Kent Scientists

John Lubbock, Lord Avebury (1834-1913)

Lived at High Elms near Farnborough and later near Broadstairs.

Prodigiously active naturalist, writer, politician and banker

John Lubbock

John Lubbock (Internet archive)

In 1840 a London banker (and Fellow of the Royal Society), Sir J W Lubbock, moved with his wife and children into their newly-built mansion, High Elms near Farnborough. His eldest son, John, then aged 6, was destined to follow his father into the family bank, which he would head for nearly 50 years. But John Lubbock would grow up to be much than just a banker. A man of exceptional talent and energy  he would also make his mark as a scientist, archaeologist, politician, and writer, eventually being raised to the peerage.

Soon after the Lubbocks moved to Kent, they received the exciting news that Charles Darwin was setting up home in the village of Downe, just 2 miles up the road from High Elms. Darwin and Sir J.W. had many shared interests and the two families became friends. Over the coming years Darwin would serve as an unofficial scientific mentor to young John Lubbock, nurturing in him the skills and methods of a trained naturalist. He induced the boy’s father to buy him a microscope, and taught him to use it. John Lubbock later recalled how much he had enjoyed his ‘walks and talks’ with the great man. Darwin in turn described his protégé as ‘a remarkably amiable pleasant young man’. 

The Lubbock mansion at High Elms near Farnborough (Internet archive)

Darwin later lamented that John might have made more impact as a scientist if he had not devoted so much time to his other activities. As it was, his main contribution to science was through the popular books he wrote on natural history topics, some of which sold in huge numbers. One of them, entitled ‘Ants, Bees, and Wasps’, ran to 13 editions in his lifetime [available to be read online here]. In it he described his observations over many years of the social habits of these insects – research he carried out in spare moments, while working as a busy banker and Member of Parliament.

Illustrations from Lubbock's book 'Ants, bees and wasps' (Internet archive)

Lubbock devised methods of studying ants which had not been used before. He maintained small observation nests indoors, each consisting of a thin layer of earth sandwiched between glass plates. In this way he – with the help of his daughters – could monitor the ants’ activities over long periods. He was fascinated, for example, to watch what happens when new ants emerge from their pupas, commenting that it was ‘very pretty to see the older ants helping them to extricate themselves, carefully unfolding their legs and smoothing out the wings, with truly feminine tenderness and delicacy.’

He also developed a technique whereby individual ants could be identified by placing tiny blobs of paint on their backs. This enabled him to show that some ants live much longer lives than was thought at the time – far longer in fact that almost any other type of insect. One of the queen ants which he kept died at the age of almost 15 years. He also investigated the senses possessed by ants, establishing that they cannot hear as we do, but are sensitive to vibration. He was the first to show that their eyes are sensitive to ultraviolet light, so that ‘the colours of objects and the general aspect of nature must present to them a very different appearance from what it does to us’. And he marvelled that when one ant encountered a group of others, they would somehow instantly recognise the new arrival as either a ‘friend’, from their own nest, or an ‘enemy’, from another nest, even though they were all of the same species, and the nests contained many thousands of inhabitants.

John Lubbock was MP for West Kent for 18 years, and later for London University. He is particularly remembered as the determined promoter of two pieces of legislation. The first of these created four new Bank Holidays which, unlike the existing four holidays did not fall on religious feast days. For this popular move he earned the nickname ‘St. Lubbock’.  His second campaign grew out of his lifelong interest in archaeology and led to the passing of the  Ancient Monuments Protection Act. This gave protected status to 68 pre-historic sites around the country.

Prehistoric remains at Avebury (Wikimedia Commons)

One of these sites was Avebury in Wiltshire, with its Neolithic earthworks and stone circles, one of them larger (and more ancient) than Stonehenge. Lubbock himself had already purchased part of this site to prevent it falling into the hands of a developer, and would later derive from it his title of Lord Avebury. (The site is now a World Heritage Site, managed by the National Trust). Lubbock’s pioneering measure was followed by others increasing its force and scope until today there are almost 20,000 legally protected Scheduled Monuments in England alone.

Kingsgate Castle in 2018

In 1901 Lubbock purchased the ruins of Kingsgate Castle, a sham-gothic edifice on the cliffs above Broadstairs,  and set about rebuilding it as a delightful family home, and it is there that he died in May 1913. He is buried in Farnborough churchyard. One of many newspaper obituaries described him as ‘one of the most esteemed, accomplished, useful and public-spirited men of his time’. Another added that he ‘in private life possessed infinite charm’. One further unusual distinction is that he was probably the first person in Britain to be photographed – or rather ‘daguerreotyped’. As a small boy he had been playing in the garden when the French inventor of this early form of photography visited to demonstrate the new process to John’s father.

The mansion at High Elms survived until destroyed by fire in 1967 and the estate is now a Country Park and golf course. Kingsgate Castle survives, now converted into flats. Avebury Avenue in Tonbridge commemorates Lubbock’s visit to inaugurate the town’s new Technical Institute and Free Library in 1900.