Eugenics: the sins of the father

Here follows a tale of a man I can no longer admire.

Flower Thomas (F. T.) Spackman, F.G.S. (1856-1931) looms large in the annals of Worcester’s learned societies. In the early 20th century, he published widely on natural history, geology, and archaeology. He was an energetic field investigator, and wrote an impressive catalogue of The Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings of Worcester. A fellow of the Royal Geological Society, he had a particular interest in prehistoric worked flint, an interest I share. And he was the Hon. Secretary of the Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club, a respected society that still exists today. He spent his working life as a clerk to the Worcester Education Committee. I discovered last week that he was also a passionate eugenicist.

I’ve been working on the history of local Ice Age collections. Sophie, an undergraduate student, is helping us to unpick these tangled networks of knowledge. She found a key paper in the Transactions of the Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club: a talk on prehistoric stone tools given by Worcester Museum curator W. H. Edwards. It references Spackman’s recent work, so we turned to the index. And there, among his many contributions, was an entry: Spackman, FT… Eugenics 185.

The paper on Eugenics sits between a treatise on salmon and a discussion of the water quality of the River Severn. It was read during a meeting at the Victoria Institute, home of the City Art Gallery and Museum, on Thursday, 25th January 1912. It opened with the Chairman, Mr Carleton Rea, making an addition to the botanic record of the county: a specimen of Vicia orobus (wood bitter-vetch). I mention this to highlight the banality of it all. This is not a backstreet rabble-rouser frothing on the stump; it is a congregation of naturalists: gentlemen and scholars.

Spackman takes the stand. He begins by recounting his experiences with ‘defective’ children. He talks of the heredity of undesirable traits, highlights the work of Francis Galton, and discusses key principles of Eugenics: “the project of producing a well-bred race – a race good in physique, intellect, and morals”. Then follows a warning: the birthrate of the “superior classes… [from which] the world recruits its pioneers, the first rate men” is dangerously low, whereas that of the “unfit” is alarmingly high.

He then takes aim at charity and philanthropy, who are accused of:

“aiding and abetting the feeble-minded and criminals by finding them homes… instead of, as at one time, passively ridding the country of degenerates by allowing them to die because they could not fight the competitive battle of life…”

Transactions of the Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club 1911-1913, Vol. 5, p.187.

Then, for a moment, the tone is conciliatory, before rising to ardent patriotism. He appears, here, to be quoting Karl Pearson:

“Do I therefore call for less human sympathy?… Not for a moment; we cannot go back a single step in the evolution of human sympathy. But I demand that all sympathy and charity shall be organised and guided into paths where they will promote racial efficiency, and not lead us straight towards national shipwreck.” ibid. p.187-8

Lengthy case studies follow, demonstrating the cost to the national purse of looking after the degenerate. Various approaches are discussed; Spackman quotes — and seems sympathetic to — Dr Saleeby‘s opinion that:

“Nature has no choice; if she is to avert the coming of the unfit race she must summarily extinguish its potential ancestor, but we can prohibit the reproduction of his infirmity whilst doing all we can for the individual life.” ibid. p.189

“Doing all we can”, however, does not entail the sort of medical treatment of the vulnerable that we might expect. Instead, Spackman argues:

“You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear… in spite of environmental factors, children remain what they are born.” ibid. p.190

There is no redemption for the children of degenerates, in Spackman’s eyes. How, then, to approach the problem?

“Proposals are made for segregating the unfit, for establishing labour colonies, and for obtaining powers of detention of the lower class of defectives for life.” ibid. p.191

And then comes perhaps the most shocking passage. Having led the audience down the dark routes through this thorny problem, Spackman launches into his concluding remarks:

“But this paper is concerned only with theory and suggestion. The time is not yet ripe for putting into practice any of the sterner measures proposed for stemming the tide of racial deterioration, with the single exception of the permanent segregation and detention of the lower class of defectives.” ibid. p.191

“Sterner measures”. “The time is not yet ripe.” By 1912, the time was ripe for practices such as compulsory sterilisation,  which had already begun in a number of US states. Given that detention and forced labour camps for entire sections of the population evidently fall within the range of measures he considers on the more moderate end of the spectrum, it’s hard to fathom what Spackman has in mind. We know, with hindsight, what happens when you look into sterner measures, having begun by incarcerating large swathes of undesirables. But Spackman never had to deal with that realisation; he died in 1931.

The evening concludes with a discussion, and takes an even darker turn – a twist that paints Spackman as a man consumed by contradiction:

“The Chairman stated that he belonged to quite another school, namely those who believed in the lethal chamber and the survival of the fittest, whilst the modern school of namby-pamby philanthopists seemed to desire the survival of the degenerates and their offspring.” ibid. p.192

Something curious follows. Spackman, possibly startled by this open statement of murderous intent, launches into a defence of the achievements of the efforts to alleviate poverty in the city:

“In reply, Mr Spackman said that more was being done for the amelioration of the lot of children than had ever been attempted before… food for those children who would otherwise not get a sufficient supply was being provided by the Municipality… children were no longer to be allowed to become debilitated or diseased simply because their parents might be too poor or too indifferent… [therefore] there had been a general uplifting all round” ibid. p.192

In other words, if you improve children’s environment and alleviate the effects of poverty, they respond well. This directly and emphatically contradicts his statement, just a few minutes earlier, that “children remain what they are born.”

The meeting wasn’t well attended, by the society’s standards: just eight people were present. It may just have been a particularly inclement January evening. It is possible that some stayed away in disgust at the subject matter: eugenics certainly had vocal critics in the intellectual communities of the day.

The science behind eugenics doesn’t stack up. It overestimates the ability of selective breeding to remove deleterious traits. It underestimates the role of the environment, particularly the crucial early years of childhood development. And limiting genetic diversity is not a good outcome for the evolutionary fitness of a population, however much you may admire the resulting moral fortitude.

Eugenics does not begin or end in a labour camp or in a sterilisation programme. Eugenics gained traction and continues to prosper because it claims to identify reasonable problems that tap into certain perceptions. Looking after people who are sick, disabled, or troubled, is difficult. It costs money. We all want a healthy population, don’t we? And conditions that adversely affect health or prospects… we’d all like to see them minimised, wouldn’t we? That seems desirable. And we’d like there to be more smart, healthy people – people like us…

But without a guiding set of humanitarian values, that sound utilitarian principle of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ leads, inexorably, to the tyranny of the majority. Especially if, like Spackman, you place yourself at the pinnacle of human progress.

This story does not end on that January night. The figure of Spackman has been haunting me for a week, consuming every spare hour. A man whose passion for natural history, geology, and archaeology I share and had admired. 106 years to the day after Spackman’s address, I too was out giving a lecture to a local society. I often pass his house: a modest Victorian terrace, and climb the steps of the Victoria Institute where the meeting was held. I found myself wondering if he had a family. I looked, and found his son: Flower Stephen (F.S.) Spackman, born 1890. What did he learn from his father?

In 1911, F.S. was serving as a Corporal in the 3rd Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment. He must subsequently have emigrated to Canada, for at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He signed up on October 26th 1914 at Saskatoon, listing his occupation as ‘student’. I can’t imagine what he went through over the next four years. He’s pictured here, 3rd from the left, front row: a Company Sergeant-Major in No. 4 Company, 28th (Northwest) Battalion. That rank — responsible for welfare, discipline and organisation of over 200 men — must have been a heavy burden for a 24-year-old. In July 1916 he received a commission in the Worcestershire Regiment. Soon after, he was wounded on The Somme.

He survived the war, and stayed in England to continue his studies, graduating from St John’s College Cambridge in 1921. He entered the priesthood. From 1929-52, he served as Vicar of Marple. He was an army cadet instructor in Cheshire from 1948 until 1955, and held the post of Canon Emeritus at Chester Cathedral at the time of his death in 1967. But where was he in the 1920s? His obituary notice notes that he was “formerly principal of the Indian Residential School at Alert Bay, British Columbia”Canadian records revealed that he was living in Alert Bay in 1928. St Michael’s Indian Residential School, shown at Alert Bay on this map, was built in 1929, expanding a school originally established in 1882. F.S. appears to have been principal of the earlier institution, returning to England when the new facility was built. He is listed as having 44 boys and 39 girls in his care in this extraordinary document: the 1925 Annual Report of the Department for Indian Affairs.

The Indian Residential Schools were appalling manifestations of colonial zeal. Their goal was the transformation of the savage child into a civilised adult. Schooling was compulsory. Children were forbidden from speaking their language, or from any expression of native identity. Upon graduating, many returned, lost and alienated, to communities and families with whom they could no longer even converse. The school at Alert Bay closed in 1975, and was finally demolished in 2015. Pauline Alfred, a pupil, recounts a system in which — stripped of her name — she was reduced to a number: 564. The ramifications of these children’s experiences echo down the generations: reflected in cycles of trauma and abuse carried forward (see, for instance, this paper by Elias et. al., 2012).

“…it is clear that Indian Residential Schools, in policy and in practice, were an assault on Indigenous families, culture, language and spiritual traditions, and that great harm was done. We continue to acknowledge and regret our part in that legacy.

Those harmed were children, vulnerable, far from their families and communities. The sexual, physical, and emotional abuse they suffered is well-documented.”

Response of the Churches to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015

There were inherent contradictions in the Spackmans’ beliefs and actions. Both men were adherents to an ideology that placed their own birthright at the pinnacle of human advancement. But F.T. — having made the case for hereditary degeneracy — talks of his work for the “amelioration of the lot of the poor”. And in tracing the history of F.S., I came across a curious letter to The Times, dated 15th March 1939, reproduced in Volume 2 of Major Matthews’ Early Vancouver. It professes a concern for indigenous culture that is hypocritically at odds with his professional involvement in suppressing it:

You published on March 13 an Illustration of a very interesting Totem from the West Coast of British Columbia. But why is it described as the work of “Siwash” Indians? During my residence among these Indians I was never able to locate any tribe known officially by this name. On the contrary, if a Coast Indian was called a “Siwash” he resented it… “Siwash” is often used by white men on the West Coast (frequently contemptuously), but never by Indians themselves. Hence it is difficult to understand why it is sometimes used by scientific writers in England. Your article states that this particular Totem came from “the northern part of Vancouver Island.” The Indians who inhabit these parts are sub-tribes of the once-powerful Kwaguitl (or Kwawkewith) Confederacy. If we could know the exact place from which the Totem came it would be possible to name the tribe. There is one other interesting feature about it. The Kwaguitls usually carve the Thunder Bird with wings outspread. Folded wings are usual among the tribes farther north.

The Rev. F.S. Spackman,

Vicar of Marple, Cheshire: formerly Principal of the Indian Residential Schools, Alert Bay, B.C.

We stand on the shoulders of flawed giants. And the uncomfortable truth is that I found much to admire in both men. The humble clerk in a world dominated by gentlemen, whose boundless energy and considerable intellectual ability helped to lay the foundations of archaeology in Worcester. And the soldier-priest with his interest in indigenous identity, who rose from the ranks to become a canon. I’m painfully aware that my sympathy towards them is a product of the parallels between my life and theirs. These conversations are needed, not just about the ‘great men’ of empire commemorated in statues, but about the people we encounter and value in local histories and family stories. It is tempting to focus the debate on an abstract dichotomy: should a prominent statue stay or go? Should a civic hall be renamed? But these issues are personal. The actions of those to whom I feel connected blighted the lives of people whose stories I can watch on YouTube.

Ironically, the conflicted Spackmans — firm believers that character was born, not made — were products of their time and their environment. They learnt to worship at the altar of their own values: values predicated on a flawed science and a sense of cultural superiority. I seek to put them in human context, not to excuse their actions, but to understand how such a worldview spread like wildfire through the drawing rooms of middle England, and how it may do so again. The story of the Spackmans illustrates the transition in all its horror: the “theory and suggestion” of the father’s lecture was played out in his son’s career; communities were ripped apart: innocent children were the victims. Words and ideas are never just theory and suggestion: they lodge, they take root; they have the potential to travel halfway around the world and destroy lives. I leave the last word to a pupil at St Michael’s, who suffered for a decade within the system that F.T. Spackman’s ideology inspired, and F.S. Spackman’s mission carried out:

“We should no longer be defined by that building and that history, otherwise we’ll be doomed to pass on the same characteristics to the next generation.”

Chief Robert Joseph, 2015

If you’d like to read F.T. Spackman’s paper for yourself, it can be found in the Level 2 Local Studies Library of The Hive, open 7 days a week, 08:30-22:00: Transactions of the Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club 1911-13, Vol. 5 (L506). It is a fragile volume, and I’ve been unable to scan it. But I did manage to photograph the pages, so you can download this slightly wonky PDF (8mb): Spackman_1912_Eugenics.

In The Hive, you’ll also find a history of the club which offers some background to the characters mentioned here: The Lookers Out of Worcestershire, by Mary Munslow Jones (L506.04244). It does not mention Eugenics.

Thanks to all the friends and colleagues who’ve helped me shape this story over the past week. For more information on my work on the history of archaeology and natural history in Worcestershire, visit: https://iceageworcestershire.com/ 

Transactions of the Worcestershire Naturalists' Club in the Local Studies Section, The Hive

Transactions of the Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club in the Local Studies Section, The Hive

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5 thoughts on “Eugenics: the sins of the father

  1. Hi Rob,

    Little did we know what further horrors you were to uncover following your first reference to Spackman Senior last week. I’ve read this blog with eyes widened in amazement and muttering “Good grief” and other, less ladylike, phrases throughout.

    You can see the beginnings of the Final Solution as plain as day; one seemingly pseudo-benevolent act (segregating those less able to a “caring” environment), that is the first step on the path to eliminating those deemed unfit; being physically, mentally, and in the long term, ideologically, unsuited to the prevailing mores.

    That Spackman Junior took the same stance with the indigenous races in Canada comes as no surprise. The capacity for the Imperial White Man to inflict horror on the “savage” knows no bounds, and seems to have been inbred into men of those times, though Spackman FS seems to have kept his Victorian outlook well into later life.

    It is difficult when we find our heroes have feet of clay; how can a man so interested in the finer side of life and history have such shocking views on his fellow man? Far from wanting to sit down to discuss archaeology and fascinating flint, one feels more inclined to poke him in the eye!

    Thanks again for a most interesting article. I’ll come back to it on the desktop where I can open the links more easily, and will be reading the whole thing again, more than once I’m sure.

    See you on Thursday,

    Mary

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  2. Thanks Rob, fascinating article. I’m always wary of criticising those from the past in terms of modern values, but I felt you argued the case thoroughly and thoughtfully, and convincingly. Indeed, on the shoulders of flawed giants!

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  3. “Flawed Giants” – what an excellent turn of phrase. The fact that Spackman and others like him are difficult to admire is perhaps all the more reason for studying their lives and work. Only by acknowledging past errors and horrors can we build a framework by which we do not repeat those mistakes. A great post.

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  4. Pingback: The Giant Wombat in the Basement | the incurable archaeologist

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