A letter from aeronautical Sir George to Charles Babbage

Sir George Cayley, the aeronautical baronet, and Charles Babbage were friends for many years, and some of their correspondence has survived. They often teased each other, including about some of their scientific preoccupations: Sir George would refer in amused tones to how long Babbage was working on his calculating machine – a forerunner of the computer; and Babbage would tease Sir George about the time he was devoting to inventing an ‘air engine’ to replace steam engines in locomotives – and hopefully to be light enough to power flight (Sir George never managed to invent a light-enough engine for that purpose, despite years of working on the problem).

Here is a letter dated 29 April, probably in 1842, from Brompton, where Sir George was confined by a kidney problem. It is a typical example of his slightly heavy-handed facetiousness. Sir George’s handwriting was very crabbed, and, as is common in his letters, one or two words are uncertain or illegible.

Dear Babbage

I am invalided here down in Yorkshire, having some time ago run down by train to give my vote for a medical friend as physician to our Lunatic Asylum, by which I shook my own kidneys, had the pleasure of being beat by a majority of one, & brought unto medical [undecipherable word follows] into the bargain; so much for doing work gratis, you will say!

But to my point, & now mind if you had not been bored by this note, you would have been more perhaps by my having got in person into your snug pit[?] study, so take me quietly & give me three words gratis in brotherly love to an old Brother in the mechanical line.

I am much requested to enter into a Society or Association for promoting the wooden paving, or what may be the best pavings for London, under the auspices of a Mr Cochrane as president who lives in Devonshire place (number not specified). I have had but little experience in London matters & always dread being the dupe of persons seeking the means of patronage for sharks & managers [the word ‘manager’ could mean someone who was promoting a scam enterprise]. As you stand in the position to be fully acquainted with all that arises in a genuine way on matters of practical science, I want a jog of the elbow, if you can, as to this particular case. I send you the printed prospectus which as “proof confidential” you may keep snug or return.

I do not want you to bore yourself with writing more than two words, fudge or a true bill.

I hope in a few weeks to get up to town again & be able to get a little more leisure time with you over roast beef, the only legitimate leisure of the philosopher.* –

Yours ever sincerely

Geo Cayley

*Excepting as has ever been excepted, when Ladies are in the case. Then even you kneel at their shrine.

PS As a man of the world I wrote to Edward Cayley, who is in my house in Hertford St as to this point yesterday; but as to the mechanical value of the matter, or Mr Cochrane’s position as an efficient mechanical head to such an association, he can have no means of judging. GC

The Edward Cayley referred to in the Postscript was almost certainly Edward Stillingfleet Cayley (1802-62), who married his cousin, Sir George’s daughter Emma, and who was MP for the North Riding of Yorkshire from 1832 to his death.

[Source – British Library ADD 37192 f.73]


Flying Machines Have Their Uses

Today we think of Sir George Cayley, 6th baronet, as a pioneer of flight. His family may well have regarded his construction of flying machines as an expensive eccentricity. After his death, the flying machine which flew a few hundred yards (with a startled coachman inside, who is said to have given his notice as soon as he landed) in 1853 was tucked away in a barn on the Brompton estate.

One of his granddaughters, Dora Cayley (a daughter of Sir Digby, the 7th baronet), told a cousin how, in her childhood, she used to sit in the glider when she wanted to hide from her governess. Unwanted flying machines have their uses!

[Source: “The Legards of Anlaby and Ganton”, Col. Sir James Digby Legard KCB, pub. Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co, London 1926]

A typical private letter of the aeronautical baronet

J Hunter was a close friend, and regular correspondent, of Sir George Cayley, the aeronautical baronet, and they often accepted invitations to each others’ houses when they were both in London. This letter of, I think, 8 May 1848, though the year is not quite certain, gives a typical example of his epistolary style, with its slightly cumbersome humour, flirtatiousness towards females, and slightly careless attention to grammar and punctuation:

My dear Sir,

Permit me to make good a great deficiency I was guilty of, inadvertently at the time, by most ungallantly requesting your Daughters [sic] acceptance of two baubles without their being in a condition to be worn. I have written to a jeweller to call & take the measure of their fingers that these things may properly set [sic] for them: & write to apprise you of the circumstances fearing the young Ladies might be alarmed by some uncouth looking mortal coming to demand measure of their fingers – a formidable matter in some cases to the Ladies! As I am in my 75th year, I think the Ladies will excuse my taking these liberties & you must aid me if they chide.

I had an opportunity a few days ago to send the coin I named which is now at N[umber]12 North Audley St with your address on it.

I am, my dear Sir,

Yours sincerely

Geo Cayley

Source: British Library, ADD 24867 f.64



A Doctor’s Fee

This is an anecdote which has always appealed to me.

Sir George Cayley, the 6th (aeronautical) Cayley baronet, had a keen if sometimes ponderous sense of humour which is displayed in many of the letters held by the British Library and other institutions.

When he was in his eighties, he had a consultation with his doctor. This was of course well before the National Health Service, and doctors expected to be paid for each visit – though they might make exceptions for the very poor. Sir George had put the doctor’s fee of one guinea in his pocket, ready to give him, discreetly wrapped in paper. In the same pocket, also wrapped in paper, he had placed two peppermint lozenges.

That evening, when he went to bed, he found the guinea was still in his pocket, but the lozenges were missing. He realised that he had given them to the doctor instead of the money. The next morning Sir George sent a servant to check that this was so, and the doctor clearly sent a message to the effect that his fee had been sweet. Sir George duly sent the money with a note containing the lines, “The fee was sweet – I thank you for the hint,/ These are as sweet. They’ve both been through the Mint.”

Those of you who dislike puns will no doubt groan mightily.

[Source: The Legards of Anlaby and Ganton, Col. Sir James Digby Legard, 1926]