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Bloomsbury and the Bloomsbury Project

Bloomsbury People

What is the Bloomsbury Project?

The Leverhulme-funded UCL Bloomsbury Project was established to investigate 19th-century Bloomsbury’s development from swampy rubbish-dump to centre of intellectual life

Led by Professor Rosemary Ashton, with Dr Deborah Colville as Researcher, the Project has traced the origins, Bloomsbury locations, and reforming significance of hundreds of progressive and innovative institutions

Many of the extensive archival resources relating to these institutions have also been identified and examined by the Project, and Bloomsbury’s developing streets and squares have been mapped and described

This website is a gateway to the information gathered and edited by Project members during the Project’s lifetime, 1 October 2007–30 April 2011, with the co-operation of Bloomsbury’s institutions, societies, and local residents

Dionysius Lardner (1793–1859)

a summary of his Bloomsbury connections

He was the most exotic, and one of the most troublesome, of the first Professors appointed to the new University of London (later University College London) when it started recruiting in 1827

A graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, he was a popular occasional lecturer in Dublin on scientific subjects and had published a number of works on geometry, trigonometry, algebra, and the differential calculus when he was approached by Henry Brougham, the equally flamboyant chief founder of the University of London, to put himself forward for a Chair

He wrote to Brougham from Dublin on 19 May 1827, saying his prospects of a chair in natural philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, were encouraging him to believe he could earn at least £1,000 a year if he stayed in Ireland and asking Brougham what advantages he could expect if he came to London instead (Applications Maths 1827, UCL Special Collections)

Brougham encouraged him to come and talk about terms, rashly predicting that Lardner would be sure to earn at least £1,200 a year and perhaps even £2,000 (copy of Henry Brougham to Dionysius Lardner, 24 May 1827, College Correspondence Lardner, UCL Special Collections)

Lardner reported excitedly from London to Maria Edgeworth on 7 June that he was being courted for the Chair of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy:

“In every point of view the chair must be considered the most important in the University and I have little doubt that it will soon be the most important in Europe. The emoluments are considered as likely to exceed £2000 per ann”
(Dionysius Lardner to Maria Edgeworth, 7 June 1827, MS MISC 2L, UCL Special Collections)

When Lardner found that he had to haggle with the Council of the University over the cost of the apparatus (including a model steam engine) which he required to be built for use in his lectures, that the number of students who attended his classes did not meet his – and Brougham’s – expectations, and that consequently his salary was a mere £300 for the first two years and set to fall below that from 1830 unless he could attract large numbers, he indulged in bitter recriminations in hundreds of letters complaining to Council of his treatment (College Correspondence Lardner, UCL Special Collections)

Lardner was in the habit of advertising his many qualifications (including his degree in divinity, though he never practised as a clergyman) on the title pages of his books

An example is his account of Euclid’s Elements, published by the University of London’s printer and publisher John Taylor in 1828, which he advertised as “edited by the Rev. Dionysius Lardner, LLD, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy in the University of London; FRSE, Hon. FPS Camb.; FAstSL; Hon. FSA Scot.; MRIA” (College Correspondence Lardner, UCL Special Collections)

With two other Church of England clerics who had been appointed to Chairs at the University, Thomas Dale (English Language and Literature) and John Williams (Roman Language and Literature), Lardner petitioned the Council in May 1828 for permission to rent a chapel in the neighbourhood of the University in order to hold services and theological lectures for Anglican students (Council Minutes, vol. I, 15 May 1827, UCL Records Office)

Though Dale was the prime mover in this, Lardner was censured by an irritated Council for wishing to advertise the chapel as part of the regular instruction which would be offered when the avowedly secular University opened its doors in October 1828, whereas Council had agreed to allow the three Professors to act only in a private capacity and specifically outside the walls of the institution (Council Minutes, vol. I, 14 August 1828, UCL Records Office)

Lardner often acted as a kind of shop steward for the Professors – who had no representation on committees and no say in the management of the University’s affairs – in their tussles with the Council, which culminated in 1831 with the enforced resignation of the Professor of Anatomy, Granville Sharp Pattison, and the embittered resignation of the high-handed Warden, Leonard Horner

Mindful of his and his colleagues’ need to attract large numbers of students in order to earn what he considered a decent salary, he lobbied Council in the summer months of 1828 leading up to the University’s opening

He urged wider publicity for the institution, not only in the national press but in statements which he wanted to be sent to local newspapers in “every principal town in England”, and included in all the publications of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, for which he himself wrote treatises on mechanics and optics

He even suggested copies of these statements should be “enclosed and delivered at every respectable house in London and its environs” (Dionysius Lardner to Council, 14 August 1828, College Correspondence Lardner, UCL Special Collections)

His advice, admittedly excessive, fell on deaf ears, as the Council relied too optimistically on attracting students without making huge efforts

Student numbers across the board were disappointing in the early years, starting at 557 in 1828–1829, rising to 596 in 1829, then falling to 400 in 1831–1832, when the University was in danger of financial collapse (Annual Reports 1829–1832, UCL Records Office)

By this time, Lardner had resigned after failing to persuade the University to guarantee him a salary beyond the session 1830–1831

He had tangled with the dictatorial Leonard Horner, refusing to accede to the “peremptory authority of an individual” in February 1829 and writing to Council angrily on the following day expressing resentment at Horner’s refusal to reimburse him £125 for his apparatus

He spoke for many of the Professors when he said that he would deal only with the Council and not with “an officer, who I believe not to be my academical superior” (Dionysius Lardner to Leonard Horner, 16 February 1829, and to Council, 17 February 1829, College Correspondence Lardner, UCL Special Collections)

On 22 January 1830 Lardner expressed directly the grievance felt by all the underpaid Professors that Horner, a mere administrator and an interfering one in their view, was paid £1,000 plus £200 allowance for rent while they struggled to get as much as £300 a year, and this at a time when the University’s finances were dire

He wrote to Council that he was sorry about the “depressed state” of finances, but noted the Warden’s salary as compared to his and warned that he might have to resign, since “opportunities of lucrative & honorable employment press upon me” (Dionysius Lardner to Council, 22 January 1830, College Correspondence Lardner, UCL Special Collections)

By this time the Council was so fed up with Lardner’s complaints that it attempted to accept his threatened resignation, at which he backtracked, continuing to try to make a go of his lecturing until he finally gave up the fight and resigned in earnest in November 1831 (Dionysius Lardner to Council, 30 November 1831, College Correspondence, no. 2258, UCL Special Collections)

This was not quite the last that the University heard of Lardner, who was already engaged by Longman to edit the Cabinet Cyclopaedia, which appeared in 133 volumes between 1830 and 1849, and who was able to make decent sums of money giving popular evening lectures on scientific subjects, including the topical subject of the steam engine

In May 1834 Edmund Daniell of the Royal Institution wrote to Thomas Coates, Secretary of the University, to ask if he could borrow the “large condensing Model and high pressure Model” for lectures Lardner was to give at the Institution (Edmund Daniell to Thomas Coates, 21 May 1834, College Correspondence, no. 3203, UCL Special Collections)

These were among the apparatus Lardner had designed and had built at the University’s expense for use in his lectures there and which had remained as the University’s property; the University graciously lent them for the occasion

When the junior school opened within the walls of the University in January 1832, under the joint headmastership of the Professors of Latin (Thomas Hewitt Key) and Greek (Henry Malden), Lardner promptly enrolled his two sons, George, aged 15, and Henry, aged 13 (Dionysius Lardner to Thomas Coates, 27 September 1832, College Correspondence, no. 2749, UCL Special Collections; Temple Orme, University College School: Alphabetical and Topographical Register for 1831–1898, 1898)

Lardner was a colourful figure before, during, and after his tenure at the University of London

He had separated from his wife in Dublin in 1820, beginning a relationship with the married Anne Boursiquot, whose son Dionysius Lardner Boursiquot, later known as the playwright and actor Dion Boucicault, born in 1820, was almost certainly his and whom he supported for several years (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

While he was teaching and complaining at the University of London from 1827 to 1831, he was also moving in fashionable society and advertising his expertise; the poet Thomas Moore recounted in June 1829 how he had been invited by Lardner to visit the University “to meet Lord and Lady Stafford, &c. &c.; to whom he was to display his sections of machinery” (Moore’s diary, quoted in H. Hale Bellot, University College London 1826–1926, 1929)

As editor of the Cabinet Cyclopaedia, and pushy man-about-town, he attracted the scorn of both Dickens, who called him ‘that prince of humbugs’ in 1838 (Charles Dickens to Harrison Ainsworth, 25 January 1838, The Letters of Charles Dickens, ed Madeline House and Graham Storey, vol. I, 1965), and Thackeray, who played many puns on his pretentious name and mocked his Irishness and his egotism, calling him ‘Dionysius Diddler’, ‘Docthor Dioclesian Larner’, ‘Doctor Athanasius Lardner’, and making him claim that the Cabinet Cyclopaedia is ‘the littherary wontherr of the wurrld’ and ‘the Phaynix of Cyclopajies’ (Fraser’s Magazine, vol. XVIII, 1838; The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, ed. Gordon N. Ray, vol. I, 1945)

In 1840 Lardner hit the headlines again when he eloped to France with the wife of a Captain of Guards and was allegedly flogged by the injured husband, who pursued the couple; Captain Heavyside was awarded £8,000 in damages in the criminal conversation case he brought against Lardner, who had by this time escaped to America with his lover to begin another successful career in public lecturing (The Times, 19 March 1840, 14–16 April 1840; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

In spite of all this, Lardner contributed through his energy and popularising intelligence to the advance in public knowledge of the new discoveries in science and technology, particularly the steam engine and later the electric telegraph, of which he published readable accounts (J. N. Hays, ‘The Rise and Fall of Dionysius Lardner’, Annals of Science, vol. XXXVIII, 1981)

For more general biographical information about Dionysius Lardner, see his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

This page last modified 7 April, 2011 by Deborah Colville


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