Lord Avebury, P.C., D.C.L., L.L.D., F.R.S. Born April 30, 1834; Died May 28, 1913. By Sir C.Hercules Read.

One of the commonest phrases in the obituary notices of distinguished men is that the gaps caused by their death will be hard to fill.  No doubt this is often true of many of our public characters, and the man spoken of is generally accepted as the exponent or the apostle of a particular national service.  He has performed it with such fullness and adequacy that it seems impossible for any other mind ever to succeed in holding all the threads which had been so deftly managed in the past.

When one has to deal with the character and achievements of a man like Lord Avebury, none of the ordinary phrases entirely meet the conditions presented by such a career.  His peers in the scientific world as a rule differ widely from him in the circumstances of their life.  Those who, like him, began life in the most favourable surrounding, had the unquestionable advantage of a thorough training at school and university; others whose distinction has been gained in despite of such preliminary advantages, have at least been able or obliged to devote all their energies, mental and bodily, to the one pursuit that they have mapped out on their life’s work.  Neither one nor the other of the positions will fit Lord Avebury’s life.  A few years at Eton sums up all the tuition, as distinct from education, that fortune allowed him, and at the age of fifteen he entered his father’s bank.  At that time, sixty odd years ago, it is not likely that his days spent in learning the business of finance were otherwise than filled with the endless routine that would be the lot of a junior in such a firm.  Hardly any pursuit would seem more entirely unpromising for the production of a prophet of science for the people, and yet in such an uncongenial environment young Lubbock worked at his natural history, and eventually, while yet in the prime of life, his name was probably more widely known than that of any of his contemporaries as suggesting a combination of the man of science and the man of business.

Lombard Street, however, is not the place in which biology can be readily studies, and the problems of animal and plant life that Lubbock dealt with had their inspiration in a very different atmosphere.  His good fortune on the side of science was summed up in one fact - that within a stone’s throw of his father’s house in Orpington lived Charles Darwin, a circumstance of inestimable value to Lubbock.  Not only was the restless and acute brain of Darwin persistently devoted to the endless problems that nature presents to such a mind, but the house at Down was a Mecca for the whole world of science, and the opportunities of hearing the most acute intellects of the day engaged in friendly conflict over the mysteries of the universe provided for the younger man at once a mental forcing house and a wealth of suggestion that could not fail to produce ample results.  This was in reality Lord Avebury’s education-an education of a kind that, given a sympathetic base, could not be matched in any school or university anywhere.  The use that he made of it is known to the world.  Geology, botany, the lives of insects, the problem of early or primitive man, all in turn held his mind and occupied his pen, and his treatment of these subjects in a style that suited itself to popular consumption has deservedly rendered his name a household word among English-speaking peoples and beyond.

Such an achievement for a man engaged in an important and absorbing business career might seem to be enough for one life.  It was not so with Lord Avebury.  His sympathies were widely engaged in social and economic problems with fully as much devotion.  The holidays of the people, the bettering of the condition of shop assistants, the conservation of our ancient monuments, the preservation of our open spaces, all of these and many other subsidiary interests in turn held his attention and occupied the energies of his leisure.  Concurrently with these engagements, and perhaps because of them, he was Chairman of the London County Council for two years, an office absorbing enough for an otherwise free man.

In our own special field Lord Avebury was President of the Ethnological Society and Foundation Fellow of the Anthropological Institute, occupying the chair from 1871-73.  His two principal works are his Prehistoric Times and The Origin of Civilisation.  The first of these was admirable at the time of its publication, but the later editions suffered somewhat from a need of remodelling to bring them up to the demands of the day.

As an old friend of Lord Avebury - for I had known him since 1874 – I shall long mourn his loss.  The most urbane and amiable of men, he was ever ready to discuss any difficulty that presented itself in the many affairs of a public or semi-public character in which we were both interested.  His decision was invariably on the side of the soft answer, if that could by any means meet the case; but on certain subjects, where he felt strongly, he could be as unyielding as any man.  As a public character he may be summed up in one word, useful: with the qualities of industry and receptivity very strongly developed.  It was these two which made him the man he was.  A strain of sentiment there undoubtedly was also, and it appears in the fact that he chose as his title the name of the most ancient of British monuments, which changed the familiar Sir John Lubbock into Baron Avebury.


This obituary first appeared as: Read, C. Hercules. 1913. 'Lord Avebury, P.C., D.C.L., L.L.D., F.R.S. Born April 30, 1834; Died May 28, 1913.'. Man Vol. 13, pp. 97-98. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

READ, C. HERCULES. 1913. 'Lord Avebury, P.C., D.C.L., L.L.D., F.R.S. Born April 30, 1834; Died May 28, 1913.'. Man Vol. 13, pp.97-98. (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/lord-avebury).



KEITH, ARTHUR. 1934. 'Centenary of the Birth of Lord Avebury'. Man Vol. 34, pp.49-51. (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/centenary-of-the-birth-of-lord-avebury).


Link to relevant records by or concerning the listed person on the RAI’s bibliographic database Anthropological Index Online https://aio.therai.org.uk/aio.php?action=doquicksearch&qs_resultsmode=fullkeywords&qs_decades=all&qs_keyword=John%20Lubbock