William Baker 1757 – 1853

WILLIAM BAKER,(1787-1853) was the son of a Bridgwater grazier and butcher and was born in Eastover, and in 1800, at the age of thirteen and a half he was apprenticed to Mr Tuthill, a Bridgwater Currier.

Baker’s formal education seems to have been slight and until he began his apprenticeship he spent much time in sport and games. As a boy his father employed him about the business, and it was while he visited neighbouring villages that his life-long interest in Natural History was awakened.

Mr Tuthill was an enthusiastic bee-keeper. His sister, who kept house for him, was a keen gardener and she lent a number of books to young Baker. He was evidently a talented artist.

Baker found to his consternation, that his contemporaries who had been educated in Charity schools were better informed than he was, and since his work gave him time for private reading, when his employer was away, he resolved to catch up with them. It was at this time that he became acquainted with John Bowen, who became a life-long friend and who was eventually to write Baker’s biography.

At the age of nine he was appointed a fifer to the Bridgwater Volunteers The collapse of the Peace of Amiens in 1803 stirred martial fervour among the Bridgwater Volunteers, and they marched to Taunton for exercises. Baker’s employer (who was an enthusiastic Volunteer himself) allowed him to make in his spare time a set of leather stocks for the regiment. The proceeds Baker used to buy books. Baker was in the first rank of fifes and drums as they marched for Taunton, once there had time on his hands and occupied it beetle-hunting among the nearby hedges and brooks.

Baker became acquainted with John Coles Symes, from whom he borrowed books, who taught him the rudiments of English Grammar and mathematics, in which Baker was greatly deficient.

Baker resigned from the Volunteers when he reached 18 years of age. Soon after, he became acquainted with Thomas Poole, the tanner of Nether Stowey. This came about because Baker’s father had business dealings with him. William Baker was a frequent visitor to Poole house, and met his friends Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his wife, who were staying in the neighbourhood. Poole was a firm friend to Baker and sometimes gave him books. His love of natural history grew and he made frequent rambles over the Quantocks and further afield to the Mendips and around Weston super Mare. He collected minerals, fossils, corals, shells and stalactites and stalagmites which he found in the Mendips. He continued with his sketching, and collecting books to further his study.

On completing his apprenticeship he worked for a while as a journeyman in London, and later at Northampton and Glasgow. Baker returned to Bridgwater on 27 February 1809, and in that year, at the age of 22, he set up a small currier’s shop in Fore Street Bridgwater. He worked at the trade for over forty years. In 1811 he married Ann Criddle, of Monksilver, with whom he had 6 children.

His interest in natural history continued apace, and he made the acquaintance in 1810 of Thomas Clark, the Quaker grocer who had just moved to Bridgwater. They went on frequent nature rambles together, Baker observing birds and insects and Clark flowers and trees. They made the acquaintance of James Jennings, the apothecary of Huntspill, who was something of an ornithologist.

At about 1813 he became friendly with Robert Anstice, who supported him in his investigations. Their work was known to fishermen and wild-fowlers, who brought them interesting specimens, including the famous Black Stork, slightly wounded at West Sedgemoor in March 1814 which Baker drew before the bird was given to Col Montague.

Baker’s diary for 1820 survives, which gives a vivid picture of his natural history life, describing the many rambles over the Quantocks he made with Bowen and Clark. There are notes about the weather. The Parrett iced up for a month from before Christmas 1819, ice-skating on Cornhill, flooding on the levels later on.

18 January [1820] A considerable fall of snow last night little frost. I went on the Quay and between Church and Bridge last evening and this morning with Messrs R. Anstice, J Thompson and C Axford to collect Subscriptions for the Poor.- The river filled with ice and the country covered with snow and the atmosphere dark and heavy. – Everything called loudly for the Compassion of the Affluent and those of easy circumstances towards their suffering fellow creatures and the call was not in vain, for more than £300 was subscribed by the inhabitants and friends of the town.

Baker corresponded with a number of the leading natural historians of the time, W. E. Leach of the British Museum, and J. S. Miller, later curator of the Bristol Institution, and later, through Robert Anstice, with the pioneering geologists Professor William Buckland and Revd W. D. Conybeare.

Baker moved in the 1820s to premises in Saint Mary Street, where, as well as larger business space, he had a bigger house for his family, with more space for his collection. His wide circle of friends and acquaintances frequently sent him specimens, and several sea-captains brought him objects from abroad. A Bridgwater parish apprentice who later went to Australia, sent him birds, reptiles and insects in gratitude for the way Baker had treated him.

Bowen noted in his biography that Baker had a Boa Constrictor, a Solan Goose and a Swan, cases with several thousand insect specimens, and a series of detailed drawings showing the geology of the coast between Bridgwater and Minehead.

Baker’s friendship with Thomas Poole continued and he met Robert Southey and Sir Humphrey Davy. He was also a friend of Col John Trevelyan of Nettlecombe,near Minehead, where as well as Buckland and Conybere, he met Lord Northampton, and a Mr Babbage, clearly Charles Babbage of Difference Engine fame, whose friends, Lord and Lady Lovelace owned Ashley Combe, near Porlock, and where Babbage was a frequent visitor.

Baker did much work investigating the anatomical differences between the common and the conger eel, over which there had been some controversy at the time, and went on to dissect and draw many other small reptiles and Amphibia. He cleaned the skeletons for mounting by placing them in a sealed box with Dermestes beetles that ate the flesh away.

He corresponded in 1841 with William Buckland about the Coprolitic Breccia, which he had found near the mouth of the Parrett. The correspondence went on over several years on all manner of local geological topics, and the letters survive in the FitzWilliam Museum, Oxford. In 1842 he was asked to make arrangements for a visit to the Bridgwater area by Buckland, the German chemistry professor, Justus von Liebig, and his English translator Lyon Playfair. Liebig was an authority on the chemistry of food, and they wished to see how Bridgwater or Cheddar cheese was made, and to visit Andrew Crosse at Fyne Court. The trip was a great success, apart from the party being suspected by the police as being Chartist agitators.

In November 1842 Baker was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society, on the nomination of Dr Buckland. On the formation of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society in 1849 Baker was appointed Secretary, and presented 7 papers to it.

As well as his work and his natural history, Baker was also very active in local life, being at one time or the other engaged in almost every unpaid parochial and municipal office, from being an overseer of the poor and churchwarden at Saint Mary’s to that of Town Councillor, Alderman and Magistrate. He was never Mayor. He was involved in fund raising for the Infirmary, and in running the Bridgwater Savings Bank. Baker was vice-chairman of the Bridgwater Literary and Scientific Institution at the time of his death.

In 1851 his health began to deteriorate, with a persistent cough and signs of heart failure. Over the next two years he kept busy with natural history pursuits, despite pleas from the family and friends to slow up. He undertook local research about Robert Blake for Hepworth Dixon who was writing his biography of Blake, and made short country excursions, usually accompanied by his daughters or son-in-law Knowles, who was actuary to the Bridgwater Savings Bank.

William Baker died on Saturday 8 October 1853, and was interred in a vault in Saint John’s churchyard, Bridgwater. It is now surmounted by a box tomb, the inscription of which, though much eroded, still allows his name to be read. Next to it is the obelisk of his friend John Bowen, who died the following year.

The Mayor and Corporation, and about eighty inhabitants attended his funeral. They represented all religious and political views of the town. Beginning with a procession from the Town Hall, the party walked to his house in Saint Mary Street, and then followed the coffin to Saint Johns, where they lined the path to the Church.

After his death, John Bowen borrowed from his family a mass of papers with which to write his biography, published the following year. As well as copy letters to Baker’s scientific correspondents, Bowen mentioned a volume of papers relating to Robert Anstice, a file of notes for Hepworth Dixon;these are now in the British Library (see below) and quoted from 3 diaries. Those for 1820 and 1833 were found in the stack of Bridgwater Library in the 1990s and are now in Blake Museum. A third for the early 1850s is missing. What became of Baker’s collection of Natural History specimens is not known. His will simply notes his possessions went to his wife and children.

Read more in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society:

A Memoir of William Baker F.G.S. by John Bowen

William Baker’s papers for the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, 1851-1853

An Introduction to William Baker F.G.S. (1787-1853) by A.P. Woolrich

William Baker’s MSS
Fitzwilliam Museum, Oxford, GBR/0280/PERCEVAL Percival Bequest, Letters from Baker to Buckland

Somerset Record Office, Bowen MSS, DD/CLE Box 5:18 is a file about William Baker.

Bridgwater Public Library, NRA 9186 Bridgwater Library. Baker’s lecture notes not yet found.

British Library, Add MS 35058 corresp with William Hepworth Dixon 1851-52 about Robert Blake

Bristol Record Office, corresp with John Samuel Miller, 1818-29

British Library, Add MS 35173.This is an important collection of Baker’ papers

Acland (Peregrine Palmer). Sir. Bart. Letter to W. Baker. 1833.Add. 35173 f. 108
Baker (William). of Bridgwater, F.G.S. Portrait of (?) 19th cent.Add. 35173 f. 1
Baker (William). of Bridgwater, F.G.S. Scrap-book, with correspondence 1811-1848.
Add. 35173
Ball (R-). Correspondence with W. Baker 1832.Add. 35173 ff. 101, 103
Buckland (William). Professor of Geology at Oxford; Dean of Westminster. Correspondence with W. Baker 1845, 1847.Add. 35173 ff. 286, 304
Davy (Humphry). Sir. Letters to T. Poole 1828-1829. Copies.Add. 35173 ff. 37, 37 b,
Ellison (Maria Jane). Correspondence with W. Baker 1844.Add. 35173 ff. 267, 275, 277
Monet de Lamarck (Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine). Naturalist. References to his collection of shells 19th cent.Add. 35173 ff. 310, 314, 348
Natural History. Scrap-book of W. Baker 1811-1848.Add. 35173
Owen (Richard). Sir. K.C.B.; Naturalist. Letter to Dr. Buckland 1844. Copy.Add. 35173 f. 281
Prideaux (Caroline). Correspondence with W. Baker 1841-1846.Add. 35173 ff. 221, 270, 282, 292, 293
Rathbone (Benson). Correspondence with W. Baker 1833, 1834.Add. 35173 ff. 125, 143
Standart (W- C-). Letter to W. Baker 1845.Add. 35173 f. 272
Yarrell (William). Ornithologist. Letter to W. Baker 1838. Copy.Add. 35173 f. 157
Zoology. Scrap-book of W. Baker 1811-1848.Add. 35173

Baker’s published writings
He published no books but did write some papers for the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society:-
‘Bridgwater High Cross’ Vol 1 (1851) p 63
‘Bridgwater Old Bridge’ Vol 1 (1851) p 64
These articles are illustrated by engravings by T.H. Hair, perhaps copied from Chubb originals.
‘Geology of Somerset’, Vol 1 (1851), pp 127-139
‘Somerset Fauna’, Vol 1, (1851), pp 140-148
‘Somerset Fauna, Fish’, Vol 2, (1852), pp 97-110
‘Somerset Fauna, Reptiles’, Vol 2, (1852), pp 116-122
‘Cannington Park Limestone’, Vol 3, (1853), pp 125-132

A P Woolrich 26 January 2011