Letters in the Limelight: Samuel Henry Butcher (1850-1910)

DSCN2319Cataloguing the correspondence of zoologist/animal breeder James Cossar Ewart (1851-1933), I have been intrigued by the various ‘life stories’ which emerge from the letters. Periodically I will be including some highlights in a series of posts entitled ‘letters in the limelight’ .

While our last ‘Letters in the Limelight’ looked at the life of Peter Henry Buck, a man whose energy was inexhaustible, this week deals poignantly with another of James Cossar Ewart’s correspondents, Samuel Henry Butcher, an Anglo-Irish classical scholar and politician, whose strength had simply run out. Born in Dublin in 1850, Butcher was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was made a Fellow in 1874. From 1876 to 1882 he was a Fellow of University College Oxford, before taking up the post of professor of Greek at the University of Edinburgh, succeeding John Stuart Blackie. His many publications included, in collaboration with Andrew Lang, a prose translation of Homer’s Odyssey (1879), The Poetics of Aristotle (1902) and Some Aspects of the Greek Genius (1904). Butcher was also influential in areas other than the Classics: education was an important subject to him and one for which he was an advocate, on the Scottish Universities Commission (1889-1896); the University of Edinburgh Court (1891-1901); and the Royal Commission on University Education in Ireland (1901). A. Logan Turner described Butcher as possessing: ‘a singularly attractive grace in bearing and speech, he appealed by sheer contrast to the rather unkempt Scottish undergraduate  as an embodiment of Hellenism, at any rate on its aristocratic side’ (History of the University of Edinburgh, 1883-1933, pp. 229-230). However, despite his achievements, by 1903 Butcher’s health and strength were failing. In April of that year he wrote sadly to Ewart:

Riccall Hall
Yorkshire
April 1903

My dear Ewart,
I have intended for some time past to tell you that I have come to the decision that I must resign my Chair. I did not wish this to become public property during this Session, for the leave taking and speech making – to me a great emotional strain – would probably have consumed my remaining strength. But now there is no longer any reason for silence, though my formal resignation to the Court will be deferred for a little while.
I have found, beyond all shade of doubt, that the strain of work had become too great for my strength and my nerve force, which has been greatly reduced during the last year. I have pulled through this Session, but only barely, and often at the week-end, I doubted if I could start afresh on Monday for another week.
I return to Edinburgh tomorrow and must apply myself to business of many kinds, and especially the dismantling of my house, and disposal of many of my goods, eg. books, for which I shall not have room in a smaller house in London. To uproot one’s home of 21 years is a work of much sadness and I cannot trust myself to allow my thoughts to go freely over all that it means. Still I have not lightly made this resolve and know that it is inevitable.
I will write presently and suggest a time which may suit you to look in on me, if you are still at home.
Yours ever,
S.H Butcher
I have a good deal of riding and open air exercise here at my brother’s and am the better for it.
(GB 237 Coll-14/9/9/44)

However, Butcher by no means became inactive after his retirement from the Chair. The remaining five letters from Butcher to Ewart in the collection all postdate Butcher’s retirement and show him to have kept a reasonably active life. One letter from June 1904 has him reporting on a recent lecture tour of America, though he states he found this ‘difficult’ (GB 237 Coll-14/9/10/69), another in September 1905 has him debating with Irish politicians on Irish language and politics (GB 237 Coll-14/9/11/32). Socially, Butcher and Ewart must have been rather close, as he was asked to be trustee of Ewart’s marriage settlement to his third wife, Edith F. Muir. Upon hearing of Ewart’s engagement in September 1904 he remarked: ‘I rejoice to think that the lonely life you have spent for so many years is now to be brightened with human companionship’ (GB 237 Coll-14/9/10/104). After his retirement, Butcher also served as President of the British Academy 1909-1910, was Trustee of the British Museum (1908), and was one of the two MPs for Cambridge University from 1906 until his death, representing the Unionist Party. Samuel Henry Butcher died in London on 29 December 1910 and is interred at the Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh.

Butcher’s lecture notes and papers are held in Edinburgh University Library Special Collections, while his letters to other individuals are held at Oxford, Cambridge, London, St Andrews and the National Library of Scotland.

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