Preston and the co-founder of climate science

Portrait of John Tyndall in Vanity Fair
Credit: John Tyndall. Colour lithograph by A. Cecioni, 1872. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

The Victorian scientist John Tyndall was one of the pioneers of climate science. He was the second person to demonstrate the greenhouse gas effect (the first was an American woman, Eunice Foote, but, unsurprisingly, her work received much less attention at the time). He had a long and distinguished career as one of Britain’s leading scientists.

As the author of a recent article entitled John Tyndall: the forgotten co-founder of climate science notes, the neglect until fairly recently of such an interesting character as Tyndall is remarkable given ‘… the existence of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the Tyndall National Institute and the Pic Tyndall summit on the Matterhorn in the Alps. There are even several Mount Tyndalls, Tyndall glaciers and Tyndall craters on the Moon and Mars’. [1] Tyndall was one of that group of British mountaineers who ticked off first ascents of many of the famous peaks in the Alps. He completed the first solo ascent of Monte Rosa, at 4,634 metres the second highest mountain in the Alps after Mont Blanc, carrying only a ham sandwich and a small bottle filled with tea. [2]

Today there is a burgeoning interest in Tyndall, not only as a scientist but also as poet and mountaineer. His collected correspondence, which contains about 8000 letters in total, is being transcribed for The John Tyndall Correspondence Project, which was initiated by Prof Bernard Lightman at York University and now involves scholars from five countries who are working on a 19-volume edition, The Correspondence of John Tyndall (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016–). His poetry has been collected and was published in 2020 as The Poetry of John Tyndall. [3]

Early stimulus for his scientific studies was provided by his attendance at lectures at the Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge in Cannon Street, Preston, while he was living in the town. His stay in Preston in the early 1840s (during which he was witness to the Lune Street Riot and the shooting dead of four strikers) and subsequent visits to friends in the town supplied inspiration for his poetry, resulting in a number produced after an idyllic stay in Goosnargh, where he was ‘beguiled’ by the innkeeper’s daughter and enjoyed a local delicacy named ‘snap and rattle’. Inspiration for another of his poems was hearing High Mass at St Wilfrid’s Church, in which he describes being moved emotionally by the ceremony, while rejecting it intellectually. These poems were first published in the Preston Chronicle, along with several contributions on a variety of subjects. His time in Preston is commemorated by a blue plaque in Corporation Street and the John Tyndall Institute for Nuclear Research at UCLan. The plaque incorporates a UCLan logo and Tyndall has clearly been recruited as part of the university’s creation story, which traces its foundation back to the institution in Avenham. Surprisingly, a search of the UCLan website yields not a single mention of John Tyndall.

The Tyndall plaque in Corporation Street, Preston. It rather underplays his contribution to science. Image: Bolckow

Tyndall had been posted to Preston by the Ordnance Survey to work as a draughtsman and assistant to the surveyors, after carrying out similar work in his native Ireland. He is the subject of an excellent article in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, [4] on which I’ve based the following paragraphs.

John Tyndall was born in 1820 in Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, the son of a land agent, who ‘supplemented his income by mending boots’. Later the family moved to Castlebellingham, Co. Louth (the home of the Preston diarist Col Thomas Bellingham). He started work with the Ordnance Survey straight from school and in 1842 was posted to Preston in time to witness the riots that left four dead. Before long he was a leading activist in the dispute between the Survey and its employees over working conditions, for which he was summarily dismissed in November 1843. He subsequently found work as a railway surveyor, and, ‘During this time he developed his prodigious walking capacity and the stamina that was to serve him so well later as a mountaineer’.

After leaving Preston, he met the Quaker educationalist George Edmondson, who had opened a school in Preston at Tulketh Hall, and when shortly after Edmondson moved south to take over Robert Owen’s ‘Harmony Hall’ school in Hampshire, which he renamed Queenwood College, he appointed Tyndall superintendent of the engineering department. Tyndall did not stay long, for in 1848 he left for Germany to study, at his own expense, at Marburg University under Richard Bunsen. He gained a PhD despite having only a rudimentary formal education (he was the classic autodidact). He stayed in Germany to conduct further research, before returning to England, where he was elected to the chair of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution. He became one of the principal defenders of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, following the publication of On the origin of species in 1859. As well as demonstrating the green house gas effect, Tyndall also provided a scientific explanation for ‘the vivid blue of the sky, known frequently as “Tyndall blue”’, which provoked the ire of John Ruskin, who detested such a materialistic and reductionist explanation for one of the splendours of creation.

Another Preston autodidact: Septimus Tebay

Tyndall was a humanist, whose ‘strong anti-catholic tendencies saw miracles, the power of prayer, and observance of the Sabbath as violations of natural law’. His promotion of such views led to him being denounced for blasphemy by the Catholic Church in Ireland. In politics, he was a unionist and ‘an active opponent of home rule for Ireland’.

He married late in life the eldest daughter of Lord Claud Hamilton, the brother of the duke of Abercorn. They had no children and Tyndall died in 1893 after his wife accidentally gave him an overdose of choral, which he took to treat his insomnia.

John Tyndall demonstrating a fog-horn to Queen Victoria
Credit: John Tyndall demonstrating a fog-horn to Queen Victoria and her entourage. Wood engraving by T. B. Wirgman, c.1876. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

Tyndall’s recollections of Preston

The Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge

In an address delivered at the Birbeck Institution in London in 1884, he recalled with gratitude his time spent at the Preston Institution, which he names as the Preston Mechanics Institution. He singles out Moses Holden and the Rev John Clay for praise:

… in the days of my youth, personally and directly, I derived profit from that movement. In 1842, and thereabouts, it was my privilege to be a member of the Preston Mechanics’ Institution — to attend its lectures and make use of its library. A learned and accomplished clergyman, named, if I remember aright, John Clay, chaplain of the House of Correction, lectured from time to time on mechanics. A fine earnest old man, named, I think, Moses Holden, lectured on astronomy, while other lecturers took up the subjects of general physics, chemistry, botany, and physiology. My recollection of it is dim, but the instruction then received entered, I doubt not, into the texture of my mind, and influenced me in after-life. One experiment made in these lectures I have never forgotten. Surgeon Corless, I think it was, who lectured on respiration, explaining among other things the changes produced by the passage of air through the lungs. What went in as free oxygen came out bound up in carbonic acid. To prove this he took a flask of lime-water and, by means of a glass tube dipped into it, forced his breath through the water. The carbonic acid from the lungs seized upon the dissolved lime, converting it into carbonate of lime, which, being practically insoluble, was precipitated. All this was predicted beforehand by the lecturer; but the delight with which I saw his prediction fulfilled, by the conversion of the limpid lime-water into a turbid mixture of chalk and water, remains with me as a memory to the present hour. [5]

He was not always as celebratory of the institution. In an article in the Preston Chronicle in 1850 which he signs Wat Ripton, while urging the young men of the town to join the institution, he is critical of its program, with its reliance on talks, the ‘… lecturer himself is the person chiefly benefitted’. Instead, he argues, the institution should be devoting some of its funds to encouraging the young men (he doesn’t mention young women, Tyndall, at this time, was as sexist as his Victorian contemporaries) to engage in study on their own account, forming seminar-style groups and presenting their own papers:

There are five or six hundred members belonging to that institution; are there not a sufficient number of young men, or old, who have a common object of interest, — say a particular branch of science  or literature, who could form a little coterie among themselves, meet once a week, and hear a lecture from one of its members? [6]

The Preston Guild and the Preston Strike of 1842

You have heard much this year of the bi-decennial festival known as the Preston Guild. Two Guilds ago, that is to say in 1842, I was a youth in Preston, being attached to a division of the Ordnance Survey then stationed there. It was a period of gloom and suffering in the manufacturing districts. Some time prior to the Guild, processions of another kind filled the streets — crowds of shiftless and hungry men who had been discharged from the silent mills. In their helplessness and misery they had turned out, so that their condition might be seen of all. Well, in Lune Street, down which we could look from our office, the tumult one day became unmanageable. Heated by its own interaction and attrition, the crowd blazed out into open riot, and attacked the bakers’ shops. Soldiers had been summoned to meet this contingency. Acting under orders, they fired upon the people, and the riot was quelled at the cost of blood.

At the time he had begun reading Thomas Carlyle, and the Lune Street Riot reinforced the impact of the author’s words, ‘After the rattle of musketry and spatter of bullets, among the weavers and spinners in Lune Street, they rang, I confess, with strange impressiveness in my ears’.[7]

Photo of John Tyndall scientist
Credit: John Tyndall. Photograph. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

The Tyndall correspondence

The following information relating to Tyndall and his connections with Preston has been taken from the Ɛpsilon website, which ‘… is recreating the complex web of correspondence networks that sustained scientific development in the long 19th century’. Ɛpsilon has put online more than 2000 letters from Tyndall’s collected correspondence, which contains about 8000 letters in total, from The John Tyndall Correspondence Project.

Tyndall’s first Preston letter was written to his father back home in Ireland on 10 August, 1842, shortly after his arrival in the town by train from Liverpool:

… yesterday at 11 o’clock we received orders to be at the railway station at ¼ before 5 o’clock. We were there, and started for Preston. Tell my mother that she can hardly imagine the delight I experienced in travelling steam coach rate. It’s extremely pleasant.

Epsilon note:

started for Preston: As the direct route on the Liverpool, Ormskirk & Preston Railway did not open until 1846, Tyndall would presumably have made the journey from Liverpool to Preston in two stages. Firstly on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, opened in 1830 as the world’s first passenger line, and then on to Preston on the North Union Railway, opened in 1838.
the railway terminus: There were two railway stations in Preston at this time, the North Union Station, opened in 1838, and the Maxwell House Station, opened in 1840. With the latter serving the Lancaster and Preston Junction Railway, the route of Tyndall’s journey suggests he arrived at the North Union Station. [8]

Tyndall settled himself in lodgings in what would then be a newly-built house at 18 Oxford Street. Soon after arriving he found himself in the middle of the Preston Strike and Lune Street Riot, as he described in a letter to his father:

You ask me what the Englishmen were seeking when they turned out. The thing was confined to those working in the factories who were puffed into insurrection by the harangues of some Chartist delegates. The number of such persons in this part of the country is enormous. Five or six hundred men and women might be seen at a time issuing from a single factory. And you could scarcely find a spot in Lancashire from which you could not see multitudes of chimneys; they are not confined to the towns. Between this and Liverpool the country, which is very beautiful, is thickly studded with shafts. You ask me am I in any danger – not the least indeed – I could pass very quietly thro’ ten thousand Chartists and be taken for a brother. The country however is quite peaceable at present. The thing was checked in its bud, the people saw that decisive measures were about to be taken – this quelled the insurrectionary spirit.

Epsilon note:

puffed into insurrection … some Chartist delegates: On 12 August 1842 a mass meeting of c. 3,000 workers called a strike in Preston’s cotton factories. The Preston Chronicle reported that ‘their objects were stated to be the attainment of “the people’s charter”, and of “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”’ (‘Serious Disturbances by Turn-outs and Chartists’, 13 August 1842, p. [2]). The People’s Charter of 1838, whose proponents became known as Chartists, demanded democratic reform of the political system, but had been rejected by Parliament.
The thing was checked in its bud … quelled the insurrectionary spirit: On 13 August 1842 the strikers marched on the centre of Preston in order to confront workers who were breaking the strike. They were met by police and soldiers at Lune Street outside the Corn Exchange. The Preston Chronicle reported that ‘an attempt was made to reason with the parties, and they were informed that if they did not disperse, and cease their riotous conduct, orders would be given to fire upon them. The Riot Act was read, and the police having been beaten back, the order to “Fire” was given, and several were wounded’ (‘Preston Riots’, 13 August 1842, p. [3]). Four of the strikers were killed. [9]

Tyndall had been posted to Preston to work with the Ordnance Survey team based in the town, which was beginning the survey of the district. He was devoting his leisure hours to study, as an October letter to his father reveals:

A man named Malone, a brother of one of our fellows, has set up here lately, he’s a classical teacher. He devoted two hours every evening to me alone. His terms are £1 a quarter at 6/8 a month. Its dear, but then his whole time being devoted to me I cant complain. I fear however that he is not altogether as competent as I could wish, I have resorted to a plan, which I often pursued before, to test his knowledge. I raise a difficulty now and then and as I am rather unwilling to take mere assertion from any man we often have a bit of an argument. He usually endeavours to baffle me with Latin analogies, but I see thro’ him and keep him to the point. My knowledge of English enables me to give him some dry rubs. To sum up all, he may do very well for one month. I’ll remain with him no longer, as I shall then be able to get on myself. It is not for the purpose of being able to call things by duplicate names that I am learning French. I have very little ambition in this way. It is because the writings of many clever Engineers are locked up from me on account of being written in that language. I use French then merely as the key of a treasury, not as the treasury itself.

The Epsilon site provides background on Tyndall’s Preston teacher. Tyndall pursued his French studies diligently, presumably teaching himself after abandoning Malone, and soon he was confidently engaging in correspondence in the language. Later he became fluent in German. In the letter, he announces that he is moving to 11 Butler Street. [10]

A letter in December contains references to a Colonel Austin of Fishwick Hall and William Marshall of Penwortham Hall. [11]

Also in December, a correspondent was writing to Tyndall thanking him for sending a long account of the Preston riots. Tyndall’s letter is missing, but the Epsilon site includes a note detailing Tyndall’s later recollections of the riots. [12]

In a letter to his father in February 1843 he reveals that for three months he had been a member of the Institution for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, which he refers to as the Mechanic’s Institution:

I am just after returning from hearing a lecture by the Curate of the parish church of Preston in the lecture room of the Mechanic’s Institution of which I have been a member these three months. We have had a very interesting course of lectures during the winter – one every week. There are much greater facilities here for the acquirement of information than in Ireland, and as far as my time and circumstances permit I avail myself of all. [13]

The curate was the Rev J. P. Simpson. The institution was then meeting in Cannon Street, where it had been established in 1828 to serve the town’s workers. A few years later it transferred to grander premises at the Avenham Institute, and from then on catered for a much more middle-class membership, much to the disgust of the social reformer Joseph Livesey.

In June 1843 he was engaged in testing the surveyors’ measurements in the countryside some seven miles out of town. For two pence, he purchased a gill of milk and ‘something less than a square yard of a comical kind of oaten bread called “snap and rattle”.[14] A letter to his father in the following month reveals that he was again out in the surrounding countryside, this time spending a fortnight in Goosnargh, staying at an inn which the Epsilon editors identify as The General Elliot on Church Lane in the village. Tyndall was ‘beguiled’ by the innkeeper’s youngest daughter. [15]

Tyndall’s sister Emma planned to join him in Preston, but he was somewhat reluctant since, ‘Preston is a manufacturing town, the greater part of it is thickly studded with factories, I would not like to bring Emma into the vicinity of those as the air is generally impregnated with the smoke thrown out from their enormous chimneys.’ Emma overcame his objections and soon joined him in Preston. A letter to her father quoted on the Epsilon site shows that she had a different response to the town, ‘Preston is a nice clean town … the suburbs … are beautiful’. [16]

The letters of some of Tyndall’s Preston correspondents illustrate the social life in Preston at the time. The members of the Ordnance Survey team in the town soon discovered that ‘the finest girls in Preston are Roman Catholics – ay my boy and some of the richest too – there’s Miss – her father is one of the richest men in Preston’. [17] They would have met those young women at the St Austin’s Ball in the town. [18]

A letter dated October 1849 to Tyndall addressed ‘Care of Professor Bunsen, Marburg, Hesse Cassel, Germany’, where Tyndall was studying for his PhD, makes it clear that he was maintaining his contacts in Preston. Tyndall had been translating passages from Goethe’s Faust and forwarding them to the Preston Chronicle for publication. [19] Later that year he was attempting his own compositions, which were also published in the Chronicle. A correspondent, while congratulating Tyndall on his efforts, chided him with wasting his talents on the Chronicle, ‘But why you foolish man straitened & poverty stricken as you are why did you send that to the Preston Chronicle? I could have got you something handsome for that manuscript. Don’t you do so any more …’ [20]

The transcripts of later correspondence are not available online at the Epsilon site, but a note on the site reveals that Tyndall paid a visit to Preston for New Year 1853. [21]

The poetry of John Tyndall

In their book on John Tyndall’s poetry Roland Jackson (who also wrote the article, John Tyndall: the forgotten co-founder of climate science mentioned above) and his fellow authors have collected the 76 surviving poems and prefaced them with a very good introduction to his life and works. The poems include ‘Suggested on hearing High Mass in Saint Wilfred’s Chapel’ and the ‘three substantial poems’ which he composed while staying in Goosnargh. The authors note that, ‘Tyndall was for his contemporaries the most celebrated of scientific self-made men, and he remains the foremost example of this Victorian type’. [22]

His contributions to the Preston Chronicle appeared under the pseudonym ‘Wat Ripton’. In addition to the poetry, they included several articles written during his time as a student in Germany, including translations of the work of the German author Goethe. [23]

In their introduction to Tyndall’s poetry the authors make clear that he had little time for the academic establishment:

Tyndall and his friends who had not had the benefit of a classical education were looked down on by the Oxbridge-educated scientists. In response, a separate club had been formed some years earlier ‘as a protest against Dons and Donnishness in science’, of which Tyndall became a member.[24]

The poetry of John Tyndall is available as an open access publication at

A third aspect of Tyndall’s life was his love of mountaineering:

Tyndall visited the Alps mountains in 1856 for scientific reasons and ended up becoming a pioneering mountain climber. He visited the Alps almost every summer from 1856 onward, was a member of the very first mountain-climbing team to reach the top of the Weisshorn (1861), and led one of the early teams to reach the top of the Matterhorn (1868). His is one of the names associated with the ‘Golden age of alpinism’ — the mid-Victorian years when the more difficult of the Alpine peaks were summited for the first time. [25]

He wrote an account of his days in the Alps, and in the following extract, which describes the first solo ascent of Monte Rosa in 1858, we get a glimpse of his stoical nature:

After breakfast I poured what remained of my tea into a small glass bottle, an ordinary demi-bouteille, in fact; the waiter then provided me with a ham sandwich, and, with my scrip thus frugally furnished, I thought the heights of Monte Rosa might be won. I had neither brandy nor wine, but I knew the immense amount of mechanical force represented by four ounces of bread and ham, and I therefore feared no failure from lack of nutriment. Indeed, I am inclined to think that both guides and travellers often impair their vigour and render themselves cowardly and apathetic by the incessant ‘refreshing which they deem it necessary to indulge in on such occasions. [26]

And to finish, the St Wilfrid poem (Tyndall writes St Wilfred):

Suggested on hearing High Mass in Saint Wilfred’s Chapel c.1843
Hushed is the clangour of the vesper bell—
It’s dying chime the breeze has borne away;
Around me now, no buzzing murmurs swell
While led by curiosity, I stray
Thro’ Wilfred’s holy fane—in white array
The fathers of the prostrate people stand,
Who deem the beamings of supernal day,
Or shades of Hades spread at their command
In glory or in gloom throughout the subject land!

And here bend youth and age, and here the tears
of pearly pureness, fill the dark fringed eyes
Of lovely penitents, while ghostly fears
Sweep from their downy cheeks the vermeil dyes—
The roseate tints which slumbered there—and sighs
From iron hearts are sent, as haply lours
The frown of Rome—like barbs and bolts it flies,
Piercing the soul, and crushing all its powers—
Before her mystic shrines th’ immortal essence cowers!

See yonder time-worn soldier where he kneels,
With tattooed brow—with bosom scorched and scarred!
Can fearless spirits feel as how he feels?
Can this be he who erst the battle dared;
When sanguinary files tumultuous jarred,
With life compressed and challenge-flashing eye,
He sought the cloud of conflict helmet-starred,
He sunk—yet rose above the din his cry—
Untrammelled—unsubdued—presage of victory!

He quails!—anon an Orphean spell combined
With all the shadowy grandeurs that arise
From canvass and from candles, grasp his mind—
Lifting imagination to the skies—
They generate a feeling which defies
The manacles of reason, as it soars
Beyond the world, in speechless extacies,
To realms where Francis and Stylites pour
The ceaseless tide of praise and Heaven’s bright Queen adores!

[1] Roland Jackson, ‘John Tyndall: The Forgotten Co-Founder of Climate Science’, The Conversation, accessed 17 August 2022,

[2] ‘Dufourspitze’, in Wikipedia, 23 June 2022,

[3] ‘Tyndall Correspondence Project’, Tyndall Correspondence Project, accessed 8 August 2022,; Roland Jackson, Nicola Jackson, and Daniel Brown, The Poetry of John Tyndall (UCL Press, 2020),

[4] Norman McMillan, ‘Tyndall, John’, in Dictionary of Irish Biography, ed. James Quinn (Royal Irish Academy, 2009),

[5] John Tyndall, New Fragments (New York, Appleton, 1892), 225,

[6] Preston Chronicle P6, 9 March 1850, British Library Newspapers,

[7] Tyndall, New Fragments, 392–93.

[8] ‘Epsilon: Tyndall0161’, Ɛpsilon: The John Tyndall Collection, accessed 14 August 2022,

[9] ‘Epsilon: Tyndall0164’, Ɛpsilon: The John Tyndall Collection, accessed 13 August 2022,

[10] ‘Epsilon: Tyndall0171’, Ɛpsilon: The John Tyndall Collection, accessed 14 August 2022,

[11] ‘Epsilon: Tyndall0178’, Ɛpsilon: The John Tyndall Collection, accessed 14 August 2022,

[12] ‘Epsilon: Tyndall0179’, Ɛpsilon: The John Tyndall Collection, accessed 14 August 2022,

[13] ‘Epsilon: Tyndall0187’, accessed 14 August 2022,

[14] ‘Epsilon: Tyndall0213’, accessed 14 August 2022,

[15] ‘Epsilon: Tyndall0219’, accessed 14 August 2022,

[16] ‘Epsilon: Tyndall0225’, Ɛpsilon: The John Tyndall Collection, accessed 14 August 2022,

[17] ‘Epsilon: Tyndall0282’, Ɛpsilon: The John Tyndall Collection, accessed 14 August 2022,

[18] ‘Epsilon: Tyndall0284’, Ɛpsilon: The John Tyndall Collection, accessed 14 August 2022,

[19] ‘Epsilon: Tyndall0386’, accessed 14 August 2022,

[20] ‘Epsilon: Tyndall0388’, accessed 14 August 2022,

[21] ‘Epsilon: Tyndall0698’, Ɛpsilon: The John Tyndall Collection, accessed 14 August 2022,

[22] Jackson, Jackson, and Brown, The Poetry of John Tyndall, 2.

[23] Preston Chronicle P2, 13 January 1844, British Library Newspapers,; Preston Chronicle, 16 June 1849, British Library Newspapers,; Preston Chronicle P3, 13 July 1850, British Library Newspapers,

[24] Jackson, Jackson, and Brown, The Poetry of John Tyndall, 4.

[25] ‘John Tyndall’, in Wikipedia, 5 August 2022,

[26] John Tyndall, The Glaciers of the Alps. Being a Narrative of Excursions and Ascents, an Account of the Origin and Phenomena of Glaciers and an Exposition of the Physical Principles to Which They Are Related (Longmans, Green and Co., 1896), 151,

[27] Jackson, Jackson, and Brown, The Poetry of John Tyndall, 96–97.

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