Thu, 24th Nov 2011 | Reynard

Charles Kingsley in Livermead

No wonder that such a spot as Torquay, with its delicious Italian climate, and endless variety of rich woodland, flowery lawn, fantastic rock-cavern, and broad bright tide-sand, sheltered from every wind of heaven except the soft south-east, should have become a favourite haunt, not only for invalids, but for naturalists. Indeed, it may well claim the honour of being the original home of marine zoology and botany in England''

Charles Kingsley's 'Glaucus; or The Wonders of the Shore' 1855

During the 1800s, many literary figures based themselves in Torquay. One of our most famous visitors was the Victorian clergyman, naturalist and author Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), who stayed for some time in what is now the Livermead House Hotel.

He came to Torquay in 1854 while his wife recovered from the ill-effects of living in their damp rectory home at Eversley. In Torquay, Charles threw himself into prospecting on the foreshore, the cliffs, and in caves for specimens of marine life. He saw the natural world as the handiwork of God, and was to welcome Darwin's theory of evolution with an enthusiasm which was unusual for clergymen of the time.

From his Torquay coastal explorations came a series of articles in the North British Review, subsequently published as 'Glaucus: or Wonders of the Sea Shore', which he illustrated himself.

Charles' interest in history is shown in several of his writings and novels, of which the best known are 'Hypatia', 'Hereward the Wake' and 'Westward Ho!' Incidentally, the latter led to the founding of the town by the same name ' the only place name in England which contains an exclamation mark.

Charles had a type of faith which was to become known as Muscular Christianity ' a belief system that held that politics and religion were inseparable and that it was a Christian's duty to improve the conditions of the time. He was strongly influenced by the theologian Frederick Denison Maurice, whose 1838 book 'The Kingdom of Christ' offered a new vision of the place of the church in society. With Maurice, Thomas Hughes, John Malcolm Ludlow and Charles Mansfield, Charles became a leading member of the Christian Socialist Movement, which led to the formation of Working Men's Colleges and Trade Unions. Under the pseudonym of Parson Lot he contributed to 'Politics for the People' and 'The Christian Socialist', two periodicals which the Movement published.

Believing passionately in the need to improve the lives of ordinary people, Charles encouraged the co-operative principle and promoted educational and sanitary reform. The provision of pure drinking water and the proper management of sewage became an important goal for Charles and his fellow campaigners.

This concern for reform can be seen in his great classic, 'The Water Babies. A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby'. It was written by Charles for his own young son and shortly after he had been made tutor to the Prince of Wales.

Although on the surface this is a fairytale about a boy chimney sweep, there are very few children's stories that have caused as much public outrage as 'The Water Babies' did when it first appeared in 1863. It used the idea that when the poor children used as human chimney brushes died, they were turned into water babies. These small amphibious cherubs then travelled to Heaven via an exciting and educational journey upstream along the Great River.

However, the character Tom the chimney sweep focused the minds of the Victorians on the plight of child labourers, and it openly used the ideas of Darwin's Theory of Evolution. It was also one of the earliest attacks on pollution.

The Water Babies changed minds, changed the law and saved lives.


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