In the north-west corner of the top
floor of the museum sits the imposing natural magnet given to
the Ashmolean Museum by the Countess of Westmorland in 1756.
The stone itself, which according to
the original accession record is 48 inches in circumference,
is displayed in a mahogany case and mount, elegantly highlighted
with a gilt ducal coronet surrounding the magnet, donated at the
same time as the loadstone by the Earl of Westmorland. The stone
as displayed is capable of supporting a weight of 160 lbs.
While information about the Countess
and the history of the object both before and after it was acquired
by the museum remains elusive, the loadstone points to interesting
issues in the history of women in eighteenth-century science.
Mary Cavendish (1698-1778) was the
daughter of Lord Henry Cavendish (d.1710), the second son
of William Cavendish, first Duke of Devonshire (1640-1707). The
family was prolific and included fellows of the Royal Society,
a daughter of Elihu Yale, and an uncle of Horace Walpole.
Mary Cavendish is known to have been
friends with Mary Delany, who herself had a considerable collection
of shells and made masterful decoupage ‘pictures’ of flowers.
Both were amongst the crowd who went to Westminster in March 1738/9
to protest against the treatment of British merchants by the Spanish
government, which resulted in the declaration of war in 1739.
In this same circle was Margaret Harley
Cavendish Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland, whose magnificent
collection of shells was of significant scholarly interest. She,
in turn, was the granddaughter of Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess
of Newcastle (1624?-1674), who published her views on natural
history at her own expense, an almost unique feat for a woman
with scientific interests at that time.
The Countess of Westmorland clearly
came from an environment where it was permissible for women to
take some interest in science but nothing survives demonstrating
her own involvement. It is not clear where she acquired the loadstone
or when. The inventory of her father’s house does not record it,
nor does Horace Walpole mention having seen it when he visited
her home, Mereworth in Kent, in August 1752, although he does
discuss the seat in some architectural detail and notes some of
the contents. Walpole evidently held the Countess herself in some
esteem, describing her at the time of the coronation of George
III as ‘still handsome’ and with great dignity.
Despite this vagueness about where
and why the Countess acquired the loadstone, there is no doubt
that it was she who gave it to the Ashmolean. The entry in the
celebratory Donor’s Book records her gift of the stone and some
books, as well as the Earl’s contribution of the case.
The Countess’s responsibility for the
gift became an issue again the year after she donated it when
William Huddesford, the Keeper of the Ashmolean, desired to have
an engraving made of the loadstone with a note about its provenance.
When he wrote to the Earl on the topic, the reply was unenthusiastic.
While there was no objection to the production of the print, the
Countess desired that ‘in the descriptive part you intend, her
name may not be inserted.’
Her objections were never clearly explained.
While ‘sensible of [Huddesford’s] politeness’ in regard to making
the print, the Countess ‘has her reasons’ for withholding her
name from print, it was reported. In the event, however, she overcame
‘her Scruples at the thought of seeing her name engraved’ and
in the end submitted to Huddesford’s desire to publicise how the
object came into the museum as there was ‘no reasoning against
While there is no way of knowing why
the Countess was reluctant to see her name associated publicly
with the gift, several possibilities present themselves. Since
the manner in which she came into possession of the object remains
obscure, it is possible that she felt little responsibility for
being in a position to give it to the museum. This might be particularly
true if she had little interest in natural philosophy, though
if this were the case she might have given the object anonymously.
A second possibility is that though
privately interested in natural philosophy, she felt it inappropriate
for a woman to advertise publicly such an involvement. Women were
not permitted to be fellows of the Royal Society and were almost
never welcome at its meetings. They virtually never published
their own ideas on such topics and not until the nineteenth century
did it become common for them to write popularising tracts on
natural history, especially for children. There was doubtless
consider able pressure at the time for the Countess to keep her
interest to herself.
A final cause for circumspection may
relate to the choice of the Ashmolean as a receiver of the loadstone.
Mary Cavendish married John Fane, who in 1736 succeeded to the
Earldom of Westmorland. Amongst the many public offices Fane held
during his career, he emerged victorious from a hotly contested
election for Chancellor of the University. The publication of
Mary’s name, and hence his, in connection with the gift to the
museum might have been considered inappropriate or inadvisable
given Fane’s political position in the University.
Whatever the misgivings, the engraving
was published and reprinted in the 1836 catalogue of the Ashmolean,
where the magnet is listed under the heading of ‘Miscellaneous
Curiosities’. Only two other objects were classed with it: a gold-headed
cane embossed with the story of the Good Samaritan and an image
Perhaps already by this time the presence
of the magnet within the museum’s collection was being questioned.
Over the next hundred years, it passed from the Ashmolean to the
University Museum, spending a short period in the Clarendon Building
After the Museum of the History of
Science was established, a formal request was sent in 1941 to
the University Museum for the return of the Countess’s magnet.
Amongst the several arguments promulgated in favour of such an
action was that the magnet formed part of the original Ashmolean
collection and hence had a long association with the Old Ashmolean
It was also argued that the decoration
of the loadstone almost entirely obscured any mineralogical interest
there might be in it and that, moreover, along with its case,
the loadstone was a superb example of the combination of artistic
and scientific qualities typical of the eighteenth century. The
museum also already had several smaller decorated examples of
loadstones. Finally, it was said, the stone-vaulted basement of
the museum would be safer in the case of aerial bombardment than
the University Museum would be.
In the event, the University Museum agreed to the
transfer, noting that they no longer really considered it part
of the mineralogical collection. The Countess’s loadstone effectively
changed its identity from being a geological specimen to one of