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.