Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930. Immediately, his blessed relief from the mortal coil was welcomed with the undignified spectacle of every half-way ambitious spiritualist medium in the world claiming to have heard from the man who, in his final decade, had been the most famous defender of their faith. In Britain, Canada, the USA and as far away as New Zealand (which is as far away from Britain as you can get), mediums received word from the now-deceased author about ‘conditions on the other side’.
One of the more well-publicized cases was a New Zealand medium named Violet May Cottrell. Later she was to achieve moderate local fame from her secular rather than her spiritualist writings. Her poem about a Maori maiden of her own invention called ‘Pania of the Reef’ inspired a statue that still stands on the Napier waterfront.
For about a decade before Conan Doyle died she had been engaged in spirit or ‘automatic’ writing, a process where individuals enter some form of trance or state of concentration and write down messages from spirits and ghosts. It bears some resemblance to modern free-writing techniques. After early experiments with pendulums and tapping out messages she graduated to automatic writing, and received messages from her parents, grandparents and various other spirit guides. As she developed her automatic writing, she began to publish her ‘psychic recordings’ in the Australian spiritualist newspaper Harbinger of Light. She was a prolific automatic writer, and she recorded all manner of messages; from very personal and trivial notes about friends and family to apocalyptic warnings about the future of the world. However, as the editor of the Harbinger, W. Britton Harvey, noted, she ‘exhibited a very critical spirit and did not hesitate to place the Communications [sic] received by her in the crucible of strict analysis’.
Three days after Conan Doyle’s death Cottrell claimed that she began receiving psychic dictation from the great author. The message from Doyle eventually extended to over 100 pages and prophesied a great spiritual awakening, which he would help promote from the grave through the humble medium of Cottrell. Throughout the Cottrell recordings, her concerns, preoccupations and doubts are very much in evidence. Doyle spent some time assuring Cottrell that he really was who he said he was, and authenticating the reality of his communication:
You are rather chary of me I know and not assured of my genuineness. You need have no doubt on that score, however, for I am very much here within the circle of your consciousness, which is amazingly wide they tell me. That is to say that your mind reached [sic] out and contacts other minds on this side of life, with an ease and certainty that is remarkable.
At various times the spirits – particularly Doyle – affirmed, cajoled, comforted, counseled, prescribed, teased, chided, gossiped with and dictated to Cottrell. In one sense these psychic experiences and writings provided a ready outlet for Cottrell’s literary talent. She was a Napier housewife with two small children, stuck at home and harried by emotional, physical and psychological problems. Her spiritualist recordings provided her with an international audience in a wide range of different spiritualist journals, including the Harbinger of Light, London’s Spiritual Truth, the Indian Hindu Spiritual Research and the Progressive Thinker in Chicago. By claiming that the dead spoke through her, she was able to speak through the dead.
At the same time, even as the famous author spoke through her she was wracked by doubt. Cottrell suffered constant anxieties about the authenticity of her experience. When local clerics attacked Cottrell for her activities, Doyle asked: ‘Why should the foolish vapourings [sic] of an uninformed or wilfully blind preacher upset you who know the truth concerning spirit communication?’ Cottrell was guided on an intimate level by her spirits, but criticisms suggesting that her communications were evil or the inventions of an unstable mind still seemed to disturb her.
This case is interesting because, for all her doubts and for all the benefits that she accrued for her alleged contacts with the spirit world, Cottrell seemed to believe the experience genuine (even with the dozens of other mediums also claiming to have talked to Conan Doyle). Like many other forms of religious experience, her automatic writing was fictional but persuasive to her, even as much of the rest of the world was amused rather than convinced by Conan Doyle’s many posthumous ramblings. While Cottrell was not the only medium to say that she had contacted Conan Doyle, she was one of the more articulate, and news of her communication was hailed by the Harbinger of Light, and even made it into the New York Times. Unfortunately, as spiritualists knew well, communications could get a little confused over long distances, so that readers in New York were told that Cottrell was based in Vancouver rather than New Zealand.
Source: Violet May Cottrell Papers, Alexander Turnbull Library
The recent BBC television adaptation/modernization of the Sherlock Holmes stories, ‘Sherlock’, is quite good. But even as I watched it, something didn’t seem right. I finally realized that what made me uncomfortable was something about the identification between the characters and the authors. Both Arthur Conan Doyle and the creators of the TV series framed their stories so that the readers/audience identify with the loyal but puzzled every-middle-class-educatedman, John Watson. That much is the same. But where Conan Doyle also seemed to identify himself with Watson, in the TV series the writers seem to think of themselves as the Holmes to the viewers’ Watson. This goes wrong when they purvey cheap tricks rather than true genius (which is, for all the intricacies of the plotting, most of the time). This is a shame, because the power of Conan Doyle’s imagination lay partly in his humility: in the stories, Holmes is all the more powerful a character because his ratiocinations have an almost mystical quality.
Famously, during the First World War Arthur Conan Doyle converted to Spiritualism, lending him a notoriety among fans of his Sherlock Holmes stories, who for a long time preferred to pretend that Doyle hadn’t really existed, even as they were the first fan culture to really embrace the fiction that their beloved characters was real. Doyle also famously killed off Sherlock Holmes because he didn’t enjoy writing the stories and wanted to indulge his passion for writing mediocre historical novels about heroic English knights instead. But he was forced to bring Holmes back, and for the rest of his life, for all his passion for spiritualism, his other novels, his histories of the Boer War and his own attempts at investigating injustice, Holmes was the dominant figure. And it is for Holmes that he is remembered.
Arthur Conan Doyle 1859-1930 is a fascinating figure because he was a man with strong sense of duty: he had a duty to be humble; to be faithful and loyal to his family and friends; to be a good citizen of his nation and Empire; to be a proper subject to his Queen (and later in his life, his King). He was an eminent (late) Victorian who was eminently Victorian. Duty consumed him, and at times tormented him. Two examples spring to mind:
During the Boer War Conan Doyle worked as a propagandist for the government, writing a history of the war. It was for this rather than for his novels (although they must have played a part, too) that he was offered a knighthood in 1902. Initially he planned to refuse this honour, but his elderly mother found out, and told him in no uncertain terms that to refuse the knighthood would be an insult to both the King and to herself. Conan Doyle did not want to insult either, and accepted the honour. It was pretty common for knights to claim that they would have declined their honour if it weren’t for the fact that to do so would make their mother (or, more often, wife) unhappy. But in Conan Doyle’s case I believe the story. It seems to resonate with his character in other ways.
In 1906, Conan Doyle’s first wife, Louisa ‘Touie’ Hawkins, died after suffering from Tuberculosis for many years. About a decade earlier, Conan Doyle had met Jean Leckie. They became friends; a friendship that tormented Conan Doyle, because they had fallen in love. He was plagued by guilt by this passion. His invalid wife was dying, yet he could not stop thinking about another woman. I have little doubt that he remained faithful to his wife, but the fact that he even felt lust for someone other than the woman he had married was agonizing. Even the relief of Touie’s death was in itself a cause for guilt.
Conan Doyle was a man from the Scottish middle class who tried his hardest to live as a gentleman, with all that that implied – the benefits and the costs. The problems he had should remind us of the dangers of embracing a gendered behavioral ideology. His more charming character traits, though, seem to show the happier side of duty, when earnestly performed.
In the late 1950s, a problem was gripping the youth of New Zealand. Like Australia, Britain and the US, youth seemed to be out of control. The symptoms were sex (‘immoral behavior’), alcohol, tobacco. the causes were less clear but all the more worrying: did this represent a fundamental breakdown in the moral foundations of society? Had the youth lost something that could not be regained in the consumer-driven post-war world? A generation of parents had born the world on their shoulders in the Second World War. Now their children, shorn of responsibility, seemed to be drifting into a bored haze of immorality and anomie.
Historians tend to look back on this controversy, which happened in various forms throughout the ‘western’ world (even the bits in the South Pacific) as one of many periodic ‘moral panics’. Every few decades concerned adults and politicians tend to decry the morals of the young. Harold Hill’s ‘Trouble’ in River City (in the 1950s musical ‘The Music Man’) was a parody of precisely this phenomenon. Moral panics tend to start with broadening perception that a certain group poses a threat to the stability of society, which then explodes into hostility and intense concern about the group in question. The population demands that the government do something about it, or themselves take aggressive action to solve the perceived problem. However, they also tend to fade quickly. Moral panic burns bright but short.
In the moral panic over youth morality in the 1950s, various government and media reports in New Zealand worried about the sexual behavior in particular of young people. Rumors of debaucheries near Wellington and wariness about the sinister new ‘milk bars’ with all the opportunities for illicit youth sociability that these establishments promised, fuelled the moral panic. At the same time, one Auckland-based psychologist, A.E. Manning, decided to apply his own ‘scientific’ methods to get to the heart of the matter.
In order to discover the origins of this problem, Manning naturally turned to empirical data. He conducted interviews with a set of young men and women who had been classified by Australian and New Zealand authorities as juvenile delinquents, asking them about their families, their motivations, their plans for the future, and of course also testing their IQ. His descriptions of these interviews were deliberately evocative: he described his rapport with each of them, and gave detailed narratives of their lives and behavior in the interview room. He gave each a fake name, then wrote intimate details about their lives.
These case studies are great, as are the illustrations that accompany Manning’s account. ‘Eddie’, an Australian youth, ‘bore out the assertion that, on the average, highly intelligent people are better looking than the dull’. Son of Italian migrants, Eddie was intelligent and charismatic, but had turned to violence because of racial abuse at school – he was caned for getting into a fight with someone who called him a ‘Dago’. As a footnote, Manning noted that while Eddie had moved to the US to study Fine Arts, ‘it is doubtful whether even the fringe of his disturbance is cleared.’ The half-Maori New Zealand woman, ‘Fay’ was portrayed as being plagued by racism – everywhere she went people (including her white father) treated her on the basis of her appearance. Plagued by racialized dreams in which she was light-skinned but faced ‘horrid characters [who] were dark, she fell in with a fast crowd who, she claimed ‘were the first completely natural people she had ever met’.
Readers can read example after example just like these ones in Manning’s 1958 book. The mixture of attempted empathy and direct condescension is strange but fascinating. The first time I came across the book I was engrossed for hours in these seemingly unnaturally personal accounts of these young people’s lives (I was, myself, in my early twenties, just a bit older than most of the subjects). Manning placed a great deal of importance on factors like IQ, alcohol consumption and tobacco use, but he also was sensitive (and gave greater weight) to broader social factors, around education and parental upbringing in particular.
Manning’s conclusion, too, was based on a social rather than a personal reading of his ‘data’. Why were New Zealand, Australia and, by implication, other developed countries having problems with juvenile delinquency in the 1950s? Because their society failed them. A.E. Manning was holding up the perceived social problems of the 1950s and telling the very people who complained about them that they were at fault. Parents – and society, through racism and a lack of understanding of the psychology of youths – were responsible for the very problems they decried. Juvenile delinquency was the symptom, not the cure.
In hindsight, Manning’s tone and approach seem patronizing, especially as he describes his subjects with a mixture of condescension and friendliness. Furthermore, the idea that this represented a truly new social problem is questionable. Earlier, similar moral panics showed that, although there is something about 1950s consumer society that was new and historically different to what had come before. But he was an unusual figure in this era of moral panics. The sting in the book – his condemnation of a generation of parents – makes this classic of New Zealand social science all the more interesting, and saves Manning from completely falling into all the most negative stereotypes of modern social scientists (and psychologists in particular). The humanistic elements, rather than the social scientific, have aged the best.
Source: A.E. Manning, The Bodgie: A Study in Abnormal Psychology (Wellington: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1958)
British deejay and television host Jimmy Savile was a popular and enduring public figure. He has made the news twice recently: in 2011 he died, prompting friendly and generous obituaries for his colorful personality and extensive charitable work, especially with children. Now, it has been discovered that he used his position to be one of the worst serial pedophiles in modern history. Worse, it seems that at least some of his colleagues in the BBC were aware of this and a wider culture of sexual harassment and misogyny, yet did nothing about it.
I’ve been interested in Savile for quite a while, even before his death and recent vilification. Author of a genial and energetic autobiography in 1974, he received an OBE two years before, and was knighted in 1990. In an unfortunate move, the Roman Catholic Church also made him a knight commander in the Order of Saint Gregory the Great – a senior honour in the papal system. In his autobiography, he talks at some length about his experience of going to Buckingham Palace to receive his OBE from the hand of the Queen Mother – it was through this that I first came across him, and I was immediately struck by his style and candidness in describing the investiture (which was precisely what I was looking for).
His investiture served as the climax and the conclusion of his autobiography. This colorful memoir featured his postnominal letters prominently after his name on the front cover. While he acknowledged that his fast life (detailed energetically in other parts of the memoir) came ‘well, well down on God’s personal honours list and there are many people without medals up to whose shoulders I will never reach’, he was tremendously excited and comforted by the award ‘if only for one reason. Imagine being able to take your mother to Buckingham Palace for a [sic] lifelong recognition.’ Savile opened the letter from the Prime Minister one night at 2:30am at his home in Leeds, after arriving back from another part of the country. He was so excited that he telephoned his brother (who was unappreciative), then spent the rest of the night working off his excitement by wheeling around gurneys at the local hospital where he volunteered. The announcement itself and subsequent congratulations from friends and colleagues produced ‘embarrassment, guilt, pride and a mild form of agoraphobia’. Savile was torn between a desire to broadcast to the world that he would soon be OBE, and the secrecy demanded by the Prime Minister’s letter.
Savile called the day of the investiture itself ‘our palace day’, which he shared with his mother (whom he called ‘Duchess’) and his porter friend from the hospital, named ‘Joe’. The Duchess was ‘unbelieving’, and Joe treated the ceremony as if it were entirely in recognition of Savile himself. Savile portrayed his mother and friend as being in total awe, both bewildering and ‘like winning the pools’. By displacing part of the awe and sense of being overwhelmed onto his less worldly guests, Savile did present himself as being more sophisticated and less awed by the experience, but nonetheless he was clearly very impressed by the whole occasion. The ceremony was ‘of the order of magnificence that only 1,000 years of tradition could sustain’. After the ceremony and a celebratory lunch organized by Edward Lewis, a Decca Records executive, Savile proceeded to a dance hall in Croydon, where, still in his morning dress, and wearing his medal, he ‘weaved the spell over 2,000 teen-types’.
So much of this reads differently now. Take this passage, from when Savile first learned of his OBE:
The announcing of the honours list meant many headlines for me, and congratulations poured in from all over the world. At this point let me dwell on this award-getting business. Embarrassment, guilt, pride and a mild form of agoraphobia are the first feelings. Embarrassment because we are really all guilty but we happen to live in an odd society structure. Guilt because we know of many who deserve more than us. Pride, in its mildest sense, because most of human achievements are a little prideful, and a mild form of agoraphobia because all who know you, and in my case it was millions, have something to say about it so that takes you back to the start, of being slightly embarrassed.
Savile seems to have hidden in plain sight. He made it no secret that he was a bit of a sinner, who felt guilt, and people simply assumed that he was being cute about his rock and roll lifestyle. Isn’t he adorable, the little misbehaving scamp? Now, his ‘guilt’ takes on a more sinister note. In fact, the whole world of sixties and seventies rock and roll culture appears in a more sinister light with these revelation. As many others have pointed out, many famous bands of the era, including the Rolling Stones, sang about sex with underage girls.
Savile was friends with royalty, politicians and senior figures in hospitals around the UK. His celebrity and his fame as a fundraiser protected him from allegations (which were made in his lifetime, but always hushed-up) of child abuse. In making him a hero and investing in him as a valuable asset to the promotion of good causes, the media, Buckingham Palace and politicians were complicit in his abuse. The rise of celebrity figures being used to raise money for charities (rather than donating it themselves) provides an easy way for them to claim cultural credibility and defend themselves against accusations of wrongdoing. This is a very good deal for them, as their fame is redoubled and their status transformed in the eyes of a public who want heroes: they become superhuman, outside the normal realm of human weakness and (to use a religious term) sin. Then when they fall, they become creatures of pure evil, which is also not quite right.
So many works of ancient wisdom literature – in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the Qur’an, the Stoics, Plato… – enjoin us to be wary of those who ostentatiously give of their wealth, and to ourselves give in secret, with discretion and an eye to ourselves and not the world. Yet we crave heroes. We continue to mistake public honor, for all its artificiality, with private virtue. Can we learn from the recent downfalls of Savile, Jerry Sandusky and Lance Armstrong (whose crimes, while lesser, were covered up with a similar appeal to his charitable work)? The entire industry of celebrity fundraising is a dangerous trade where honour is mistaken for goodness, even as it serves as a smokescreen for something much worse.
Source: Jimmy Savile, As It Happens: Jimmy Savile, O.B.E.: His Autobiography (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1974)
In one of his many political memoires, John A. Lee quoted with great relish the 1960s British parody of the socialist anthem ‘The Red Flag’. Known as the ‘Battle Hymn of the New Socialist Party’, it went:
The people’s flag is palest pink
It’s not as red as you might think
White collar workers stand and cheer
The Labour Government is here
We’ll change the country bit by bit
So nobody will notice it
And just to show that we’re sincere
We’ll sing the Red Flag once a year
It’s a pretty funny parody. The final line referred to the custom of singing the Red Flag at the end of Labour Party Conferences, and the image of white collar workers cheering Labour governments is comic because it is both unlikely and, in a way, true. By the time this song was written, that party in Britain had spent long enough as the official opposition and in government that it had been integrated into the establishment, which softened its harsher ideological edges or, from another perspective, diluted its true socialist principles. This discontent started in Britain as early as the 1920s and 1930s, and manifested itself most famously in the split in the party over the issue of unemployment insurance in 1931, when Ramsay MacDonald, the party leader, was expelled from the party, although he was able to continue as Prime Minister, leading a coalition with the Conservatives. Within a decade, there were a few in New Zealand who wished they could have done the same to their Labour leader.
In New Zealand, Labour was able to win the1935 election with a parliamentary majority (ten years before Clement Attlee led the first politically stable majority Labour government in Britain). The party leader, Michael Joseph Savage, was to become a national icon as the ‘architect’ of New Zealand’s modern welfare state. For Lee and some of his colleagues, however, Savage was a sell-out.
Lee clearly saw himself as a prospective leader within the party and the nation, and frequently argued with the relatively fiscally orthodox minister of finance, Walter Nash (who later became Prime Minister in the late 1950s). Government did not sit well with many whose early political careers were defined by a sort of rabble-rousing anti-authoritarianism. In an age where radio and newspapers were the most important vectors for political messages, many veterans of the left were more comfortable with the older style of soap-box stumping that had won them their first political successes at the beginning of the century. Lee found himself minister of housing, and began a state housing program that built a large number of houses for New Zealand’s poor. At the same time, his increasing discontent with the party’s policies in government and its failure to take full control of the country’s finances. In cahoots with some of his colleagues to the left of the party, he began to be increasingly critical of the party, both in private and in public.
Michael Joseph Savage found Lee’s backroom maneuvering and public disloyalty extremely vexing; by 1939, too, he was seriously ill. Lee did not relent in his attacks out of mercy for his failing health or the new burdens brought on by global war – in fact, sensing weakness, he amplified his attack. Thus it was that he came to be known, among his opponents and a large slice of the New Zealand public, as the man who murdered New Zealand’s best-loved Prime Minister. Savage died in 1940, commenting in one of his more lucid moments before he passed away that Lee had made his life a living hell. Lee was expelled (through Savage’s successor, Peter Fraser, and Walter Nash’s actions) from the party but two days before Savage died, on 27 March 1940. Having alienated the bulk of his potential support by ‘murdering’ organized labor’s hero, he founded his own party, which enjoyed little success in the years to come.
Lee’s memoires are tremendously entertaining. But it also offers insight into why he could not be a success, and why his vision of a socialist paradise was not never going to happen, even if he had somehow found himself at the head of the country, as he no doubt desired. In them, he describes a world of hope for the future in the 1920s and 30s, which is then destroyed by what he saw as the failures of his colleagues. He is ruthless about satirizing his fellow-MPs: one can see the kind of verbal brutality that so distressed Savage in the daggers behind Lee’s jocular tone. He is one of the best sources for anecdotes about politicians from his era as people. There is a bitterness behind his blithe storytelling that makes his narrative of the ‘failures’ of New Zealand socialism seem petty rather than poignant, especially given the failures of the kind of socialist central planning that Lee advocated later in the century in other parts of the world (and, arguably, in New Zealand). A clever rhetorician and an enthusiastic ideologue, Lee’s inability to compromise, and his unwillingness to control his loathing for certain colleagues, made him a failure as a politician. It was Savage, the unmarried (Lee portrayed him, with distaste and probably inaccuracy, as a kind of deviant eunuch), quiet, patient organizer who won out in politics and in the history books.
Source: John A. Lee, Rhetoric at the Red Dawn (Auckland: Collins, 1965)
By January 1943, the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal were desperate. A nasty, poisonous, back-and-forth jungle battle that began in August of the previous year was nearing an end. The Second Marine Division’s advance, backed by hard-fought air and naval superiority and logistical dominance, had cut off individual units of the Imperial Army, leaving it fragmented. For the US Marine Corps, relief was in sight. For the Imperial Japanese Army, at a local and global level, any hope for victory was slipping away.
Marine second lieutenant D.W. had been on the island since the beginning of the battle. On January 18 he was leading a platoon when they received a bayonet and grenade charge from a small group of Japanese soldiers who had been cut off from the main retreat. 25-year-old Sergeant Kiyoharu Watanabe charged D.W. with his bayonet, and the lieutenant shot him twice with his pistol. After the skirmish was over, D.W. buried his attacker with his own hands in a shallow grave on the ridge where they had fought. ‘I killed him – I had to bury him’, he later told a journalist. His words were ambiguous: this was not so much a matter of honor but of hygiene, but at the same time, even on battlefields of mass death, killing brought a measure of responsibility. He also took a bloodstained, signed flag and an Inkan (a kind of personal seal) from the body as mementos.
D.W. was sent to the comparative luxury of wartime New Zealand after the Guadalcanal campaign to recuperate and train for a possible invasion of the Japanese home islands, and it was there that he met his future wife. He and his fiancée married in Chicago in 1946, but she did not like the US, and they returned to New Zealand, where they lived for the rest of their lives. In the relative tranquility of post-war Auckland, D.W. could forget the most unpleasant memories of the campaign, rail against communism and forever avoid having to eat rice ever again. The new enemy -Soviet Russia – replaced the old ones of Germany and Japan. But New Zealand’s proximity to Asia meant that the new rise of Japan was seen there as clearly as any mostly-white nation in the ‘West’. D.W. bought Japanese cars – more economical, reliable and effective than any others in New Zealand from the 1980s. Japanese tourists visited Auckland’s monumental war museum, and the language that D.E.W. had once begun to learn in order to receive the surrenders of his enemies could be heard on the streets of the city center.
In 1985 D.W. met a visiting Mazda Motor Corporation manager (and Hiroshima survivor), T.M., and ended up showing him his trophies, which he kept mostly hidden away in a drawer in his desk. For the next eight years T.M. searched for the surviving relatives of Watanabe and another soldier named Kobayashi (whose flag Watanabe had carried). Unfortunately these were common names, but T.M. was eventually able to track down Watanabe’s surviving sisters and Kobayashi’s brother (Kobayashi had died in 1942, and Watanabe presumably held on to the flag with the intention of returning it).
Corresponding with former enemies was doubtless awkward, but he tried to forge through the formalities – or what he saw as formalities – of dealing with the families of the man he killed. ‘If you think it appropriate’, he wrote, he wanted his respect and sympathies conveyed to the families of the dead soldiers, five decades after he shot one of them. In his letter to the family of the man he shot, he called Watanabe a ‘true Samurai’, and quoted an article he had read in an American news magazine which said ‘the future of Japan’s relationship with the U.S. must depend on young people’. The future held the promise of a kind of cooperation (tolerance in a modern sense wasn’t really what he meant, I think) to offset the few months of intense violence that he had experienced. Sadly, even after so much time and despite his noble intentions, a morsel of fear remained: D.W. was wary of a request from T.M.for a photograph, asking for a guarantee that it wouldn’t be used for any sort of revenge against himself or his family. It was quickly cleared up that the photo was for display in the Japanese consulate library and not for some more sinister purpose of revenge.
Being part of the small family that D.W. feared for, I find it immensely sad and strangely moving that for my late grandfather noble intentions born out of a long-buried memory of violence never translated fully into trust. I’m of a very different generation, which claims to have put aside some of the earlier mistakes of chauvinism and prejudice. Tolerance and a theoretical equality of all humanity are all very well, but trust is another thing, especially when undermined by experience or incomprehension. Can we hold on to our principles when our trust and pride are truly tested?
Please contact the author if you want more information. Some of D.W.’s papers are held by the Auckland War Memorial Museum
In March 1941 the President of the Royal Society, Henry Dale, dropped in on his friend and the secretary of the Society, A.V. Hill, to hint that he was planning on recommending Hill for a knighthood. With Dale’s recommendation, such an honour would be almost guaranteed, especially as knighthoods for a couple of previous secretaries of the society suggested a precedent (or maybe even the beginnings of a tradition). Dale thought that his confidential conversation with Hill was a friendly (if a little improper) formality. He had already written to Winston Churchill to nominate Hill, whom he said occupied a ‘leading position among the distinguished scientific research workers of the present day’, and whose ‘reputation is probably as high in the United States of America, and in other foreign countries, as in Britain’. A knighthood would be appropriate not only because of Hill’s eminence as a physiologist, but also in light of his ‘important’ and (inevitably) ‘confidential’ public services ‘in connexion with the present war’. Even before the war had started, Hill had been involved in the development of radar and the rescue of refugee academics from Nazi Germany through the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning. A few decades previously, Dale was aware, Hill had already accepted an OBE for wartime scientific work in 1918 when he was more junior – if no less talented – in his profession. It seemed entirely reasonable that he would welcome further honours.
However, Dale had not realized that not only had this earlier award become something of an embarrassment for his friend, but also that a knighthood was wholly unacceptable from Hill’s point of view. The conversation, which Dale had hoped would bring pleasure, ended in awkwardness as Hill immediately rejected the idea of a knighthood. Lest his friend think his fervent reaction to the offer rude Hill quickly wrote to Dale to clarify his reasons. Hill recalled his OBE – won at the time of greatest public skepticism about the new Order of the British Empire – with something approaching shame. Even though his research was of direct importance to the prosecution of the First World War, he was guilty that he had not been suffering on the front lines with others of his generation (see Chapter one). He gave Dale two reasons for declining the knighthood. In terms of the good of the Royal Society, he argued that his receiving such a title would create an undesirable and unnecessary precedent of automatic knighthoods for secretaries of the Society, which would ‘better be kept for people in the Government Service. The prestige of the Royal Society does not depend on such things’.
More importantly he attested to a ‘deep-rooted personal dislike of the whole “honours” system’. The system was bad for scientists ‘because it causes jealousy and a feeling that their contributions are not recognised in those who don’t get honours’. Among their colleagues in the world of science, Hill suggested, knighthoods and the prestige they brought had become too important as markers of status and, consequently, promoted professional jealousy. The whole game of titles, this response implied, was below him (although he did not stress this point too much – Dale had accepted a knighthood almost ten years earlier). When he looked at his colleagues, with all their internal bickering and rivalry, Hill saw the knighthood as a cause of status anxiety rather than a form of public recognition that enriched the profession.
In his unpublished memoirs, Hill railed against what he perceived as the integration of the Royal Society into the government, and argued that the Society’s independence should be preserved, citing the automatic knighthoods for secretaries as an indication of this invidious integration with the ‘Establishment’. In an honorific sense, as this chapter will show, this integration was catalyzed by the Second World War and the importance of scientific research to the conduct of the war. Hill also justified his rejection of a knighthood by quoting Thomas Huxley’s argument that ‘The sole order of nobility which, in my judgment, becomes a philosopher, is the rank which he holds in the estimation of his fellow-workers, who are the only competent judges in such matters.’ Faraday, Darwin, Shakespeare and George Trevelyan never adorned their names with the title ‘Sir’, and privately Hill relished the fact that he kept company with such luminaries. This did not stop him from accepting the CH from the government, which did not carry a title (but which, if anything, aroused a greater sense of competition and jealousy than knighthoods because of its exclusivity) in 1946. His biographer suggested his reluctance for accepting a knighthood may have had something to do with his detestation for his given names, Archibald Vivian. Being styled ‘Sir Archibald’ would have been frustrating for the man who wanted to be known as ‘Hill’.
Source: Henry Dale Papers, Royal Society Archives