said in the House, the introduction of the term into law, though unobjectionable, “is strictly unnecessary”. The Baroness is (as indeed she made clear) president of the Countryside Alliance and herself a farmer, representing then a complex of interests in keeping things as they have been.

So does the formal acknowledgement of sentience in law represent a threat to traditional practices? I feel sure that it does. One of the familiar features of debates like these in the House of Lords is the ‘nation of animal-lovers’ trope. Lord Benyon, the minister who introduced the bill (thank-you to him), said “I am proud, as I hope your Lordships are, of the UK’s reputation as a nation of animal-lovers.” Lord Trees spoke of “our proud history of protecting animal welfare”. It’s what we are and choose to do, you see, and what we therefore take credit for. But the focus on sentience re-locates the ethic; it becomes something in the animal that demands certain conduct from us. As the Countryside Alliance tacitly fears, it moves ethics along the welfare-rights axis in the rights direction.

Moreover, once out of our hands, there’s no telling what the revised ethic may require of us. One speaker feared, perhaps facetiously, that we might be told that worms have sentience. Others were concerned with the more immediate threat to ‘country sports’, shooting and fishing; in fact one of the amendments proposed during committee stage was to add birds and fishes to the single excepted species in the Bill’s working definition of ‘sentient animal’ (“any vertebrate other than homo sapiens”).

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill foresees that the Secretary of State, so far from excepting species like fishes and birds, may probably wish to add species into its definition of sentient animal. Several speakers in the debates asked that cephalopods and decapod crustaceans be included now, rather than later. After all, the government has had an expert report on the sentience of these animals awaiting its attention since December 2020, and this seems sure to be affirmative. In this connection, some of their Lordships (‘lordships’ seems to be a collective term that includes females), fear that the sentience test, so crucial to the Bill, will undesirably turn the status of animals into an aspect of research science rather than a democratic ethical decision. For it will be scientists, not ministers or MPs, who decide how sentient particular animals are, though ministers will have to endorse or reject the science.

There’s surely some merit in that warning, but anyway sentience cannot be regarded as a complete foundation for animal or any other ethics. It confines the question to pain and pleasure, but life itself is a value, in worms as in all other cases, and also an implicit right once entered into – hence Professor Tom Regan’s philosophy that imputes rights to whatever can be said to be ‘subjects-of-a-life’. Still, we’re talking now about law, which never is or pretends to be the sum of morality.

Then there’s the Animal Sentience Committee, the primary purpose and innovation of the Bill. It will be a permanent and independent committee, free to scrutinize policy, whether extant or in preparation, right across government: “there are no policy exemptions”, says Lord Benyon, and “we want them to decide what issues they should look at.” (In this and other respects, the Bill is a good deal more demanding and more comprehensive than the Lisbon Treaty.) The committee’s duty will be to make sure that ministers have paid “all due regard” to sentient animals, to report on problematic instances, and to receive a response within a period of three months. In theory, then, this committee will at last formally incorporate the interests of animals (officially sentient animals, at least) in the political process, surviving changes of administration and developing its own values as it goes.

The Bill does not specify the membership of the committee, only that the Secretary of State will appoint it. But some of their Lordships seem to have a pretty clear idea of how it’s likely to behave. It will, as they variously picture it, go “roaring off” into government business “like a bolting horse”, “bossing everybody about”, “going round summoning ministers”, and generally “roaming about” Whitehall, until “we all have to discuss animal welfare the whole time and it becomes impermissible not to discuss it every time a Bill comes up.” The committee is not required, as the Lisbon Treaty does require its EU nations, to make allowances for religious and other traditional practices (though of course the minister in the case can and no doubt will do so). It might, some suggested, interfere in foreign relations, finding fault with the treatment of animals in countries which the UK trades with or in other ways has policies towards. It might even (widespread alarm at the idea) direct its baleful attention towards the use of animals in science, interfering in the administration of the 1986 Act which regulates that arena of exploitation.

Well, as to all that, if only! But it must be recalled that the minister referenced in any report published by the Animal Sentience Committee (which can indeed publish as it “thinks appropriate”) has only to “lay a response . . . before Parliament”; he or she will not have to take the committee’s advice. In fact the Green Party’s Baroness Jones predicted that the response of such ministers would “in practice be little more than listing the reasons why they are ignoring the committee.” The committee’s existence might even have the effect of relieving ministers of the necessity to think about such aspects of policy themselves, letting them fall out of the democratic process altogether. “This Bill”, she said, “is the Government pretending to do something about animal sentience.” She summed it up as “a disaster”.

An empty show, then? Or (as the Countryside Alliance fears) a “Trojan horse” sneaking “extreme animal rights activists and environmentalists” into the citadel of government? I believe that even as a PR enterprise the Act would be making a valuable point, but in practice the Sentience Committee would surely make certain it was much more than that. Of course the Bill may not survive its passage through Parliament. After all, one of the amendments proposed on 6 July was the deleting of its first clause, the one which creates the committee, which is as much as to say deleting of the Bill. However, we must hope for a better result.

You may have seen that the government has now published a response to the recent consultation about relaxing controls over the genetic editing of farm crops and animals (another Brexit dividend: see this blog for 14 March). The announced intention is to relax restrictions in the case of plants, but to leave the animals fully protected for the time being. Now there’s a case for the Animal Sentience Committee when the question comes round again, as it eventually will. Let’s hope that by then that troop of animal activists and environmentalists will be out of the wooden horse and ready for battle!

Notes and references:

The text of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill can be read here:

The second reading in the House of Lords (the first being simply the notice given of the Bill’s existence) is reported in Hansard here:  The committee stage is reported here:  Note that the committee stage is the point at which definite amendments are proposed, but some of them (like excepting birds and fishes from the category ‘animal’, or dropping clause 1) are ‘probing amendments’, aimed at highlighting a concern rather than actually making the changes specified. Although the debates brought out strong feeling on both sides of the argument, not very many members were present, even allowing for those who participated online.

The Countryside Alliance’s responses, as quoted, appear in a Briefing Note and on the web-site here:  These are actually quite measured though wary accounts of the matter.

The government’s announcement on the subject of genetically edited plants and animals is published here:  The subject was treated in this blog here:

The illustration shows St Francis preaching to the birds, a detail from the fresco of latish 13th century by the anonymous artist referred to as the Master of St Francis (in the public domain). St Francis has been spoken of in this blog here

and here