Benjamin Franklin’s experiment in Cumberland

Pouring oil on troubled waters

Pouring oil on troubled waters – as a metaphor – is familiar to all of us. It means trying to calm a dispute with soothing words. Benjamin Franklin’s experiment in Cumberland in the 1770s put it to the test

The origin of the saying is simply an old belief that if a ship was caught in a storm, pouring oil over the side would literally reduce the waves. Something Franklin was keen to prove.

Cumbrian (and other) characters

In the following extracts, Benjamin Franklin – one of the Founding Fathers of the United States – needs no introduction.

Benjamin Franklin's experiment
Benjamin Franklin, a Founding Father of the US and keen scientist

William Brownrigg is less familiar, although as the first scientist to investigate poisonous gases in coal mines, he surely deserves more recognition than he has.

Brownrigg (1712-1800), was born at High Close Hall, Cumberland, and baptised at Crosthwaite parish church. The Brownriggs had acquired property at Ormathwaite through the marriage of his great-grandfather George, in 1676, to Anne, the daughter of Garwain Williamson (the Williamsons had been in the region since at least 1470).

William’s scientific research saw him elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1742.

Dr Brownrigg’s old friend, the ‘worthy clergyman at Carlisle’, was the Reverend James Farish (1714-1783), the vicar of Stanwix.

Dr Brownrigg’s old friend, the ‘worthy clergyman at Carlisle’, was the Reverend James Farish (1714-1783), the vicar of Stanwix.

Sir John Pringle, ‘the father of military medicine”, realised the importance of hygiene and sanitation in relation to disease, and pioneered the concept of hospitals in the field as neutral territory.

‘Mr Dun’ was possibly Samuel Dunn, the Londoner (source).

Benjamin Franklin’s experiment on Derwentwater

Some detail on Benjamin Franklin’s experiment can be read in the Philosophical Transactions. XLIV. Of the stilling of waves by means of oil. Extracted from sundry letters between Benjamin Franklin, LL. D. F. R. S. William Brownrigg, M. D. F. R. S. and the Reverend Mr. Farish.

Extract of a letter from Dr Brownrigg to Dr Franklin, dated Ormathwaite, Jan 27, 1773.

By the enclosed from an old friend, a worthy clergyman at Carlisle, whose great learning and extensive knowledge in most sciences would have more distinguished him, had he been placed in a more conspicuous point of view, you will find that he had heard of your experiment on Derwent Lake, and has thrown together what he could collect on that subject; to which I have subjoined one experiment from the relation of another Gentleman.

Extract of a letter from the Reverend Mr Farish to Dr Brownrigg

I some time ago met with Mr Dun, who furnished me with an account of an experiment you had tried upon Derwent water, in company with Sir John Pringle and Dr Franklin.

According to his representation, the water, which had been in great agitation, was instantly calmed upon pouring in only a very small quantity of oil, and that to so great a distance round the boat as seems a little incredible.

I have since had the same accounts from others, but I suspect all of a little exaggeration…

I shall be glad to have an authentic account of the Keswick experiment.

Dr Franklin answers Dr Brownrigg, with his experiences of oil quieting waters at sea, and on a large pond at Clapham, but beyond mentioning ‘in our journey to the north, when we had the pleasure of seeing you at Ormathwaite,’ there is no mention of an experiment in Cumberland.

Oil on troubled waters, practised in 1890

Benjamin Franklin’s experiment may not have proved anything conclusively, but the belief persisted. A further Cumbrian example shows up in 1890.

One John Brydon, aged 17, had been washed overboard in the Indian Ocean and drowned.

He was an apprentice on the vessel Crummock Water, caught up in a gale on March 31 and April 1 on a voyage to Port Pirie.

In his log, the ship’s captain, Captain Amery, recorded that he used 25 gallons of oil over the sides, with some effect.

But then the wind changed and a tremendous sea broke over amidships on the port side. Sever crew were washed over the rail, and while four clung on and were saved, three drowned.

The report calls Captain Amery a ‘thorough believer’ in the use of oil on troubled waters, using it to great effect, but said he had been engaged in other work when the fatal wave was shipped.

Brydon’s mother is described, in two publications, as Mrs Brydon of Abbey Street, Carlisle.

With the index failing to find her, I had to trawl through the 1891 census the ‘old-fashioned way’ (ie page by page) to find:

36 Abbey Street

Elizabeth G Brydon, 44, widow, living on own means

Anthony P, 16, son, scholar

Ann J, 14, daughter, scholar. All three born Whitehaven.

In 1881, all three were in Whitehaven, with John (then aged eight). Elizabeth was already widowed and living with her brother, M – Wilson, brazier, at 105 Duke Street.

Given the location, and Elizabeth being widowed in her 30s, I wonder if the poor woman lost her husband at sea?

Does oil on troubled waters work?

Finally, a 2005 article that suggests there’s some truth in it.

First published December 2017