Go back to article: Coming home - Bally’s miniature phrenological specimens

Mr William Bally, practical phrenologist

Bally visited a whole host of British towns and cities on his phrenological tour with Spurzheim. According to a brief biography of Spurzheim, written shortly after his death, the list included Derby, Nottingham, Sheffield, Wakefield, Leeds, Liverpool, Belfast and Bath (Spurzheim, 1833b, pp 94–100). They visited Manchester in October 1829, where Spurzheim examined criminals at the prison, and visited Dublin twice: in April 1830 and April 1831 – this being the last stop before Spurzheim travelled on to Paris. Bally’s whereabouts between 1831 and 1834, when he is then mentioned as having rooms on Oxford Street, Manchester (anon., 1834), are as yet unknown. Did he stay in Dublin, and produce the miniatures there? The earliest copy of the catalogue for the specimens was published in Dublin in 1831 (Spurzheim, 1831). Or was he in Edinburgh, where George Combe was popularising phrenology, and a set of busts and the 1831 catalogue are within the university’s collections?[5] The Edinburgh set is almost identical except in one regard – the number is scored on the front of the bust, in a smaller and more decorative font. Further sets are in the collections of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and the Kulturen museum, Sweden (Blackburn, 2004; Kulturen museum inv. no. KM 85132). Bust 5 of the Baltimore set carries an inscription approximating ‘By Willm B’ with the date 1831, and the numbers are on the reverse, matching the font of the Science Museum set. The busts are however almost 1.5 cm taller.

Given that these busts are dated 1832, perhaps Bally was in Boston, where Spurzheim died that year, and where the 1832 version of the catalogue was published (Spurzheim, 1832)? This seems unlikely as there is no evidence of Bally continuing the tour beyond 1831 or outside the UK. The 1832 catalogue also lists bust 1 as ‘the skull of a man’ (ibid., p 3), while this bust is a head. A third catalogue, published in Nottingham in 1833, has ‘a female head’ for bust 1, and might suggest Bally could have been there in 1832 (Spurzheim, 1833a, p 3). His lectures on casting and modelling, mentioned above, were also published in Nottingham, c. 1833. The most certain reference to his whereabouts during this period is in advertisements for his lectures in Manchester in 1833, where he is described as ‘Mr. Bally, of Liverpool’ (anon., 1833a and b).

A further complicating factor in relying on the inscription for the date of origin is the likelihood of sets having become mixed over time. Bust 9 of the Edinburgh set does not have a number on the front. The set also has three busts missing. The Baltimore set is missing numbers 1 to 4 and 17. The Science Museum’s collections contain another single bust, marked ‘5’, which has been accessioned separately (Object No. A642800). Given that bust 5 of the Baltimore set carries the name and date inscription, and busts 1 to 4 are missing, perhaps these inscriptions were made later, and not even by Bally?

What we can trace is Bally’s growing business as a ‘practical phrenologist’ in Manchester, and the likely importance of such material culture to his practice. When the Phrenological Journal reviewed the set c. 1832 it described its purpose as a teaching tool: ‘Many individuals complain of want of opportunity of acquiring practical skills in observing development, and to such persons these specimens will be found a very valuable acquisition’ (anon., 1832, p 285). This did not just apply to aspiring phrenologists – Bally was very keen to instruct mothers and governesses, in order for them to understand and control their children’s character and abilities (see for example anon., 1842). Perhaps, like many of his contemporaries, Bally saw in phrenology the potential for social reform. The Phrenological Journal considered the set of specimens to be ‘the most valuable contribution which has been made to the science for several years’ (anon., 1832, p 285). This was repeated in Bally’s preface to the 1833 catalogue, where he added, ‘The Artist begs, as it has been a work of great study and labour, for no one to allow copies to be taken, as he himself is the sole proprietor’ (Spurzheim, 1833a, p 2). The set was thus both a teaching tool and Bally’s professional status symbol. It was also a means of generating income – in the sale of the set exclusively by him for the price of two guineas, and in its demonstration in lectures, for which entry fees were charged.

By 1836, Bally was appointed curator of the Manchester Phrenological Society, and was amassing a collection of casts that were used by phrenologist George Combe for his lectures in Manchester in 1837 (anon., 1836, p 263; anon., 1837, p 631). George Combe had been drawn to phrenology after hearing Spurzheim lecture in Edinburgh and, like Spurzheim, discovered the power of the scientific prop. As Roger Cooter has remarked, ‘In the lecture halls the scientific expertise and supposed objectivity of phrenology was visibly reinforced by the very artefacts of medical science – the skulls, busts, casts, and charts of brains with which lecturers surrounded themselves’ (Cooter, 1984, pp 75, 108). The Manchester Phrenological Society had purchased 210 casts of heads in its first year of existence (1829–30), copies of the entire collection of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society, founded by George Combe and colleagues in 1820. To this, Bally had added further purchases and his own castings of the brain (Love, 1839, pp 115–16). Until the late 1830s, meetings of the society were held in rooms underneath Bally’s premises (ibid., p 116).

Bally’s casts of brains, including the ‘mechanical brain’ – a cast of the head and brain of a 15-year-old, divided into several pieces that could be taken out separately (anon., 1834) – demonstrate his access to postmortems. He also had access to patients, and criminals, from whom he took life casts, most likely because of his connections with surgeons active in the Phrenological Society, such as Daniel Noble, the society’s president between 1835 and 1838 (anon., 1836, pp 261, 263; Cooter, 1984, p 95).

Bally’s most productive decade was the 1840s. The fourth exhibition at the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution in 1842–43, in which Bally had a ‘Phrenological Portrait Room’, was attended by over 100,000 people (anon., 1843a, pp 16–17; anon., 1843b, p 20). The following year, the collection occupied the whole of the upper-floor gallery, comprising ‘many thousand casts, masks, and busts’ (anon., 1844). The exhibitions were held to raise funds for the institution, and side shows (such as Bally’s pantograph portraits) were a popular add-on (Tylecote, 1974, pp 73–4). Phrenology classes had been held in the institution since the early 1830s (Cooter, 1984, p 354, note 84).

In 1844, Bally took a cast of John Dalton’s brain, having arrived at the autopsy too late to take a death mask (anon., 1845a, pp 53–4). Dalton was the doyen of Manchester’s scientific community – president of the Literary and Philosophical Society between 1817 and 1844 – and 40,000 people had filed past his body lying in state at the town hall (Kargon, 1977, pp 41–2).

But Bally was not just producing phrenological specimens for others to interpret and study. He was also performing phrenological analysis. Validating his experience during a ‘phrenological lesson’ delivered at the Athenaeum in 1842, Bally claimed to have examined the heads of ‘more than 600 thieves, murderers and other criminals’ (anon., 1842). Advertisements in the Manchester Guardian, very often on the front page,advised of his studio location and opening hours for phrenological consultations (see for example anon., 1849). A ‘phrenological reading’ of Mr Thomas Noton, a relative of Salford-based foundry owner Michael Noton, survives in the Science Museum Library & Archives (Bally, 1848). Dated ‘Apr. 29, 1848’, the printed proforma is annotated to indicate the size of the phrenological ‘organs’ – cautiousness, and the perception of size, locality and time all being particularly large, and thus ‘naturally most powerful and most prone to action’. The printed proforma, with the date 184-, suggests that Bally produced a great number of readings in this decade.

These activities demonstrate that Bally was firmly positioned in the city as a phrenologist. Many itinerant phrenologists did not succeed (Cooter, 1984, p 154). Bally’s collection of casts was reaching thousands of visitors – his clients for phrenological readings included local figures such as Thomas Noton – and he had access to the heads and brains of some of the most famous, and notorious, members of Manchester society. The Manchester Guardian declared him to be ‘one of the best practical phrenologists and manipulators in England’ (anon., 1842). How much of his success as a phrenologist was due to the Manchester milieu?

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140102/009