Physician, socialite and traveller

by Craig Thornber

Henry Holland was born in Knutsford, but practised mainly in London.  It is worth looking at his early career as it casts light on some important scientific and medical history and because Henry Holland had such a fascinating array of social connections and contacts with the great events of the period.  We are fortunate in having information from his autobiography [1], although this is an often confusing account with items out of chronological order.

Henry Holland was born 27 October 1788, the son of Peter Holland, a surgeon in Knutsford. Peter Holland was the uncle of Mrs. Gaskell, the author.  In his autobiography, Henry states that he had few recollections of his first ten years in Knutsford beyond occasional visits to his maternal grandmother at Newcastle under Lyme and her brother, Josiah Wedgwood, at Etruria.  Henry came into contact with another of Wedgwood's grandsons, Charles Darwin, with whom he had a long and close friendship.  So, even from this early period in his life Henry seemed destined to make friends with the great men of his day.

Henry's earliest education was two years at a school in Knutsford.  At this period he was attracted to the idea of a military career having witnessed sword exercises when a troop of yeomanry was raised in the town.  This is presumably a reference to the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry, founded by Sir John Fleming Leicester of Table in 1797.  He recalls too his visits to his paternal grandfather, Samuel Holland, at the house at Sandlebridge between Knutsford and Alderley.

In January 1799, at the age of 11, Henry went to school for four years with his relative, Rev. Wm. Turner, in Newcastle upon Tyne .  The journey awakened his love of travel and he recalled the thrill of passing over Blackstone Edge.  He saw the sea for the first time from the cliffs at Tynemouth Castle and was fascinated by his first view of ships.  It was while he was at Newcastle that Henry had his first contact with science.  He attended two short courses on Chemistry and Electricity by a travelling lecturer.  Nitrous acid gas or laughing gas (now called nitrous oxide) had just been discovered and he was a witness to a demonstration of its effects.  Henry's curiosity and his early love of excursions is shown by his visits to collieries and chemical factories on the banks of the Tyne.

In 1803 Henry went for a year to the school of Dr. Estlin at St Michael's Hill in Bristol.  There he became good friends with Richard Bright, later famous for his identification of Bright's Disease.  At the completion of his year, Henry returned to Knutsford entirely on foot.  While journeys of this nature were commonplace, it says much for Henry's character that he should make such a trip at the age of 15.

In the expectation that it may lead to a life of travel, Henry had the idea of becoming a merchant.  His father was reluctant to support him in this ambition but in 1804 he was apprenticed to a Liverpool merchant with permission to study at Glasgow University in the winter months  At the conclusion of his second session, in 1806, he bought a release from his articles and decided to go into medicine.  He had six months before starting medical studies at Edinburgh and was employed by the Board of Agriculture [2], which was completing a series of County Reports.  Through the suggestion of Sir John Stanley, Henry was employed on the report for Cheshire and received £200 for his labours.  As a gap year project for a student, this was a remarkable achievement.

It was at this time that he attracted the notice of Lady Stanley, whose husband had also been involved in the report on Cheshire.  She was very perceptive, for Henry rose to prominence largely through his social skills but made no great original contributions to medicine.

Letter of 7 February 1806; Maria to Louisa.

"You will see a great many J T S's in the Cheshire Report, which will direct you to his share of the work.  The Salt is entirely Holland's, which is most interesting to readers in general, not being found in any other work in such complete form.  Young Holland is come into the country to practise with his father for two years.  He aims at being a London physician, and, if information and good sense could ensure success, he would have a fair chance of rising in that line to great eminence; but I think ignorance and plenty of small talk and flattery are more likely to succeed."

Edinburgh was then the medical school of highest repute and Henry joined in October 1806 at the age of 18.  While a student, he made his first trip overseas in 1810, when he visited Iceland with Dr. Bright and Sir G. Mackenzie.  They were the first people to take smallpox vaccine to the island.  With the intervention of two winters in the London Hospital Schools (Guy's and St Thomas's) he passed the three sessions in Edinburgh necessary to graduate in the autumn of 1811.   Henry wrote a Latin thesis on the diseases of Iceland for his graduation.  While at Edinburgh, he met many men who later became prominent, including Walter Scott, with whom he maintained contact in London and at Abbotsford.

Henry Holland was too young to be admitted to the College of Physicians at that time so he arranged to undertake some travel abroad.  Early in 1812 he set out for an 18 month journey visiting Portugal, Spain, Greece and Turkey.  Three months were spent at a military hospitals in Portugal helping with the wounded from the Peninsula War.

On his return to London, Henry Holland rapidly gained a place in the highest reaches of London society, becoming friendly with Lord Lansdowne, Lord Aberdeen and Lord Holland.  He frequently met, among others, Lord Byron and Sir Humphrey Davy.  His experiences in Europe and the near East were a novelty at a time when the Napoleonic Wars had restricted travel for several years.  His new social contacts led to an invitation to attend the Princess of Wales as physician on her intended residence on the Continent.  He left England in 1814 with her party and passed a year in Germany, Switzerland and Italy, mixing everywhere with royalty and high society.  He returned in 1815 to publish his travels.

Henry Holland's grandson, Sydney Holland, Viscount Knutsford, quotes part of the following passage in his book [3].  He considered that his grandfather could have told so much but felt bound by professional etiquette to say so little. As a result his autobiography reads like Kelly's Handbook to the Titled, Landed and Official Classes.

"I may mention here as one of the strange coincidences often occurring to a London physician, that I was called to Mrs. Fitzherbert as a patient at no long time after I had left the Princess of Wales in Italy.  I continued to attend her for many successive years, seeing much of her also on other occasions.  The contrast of character here was not less remarkable than that parity in one relation of life, which associated their names in the Court history of the day.  I witnessed once, when attending the Prince Regent and Mrs. Fitzherbert in the same room at Bridgewater House, that rejection of every intercourse on her part which gave origin to many anecdotes, true or false, on the subject."

Just after the Battle of Waterloo, Henry made a short trip to France, Belgium and Holland.  In Paris, which was garrisoned by the English and Prussian armies, he witnessed a military show in which 30,000 English and Hanoverian troops repeated on the plains of St. Denys some of the manoeuvres of the battle of Salamanca, with the Duke of Wellington commanding in person.  In 1818, when returning from Spa, he visited Paris again and reported:

"I was one of the guests at a dinner there, which I have every reason to remember.  It was at the house of the Countess Rumford [4], the widow of Lavoisier [5] a reminiscence in itself.  At the table were seated Laplace [6], Cuvier [7], Berthollet [8], Gay Lussac [9] and Prony.  Berzelius [10] whose acquaintance I had made at the Institute arrived in the evening."

"With Gay Lussac I had much talk after dinner on the Doctrine of Definite Proportions, then recently become an integral part of chemical science, of which it is now the recognised foundation.  Here my intimacy with Dalton [11] and Wollaston, and knowledge of the controversy still kept up in Edinburgh on the subject, served me in some stead."

This is equivalent in modern terms to dining with several Nobel Prize winners.  Even in the early years of the 19th century, there was much contact between leading scientists in Europe by travel and correspondence.  As so few people were engaged in science, it was possible for them to be aware of most of the work of their contemporaries and to be in contact with them.  It is remarkable that the young Henry Holland should have moved in such circles at this early age.

After these early adventures, Henry settled in London.  He had became a Licentiate of the College of Physicians in 1816.  In the same year he became a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 1828 a Fellow of the College of Physicians.  How he achieved this is worthy of further investigation as the College of Physicians had formerly restricted its intake to graduates of Oxford and Cambridge to keep out Nonconformists and the Scottish trained men.  His first practice was in Berkeley Square; he then moved to Brook Street, Grosvenor Square.

Henry was called as a witness at the trial of Queen Caroline before the House of Lords in August 1820 but he passes over this episode very briefly in his autobiography.  However, he noted that hardly any of those involved in the trial "were familiar in foreign usages" implying that some of the Queen's reported behaviour was misinterpreted.  In addition he states, "A remarkable fortune attended on the whole number of these great lawyers.  Six of them attained peerages."

Henry Holland was one of Queen Caroline's physicians in her final illness [12].  That Henry was a product of his time in relation to treatment is evident from the records.  She had 3 pints of blood removed by her physicians.  Mr. W. G. Maton, was the most senior: he had attended the Duke of Kent.  The other physicians at the outset of the illness were P. Warren, and Henry Holland.  They wrote a number of official bulletins on her health starting at 10.30 on 2 August 1821.  One states:

"Throughout Friday, the 3rd August, and the day before, she underwent continual fomentations but without any material alleviation of the inflammation.  On Saturday 4 August she was blooded four times and lost on the whole sixty ounces of blood.  Through this and a warm bath she was somewhat composed."

Even on the morning of Tuesday 7 August they reported:

"The queen has passed the night without sleep: her Majesty's symptoms are no worse than yesterday."  M. Baillie, H. Ainslie, P. Warren, H. Holland, W. G. Maton.

Queen Caroline died at twenty-five minutes past ten that evening.  Although some of the earlier official bulletins had been optimistic, Henry Holland had the benefit of experience and hindsight by the time he wrote his autobiography.  He first saw her after two days illness.

"Seeing at once the urgent danger of the Queen's state, I sent instantly for other medical aid from town, scarcely quitting the house (Brandenburgh House) while she was still alive.  The symptoms had already gone too far to admit of more than partial alleviation and never left a moment of doubt as to the issue."

Henry Holland was a witness to her will on 3 August 1821 and to two of the codicils.  He became a consultant physician to six prime ministers, including George Canning and Sir Robert Peel and knew everyone in the high political, professional and literary world of his time.  In 1837 he was Physician Extraordinary to Queen Victoria and in 1840 Physician in Ordinary to the Prince Consort.  He declined a baronetcy offered by Lord Melbourne in 1841.  In 1852, he became Physician in Ordinary to the Queen and next year a baronet.  He was President of the Royal Institution (not the Royal Society, as erroneously stated in the book by Bernard Holland) and of the College of Physicians.

Henry also recommended treatment to Elizabeth Gaskell, his cousin.  In a letter [13] of 1853 she mentions:

...your PS gives me a fellow-feeling; you there say you are suffering from tic & neuralgia; from which I have suffered most acutely for years; & have only lately i.e. within the last 12 months, found a remedy; namely rubbing the part where the agonised nerve shoots up to, with viratria oinment.  I don't know if I spell the word rightly; but viratria is the essential part of aconite [14] and though a new and very expensive drug, it is well known to all good chemists, who pronounce it, as I have written it.  It was recommended to me by my cousin, Sir Henry Holland, a physician of some repute.

Henry Holland married Miss Emma Caldwell, daughter of James Caldwell of Linley Wood in Staffordshire.  Their son, Sir Henry Thurston Holland became the second baronet, later Viscount Knutsford.  Emma died on 2 February 1830.  In 1834, Henry married Saba, the daughter of the celebrated cleric and humorist, the Revd. Sydney Smith.  They had three daughters.  Saba died on 2 November 1866.  Lady Holland inherited much of her father's wit and wrote his memoir which was published in 1855.  Henry travelled abroad every year from the age of 20 to 85.  He died at his London home in Brook Street on 27 October 1873 on his 85th birthday, having just returned from a trip to Moscow and Rome.

In addition to his autobiography, Henry Holland wrote Essays on Scientific and Other Subjects, published by Longman and Green of London in 1862.  After his death, a further volume appeared Fragmentary Papers on Science and Other Subjects, by Sir Henry Holland, edited by his son, the Rev. Francis J. Holland, Longmans, London, 1875.

My transcription of Sir Henry's autobiography, annotated with 617 footnotes is shown here

(This article was first written for an adult education class, Fine Arts and Society in the Late Georgian Country House run by Lesley Edwards under the aegis of the Keele University Department of Continuing Education. It was used as a basis for a talk to the Gaskell Society entitled "Uncle Henry and Cousin Peter", on Saturday 24 September 2011 at the Methodist Hall in Knutsford.


1. Recollections of Past Life, by Sir Henry Holland, Bart. MD FRS DCL, President of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Physician in Ordinary to the Queen.  Fourth Ed., Longmans, London, 1873.  An article on Sir Henry Holland can be found in The Dictionary of National Biography.  There is a book on the genealogy of the Holland family entitled A History of the family of Holland of Mobberley and Knutsford in the County of Chester, with some account of the family of Holland of Upholland and Denton in the County of Lancaster, by Wm. Fergusson Irvine, from materials collected by the late Edgar Swinton Holland, published by Ballantyne Press, Edinburgh, 1902.

2. Agriculture of Cheshire, with observations drawn up for consideration of the Board of Agriculture, by Henry Holland, published by T. Gillet, 1808.

3. In Black and White, by Sydney Holland, Viscount Knutsford, published by Edward Arnold, 1926.

4. Benjamin Thomson (1753-1814) was an Englishman born in New England.  He was a noted scientist and engineer.  In 1791 he was created Count Rumford when he worked as aide-de-camp for the elector of Hanover.

5. Anton Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794), French chemist now regarded as the founder of modern chemistry.  He was executed during "The Terror".

6. Pierre Simon, Marquis de Laplace (1749-1827), French mathematician and astronomer.

7. George Baron Cuvier (1769-1832), French zoologist and father of the sciences of comparative anatomy and palaeontology.

8. Claude Louis, Comte Berthollet (1748-1822), French chemist who introduced bleaching by chlorine.  He travelled to Egypt as scientific advisor to Napoleon, who made him a count and a senator.

9. Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac (1778-1850), French chemist who propounded "Gay-Lussac's Law" that when gases combine they do so in simple ratio by volume.  He discovered the element boron in 1808.

10. John Jakob, Baron Berzelius (1779-1848), Swedish chemist whose main work was the discovery of the atomic composition of chemical compounds.  He discovered the elements selenium, silicon and thorium and introduced the modern notation for chemical formulae.

11. John Dalton (1766-1844), English chemist and teacher who worked in Manchester.  He was the originator of the modern atomic theory of matter and published his work in the Memoirs of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society.

12. Memoirs of the Public and Private Life of Queen Caroline, by Joseph Nightingale, edited by Christopher Hibbert, London Folio Society, 1978.

13. The Letters of Mrs Gaskell, edited by J. A. V. Chapple and Arthur Pollard, Manchester University Press, 1966.

14. Aconitum napellus (Ranunculaceae) known as Large Blue Wolfsbane, Monkshood, or Aconite.


The Hollands and Brook Street Chapel, Nether Knutsford


Chapel spacer Monument
Brook Street Chapel, 7 March 2003   Gaskell Monument


In the course of researching this article I consulted early records of the Brook Street Chapel in Knutsford, which are on film at the Cheshire County Record Office. The Old Dissenting Chapel of Nether Knutsford was built in 1689, the year of the Toleration Act and was originally called simply an independent chapel. Later it became a Unitarian Chapel. Mrs. Gaskel, a cousin of Sir Henry Holland, and her husband, the Rev. William Gaskell are buried there. The following entries relating to the Holland and Gaskell families were found in the registers up to the end of 1836. The last entry in this register was on 10 December 1836. The book was then lodged with the General Register Office in London as part of the process that set up General Registration from July 1837 and gathered in Nonconformist records. In addition I identified the following Holland family burials in this period. There are several gravestones in the chapel yard of members of the Holland family who died in the 18th century. These lie close to the Gaskell monument.

Cheshire County Record Office Reference: RG 4/190 MF 1/4


Mary, daughter of Mr. Peter and Mary Holland of Lower Knutsford, born 16 October, baptised 18 November 1792.

Elina Anne, daughter of Henry Holland MD and Margaret Emma Holland his wife of Lower Brook Street, London, born 1826, baptised 25 September 1827 by Henry Green, minister.

Marianne, daughter of the Rev. William Gaskell, minister of Cross Street Chapel, Manchester and of Elizabeth Cleghorn (Gaskell) his wife, born 12 September 1834 and baptised on 26 November 1834 by Henry Green.


Arthur, son of P. Holland Esq., surgeon of Knutsford, buried 30 August 1833 aged 20 years.

John Holland of Mobberley, gentleman, buried 7 March 1835 aged 82,

Susannah wife of the late John Holland of Mobberley was buried on 10 December 1836.

The inscription on the Gaskell grave monument shown in the photograph reads:

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, born September 29th 1810, died November 12th 1865
William Gaskell, born July 24th 1805, died June 11th 1884



I am grateful to Mary Ann Cook in Australia for contacting me about her site on Holland Family History.


index button

Cheshire Antiquities
© Craig Thornber, Cheshire, England, UK.  Main Site Address:

W3C XHTML 1.0Strict W3C CSS