This was written for the Welwyn Historical Exhibition of 1958
Among the many illustrious sons of Welwyn some space should be given to the late George Edward Dering, born at Lockleys in 1831. Since his death in 1911, local gossip and the press have dubbed him “A scientist of great merit”;”The hermit of Welwyn”; “The tight-rope walking inventor”; “A talented engineer; “A recluse”; to name only a few seriocomic titles.
Who and what was Mr Dering, and why has he been so often the focus of mirth, of admiration and of so much conflicting controversy?
His background and family history may shed some light on the particular type of genius into which he developed. A descendant of the ancient family of the Derings of Surrenden-Dering, Pluckley, Kent, – who were a line of soldiers, writers, squires, Members of Parliament and Administrators – his linage can be traced to Edward the Third and, according to historians, to ancestors of the Saxon Period.
His father, Robert Dering of Barham Court, Kent, married the Daughter of Sir George Shee, Bart. There we meet a line of Irish landowners from whom came the first Sir George Shee (or O’Shee) of Dunmore House, Co. Galway, who acquired Lockleys in 1814. The Shees held important Ministerial posts at home and abroad, during which time both Lord Palmerstaone and Lord Beaconsfield (Disraeli) were visitors to Lockleys.
George Dering was educated at Rugby School, but tolerated for only a short while the restrictions imposed at a public school! He left early to join the old college of Civil Engineering at Putney; became a lecturer when scarcely out of his teens, and later proceeded to membership of the Iron and Steel Institute of Great Britain. Soon he was a menber of the Institute of Electrical Engineers at a remarkably early age.
During his boyhood he evinced a keen, if sometimes cruel, sense of humour. Once, when banished to his bedroom for some misdemenour, he fixed his shoes and socks onto the window ledge so that, when entering his room, his relenting parents saw what appeared to be their son hanging head downwards from the open window! Another prank was the placing of a candle-lit anatomical skeleton (used for lectures) on the terrace, to scare persons using at night the old road which then passed nearer to Lockleys.
Even in adult life his humour did not desert him. After a lengthy correspondence with the office of the Old Great Northern Railway, an official wrote requesting shorter letter on a particular subject. Mr Dering thereupon replied with two or three lines, but added a postscript longer than any letter written previously!
In an old diary there is an account of young Dering riding over to Hatfield House with his saddle-bags full of eplosives. This, evidently, was a trip to conduct some scientific experiments with a young member of the Salisbury family.
He invented and made an artificial hand for his father, Robert Dering, when the latter – well known in farming and hunting circles – blew off his hand in a shooting accident,
It was said that Robert Dering rode to hounds better with one hand than did most riders with two!
Though inventive genius began to appear at an early age, George Dering enjooyed several hobbies, among which was that of tight-rope walking. This won for him the friendship of Blondin, that great master of the art who amazed vast crowds with his ‘high-wire’ acts at the Paris and other exhibitions. Blondin visited Lockleys and admired Mr Derings own skill on a tight-rope stretched across the River Mimram. Evidence of this is preserved in old photographs still in the writer’s possession. Blondin presented him with a beautiful service of Venetian ‘over-lay’ glass. This also is treasured by the writer.
The story that he cut the new section of the Welwyn to Hertford road to ‘avoid being seen falling off his tight-rope’ is pure nonsense! The fact was that – like so many property owners of the 18th and 19th centuries – he wanted to give greater privacy to the mansion and to improve the symmetry and vista of Lockleys’ Park, by moving the highway further off.
It is however for his work in the world of science and engineering that he should best be remembered. The many original patents in his name – and still in the care of his grandson – cover a remarkable wide field of knowledge, and deal with the following:-
Improvements in the Electric Telegraph.
Preventing decomposition in vegetable and animal substances.
Manufacture of certain salts and oxides of metals.
Improvements in Galvanic Batteries.
improvements in obtaining motive power by electricity.
Improvements in lighting and heating railway carriages.
Manufacture of Insulated wire and cables.
Improvements in design and construction of ‘Rail clips’ and ‘Fish Plates’
Improvements in the purification of iron and steel.
Laying down Telegraph Cables; ascertaining position of, and Raising submerged telegraph cables.
In connection with these activities Mr Dering built and maintained an Iron Foundry behind Lockleys, on the tall chimney of which ran one of the earliest Lightning conductors in service. From this small Foundry went out large consignments of railway plate-laying stock for the Irish and other Railways.
Early electric apparatus and telegraph instruments of his design are to be seen in the Science Museum at South Kensington, inthe Hertford museum, and at the home of his grandson. He exhibited several inventions at the Great Exhibition of 1851, in Paris in 1855, and Dublin in 1855; being awarded medals and certificates of Merit ‘For the Advancement of Science and Learning’.
Archaeology was another subject to whice he was no stranger. When excavationg the new road cutting of the Welwyn to Hertford road, many Iron age relics and ancient burial sites were disclosed, causing him intense interest. until recently these relics were displayed in the Iron Age room of the British Museum – described as the ‘Neall Collection’, having been presented later by his daughter, the late Mrs R. S. Neall.
As a scientist it is surprising to find him also well versed in the realm of Art. Among his collection of statues were some which attracted much attention in International Exhibitions. To name but a few, Monti’s ‘Sleep of Sorrow and Dream of Joy’; Marshall Wood’s ‘Daphne’; Rinaldi’s ‘Eve and Abel’?, ‘Charlotte Corday’ by Miglioretti were highly acclaimed. Perhaps the most pleasing one is that of ‘The Diving Girl’ by Tabachi, now to be seen in the writer’s home.
Not content with mere ‘static work’, he was vitally concerned with the use of electric power for marine engines. Existing letters give the impression that he may have been one of the first to use on the Thames an electric launch of his own design.
Neither was he blind to the possibilities of air travel, his imagination being fired by accounts of the early pioneers of aviation. An entry in his note book dated 1855 reads–‘the motive power to be electro-magnetic to cause the machine to progress (through the air) by screw acting upon the air; or eject steam, air or gas impinging upon the air to cause the machine to advance—‘
another note mentions ‘—ejecting steam or gas from an ejector pipe situated under the keel of boats—‘ for use on the sea or canals. Holes or Ejector Valves are suggested to control the inlet of water and to reduce vibration.
These ideas clearly indicate the shape of things to come. and foreshadow our modern Jet Propulsion; on another page is a sketch of the cross-section of the cambered wing, now common to all aircraft.
Those who knew Mr Dering intimately are agreed on several facets of his complex personality. Possessing a scientific brain equalling – if not surpassing – his contemperaries in a dawning mechanical age, he might well have achieved lasting fame and recognition among such great names as Faraday, Ohm, Volta and Wheatstone. Unfortunately, inherited wealth deprived him of the necessity to commercialise his talents, though affording fuller opportunity to pursue his reseaches,
Reputed to be a hard business man and an exacting landlord, yet he never failed to respond to appeals from those who were sick or met bad fortune. These missions, like so many of his actions were often carried out incognito. His word was his bond and the spirit of an agreement took precedence over the formal ‘letter of the law’. In this, as in other ways, he occasionally flaunted the accepted standards of society – to the detriment of his own reputation!
The loss of his wife, to whom he was deeply devoted, caused him to withdraw from all social activities and to adopt later the habit of a recluse. This tended to emphasise in the public mind small eccentricities which became stressed out of all proportion to the true facts!
To the end he held the respect of all close associates, the affection of those who had experienced his generosity, and the esteem of many centres of learning,
Amid the mass of conflicting reports, rumours, idle gossip and worthless tales, let us give him his due; and let Welwyn pay tribute to one of her sons who primarily was a man of outstanding ability and originality; a scientist whose researches contributed so much towards the furtherance of Britain’s prestige among the industrial nations of the world; and the bearer of a name honoured by long tradition in England’s history.
Of George Edward Dering we might surely quote—- “VIVAT POST FUNERA VIRTUS”; “Virtue lives beyond the Grave”.