In October 1916 the impressionist painter Herbert Ivan Babbage died at Howard Gardens School, which was at the time being used as a military hospital.
Ivan Babbage was great-grandson of Charles Babbage, the engineer, mathematician and ‘father of the modern computer’.
It’s a sad story but let’s have a look at how Ivan Babbage happened to end up in Cardiff.
Herbert Ivan Babbage, known as Ivan, was born in Adelaide, Australia on 18 Aug 1875 to Charles Whitmore Babbage, a bank clerk and sketch artist, originally from Somerset, England and Amelia Babbage née Barton, originally from Frimley, Surrey.
In 1876 his father was convicted of forgery and embezzlement and whilst he was still serving his prison sentence, Ivan, his mother and brothers moved to Wanganui, New Zealand to start a new life. Ivan studied to become an artist, initially in New Zealand and then at the London School of Art and later at the Académie Julian in Paris, France. He returned to New Zealand in 1909 where he had a number of exhibitions before moving back to England again in 1911 to the studio he had set up at St Ives, Cornwall.
At the outbreak of WWI Herbert Ivan Babbage enlisted at St. Austell at the age of 39. He was posted to Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and then transferred to Royal Defence Corps.
In a letter home to New Zealand Babbage writes of guarding a viaduct in harsh wintery conditions, presumed to be the Goitre Coed Viaduct, Quakers Yard. This ties in with information from his probate which gave his address as Camp Edwardsville, Glamorganshire.
There were in fact two other railway viaducts in Edwardsville at the time, both since demolished, so the Royal Defence Corps were no doubt kept busy.
Two newspaper articles published in New Zealand shed light on his war service and painting:-
Hawera & Normanby Star, Volume LXXI, Issue LXXI – 14 June, 1916:
ON DUTY IN ENGLAND – AN ARTIST’S LETTER
In the course of an interesting letter, dated April 25th, Mr H. J. Babbage, formerly of Hawera, who has been doing special military duty in England for a considerable time, says that the hours are pretty long owing to air raids. The men have 24 hours on and 24 hours off, in addition to fatigue duty in the spare time. Writing of the season he says:- “We have had the worst winter in the memory of living men. It has been a regular old-timer one reads about. Early in March we had a blizzard. It snowed for two weeks on end. Then at the end of March another blizzard lasting two days, and in that time the drifts of snow were 20 feet deep and number so people perished in them. All trains were stopped, some snowed up, and all telegraph wires were down; the poles simply smashed off in the gale like reeds. The wires weighed tons, and were like great white ropes as thick as one’s arms. Two motor busses were snowed up outside our billet in the street. It was pretty trying at night time on top of the viaduct, as they were so exposed.” His picture, which gained a place at the Royal Academy, he worked at in his spare time. The snow effects, he says, were most lovely. Not only was the picture hung, but hung “on the line,” which means the best place in the Gallery. In concluding his letter, Mr Babbage says:- “All the Reserves are now formed into one, with headquarters in London, and are now called the Royal Defence Corps, as the King wanted to show his appreciation of the service of the various corps.”
Hawera & Normanby Star, New Zealand, Volume LXXII – 23 October, 1916:
The death is announced of Mr Herbert Ivan Babbage, third son of Mr and Mrs C. W. Babbage, of Wanganui, formerly of Hawera. Mr Babbage had adopted the profession of artist, and after forwarding himself as far as possible in New Zealand went to England. There he pursued his studies diligently and with a success that justified the early promise he had shown. Later on he travelled a good deal in Europe, all the time adding to his reputation. Last year he gained the distinction of having one of his pictures accepted by the Royal Academy and hung “on the line,” a coveted concession. Very general regret will be felt by Hawera friends at his untimely death. It is not suggested that he was killed in action, and we understand he had not been accepted for military service abroad, though he had offered himself. But he had been serving in England on patrol duty, and curiously among his first work was the duty of helping to guard an important bridge in the south of England which his grandfather had designed.
Ivan’s grandfather, mentioned in the letter above, was engineer Benjamin Herschel Babbage who at times worked with Isambard Kingdom Brunel who designed the Goitre Coed Viaduct at Quakers Yard, so it seems to tie in.
Another interesting fact about Benjamin Herschel Babbage was that in 1850 he was commissioned by Patrick Brontë, father of the famous writing sisters, to investigate the unsanitary conditions in Howarth, Yorkshire. These investigations ended up in the Babbage Report and work being carried out to improve the sanitary conditions in Howarth.
According to his death certificate, Ivan Babbage suffered from bowel cancer and received treatment at 3rd Western General Hospital (Howard Gardens), Cardiff where he died on 14 Oct 1916 aged 41.
He is buried at Cathays Cemetery with others who fell in WWI and WWII near the Cross of Sacrifice. His burial place is marked with a flat granite slab erected privately rather than the traditional Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone.
Present with him at the time of his death at Howard Gardens was his aunt Flora Lavinia Adrian née Barton. Her son, Ivan Babbage’s cousin, Edgar Douglas Adrian, was an electro-physiologist at Trinity College, Cambridge and went on to win the 1932 Nobel Prize for Physiology for his work on the function of neurons. He provided experimental evidence for the all-or-none law of nerves.
Ivan Babbage is remembered on the St Ives War Memorial and the St. Ives Arts Club Memorial for the Great War. Ivan Babbage Commonwealth War Graves Commission record.
After his death his paintings from his St Ives studio were returned to relatives in New Zealand. Some ten of his paintings are now in a collection at the Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui. Others are held at the National Library of New Zealand. It is not clear to me if the picture of The Viaduct has survived or not.
Chance meeting leads to history.
WWI Australian Soldiers and Nurses who Rest in the United Kingdom.
In a lonely grave in Cardiff: Herbert Ivan Babbage.
What a cracking piece of research and what a patriotic gentleman.
Wouldn’t it be good if our National Museum Wales could buy his beautiful painting of the viaduct – it should be in Wales .
This is such an amazing story. I love his paintings and sadly he died too young. Thankyou for sharing it. I am reading it here in Australia now having emigrated from Cardiff over 30 yrs ago. My cousin from Cardiff now lives in New Zealand and she may be able to g and see his paintings. I hope she reads this.