Genius by Counties–Gordon Colborne (July 1905)

An interesting, although not particularly statistically valid, attempt to explore which counties in the UK (as it was at the time) had produced the most ‘geniuses’. Of course, this completely depends on what you decide to call a genius! A map of modern genius would probably look very different (although similarly focused on London, I imagine).

Showing at a Glance What Counties Have Produced the Greatest Number of Celebrated Men and Women.

The division of the nation into counties is no mere arbitrary geographical distinction. Two thousand years have combined to make the inhabitants in most cases separate peoples, with distinct physical and moral traits. To the eye of a student of English minds and manners a Sussex man bears but little resemblance to a Lancastrian. How different is an East Anglian from a Cornishman! All the groups have not only their own characteristics and customs, but they have also their own atmosphere, their own peculiar outlook, contributing to produce, in a measure, a special breed of men.

Let us take genius to represent uncommon powers–a notable superiority in ability and in achievement. Nothing is rarer than master-minds: a whole generation may pass and not a solitary genius arise to impel and influence his age. It was not an English, but a French, writer who declared that no country in Europe has produced so many persons of commanding character and talents as England; and although it may be difficult to construct such a list of these as would satisfy all critics, yet there are at least two hundred names which indubitably belong to the first rank. It is not too much to say that if these two hundred names were expunged British history for the past three or four hundred years would be little more than a blank. A single room thirty feet square would suffice to hold all the men who have wrought all that is valuable in politics, war, literature, science, art, discovery, invention, oratory, theology, and government in these islands since the Middle Ages.

Now, it is not a new theory that there are certain soils which are propitious for the growth of genius, just as there are others, like Holland and Switzerland, which, although themselves high in civilization, fail to produce individuals of commanding moral and mental stature. Wales, as we shall see, is another such instance. Why are the Poles such a race of musicians when the Scotch are not? Why did a whole generation of sculptors flourish in Italy at a time when the Germans, now far more intelligent, were rudely carving wooden effigies? Why is Ireland full of orators and Portugal empty? Why does a single department of France give birth to more able painters than the whole of Australia?


Without attempting to answer these questions we may perhaps not altogether un-profitably analyze the origin of our British geniuses and ascertain precisely from what soil each sprang. Let us trace our most famous men to their birthplace–let us deal with genius by counties. Why did Shakespeare come from Warwickshire? Was this Warwickshire so enlightened, so highly cultivated, so filled with an intellectual population that it could easily produce that which is by universal consent ranked as the master mind of the world–even above Plato’s? Not at all. On the contrary, Warwickshire as a whole was inhabited by a dull, plodding, prosaic folk; but, nevertheless, it contained, amongst its better sort, the germs of Shakespeare long before Shakespeare was born. While it is true there are exceptions to the rule, it is no less true that the members of a race or tribe or family must conform to the family qualities and characteristics. Some ethnologists doubt whether any well-authenticated exceptions exist. As Dr. Wendell Holmes observes: “Two and two do not always make four in this matter of hereditary descent of qualities. Sometimes they make three, and sometimes five.” Anyhow, all the qualities and characteristics of Napoleon are to be found in Corsica and not elsewhere. On this hypothesis, then, Warwickshire contained the precise ingredients of Shakespeare–his sanity and serenity, his good-humour and philosophy–and when circumstances were favourable the Man appeared. Shakespeare was Warwickshire crystallized by Fate.


By way of illustration of this fact, two and a half centuries later another individual appeared, eminently good-humoured, sane, serene, and philosophic. This was George Eliot, whose breadth of intellect was for a woman astounding, and presents many points of resemblance to the immortal Bard of Avon. This, again, is the very genius of Warwickshire; it would not be the genius of Norfolk, nor would it be the genius of Kent or Cornwall. As for the adjoining counties, in our second chart we notice that no fewer than four have produced only one apiece of men worthy to be in the first rank in their respective callings.

Turning now from the heart of England to its northern extremity, we find that Northumberland is responsible for but two names on our roll of honour. To Cumberland belongs William Wordsworth, the poet of the Lakes, while the adjoining county of Durham brought forth, besides the Earl of Durham, the great pro-consul to whom modern Canada owes more than to any statesman, England’s greatest poetess, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.


Westmorland is the birthplace of no very eminent person. Yorkshire, the largest of English counties, we should naturally expect to be almost a nation by itself and exhibit a catholicity in genius. We are not disappointed. Nearly all departments have their representative. In war there is Lord Lawrence; in politics, Wilberforce; in discovery, Captain Cook; in learning, Bentley; in painting, Lord Leighton; in sculpture, Flaxman; in fiction, Charlotte Bronte; in engineering, Smeaton. The much smaller county of Lancaster is much more distinguished as a political cradle, for Peel, Bright, and Gladstone first arose there; besides Kemble, the celebrated actor; Romney, the painter; and Arkwright, the engineer.


Fewer names are more illustrious in English history than those of the first Cecil, Lord Burleigh, Algernon Sidney, Isaac Newton, John Wesley, and Lord Tennyson, and these five men first drew breath in Lincolnshire. It is strange that Cranmer, Henry VIII.’s famous archbishop, is the only illustrious man born in Nottinghamshire, a county which plays so important a part in history. Derby has only two names, Herbert Spencer and Samuel Richardson, the father of the English novel. Leicester is proud of having been the birthplace of Macaulay and Northamptonshire of Dryden. Huntingdonshire took many centuries to produce that really great man, Oliver Cromwell, and having produced him was so exhausted that she has achieved nothing since but mediocrity in genius. Rutland is still hatching her swan; Bedfordshire three centuries ago put forth that remarkable genius, John Bunyan.


Turning to the group of eastern counties, we discover that to Norfolk we owe a half-dozen beings who have cut a great figure in the world, or whose absence from the roll of honour would be deeply felt. Horatio Nelson was, of course, a distant kinsman of the Walpoles, which accounts for the proximity of the birthplaces of the Admiral and the Prime Minister of George II. Porson was the greatest Greek scholar and one of the most amazing intellects England ever produced. Coke was among her ablest jurists, Lytton amongst her most brilliant novelists, while there are very few lovers of English literature who could spare the sterling figure of George Borrow.

From the east we turn to the extreme west, where, it must be confessed, genius seems to grow in greater profusion, although Cornwall can boast of only the sea-warrior, Grenville; the comedian, Foote; and the inventor, Sir Humphry Davy; and Dorsetshire and Monmouthshire produce nothing. Somersetshire can only point to a single name, that of the doughty Admiral Blake; but, on the other hand, look at Devon! What a list of worthies for a county not much larger than Somerset! Here first saw the light the illustrious Drake and Raleigh and Hawkins, and after them Marlborough, the conqueror; Sir Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Charles Kingsley. Gay, the poet, was also of Devon birth. Then see Gloucestershire, with Whittington; and Locke, the philosopher; and Lawrence, the painter; and Southey, the poet; and Chatterton, the marvel; and Jenner, the benefactor of the human race.


Perhaps an remarkable fact in the annals of genius is that not one of the first rank has hailed from Buckinghamshire. Berkshire has produced Samuel Butler, author of “Hudibras,” alone. Hertfordshire brought forth Cowper, Waller, and Cardinal Manning, all three men in whom certain mental characteristics may be noted–and all three poets. Middlesex gave the world Thomas Henry Huxley.


We are told that if William Makepeace Thackeray had not been born in India he would have first seen the light in Fareham, Hants. Had this been the case, there would certainly have been something significant in the fact that four great English novelists of the nineteenth century–Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, and Meredith–had first opened their infant eyes and drew their first breath in Hampshire. And this suggests the singular belief, current amongst the ancients and held to-day very tenaciously by the Chinese, that a human being derives certain attributes from the place of his birth which influence his whole career. With the Romans this belief was, of course, connected with the belief in a genius loci–a sort of fairy godmother or godfather who took all infants at birth under its peculiar protection. The philosophy of this is wholly opposed to that of our rude northern proverb that “a man is not a horse because he is born in a stable.” But even in cases where the birth in a particular place is accidental, is it not odd that that fact should influence, as in many cases it admittedly has, the mind or character or tastes of the person? Lord Roberts was born in India; he has himself related how that circumstance told upon his life and would have affected him had he never seen India again from infancy.


In the annals of Surrey, except that part which belongs strictly to the Metropolis, only the single name of Edward Gibbon, the historian, can be discovered as having owed his birth to that county. How strange this is may be seen on a comparison of Surrey, with the adjoining county of Kent. Sussex brought into the world Percy Bysshe Shelley, Richard Cobden, and the illustrious scholar and lawyer, John Selden.


Thus far we have travelled nearly half through our list of two hundred British worthies. We have purposely omitted to take cognizance of London, where a phenomenon is presented for which a study of the laws of probability as regards the nativity of genius does not prepare us. For in the Metropolis we take in more than sixty names at a single stride. Half that number would seem to be London’s due share–even more than its due share. But this fact must be borne in mind–London is not merely the political and commercial and industrial capital–it is also the hot-bed, the forcing-house, the nursery of intellect for the whole of our race. All the provinces pour their talent into the lap of London, and talent breeds talent. Examine the pedigrees of these sixty odd Londoners and you will find their parents hailed from twenty different counties. Nevertheless, London stamped them all–it was Hogarth who said that he would spend his life painting ale-house signs but for London. And it is not only in the quantity, but in the quality, of talent that this great list is remarkable. What an astonishing galaxy of mighty names!


The principality of Wales is distinctly disappointing. It is hardly possible to account for the absence of great names from its roll of honour. Someone attempts to explain the phenomenon by a theory that mountainous countries rarely produce men of the first rank, although the general level of intelligence may be high. Even Scotland is no exception, as most, if not all, of its leading men sprang, as we shall see, from the Lowlands.


To our national roll of honour Scotland sends her quota of eighteen names, which, creditable as it is, does not seem large in view of the fact that she has always been, until lately, far more populous than London. The most northern birthplace we find is Forfarshire, which produced Lyell, the geologist, and Hume, the historian. Wilkie and Smollett came from Fife, and so did Adam Smith, the father of modern political economy. Edinburgh was where Robertson, Brougham, Jeffrey, and Blair first saw the light. As a capital it is, in this respect, far inferior to Dublin, where seven really greater men were ushered into the world. Dublin, the reader will note, was the birthplace of Burke, Sheridan, Grattan, Steele, Wellesley, Lecky, and Swift, while the province of Leinster can boast of the great Duke of Wellington, besides Oliver Goldsmith and Bishop Berkeley. Connaught does not figure on the lists of the nativity of genius. It is interesting to note that, in addition to Daniel O’Connell and Laurence Sterne, that doughty East Anglian and undoubtedly great soldier, Lord Kitchener, whose great opportunity has, perhaps, yet to come, first opened his baby eyes in the province of Munster.



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