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Charles Kingsley. Photographed by Octavius Charles Watkins.

Many guidebooks to Chester will mention that the Victorian writer and moralist Charles Kingsley lived there and that he had something to do with the formation of the Chester Natural History Society. Kingsley is one of the more interesting Victorian intellectuals. His commitment to his social agenda manifested itself in his written work, not only in his many published letters, sermons, scientific essays, and lectures, but also as themes in his novels and historical works. His familiy claimed descent from the Kingsleys of Vale Royal, but by the time of his birth had little connection with Cheshire.


Charles Kingsley (12 June 1819 – 23 January 1875) was a broad church priest of the Church of England, a university professor, social reformer, historian, novelist and poet. He is particularly associated with Christian socialism, the working men's college, and forming labour cooperatives that failed, but led to the working reforms of the progressive era. He was born on the 12th of June 1819, at Holne vicarage, Dartmoor, Devon. His early years were spent at Barnack in the Fen country and at Clovelly in North Devon. The scenery of both made a great impression on his mind, and was afterwards described with singular vividness in his writings. He was educated at private schools and at King’s College, London, after his father’s promotion to the rectory of St Luke’s, Chelsea.

In 1838 he entered Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in 1842 he was ordained to the curacy of Eversley in Hampshire, to the rectory of which he was not long afterwards presented, and this, with short intervals, was his home for the remaining thirty-three years of his life. In 1844 he married Fanny, daughter of Pascoe Grenfell, after persuading her not to enter a religious order. Britain's Chartist movement, a cause centered in part on the question of universal manhood suffrage, triggered Kingsley's entrée into political activism in the late 1840s. He was particularly animated by the massive Chartist rally held on April 10, 1848 where thousands of workers gathered in London to present a petition – signed by approximately five to six million Britons – to Parliament asking for extensions of voting rights and Parliamentary reforms. He threw himself heartily into the movement known as Christian Socialism, of which Frederick Denison Maurice was the recognized leader, and for many years he was considered as an extreme radical in a profession the traditions of which were conservative. Despite this his views on race and superiority of the English would not be seen as quite so liberal today. His politics might therefore have been described as "Toryism tempered by sympathy", or as "Radicalism tempered by hereditary scorn of subject races". Some have gone so far as to suggest that Kingsley opposed extending enfranchisement because he believed that the working classes — English, Irish, or African-American – were morally and mentally unfit to participate in democratic forms of government. He also believed that the ruling classes had a fiduciary obligation to care-take their justly disenfranchised brethren. In his essay "Human soot" he writes:

  • "I do not blame you, or the people of Liverpool, nor the people of any city on earth, in our present imperfect state of civilization, for the existence among them of brutal, ignorant, degraded, helpless people"

In 1860, to everyone's surprise - including his own, he became Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, and in 1861 a private tutor to the Prince of Wales. A man of so varied activities was hardly a scholar, but Kingsley's lectures, more about men than politics or economics, were popular with students, but he was not held in high esteem by his fellow academics. Kingsley's interest in history is shown in several of his writings, including The Heroes (1856), a moralising children's book about Greek mythology, and several historical novels, of which the best known are Hypatia (1853), Hereward the Wake (1865) and Westward Ho! (1855). Charles Kingsley's novel Westward Ho! led to the founding of a village by the same name (the only place name in England with an exclamation mark). His historical works play freely with the facts and are often vehicles for the expression of his own social and political beliefs, including attacks on the catholic French and Spanish.

He was a friend and correspondent of Charles Darwin. He was sympathetic to the idea of evolution and was one of the first to welcome Charles Darwin's book "On the Origin of Species". He had been sent an advance review copy and in his response of 18 November 1859 (four days before the book went on sale) stated that he had:

  • "long since, from watching the crossing of domesticated animals and plants, learnt to disbelieve the dogma of the permanence of species".

In fact, when Darwin produced the second edition of "Origin" (January 1860) it incorporated numerous corrections as well as a response to religious objections by the addition of a new epigraph on page ii, a paraphrase of a quotation from Charles Kingsley - referred to as "a celebrated author and divine" - , and the phrase "by the Creator" added to the closing sentence.

A "blue plaque" in Abbey Square marks the location of his home and refers to his authorship of "The Water Babies", now seen by some as a somewhat prejudiced work.

Kingsley was a fervent Anglo-Saxonist, and seen as a major proponent of that ideology, particularly in the 1840s. He proposed that the English people were "essentially a Teutonic race, blood-kin to the Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians". Kingsley suggested there was a "strong Norse element in Teutonism and Anglo-Saxonism". Mixing mythology and Christianity, he blended the Protestantism of his day with the Old Norse religion, saying that the Church of England was "wonderfully and mysteriously fitted for the souls of a free Norse-Saxon race". He believed the ancestors of Anglo-Saxons, Norse and Germanic peoples had physically fought beside the god Odin, and that the British monarchy of his time was genetically descended from him - in Old English texts, Odin holds a particular place as a euhemerized ancestral figure among royalty, and these even found their way into the text of Nennius. Kingsley was highly critical of Roman Catholicism and his argument in print with John Henry Newman, accusing him of untruthfulness and deceit, prompted the latter to write his Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

The cheerfully brutal proto-british characters in Kingsley's novels led T. C. Sandars, reviewing "Two Years Ago" in the Saturday Review (February 1857), to propose that Kingsley preached a gospel of "Muscular Christianity" (Feb 1857, 176), a gibe taken up by other critics, but Kingsley preferred to call it "Christian manliness". Kingsley adopted a version of Darwinism which placed these "manly Christians", usually white Protestants, at the pinnacle of the evolutionary tree, and would have placed Catholics in a less evolved rank. He once wrote to his wife, describing a visit to Ireland,

  • "I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I don't believe they are our fault. I believe there are not only many of them than of old, but they are happier, better, more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours."

With family connections in the West Indies, the wider Kingsley family fortunes were devastated by Abolition, even though there was some Government compensation; Kingsley’s maternal grandfather received £3,000 for their 157 slaves. Kingsley's mother, Mary Lucas (1787–1873), was born in Barbados, the daughter of a judge who had inherited slave-run sugar plantations. There was, however, little inheritance for the next generation: "emancipation ruined me" Kingsley remarked. Kingsley sat on the 1866 Edward Eyre Defence Committee along with Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens, John Tyndall, and Alfred Tennyson, where he supported Jamaican Governor Edward Eyre's brutal suppression of the Morant Bay Rebellion (1865) against the Jamaica Committee. The opposing Jamaica Committee, which called for the trial of Eyre, included later Chester resident Thomas Hughes (of "Tom Browns Schooldays") and Charles Darwin. The attempts to bring a case against Eyre were finally rejected by the courts in 1870.

In 1852 the Kingsley family spent some time at Torquay to recover from the ill-effects of living in the damp Rectory at Eversley. Charles threw himself into prospecting on the foreshore, the cliffs, and in caves for specimens of marine life. Kingsley coined the term pteridomania (a mania for decorative ferns) in his subsequent 1855 book Glaucus or "Wonders of the Sea Shore" which he illustrated himself.

In "The Water Babies" (1862) Kingsley appears to descend into a fantasy solution to the problem of the "unwashed masses". His concern for sanitary reform had always bordered on obsession, and his boy chimney-sweep Tom, in his quest to immerse himself in a purifying bath, drowns and subsequently is transformed into a “water baby” – a hybrid infant equal parts human, fish, and newt. Kingsley, as an amateur naturalist, appears to suggest that Tom somehow "de-evolves" into a fish-like ancestor, rather after the fashion of Ernst Haeckel, who was writing at about the same time. By the novel's end, Tom will metamorphose into a "respectable" British scientist and engineer. The fact that Tom has the same name as the "Tom" of Harriet Beecher Stowe's then exceedingly popular Uncle Tom's Cabin or, "Life Among the Lowly" and that is transformed from "black" to "white" seems to have escaped the notice of many of his readers.

In 1869 Kingsley resigned his Cambridge professorship and 1870–1873 served as a canon of Chester Cathedral. As his wife Fanny commented:

  • "My husband likes his cathedral services, especially the twice daily ones. He feels his soul at anchor in those two hours. Afterwards he can take refuge in the Chapter and Library Room when we are likely to be invaded at the Residence. There he is safe from the eager parties of Americans whose first desire, after disembarking at Liverpool, is to move inland in search of the oldest thing they can find, ie, the Cathedral."

Evidently the vergers, for a small "tip" could be persuaded to show visitors into the Cathedral library where they could glimpse the "great man" working. Just why Kingsley chose to leave his position in Cambridge and take up the position in Chester has been the subject of some speculation. The Cambridge post paid around £300 per year, and the Chester post £500 and Kingsley was known to worry about money. At the time other historians in Cambridge were beginning to question his version of "Anglo-Saxon" history (including descent from Odin) and both the Jamaica issue and public row with John Newman were still in the public mind.

Apart from the Dean, who lived in what is now the Bishop’s House, and the Vice-Dean whose appointment was full-time, the four residentiary canons came into residence for three months each year. A "blue plaque" (seemingly not an official one) on the wall of 11 Abbey Square commemorates his occupancy of the building for three months (May, June and July) each year for 1870, 1871 and 1872. He resigned his canonry at Chester in order to begin as a (better paid) canon at Westminster Abbey in April 1873. The Kingsley Medal, named after Charles Kingsley, founding Presidentof the Chester Society of Natural Science, was awarded as a Memorial Prize to members for original research.

A View of Snowdon from the Sands of Traeth Mawr by Anthony Vandyke Copley Fielding (1787-1855). The original estuary of the Afon Glaslyn was a dangerous place; many people were said to have died in the quicksands trying to cross the Traeth Mawr. This watercolour may have been the inspiration for "Sands of Dee". Cattle watering at the Glaslyn estuary was a popular subject for artists, having also been painted by Joseph Turner, Sidney Richard Percy and Henry Clarence Waite.

A lifelong ambition was realized in the winter of 1869–70 when he had the opportunity to visit the West Indies, described enthusiastically in "At Last" (1871) with a heavy seasoning of Victorian racism. A lecture tour in the United States in 1874, which took him as far west as Colorado Springs, was undertaken as much to consolidate his improved finances as to see the country, and it proved not only exhilarating but exhausting and ultimately fatal through a chill which brought on lung disease. Two years after his short stay in Chester, Charles Kingslwy was dead. He is sometimes mistakenly believed to have lived and worked in Chester for a prolonged period, but that is simply not the case. His home remained at Eversley and he was only ever a visitor to Chester for a quarter of each of three years.

The sheer variousness of Kingsley's career affected his reputation in his own time and subsequently. He did many interesting things in a short lifetime, but few of them supremely well and almost none without controversy. His Christian socialism attracted notice in France and Germany as well as in Britain, though his politics have satisfied neither radicals nor conservatives. He was outstanding as a parish clergyman, though increasingly absent from his parish. The popular preacher, the historian, and the scientific popularizer were soon forgotten. The churchman was recalled, rather unfairly, only as Newman's luckless antagonist. Kingsley the novelist has fared better, but it has even been sugested that he was the model for the "Mad Hatter" of Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) - although Carroll does not use the epithet "mad" and just calls him "the Hatter". Curiously, Dodgson had originally no intention of publishing "Alice" but was persuaded to do so by novelist Henry Kingsley (1830-1876), Charles Kingsley's younger brother.


Kingsley had written all of his well-known works by the time he came to live, part time, in Chester.

The abundance of visible geology led Charles Kingsley, while a canon at Chester cathedral, to give a series of lectures for the Chester Society for Natural Science, Literature and Art (he was a founder member). In 1872 he produced a book: “Town Geology” about what can be seen of geology without having to tramp round Wales with a pickaxe like the young Charles Darwin. Parts of the book would nowadays be thought "politically incorrect", and the geology is somewhat dated. However his work with the Chester Society would leave behind a thriving natural history society which would eventually develop into the Grosvenor Museum.

Kingsley's melancholic poem "The Sands of Dee" - about a woman who drowns in the Dee estuary while calling her cattle home, was published in 1850, probably before he had ever visited Chester. The fords across the sands were well known to be an dangerous place - Celia Fiennes writes of the hazard of the crossing - and the coroners records show many deaths by drowning including the tragic case of Thomas Harrison who drowned while crossing Shotwick ford Jan 12th 1753, just three days after his wife Alice had died in the same way. Kingsley may also have made use of the legend associated with the "Lady Cave" at Hilbre Island. The poem first appears in Kingsley's early novel "Alton Locke" and the novel refers to a supposed view of the Dee by the artist Copley Fielding. In fact the view in question was probably "A View of Snowdon from the Sands of Traeth Mawr", (1834). Many commentators on the poem know that Kingsley lived in Chester, but then state that he wrote the poem while living in the area, which is quite untrue: he wrote the poem two decades before moving to Chester. Kingsley was familiar with Traeth Mawr as he mentions it specifically as a previously-visited botanical (and salmon-fishing) site in a 1856 letter to Thomas Hughes, as well as describing "the sandy flats of Traeth Mawr", with another mention of the salmon stakes in his 1857 novel "Two years ago".

The opening page of "The Water Babies" with an illustration by Edward Linley Sambourne of the Tom the chimney-sweep boy in what might nowadays be called "blackface".

The story of the poem was perpetuated in 1912 with the twelve minute silent movie "Sands of Dee", very loosely inspired by Kingsley’s poem. It starred Mae Marsh (1894-1968) a teenage actress who, in her previous film, "Man's Genesis", was a scantily-dressed cavewoman. This time she played a more serious role, a tragic heroine who becomes engaged to an artist, only to find that he is already married. Mary is thrown out of the house by her smock-wearing yokel of a father (the implication being that she has become pregnant) and wanders on a deserted shore to commit suicide, her body being found by her abandonned childhood sweetheart. Even the story of the firm is clouded by myths, one being that Mae Marsh died of a drugs overdose after making it, wheras in fact she lived into her seventies. Director D. W. Griffith evidently considered it an important work as he wrote: "In succession we made Macbeth, Don Quixote, Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, Kingsley's Sands of Dee" (this does not actually fit with the filmography).



Views on Kingsley vary widely from the nostalgic picture of the Victorian humanist, writer, poet, natural historian and curate to a racist and paternalistic imperialist with an unhealthy interest in masculine heroics. It is in part the contradictions and complexities of his character which have maintained him as an object of scholarship as regards his character and cultural influence.