Today, at work, I was researching two particular objects which were part of a set. One was a model of a regulator. It was invented to more efficiently regulate the amount of power released by a steam engine, in this case for paddle wheels. The other object was a framed picture of two engineer’s drawings of the regulator.
The regulator was easy to research. The drawings, however, were a bit of a mystery. There was no mention of them on either the tech or nominal files. Eventually I worked it out.
In the tech file there were the remains of an old brochure, advertising the regulator. It was all very late Victorian in style and glorious two colour printing (black and red). The thing about the brochure was that it had been cut up. Someone had taken a pair of scissors to it, leaving big gaps on the front and back pages of the folded sheet. That’s when I worked it out.
Clearly, when the model was loaned to the museum, the brochure was included, I assume to give some indication of how it worked. Someone at the museum decided it would be an excellent idea to cut out the two engineer’s drawings, stick them to a bit of board and have them framed. It’s a pity that there wasn’t a second brochure to make absolutely sure. Still, at least someone had the foresight to retain the scraps.
This gave me a date made since it would have been made after the object arrived and before it was given an object number (1899). Who made it was a bit trickier…actually, impossible since there’s no record of whether it was done in the Museum Workshop or farmed out to some framing place.
At the bottom of the brochure was the name of the printer. I jokingly said to Nick at Work that at least I could determine who made the brochure. He was all excited and told me to get to it. I tried to tell him that I’d been joking because there was an awful lot of printers in Britain in 1899. He would hear none of that nonsense, saying if anyone could do it, I could.
And, would you believe it, I did.
The printer was a chap called John Bellows and he plied his trade in Gloucester. While his printing was pretty good, it seems it wasn’t all he did. In fact, his life reads like that of a man always eager for new challenges.
He was born in Cornwall in 1831. His father was a prominent Quaker and John attended his school until he left to serve his apprenticeship as a printer. By the time he was 20, he’d moved to Gloucester, working towards bulding his own business.
In 1872, while excavating for new premises, he came across a bit of archaeology. This led to him uncovering the Birdlip Grave Group of finds, which he donated to the Gloucester Museum. While this was, obviously, excellent news for the study of Gloucester’s past, it was nothing compared to his discovery of the original Roman wall that once encircled the city. To be fair, he only found a bit of it but, based on the bit he did find, he extrapolated where the rest of the wall would have been. (Later study has proven him correct.)
While this would have been enough to set him apart from other men of his time, for his quenchless thirst for the new, it wasn’t even close. In 1863, his Norwegian fiancée became gravely ill (I have no idea why he had a Norwegian fiancée or why she was in Norway) and he travelled across to Scandinavia, sadly too late to see her before her death. While this wouldn’t normally be any cause for celebration, the fact remains that because of this trip, John learned French and published the first ever French pocket dictionary, especially for travellers.
It might be a bit difficult to imagine how the two events could connect but, on his trip to Norway, John took with him a big, bulky Danish dictionary to help him get about. He wondered how much easier it would be if this dictionary could fit in his pocket. French seemed a better option than Danish. And there you have it. Necessity being the mother as usual.
But there’s more to Mr John Bellows than printer, archaeologist and lexicographer.
Throughout his life, he kept up the Quaker ideals of his father and even served as a commissioner for the Quakers during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. He extensively travelled through the war zone on horseback, wagon, and foot. And he didn’t let old age weary him. In 1892, aged 60 he went to the Caucasus with an Australian Quaker to help persecuted Russian pacifists.
It was during his time in Russia that he became great mates with Tolstoy and together they helped a lot of people emigrate to Canada, escaping the persecution.
Busy as he was with saving the less fortunate in far flung reaches of the planet, it didn’t stop John’s successful printing business or his insatiable appetite for new things to occupy his mind. He found time to come up with the ‘Bellow’s cylindrical rapid wages calculator’. This was comprised of a series of cylinders, joined together in such a way as to quickly and easily determine a worker’s wages based on known variables. This led him to inventing an imperial to metric converter using the same method.
John Bellows made his last overseas trip in 1901. Harvard had written to him. They had decided he deserved an honorary MA with the wonderful citation of ‘English Quaker, authority on Roman antiquities in Britain, delightful essayist and learned lexicographer.’ He went to collect it.
It was just after returning to Britain that he developed heart problems and died shortly afterwards.
Talk about the life well lived. John Bellows packed more into his life than most and peppered it with a diversity of inquisition that is rarely seen. He deserves a bit more recognition, if you ask me. I will definitely remember him the next time I carry my pocket sized French/English dictionary to France.