The Father of Chemistry | Looking back

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The man who gave us Boyle’s Law was also Stalbridge’s Lord of the Manor and carried out his early experiments in Dorset, reports Roger Guttridge

Robert Boyle – Stalbridge’s Lord of the Manor, and the father of chemistry

Famous the world over as the Father of Chemistry, Robert Boyle is also Stalbridge’s most famous former resident. The man who gave his name to Boyle’s Law – after spotting that the volume of gas varies inversely to its pressure – carried out his early experiments in Stalbridge almost 400 years ago. He was also the village’s Lord of the Manor for almost half-a-century.
The Boyle connection with Stalbridge began through Robert’s father, Richard.
As a young man, Richard Boyle left his job as a lawyer’s clerk in London to try his luck in Ireland.
After arriving in Dublin with £27, he married heiress Joan Apsley. When she died in childbirth in 1599, he married Catherine Fenton, daughter of the Secretary of State for Ireland. Richard was soon one of Ireland’s richest men, becoming Earl of Cork in 1620 and Lord Treasurer in 1631.

Avoiding the temptations of idleness
Robert, born at Lismore Castle in 1627, was the 14th of Richard and Catherine’s 15 children.
Believing his offspring should not be indulged, the Earl farmed Robert out to a country nurse to sample a ‘coarse but cleanly diet and the usual passions of the air’. By the time the five-year old Robert returned to Lismore, his mother had died. He was taught reading, writing, Latin and French before being despatched to Eton.
In 1636, the Earl bought the run-down Stalbridge Manor House, probably as a potential retreat from escalating troubles in Ireland, and promptly began an ambitious restoration programme.
Robert and his elder brother Francis were withdrawn from Eton and moved to Stalbridge, where Robert lodged with Parson Douch in order to continue his education and avoid the serious ‘temptations of idleness’.
His lessons included music – only to be told by his teacher that he had a ‘bad voice’. He also wrote poetry in English, French and Latin but was clearly not impressed with his own efforts, as he marked his 21st birthday by burning the lot.
When plans to support King Charles I in a Scottish expedition in 1639 fell through, Robert’s father finally gave him the key to ‘all his garden and orchards’ at Stalbridge. Robert believed the Earl was encouraging him to be temperate by ‘freely giving me the opportunity to be otherwise’.
The Earl need not have worried.
Robert had little interest in wining and dining, preferring to study or walk for hours in the fields, where he was able to ‘think at random’ and indulge his imagination.

Stalbridge House in the time of Robert Boyle

King Charles I in Mr Reeve’s field At their father’s insistence, Robert and the newlywed Francis were sent on a European tour. By the time they returned in 1644, the Earl had died, Robert had succeeded him as Lord of the Manor, Stalbridge House had fallen into disrepair again and North Dorset was engulfed by the Civil War.On 8 October 1644, the ill-fated Charles I and his troops spent the night at Stalbridge House on their way from Sherborne to Blandford, breaking their journey again at Sturminster Newton, where the King dined in Mr Reeve’s field.Robert was probably not at home to welcome the King, preferring to spend his first months back in England with his favourite sister, Katherine, Lady Ranelagh, in London.After a visit to Stalbridge in 1646, Robert commented, with ironic humour, that the area was ‘infected with three epidemical diseases’ – the plague, ‘which now begins to revive again at Bristol and Yeovil…’, ‘fits of the committee’ and ‘consumption of the purse’.‘The committee’ is thought to refer to Parliament’s Standing Committee, set up that same year to sequester the estates of royalist sympathisers until fines were paid.Despite the turmoil, Robert nurtured plans for a chemistry lab at Stalbridge and wrote in the same year to Lady Ranelagh of his enforced idleness due to the non-arrival of the wagon bringing his ‘Vulcanian implements’.When his ‘great earthen furnace’ finally turned up, it was broken into pieces, and Robert complained to Katherine that ‘all the fine experiments, and castles in the air that I had built upon its safe arrival, have felt the fate of their foundation’.He added: ‘I see I am not designed to the finding of the philosopher’s stone. I have been so unlucky in my first attempts in chemistry.’However, his pessimism was premature. Just two years later he wrote to his sister: ‘Vulcan has so transformed and bewitched me to make me fancy my laboratory as a kind of Elysium.’During his stays in London and regular visits to Oxford, Robert met most of the great minds of his era, describing them as the ‘Invisible College’. His Oxford friends he called a ’knot of ingenious and free thinkers’.

Drawing of Robert Boyle’s Air Pump, 1661

Duly eaten alive
He moved to Oxford in 1655 and five years later was one of the founders of the illustrious Royal Society. Boyle was a prolific writer on a vast range of subjects, including Dorset Blue Vinny.
Commenting that foreigners were despised for eating insects, he pointed out that Dorset’s blue-veined cheese was ‘crawling with insects bred out of putrefaction’, which were duly eaten alive.
In the modern world, alas, the custom of maturing Blue Vinny in a dung heap has failed to cut the mustard with the food safety people.
They’re no fun!
Boyle also knew people, including ‘some fair ladies’, who drank their own and boys’ urine to prevent scurvy and gout.
Despite being tall and slim, Robert was ‘pale and emaciated’, and suffered health problems throughout his adult life. Physically weak, he had poor eyesight and such a terrible memory that he was ‘often tempted to abandon study in despair’.
He made up for these challenges with a ‘flow of wit’ described as ‘so copious and lively’ that he was the equal of ‘the most celebrated geniuses of the age’.
Some of these geniuses were his friends – such as fellow scientist Sir Isaac Newton, East Knoyle-born architect Sir Christopher Wren, antiquary John Aubrey and diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn.
Robert died in December 1691, just a few days after his beloved sister, Katherine.
Evelyn records his death and funeral in his diary entries for 1st and 6th January 1692, describing him as ‘that pious admirable Christian, excellent philosopher, and my worthy friend, Mr Boyle, aged about 65 – a great loss to all that knew him, and to the public’.
Stalbridge House, which stood far behind the long stone wall we know today, was dismantled in 1822 and the materials sold by auction.

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