Centenary of the Birth of Lord Avebury

Home Archives & Manuscripts Obituaries Centenary of the Birth of Lord Avebury

Centenary of the Birth of Lord Avebury.  By Sir Arthur Keith, F.R.S.

The century of the birth of John Lubbock, who became the first Lord Avebury, falls on 30th April, 1934.  He was the eldest son of Sir John Lubbock, Bt., F.R.S., banker, mathematician and astronomer, and was born at High Elms, in the parish of Downe, Kent.

When John Lubbock was eight years of age, it happened that Charles Darwin came to live in the same small parish.  The result was that, under Darwin’s influence, Lubbock became embued with the evolutionary outlook, and was the first to apply with complete conviction the doctrine of evolution to anthropological problems.  His earliest investigations were zoological, and for these he was elected to the Royal Society in 1858, being then only twenty-four years of age.  He died at Kingsgate Castle, Kent, on 28th May, 1913, in his eightieth year, leaving a record of service to learning and to literature which has never been equalled in modern times.  He was banker, statesman, social reformer, economist, sociologist, antiquarian, folk-lorist, anthropologist, geologist, psychologist, educationist, zoologist, entomologist, botanist, statistician, numismatist and naturalist.  In very one of these roles he rendered services of value; those which he gave to anthropology are of outstanding importance.  When elevated to the peerage in 1900, he took his title from the most remarkable stone circle in England.

On two occasions Lord Avebury came to the rescue of anthropology in England.  The first of these was in 1863, when the Ethnological Society was threatened.  Some of the younger members had broken away and set up a rival society – the Anthropological.  Certain members of the older society bestirred themselves, particularly those who had accepted the teachings of Darwin (Henry Christy, Sir John Evans, George Busk, Clements Markham and Russel Wallace), and induced Lord Avebury (Mr. John Lubbock, F.R.S., as he then was) and Huxley to come to the help of the Ethnological.  Lord Avebury joined on 13th January, 1863, and in the following May, being then twenty-nine years of age, was elected President.  Francis Galton, who was twelve years his senior, took on the secretaryship of the society, and during the two years in which Lord Avebury and he held office much good work was done.

The second occasion on which Lord Avebury rendered a signal service was in 1871.  With a view to bringing the rival societies together, Huxley took over the presidentship of the Ethnological in 1868, and held office for two years.  The dissenters agreed to rejoin, but refused to accept Huxley as the first president of the united societies.  It was not until January, 1871, that, by mutual consent, it was agreed to ask Sir John Lubbock (he had succeeded to the family baronetcy on the death of his father in 1865) to be the first president of the rival societies now amalgamated under its present title – the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.  At first Lubbock protested; he was only too conscious of Huxley’s prior and better claims to the honour.  He yielded to the urgency of Huxley’s request, and on 14th February, 1871, was elected president with acclamation.  Huxley, Busk and Sir John Evans became vice-presidents.  On the Council were Pitt-Rivers, McKenny Hughes and Boyd Dawkins.

Among Lord Avebury’s many gifts the most remarkable was his power of reconciling men of perverse natures to agree to act together in order that a public benefit might be attained.  Hence the many appeals to him by scientific societies and public bodies whose affairs were in difficulties.  Hence, too, his success when, as a Member of Parliament, he had to persuade diverse interests to agree to the enactment of his many proposals.  Some of these, such as the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882, with its amendment of 1901, have proved of great advantage to archaeologists as well as anthropologists.  His first Parliamentary success was in 1871, when his Bank Holidays Bill became law.  Bills to regulate Shop Hours (1886) and Early Closing (1904) were also framed and fathered by him.  Altogether he introduced and passed thirty bills through Parliament.

As early as 1868, Lord Avebury’s reputation stood high among the archaeologists and anthropologists in Europe.  In this year, when the International Congress of Prehistoric Archaeology and Anthropology met in Norwich, he was chosen to preside over its affairs.  It is worthy of note here that this Association was founded in 1864 by Gabriel de Mortillet, who soon afterwards propounded his scheme for the subdivision of the palaeolithic epoch into a series of periods or cultures.  Although it was Lord Avebury who proposed, in 1862, the subdivision of the stone period into Neolithic and (the phase or period represented in Denmark) and Palaeolithic (the phase or period older than that represented in Denmark), yet he was never reconciled to the scheme proposed by de Mortillet.

Lord Avebury began his career as anthropologist in 1860, when he visited the scene of the discoveries of Boucher des Perthes in the valley of the Somme.  In the three following years he devoted his leisure to searching Europe for evidence to carry human history beyond the earliest written record.  He visited the kitchen middens of Denmark, the lake dwellings of Switzerland and the caves of France.  In 1865 he threw the evidence he had collected into the form of a book which appeared under the title of ‘Prehistoric Times.’  In 1913, the year of his death, he was engaged on the preparation of a seventh edition of this work.  ‘Prehistoric Times’ deserved its success by reason of the clearness of its exposition and the novelty of its contents.  He was the first to apply a knowledge of life among peoples now living in a primitive state to the interpretation of human life in prehistoric times.  He was not content to appeal merely to the narrow and limited audience of experts, although he has much that was both new and important to tell them.  He proved that it is possible to set forth a scientific problem in such a way that the public itself could form a sound opinion of its merits.  It is just this rare ability which has misled a later generation into thinking that Lord Avebury was merely a popular expositor. 

In 1870 appeared Lord Avebury’s ‘The Origin of Civilisation and the Primitive Condition of Man.’  This work was foreshadowed in the final chapters of ‘Prehistoric Times.’ In these chapters the author summed up his conclusions concerning the origin of man, and especially of the evolution of human civilisation.  In particular he emphasized the misery of savagedom and the blessings of civilisation.  Concerning these final chapters of ‘Prehistoric Times,’ Darwin wrote:

“I cannot resist telling you how excellently well in my opinion you have done the very interesting chapters in Savage Life … but I ought to keep the term original for your last chapter, which has struck me as an admirable and profound discussion.  It has quite delighted me for now the public will see what kind of man you are, which I am proud to think I discovered a dozen years ago.”

There were three men in England whose counsel Darwin relied on when engaged on the problems of evolution.  These were Hooker, Huxley and Lubbock.

‘Prehistoric Times’ was easy to write compared to ‘The Origin of Civilisation.’  In this work the author had to descend into the Labyrinthine recesses of the mind of Savage Man and trace, step upon step, the manner in which modern beliefs, habits, customs and institutions of civilised peoples had come into being.  Lord Avebury benefited, no doubt, by the previous labours of Sir Edward Tylor, of J.F. McLennan and of L.H. Morgan, but, taken as a whole, the gathering of the great mass of evidence set forth in ‘The Origin of Civilisation,’ and the inferences founded on this evidence, must be regarded as an original and systematic attempt to mark out a new and important field of human knowledge.

The first edition of ‘The Origin of Civilisation’ appeared in 1870; the sixth and last edition in 1902.  ‘Marriage, Totemism and Religion’ (An Answer to Critics), which appeared in 1911 – two years before Lord Avebury’s death – may be regarded as a supplement to ‘The Origin of Civilisation.’  When we seek to discover how it was that Lord Avebury came to be so successful in his interpretation of savage life, we find it in the fact that with him anthropological problems were viewed through the eyes of one who accepted the doctrine of evolution with the most complete conviction of it as a universal truth.  He grew up in the faith of Darwin; his contemporaries were only Darwinians by adoption.

Lord Avebury’s services to anthropology are too carried and numerous to be reviewed here in detail.  There is one, however, that must not be omitted.  In 1866, in the company of Sir John Evans, he visited the salt mines at Hallstatt and arranged for further excavations of the site.  Thus it came about that he obtained a very fine collection of specimens from Hallstatt which adorned the walls of the hall at High Elms.  This collection was presented to the British Museum by the second Lord Avebury.

The more we look into the history of Anthropology in England during the nineteenth century, the more do we realize our indebtedness to Lord Avebury.  The mines of knowledge which he opened are far from exhausted.


This obituary first appeared as: Keith, Arthur. 1934. ‘Centenary of the Birth of Lord Avebury’. Man Vol. 34, pp. 49-51. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

KEITH, ARTHUR. 1934. ‘Centenary of the Birth of Lord Avebury’. Man Vol. 34, pp.49-51. (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/centenary-of-the-birth-of-lord-avebury).



READ, C. HERCULES. 1913. ‘Lord Avebury, P.C., D.C.L., L.L.D., F.R.S. Born April 30, 1834; Died May 28, 1913.’. Man Vol. 13, pp.97-98. (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/lord-avebury).


Link to relevant records by or concerning the listed person on the RAI’s bibliographic database Anthropological Index Online https://aio.therai.org.uk/aio.php?action=doquicksearch&qs_resultsmode=fullkeywords&qs_decades=all&qs_keyword=John%20Lubbock