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Lordship in the Docks – The Manual Labours of Viscount Ockham


Thames Ironworks foundry

Byron Noel Viscount Ockham later known as Baron Wentworth was the grandson of famous poet Lord Byron and son of Ada Lovelace who was well known as a mathematician and is considered one of the first computer programmers for her work on Charles Babbages analytical engine.

From such a background it was perhaps unsurprising that for Viscount Ockham making a name for himself was going to be difficult but in many ways he rejected his background and sought work first as a sailor and then as manual labourer on the Isle of Dogs.

Harriet Beecher Stowe writer of Uncle Toms Cabin visited London in 1850s and met the Viscount at a social event, her impressions and those of Lady Byron gives some  insight into  his character.

There were a few persons present whom she thought I should be interested to know,– a Miss Goldsmith, daughter of Baron Goldsmith, and Lord Ockham, her grandson, eldest son and heir of the Earl of Lovelace, to whom she introduced my son.

I had heard much of the eccentricities of this young nobleman, and was exceedingly struck with his personal appearance. His bodily frame was of the order of the Farnese Hercules,– a wonderful development of physical and muscular strength. His hands were those of a blacksmith. He was broadly and squarely made, with a finely-shaped head, and dark eyes of surpassing brilliancy. I have seldom seen a more interesting combination than his whole appearance presented.

When all were engaged in talking, Lady Byron came and sat down by me, and glancing across to Lord Ockham and my son, who were talking together, she looked at me, and smiled. I immediately expressed my admiration of his fine eyes and the intellectual expression of his countenance, and my wonder at the uncommon muscular development of his frame.

She said that that of itself would account for many of Ockham’s eccentricities. He had a body that required a more vigorous animal life than his station gave scope for, and this had often led him to seek it in what the world calls low society; that he had been to sea as a sailor, and was now working as a mechanic on the iron work of “The Great Eastern.” He had laid aside his title, and went in daily with the other workmen, requesting them to call him simply Ockham.

I said that there was something to my mind very fine about this, even though it might show some want of proper balance.

She said he had noble traits, and that she felt assured he would yet accomplish something worthy of himself. “The great difficulty with our nobility is apt to be, that they do not understand the working-classes, so as to feel for them properly; and Ockham is now going through an experience which may yet fit him to do great good when he comes to the peerage. I am trying to influence him to do good among the workmen, and to interest himself in schools for their children. I think,” she added, “I have great influence over Ockham,– the greater, perhaps, that I never make any claim to authority.”

This rather romantic image is however contradicted by a New York Times newspaper report of 1860.

LORD BYRON’s GRANDSON AS A MACHINIST. — We lately published, as an item of foreign gossip, the somewhat curious fact that Lord Wentworth, a grandson of Lord Byron, was employed at Mr. John Scott Russell’s works. The Philadelphia Inquirer, assuming to speak with authority, publishes in reference thereto the following statement. It says: “When we saw Lord Ockham, now Baron Wentworth, a few weeks since, he was at work at the Thames Iron Shipbuilding Company’s establishment, at Blackwall, cutting bolts at 24s., or less than $6 a week. The Baron Wentworth is 22 or 23 years of age, and appears to inherit his grandfather’s taste for gin; but, as for his “taste and talent for mechanics,” those who know him best pronounce him a “poor tool.” It is true that he was employed for a while at Mr. John Scott Russell’s works, where his example to the rest of the hands was by no means worthy of imitation. He lodged with the head pattern-maker, to whom he had often expressed the strongest desire to become the skipper of a coal barge on the Thames, Lord Ockham ran, or walked, away from Scott Russell’s, to Aberdeen, 550 miles north of London, where for one month, he indulged his ‘taste and talent for mechanics’ in a menial employment in a machine shop. He then came to New-York, and worked there for two months in a machine shop, with the usual results — drunkenness and discharge. He contrived to get back to London, and may, very likely, have left the Thames Iron Shipbuilding Company’s Works, for better wages in Woolwich Arsenal. At Blackwall, he was often dead drunk, although he would then manage, to hoist the American colors over his lodging, to be hauled down, on the return of soberness, for the Union Jack. How much love there may be at the bottom of all this, we cannot say.”

Whatever his motivation for working and living on the Isle of Dogs it was not to last long for in 1862 at the age of 26 at Wimbledon Hill the Viscount died of a rupture of  a blood vessel.