Sir John Lubbock

Sir John Lubbock

The Lord Avebury
Woodburytype print of
Lord Avebury in middle age
Born 30 April 1834 (1834-04-30)
London, England
Died 28 May 1913 (1913-05-29) (aged 79)
Broadstairs, Kent, England
Nationality English
Fields Finance, politics, archaeology, biology, spelling
Known for Bank holidays
Influences Charles Darwin

The Right Honourable John Lubbock, 1st Baron Avebury MP FRS DCL LLD (30 April 1834 – 28 May 1913), known as Sir John Lubbock, 4th Baronet from 1865 until 1900, was a banker, Liberal politician, philanthropist, scientist and polymath.

He was a banker and worked with his family’s company, but was also made significant contributions in archaeology, ethnography, and several branches of biology. He helped establish archaeology as a scientific discipline, and was also influential in nineteenth-century debates concerning evolutionary theory.[1]:514

Early life

John Lubbock was born in 1834, the son of Sir John Lubbock, 3rd Baronet, a London banker, and was brought up in the family home of High Elms Estate, near Downe in Kent. During 1842 his father brought home a “great piece of news”: the young Lubbock said later that he initially thought that the news might be of a new pony, and was disappointed to learn it was only that Charles Darwin was moving to Down House in the village.[2] The youth was soon a frequent visitor to Down House, and became the closest of Darwin’s younger friends.[3] Their relationship stimulated young Lubbock’s passion for science and evolutionary theory.[1]

In 1845, Lubbock began studies at Eton College, and after graduation was employed by his father's bank (which later amalgamated with Coutts & Co), of which he became a partner at the age of twenty-two.

Business and politics

In the early 1870s Lubbock became increasingly interested in politics. In 1870, and again in 1874, he was elected as a Liberal Party Member of Parliament (MP) for Maidstone. As the MP for Maidstone, Kent, Lubbock had a distinguished political career, with four main political agendas: promotion of the study of science in primary and secondary schools; the national debt, free trade, and related economic issues; protection of ancient monuments; securing of additional holidays and shorter working hours for the working classes.[1] He was successful with numerous enactments in parliament, including the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 and the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882, along with another 28 acts of Parliament. When the Liberals split in 1886 on the issue of Irish Home Rule, Lubbock joined the breakaway Liberal Unionist Party in opposition to Irish home rule.

In 1879 Lubbock was elected the first president of the Electoral Reform Society.

In recognition of his contributions to the sciences, Lubbock received honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge (where he was Rede lecturer in 1886), Edinburgh, Dublin and Würzburg; and in 1878 was appointed a trustee of the British Museum. From 1888 to 1892 he was president of the London Chamber of Commerce; from 1889 to 1890 vice-chairman and from 1890 to 1892 chairman of the London County Council.

In February 1890 he was appointed a privy councillor;[4] and was chairman of the committee of design for the new coinage in 1891. In January 1900 he was promoted to the peerage as Baron Avebury, his title commemorating the largest Stone Age site in Britain, which he had helped to preserve. (He had purchased it in 1871 when the site was threatened with destruction.) He was President of the Royal Statistical Society from 1900 to 1902.[5] In November, 1905, Lord Avebury, together with Lord Courtney, founded an Anglo-German Friendship Committee which sought to counteract the influence of the British war party, whose anti-German propaganda was then at its zenith, and smooth the way towards more amicable relations between England and Germany.

The quotation, “We may sit in our library and yet be in all quarters of the earth”, is widely attributed to Lubbock. This variation appears in his book The Pleasures of Life.

Archaeology and biological science

In addition to his work at his father’s bank, Lubbock took a keen interest in archaeology and evolutionary theory. He spoke in support of the evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley at the famous 1860 Oxford evolution debate. During the 1860s, he published many articles in which he used archaeological evidence to support Darwin’s theory.[1] In 1864, he became one of the founding members (along with Thomas Henry Huxley and others) of the elite X Club, a dining club composed of nine gentlemen to promote the theories of natural selection and academic liberalism. In 1865 he succeeded to the baronetcy. During the 1860s he held a number of influential academic positions, including President of the Ethnological Society from 1864–65, Vice-President of Linnean Society in 1865, and President of the International Congress of Prehistoric Archaeology in 1868. In 1865 he published Pre-Historic Times, which became a standard archaeology textbook for the remainder of the century, with the seventh and final edition published in 1913.[1]

His second book, On the Origin of Civilization, was published in 1870. During 1871, he purchased part of the Avebury estate to protect its prehistoric stone monuments from impending destruction. During the early 1870s, he held the position of President of the Royal Anthropological Society from 1871–73, as well as the position of Vice President of the Royal Society in 1871. During this period he worked with John Evans, the other key figure in the establishment of the discipline of archaeology.[1]

In 1865 Lubbock published what was possibly the most influential archaeological text book of the nineteenth century, Pre-historic times, as illustrated by ancient remains, and the manners and customs of modern savages. He invented the terms "Palaeolithic" and "Neolithic" to denote the Old and New Stone Ages respectively. More notably, he introduced a Darwinian-type theory of human nature and development. “What was new was Lubbock’s ... insistence that, as a result of natural selection, human groups had become different from each other, not only culturally, but also in their biological capacities to utilize culture.” [6]

Lubbock complained in the preface to Pre-Historic Times about Charles Lyell:

“Note.—In his celebrated work on the Antiquity of Man, he coined the term Neolithic in 1865. Sir Charles Lyell has made much use of my earlier articles in the Natural History Review, frequently, indeed, extracting whole sentences verbatim, or nearly so. But as he has in these cases omitted to mention the source from which his quotations were derived, my readers might naturally think that I had taken very unjustifiable liberties with the work of the eminent geologist. A reference to the respective dates will, however, protect me from any such inference. The statement made by Sir Charles Lyell, in a note to page 11 of his work, that my article on the Danish Shell-mounds was published after his sheets were written, is an inadvertence, regretted, I have reason to believe, as much by its author as it is by me.”[7]

Lubbock was also an amateur biologist of some distinction, writing books on hymenoptera (Ants, Bees and Wasps: a record of observations on the habits of the social hymenoptera. Kegan Paul, London; New York: Appleton, 1884), on insect sense organs and development, on the intelligence of animals, and on other natural history topics. He discovered that ants were sensitive to light in the near ultraviolet range of the electromagnetic spectrum.[8][9] The following verse from Punch of 1882 captured him perfectly:

How doth the Banking Busy Bee,
Improve his shining Hours?
By studying on Bank Holidays,
Strange insects and Wild Flowers!

He had extensive correspondence with Charles Darwin, who lived nearby in Down House.[10] Lubbock stayed in Downe except for a brief period from 1861–65, when he lived in Chislehurst. Both men were active advocates of English spelling reform, and members of the Spelling reform Association, precursor to the Simplified Spelling Society. Darwin rented land, originally from Lubbock’s father, for the Sandwalk wood where he performed his daily exercise, and in 1874 agreed with Lubbock to exchange the land for a piece of pasture in Darwin’s property.[11] When Darwin died in 1882, Lubbock suggested the honour of burial in Westminster Abbey, organising a letter to the dean to arrange this, and was one of the pallbearers.[3]


Lubbock was one of eight brothers and one sister;[12] three brothers, Alfred,[13] Nevile[14] and Edgar,[15] played first-class cricket for Kent. Edgar and Alfred also played football and played together for Old Etonians in the 1875 FA Cup Final.

Lubbock's first wife was Ellen Frances Horden, who died in 1879. Five years later he married Alice Lane Fox, the daughter of Pitt-Rivers. He rebuilt Kingsgate Castle, near Broadstairs in Kent, as his family home, where he was to die in 1913.



The following is a list of publications by Sir John Lubbock, arranged in chronological order by the dates of the first editions of each work.

  • Lubbock J. (1865) Pre-Historic Times, As Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages, Williams & Norgate, London
  • Lubbock J. (1870) The Origin of Civilisation and the Primitive Condition of Man, Longmans, Green & Co., London
  • Lubbock J. (1871) Monograph on the Collembola and Thysanura, Ray Society, London
  • Lubbock J. (1872) On the Origin and the Metamorphoses of Insects, Macmillan & Co., London
  • Lubbock J. (1874) Scientific Lectures, Macmillan & Co., London
  • Lubbock J. (1879) Addresses, Political and Educational, Macmillan & Co., London
  • Lubbock J. (1881) Fifty Years of Science, Being the Address Delivered at York to the British Association, August 1881, Macmillan & Co., London
  • Lubbock J. (1882) Chapters in Popular Natural History, National Society, London
  • Lubbock J. (1883) On Representation, Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Berne
  • Lubbock J. (1882) Flowers, Fruits and Leaves, Macmillan & Co., London
  • Lubbock J. (1883) On the Senses, Instincts and Intelligence of Animals, With Special Reference to Insects, Keegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co. Ltd., London: 512 pp.
  • Lubbock J. (1887–89) The pleasures of life, (2 volumes) Macmillan & Co., London
  • Lubbock J. (1890) Flowers and Insects, Macmillan & Co., London
  • Lubbock J. (1891) Ants, Bees and Wasps: A Record of Observations on the Habits of the Social Hymenoptera, Keegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co. Ltd., London: 442 pp.
  • Lubbock J. (1894) The Use of Life, Macmillan & Co., London
  • Lubbock J. (1898) On Buds and Stipules, Keegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co. Ltd., London: 239 pp.

Further reading

  • Hutchinson H.G. (1914) Life of Sir John Lubbock, Lord Avebury, London
  • Grant Duff U. (1924) The life-work of Lord Avebury, Watts & Co., London
  • Sir John Lubbock in The Columbia Encyclopedia, (Sixth Edition, 2001)
  • Trigger B.G. (1989) A history of archaeological thought, (revised 2006) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
  • Patton M. (1997) Science, politics & business in the work of Sir John Lubbock – a man of universal mind, Ashgate, London

External links

  • Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by
  • "John Lubbock— forgotten polymath", by Phillip Steadman, New Scientist, January 10, 1980, p84
  • Obituary
  • Electoral Reform Society
  • Project Gutenberg
  • Lubbock J. (1865) Pre-historic times, [1]
  • , Ray Society, London
  • , Macmillan & Co., London
  • John Lubbock at Minnesota State University eMuseum
  • John Lubbock at
  • portrait
  • Cricket career on Cricket Archive
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Charles Buxton
James Whatman
Member of Parliament for Maidstone
With: James Whatman 1865–1874
Sir Sydney Waterlow 1874–1880
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Alexander Henry Ross
John Evans Freke-Aylmer
Preceded by
Robert Lowe
Member of Parliament for London University
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Sir Michael Foster
Political offices
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The Earl of Rosebery
Chairman of the London County Council
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The Earl of Rosebery
Academic offices
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George Grote
Vice-Chancellor of University of London
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Sir George Jessel
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Andrew Carnegie
Rector of the University of St Andrews
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The Earl of Rosebery
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Baron Avebury
Succeeded by
John Lubbock
Baronetage of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
John Lubbock
Baronet (of Lammas)
Succeeded by
John Lubbock