Wessex Worthies: Thomas Young

Andrew Robinson's biography of Milverton-born polymath Thomas Young (1773–1829) is entitled The Last Man Who Knew Everything. It seems like an apt description of a man who made notable contributions to the fields of medicine, physics, music theory and Egyptology.

Young was born to a Quaker family, the eldest of ten children, though he converted to the Church of England in 1804 in order to marry Eliza Maxwell. By the age of 15, he already knew Latin and Greek. He studied medicine in London and Edinburgh before finally obtaining his doctorate from the University of Göttingen in Lower Saxony. He became both a Fellow of the Royal Society and an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

His achievements in medicine include deriving formulae for determining the wave speed of the pulse, and a child's dose of medicine.

In physics, he was an early proponent of the wave theory of light, as opposed to the particle theory favoured by Isaac Newton and others.

Young was one of the translators of the Rosetta Stone, which constituted a major advance in the study of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Young died of complications from asthma at the age of just 55., and is buried at Westminster Abbey. His name lives on in the Thomas Young Centre at the University of London, and at Young Sound in Greenland.

Wessex Attractions: Portland House

Portland House is a National Trust-owned hotel in Dorset. Built in the 1930s in California Mission Revival style. Its original decor has been preserved where possible.

Overlooking Portland harbour, it makes a great base for exploring the Jurassic Coast, and nearby attractions such as Hardy's Cottage.

The full address is: 24 Belle Vue Rd, Weymouth DT4 8RZ, Please note that booking is currently limited due to lockdown restrictions.

Wessex Attractions: Ballard Down

Ballard Down is an area of chalk downland in Purbeck, owned by the National Trust. It is part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site.

Visible from the downs are Old Harry's Rocks which, like The Needles, were once part of a range of chalk hills that became partially submerged as sea levels rose. Legend has it that they got their name because The Devil once took a nap on the rocks.

An obelisk on the downs commemorates the provision of a supply of drinking water to Swanage in 1883. It was taken down during World War 2 to prevent the Luftwaffe from using it to navigate, but re-erected in 1952.

The downs are home to several are butterfly species, including the Blue Adonis. The 2017 BBC adaptation of Howard's End by EM Forster was partly filmed there.

The postcode for satnav purposes is BH19 3DG, and the 50 Breezer Morebus service between Bournemouth and Swanage stops half a mile from the site.

The Rebirth of England and English

The following review originally appeared in the Wessex Chronicle volume 2, issue 2 (Summer 2000)

(Published by Anglo-Saxon Books price £9.95 ISBN 1-898281-17-3)

Subtitled The Vision Of William Barnes, this masterly study does not concentrate so much on Barnes's poetry, which has already been covered in numerous other books, as on his philosophy of life. Actually, "philosophy" is probably the wrong word, due to its Greek origin, but more on this anon.

The book is divided into two parts. Part one, The Rebirth Of England, starts with a brief biography of Barnes, and follows it with six chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of Barnes's outlook. The chapters are: Religion; Nature and Art; Marriage; Society; Economics and Politics.

In truth, these views are not so easily compartmentalised, and there is considerable overlap between the chapters. Also, the heading of chapter 4, "Marriage", is rather too narrow, as it really deals with the whole vexed question of the relations between the sexes. Barnes was no feminist, but neither was he a male chauvinist pig, believing that women should be second-class citizens, even though he lived in an age when they were widely regarded as such.

Part two, The Rebirth Of English, concerns Barnes's efforts to "purify and fix" the English language by coming up with native English equivalents for foreign loan-words. More importantly for us, he wrote poems in his native Dorset dialect, which he argued was the language of Wessex. He was something of a mentor to Thomas Hardy, and the book tells us that "Hardy…got his idea of 'Wessex' directly from Barnes" (we would of course dispute that Wessex was Hardy's idea!).

Phillips is keen to point out that the desire for "pure" English was not motivated by xenophobia, but by a love of plain speech. According to Barnes, his native English words were more comprehensible to Wessex folk and other Englishmen than their Latinate equivalents. This was not always the case, though, and some of his words were longer than their Standard English equivalents. Who but the most rabid nationalist would use "push-wainling" instead of "pram", for example?

Father Andrew also ventures his own Barnesian equivalents to more modern words, such as "upthinker" for computer and "farspeaker" for telephone. But the real selling point of the book is that it gathers together for the first time all Barnes's pure English words from the variety of works in which they were originally scattered. These include original words coined by Barnes (some of which have passed into common parlance, such as "folklore" and "foreword") as well as plain English substitutions for words derived from Latin or French (eg "spyglass" for telescope). This makes for fascinating reading, and the effect is quite infectious.

Whilst I would have liked to see more on Barnes's dialect works, this book does illustrate that Wessex dialect was the standard form of Old English, and that Wessex English is perhaps the purest form of English there is. The sneers of the metropolitan elite are historical in origin, reflecting the Normans' contempt for their conquered English subjects. Wessex people have no cause to be afraid of the way we speak. As this book puts it, "BBC English, the English of the upper class, is merely a Norman accent, that of invaders who could not speak English properly and then, ironically, passed on their accent to succeeding generations as a status symbol, the sign of their superiority and prestige over the English peasantry". Well, quite.

Wessex Attractions: Figsbury Ring

Figsbury Ring is an Iron Age hill fort near Salisbury with an older, possibly Neolitihic enclosure. 18th and 19th century antiquarians misattributed it to the Romans, as was often the case with prehistoric sites, and it was previously known as Chlorus's Camp. It is not clear who Chlorus was, or whether he was the Chlorus of Greek mythology, whose son Thessalus supposedly gave his name to Thessaly. The site was the basis for Cadbury Rings, a location featured in EM Forster's novel The Longest Journey.

The postcode, for satnav purposes, is SP4 6DT. The site is served by bus numbers 87 and 88 from Salisbury.