Robert Boyle of Stalbridge Park
John Newth on the life and Dorset connections of one of the fathers of British science
Published in April ’13
‘A goodlie, faire house’ was the description of Stalbridge Park when it was built by the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven in 1618. It was the fifth largest house in Dorset, notable for its soaring chimneys and its generous mullioned windows. Castlehaven was an Irish peerage and at that time many of the Irish aristocracy were seeking a mainland refuge from the increasing unrest in Ireland. It didn’t save the 2nd Earl, who was executed for ‘unnatural practices’ in 1631. Five years later, Stalbridge Park and its estate were bought by another Irish peer, the Earl of Cork. As a young man, plain Richard Boyle had emigrated to Ireland with only £27 to his name, but through business acumen and a first marriage to a wealthy widow, he was to become the biggest landowner in Ireland, reputedly the richest English subject and Lord Treasurer of Ireland, as well as Earl of Cork. All of these achievements are nothing, however, compared with his fathering of Robert Boyle, one of the most significant figures in the history of science in Britain.
Robert was born in 1626, Richard’s seventh son and fourteenth child out of fifteen. His father may have reproduced prolifically, but he apparently did not want the results of his efforts around him since the sons at least were all fostered out to Irish country folk for the first five years of their lives. As a result, young Robert was as comfortable speaking Irish as English, but that no doubt changed when he was sent to Eton at the age of nine. He was identified as a student of enormous promise, but after four years, his father became concerned by the louche behaviour of many of Robert’s contemporaries at Eton and brought him home.
‘Home’ was by now Stalbridge Park, but initially Robert was boarded out with the parson, Mr Douch, with whom he continued his studies. He appears to have loved Stalbridge and ‘would spend four or five hours alone in the fields…and think at random.’ Then his father sent him and his brother, Francis, on the Grand Tour which was an essential part of the education of a young aristocrat. While they were away, in 1643, the Earl of Cork died, but the Civil War was at its height – the first battle of Newbury took place a week after the Earl’s death – and the two young travellers were stranded for a further year before they could return to England. Otherwise, the war left the family strangely unaffected; their natural instincts were Royalist, but Robert’s beloved elder sister, Katherine, had married Viscount Ranelagh, who wielded considerable influence among the Parliamentarians. Nevertheless, Robert wrote later: ‘We found things in such a confusion, that although the manor of Stalbridge were by my father’s decease descended unto me, yet it was near four months before I could get thither.’
It was in fact 1646, when he was aged twenty, before Robert came fully into his inheritance. Stalbridge was to be his base for the next six years, interspersed with visits to London, Oxford and Ireland. During this time he was developing his passion for chemistry, although his initial experiments were closer to alchemy, the centuries-old search for a way to turn base metal into gold. His interests ranged widely, however, and he wrote to a former tutor: ‘As for my studies, I have had the opportunity to prosecute them but by fits and snatches, as my leisure and my occasions would give me leave. Divers little essays, both in verse and prose, I have taken pains to scribble upon several subjects…. The other humane studies I apply myself to are natural philosophy, the mechanics and husbandry.’
Not the least of his achievements during this time was to write a full-length, privately circulated book called The Martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus. It tells the story of Theodora being given the choice by the ruler of Antioch between acknowledging pagan gods and being sent to be a prostitute. She chooses the latter, but before her virtue can be assailed, she is rescued by her lover, Didymus. Alas, they are both caught and put to death. No less a judge than Samuel Johnson was to suggest that the book showed such promise that its author might have become a major literary figure.
The book’s action is not exactly fast-moving, since it is really only an excuse for lengthy dialogues in which Boyle expounds his beliefs about philosophy and religion. He would not have recognised the modern Dawkins-esque theory that a true scientist must reject faith; indeed, he specifically placed the study of science and of the Bible on an equal footing. A contemporary wrote of him: ‘His life was spent in the pursuit of nature through a great variety of forms and changes, and in the most rational as well as devout adoration of its divine author.’ Boyle was a Governor of the ‘Corporation for Propagating the Gospel in New England and the Parts adjacent to America’, and he paid from his own funds for translations of the Bible into Malay, Turkish, Welsh, Irish and several Native American dialects.
Robert’s lifestyle during his years at Stalbridge has been described as part recluse, part young squire of modest means. Few friends visited and he would walk or ride over the fields, as he had done when a boy, with a spaniel as his sole companion. He himself described the house as ‘my own ruined cottage in the country’ and wrote to a London friend: ‘I am grown so perfect a villager, and live so removed not only from the roads but from the very by-paths of intelligence, that to entertain you with our country discourse would have extremely puzzled me, since your children have not the rickets nor the measles: and as for news, I could not have sent you so much as that of my being well.’
Perhaps not surprisingly, the quiet country life soon palled, and in 1652 Robert went to Ireland before moving in 1654 to Oxford, which was to be his base for the next fourteen years, after which he went to live in London. Oxford was where he did the bulk of his research and experimentation that was to contribute so significantly to the understanding of the natural world. He was particularly interested in how gases behave under pressure and his name lives on in Boyle’s law, which states that the pressure of a gas is inversely proportional to its volume at a constant temperature. Many of his experiments on compressed air used a specially built air pump. In this field he also demonstrated, among other things, that sound does not travel in a vacuum, that flame requires air, and the elastic properties of air.
Such work was not the only thing that occupied his relentlessly inquisitive mind. He also researched why meat becomes luminous as it ages, the effect of a vacuum upon insects, an unsinkable ship, mind-altering drugs and the measurement of longitude. In this his outlook was entirely in keeping with the spirit of the age, which saw an extraordinary advancement of scientific thought. Boyle, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton were all born within sixteen years of each other, but as early as 1646, Boyle was writing from Stalbridge about ‘our new philosophical college’, which he also called ‘the Invisible College’, and which met in London from 1645 on. It was this group which in 1660 was granted by Charles II the title of the Royal Society, today the most significant and respected scientific society in Britain, if not the world.
Robert Boyle could so easily have lived out his life at Stalbridge as an obscure country squire; instead, his achievements brought him offers of a college fellowship, a peerage, a bishopric and the Provostship of Eton, all of which he declined. After his death, unmarried, in 1692, Stalbridge Park was owned by the descendants of his brother, Francis. They sold it to the Marquess of Anglesea, who as Henry Paget, Earl of Uxbridge, had had his leg shot off at Waterloo while sitting on his horse next to the Duke of Wellington. In 1822 the house was demolished and much of its stone re-used, notably in Stalbridge Park Farmhouse. The 18th-century wall around the park remains and is a landmark in North Dorset to this day, just as Boyle and his Law are a landmark in the history of British science.