Sue Young Histories

James Hinton 1822 – 1875

June 08, 2008

James Hinton 1822 – 1875 was an English surgeon and author. He was a ’practical mystic’, one of the first modern scientists to understand that the physical and the spiritual are not two worlds, but one.

He believed that understanding the World was more important that ‘discovering’ the World, and he was an ardent feminist and believer in social reform and slum benevolence.

In 1866,  James Hinton was an Occasional Lecturer at the Working Woman’s College at 29 Queen Square Bloomsbury. James John Garth Wilkinson was a subscriber to this college at this time (Anon, Second annual report of the council of teachers, London working women’s college, (1866). Page 2).

James Hinton was a friend of Annie Wood Besant, and of homeopath Thomas Roupell Everest and his daughter Mary Everest Boole, the wife of George Boole. His son Charles Howard Hinton married Mary Ellen Boole, Mary Everest Boole’s daughter:

Mary found another job as a secretary for her father’s friend, James Hinton. Through James Hinton, Mary became interested in evolution and the art of thinking. She believed that it was possible to express all basic notions of the universe with numbers and symbols.

James Hinton and his son Charles Howard Hinton began to teach Mary’s five daughters, inspiring Alicia into a grasp of four dimensional geometry. Charles Howard Hinton eventually married Mary Ellen Boole, daughter of Mary Everest Boole.

James Hinton studied homeopathy and he believed that homeopathy worked via the ’imagination of the patient acted upon by the silent suggestion from the doctor’, which Mary believed accorded with her husband George Boole’s ideas on the Law of Thought.

Hinton stated that:

Anything that acts on the emotions will cause or cure disease, because of the simple fact that all the emotions produce a specific effect upon the small vessels, the capillaries, which expand under the exciting and pleasing emotions and contract under depressing ones.

James Hinton experimented with the placebo effect in homeopathy and in medicine and he held many such unconventional ideas on psychology, philosophy and science. James Hinton, always modest, was all too aware that newer understandings may dawn, said:

My notions, though rather clever, may be the merest moonshine, no more likely to be true than that cats walk on their tails‘.

James Hinton was born at Reading, the son of John Howard Hinton (1791-1873), Baptist minister and author of the History and Topography of the United States and other works.

James was educated at his grandfather’s school near Oxford, and at the Nonconformist school at Harpenden, and in 1838, on his father’s removal to London, was apprenticed to a woollen-draper in Whitechapel. (where he became appalled at the condition of the local poor).

After working there for about a year he became clerk in an insurance office. His evenings were spent in intense study, and this, combined with a concentration on moral problems, so affected his health that, aged eighteen, he tried to seek refuge from his own thoughts by running away to sea.

His intention having been discovered, he was sent, on the advice of his doctor, to St Bartholomew’s Hospital to study for the medical profession. After receiving his diploma in 1847, he was for some time assistant surgeon at Newport, Essex, but the same year he went out to Sierra Leone to take medical charge of the free labourers on their voyage thence to Jamaica, where he stayed some time.

He returned to England in 1850, and entered into partnership with a surgeon in London, where he soon had his interest awakened specially in aural surgery, and also studied physiology.

His career as an author started in 1856 with papers on physiological and ethical subjects to the Christian Spectator; and in 1859 he published Man and his Dwelling place. A series of papers entitled ”Physiological Riddles,” in the Cornhill Magazine, afterwards published as Life in Nature (1862), as well as another series entitled Thoughts on Health (1871), proved his aptitude for popular scientific exposition.

After being appointed aural surgeon to Guy’s Hospital in 1863, he soon acquired a reputation as the most skillful aural surgeon of his day, which was fully borne out by his works, _Atlas of the Membrana Tympani, with Descriptive Text _(1874), and Questions of Aural Surgery (1874). His health broke down, and in 1874 he gave up practice; and he died at the Azores of acute inflammation of the brain.

In addition to the works already mentioned, he was the author of The Mystery of Pain (1866) and The Place of the Physician (1874). On account of their fresh and vigorous discussion of many of the important moral and social problems of the times his writings had a wide circulation on both sides of the Atlantic.

His Life and Letters, edited by Ellice Hopkins, with an introduction by Sir William Withey Gull, appeared in 1878.

As Punch’s imagery suggests, slumming raised troubling ethical questions about the very nature of the philanthropy itself. Was philanthropy a laudable form of self-denial, an expression of a deep human impulse to witness and enter sympathetically into the suffering of others in order to diminish it?

Or was benevolence merely a cover for egoistic self-gratification, a means imaginatively and literally to enter otherwise forbidden spaces, places, and conversations, to satisfy otherwise forbidden desires? What was the right relation between serving others and pleasure? Was Eros compatible with altruism?

These questions loomed large in the life and writings of the mid-nineteenth-century aural surgeon and social philosopher James Hinton and lay at the very heart of this book.

Hinton’s private history and the public history of his ideas and their reception closely parallel that of slumming itself: it is a story of unruly desires and their disavowal, of high ideals and vexed realities.

Victorian reformers drew inspiration from many sources, but it was James Hinton who most deeply and explicitly articulated how the problems of slum life and the attractions of slumming were enmeshed in a complex matrix of sexual and social politics.

As slumming gathered momentum in the early 1880s, some claimed that society was beginning to reap the harvest of enlightened altruism James Hinton had sown in the years before his death in 1875.

Hinton devoted his life to unraveling the mysterious sources of the desire to serve others as part of his larger project to liberate women and men from the body-denying and soul-withering values which he believed inhibited human self-development. He could find unity in his philosophy only by mixing “intimately with and becom[ing] the friend of the lowest and poorest class.”

He traced the origins of this impulse to his experiences as an apprentice to a woolen draper in Whitechapel, where he daily witnessed the sexual degradation of laboring women. He ached to live among the poor “as a man longs for his wedding-day” and insisted that the rich could only realize their fullest selves by sympathizing with and serving those in need.

He decried the spiritual deadness of conventional morality, which cut men and women off from nature and the life-affirming wellsprings of genuine altruism. Rejecting the belief that women’s moral authority was based on their “passionlessness,” James Hinton insisted that it was not only moral but essential for women, as much as men, to enjoy sexual pleasure.

He anticipated the day when all women would be emancipated from ruinous “social disabilities,” which kept them from realizing their god-appointed tasks to rule by serving others. Men would only reach their human potential once they had been “womaned”—subjected to women’s beneficent influence.

James Hinton was a philanthropic hedonist. Refusing to play the part of self-sacrificing do-gooder, Hinton urged contemporaries to seek pleasure through altruism which would in turn result in social and sexual freedom.

At the very heart of his project was the imperative to train human desires to serve others and by so doing unlock those natural “pleasures, instincts, impulses” that society was so determined to repress.

The conduct of his life, his outward appearance, and his manners were as striking and unconventional as his ethics and explain in part his impact on contemporaries. He wore ill-fitting and conspicuously plain clothes and had no tolerance for social formalities.

In the eyes of Edith Lees Ellis, an ardent proponent of women’s rights and lesbian wife of the founder of British sexology, Havelock Ellis (who was profoundly influenced by James Hinton), James Hinton was “the ascetic and the sensualist alike,” “a muscularly strong man with the tenderness of a woman.” James Hinton’s body became the mirror of his social and sexual ethics: he was both masculine and feminine, self-denying and pleasure-seeking.

Now forgotten by all but a small handful of scholars, James Hinton exercised a magnetic personal and intellectual hold over his disciples, whose substantial contributions to Victorian debates about sexual and social problems bore no relation to their small numbers.

In the 1870s and ’80s, James Hinton’s followers included not only Edith Lees Ellis but also her future husband, Havelock Ellis.

Edith Lees Ellis, along with James Hinton’s wife, Margaret, and her sister Caroline, were original members of the Fellowship of the New Life, the precursor of the much better known socialist Fabian Society.

The Fellowship of the New Life consisted of approximately thirty men and women committed to discussing decidedly unorthodox ideas about society—including James Hinton’s—and enacting them in their daily lives.

James Hinton’s teachings left an enduring mark on one of Britain’s best-known female social purity campaigners, Ellice Hopkins, who worked among prostitutes and demanded that men be held to the same standards of chastity as women.

James Hinton was a spiritual guide and mentor to the Oxford historian of the industrial revolution, Arnold Toynbee, and influenced Arnold Toynbee’s friends Henrietta and Samuel Barnett, who founded Toynbee Hall in 1884, the university settlement in Whitechapel named in Arnold Toynbee’s memory.

James Hinton’s writings may have focused exclusively on sex between men and women, but his ideas about sexual freedom struck a particularly resonant chord among well-educated philanthropic men and women like Edith Lees Ellis who were attracted to members of their own sex.

The married aristocratic poet Roden Berkeley Wriothesley Noel (third son of the Earl of Gainsborough), possessed with “a soul Bisexual,” found in James Hinton’s theories a way to combine his zeal to better the plight of poor children with his equally absorbing passion for describing and enjoying beautiful male bodies.

Other university-educated men shared Roden Berkeley Wriothesley Noel’s interest in James Hinton’s ideas as well as his search for an ethical creed compatible with their love of male comrades.

When the Arts and Crafts socialist Charles Robert Ashbee returned to Kings College, Cambridge, after a sojourn in the Whitechapel slums at Toynbee Hall, he talked over James Hinton’s theories with his circle of friends and with Edward Carpenter, the age’s most outspoken defender of homosexual rights and one of Roden Berkeley Wriothesley Noel’s confidants.

If James Hinton mattered so much to thoughtful men and women destined to leave their mark on modern British history, why has he languished in such obscurity?

James Hinton’s virtual erasure from history must in part be attributed to the opacity of his prose and his lack of a coherent philosophical system. But his disappearance from history was also the result of a deliberate campaign of rumor and innuendo in the 1880s intended to discredit him and his ideas at precisely the time his disciples tried to secure his reputation as a first-rate thinker and social visionary.

James Hinton was pilloried for violating a litany of sexual norms: espousing free love and the virtues of nakedness; engaging in an affair with his sister-in-law; and offering attractive women an opportunity to experience the joys of sexual liberation with him.

When his son Charles Howard Hinton actually did abandon his wife and position as science master at Uppingham and entered into a free union with Mrs. Maud Weldon in 1884 (he was also married to Mary Ellen Boole), many felt that the son’s transgressions vindicated their worst suspicions about his long-dead father.

James Hinton became persona non grata with many late-Victorian proponents of frank discussion of sex and social reform who felt too vulnerable to criticisms about the conduct of their private lives to risk association with the disgraced James Hinton.

The quicksand of sexual scandal, based wholly on unsubstantiated rumor, swallowed up James Hinton’s good deeds and philosophy, leaving behind few visible traces of his once formidable influence on contemporaries’ understanding of the dynamics of eros and altruism.

Even this cursory overview of the dense networks of discipleship and affiliation surrounding James Hinton demonstrates that his ideas contributed substantially to innovative philanthropic movements and social purity crusades and formed part of the intellectual lineage of ethical socialism, radical sex reform, and the “science” of sexuality. continue reading:

James Hinton wrote Life and Letters of James Hinton with Ellice Hopkins and William Withey Gull, Chapters on the Art of Thinking: And Other Essays with Charles Howard Hinton and Shadworth Hollway Hodgson, Life in Nature_ (with an introduction by Havelock Ellis), _The Law-breaker and the Coming of the Law_, _The Diseases of the Ear: Their Nature, Diagnosis, and Treatment_ with Joseph Toynbee, _Man and His Dwelling Place: An Essay Towards the Interpretation of Nature_, _The Surgical Diseases of the Ear_ with Anton Friedrich Tröltsch, Freiherr von and Hermann von Helmholtz, _Physiology for Practical Use_, _The questions of aural surgery_, _Health and Its Conditions_, _Thoughts on health, and some of its conditions_, _Love’s offering_ with George Barlow, _A Year-book Medicine, Surgery, and Their Allied Sciences, for 1863_, The Place of the Physician: Being the Introductory Lecture at Guy’s Hospital, Man and His Dwelling Place; an Essay Toward the Interpretation of Nature, Clinical Remarks on Perforations and Some Other Morbid Conditions of the … , The mystery of pain, Atlas of the Membrana Tympani, with Descriptive Text._

Havelock Ellis wrote James Hinton: A Sketch, Philosophy and Religion: Selections from the Manuscripts of the Late James Hinton with Caroline Haddon, James Hinton’s sister.

Of interest:

The Hinton Family web site is here.


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