Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Golden Age of Natural History?

I’ve often heard the Victorian and Edwardian eras described as ‘the Golden Age’ of natural history, when field natural history societies proliferated and flourished all over Britain. Excursions to study our flora and fauna provided a welcome diversion from the noise and grime of the Industrial Revolution in cities and studying natural history became an important part of the prevailing ethos for ‘self improvement’. David Elliston Allen in his The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History (Penguin, 1976) chronicles rise of the Field Clubs and mentions how 550 people once attended a single field excursion of the Manchester Field-Naturalists Society, which required the hiring of a special train. At the same time there was enormous public interest in new, spectacular discoveries of exotic animals in far-off places and during this period many of our great museum collections of natural history specimens grew rapidly. A few years ago I came across a little book that gives an interesting insight into one way in which this came about.

The Handbook of Instructions for Collectors was first published in 1902 by the British Museum (Natural History) – today simply known as the Natural History Museum – and in its preface the museum Director, E. Ray Lancaster FRS, set out its purpose:

   "In past years the Museum collections have been greatly augmented and enriched by the donations of valuable series of specimens obtained by travellers and others whose vocations have necessitated their residence abroad in all parts of the world.
   It often happens that military and naval officers, explorers, missionaries, and others have leisure time which they would be willing to devote to collecting natural objects if they had a better knowledge of the manner in which such things should be collected and preserved."

What follows is then a ‘wants list’ of specimens which, for mammals, included African elephants, scimitar oryx, sable antelope, Javan rhinoceros, Siberian elk, spectacled bear, Pacific walrus – published in the hope that if any of these wandered through the sights of a hunter's rifle in some distant part of the Empire the hunter would sell his trophy to the museum. Actually, what they really wanted was at least three specimens of everything, for reasons that Lancaster goes on to explain:

“In addition to this (and more especially in view of the approaching partial, if not complete, extermination of many species), it is of the highest importance that the museum should acquire a series of skins of all the larger species of mammals as a study collection, and also a duplicate set for future mounting, thus making three sets in all.”

The manual even includes this helpful illustration showing how to skin your tiger.

 What follows is detailed advice on collecting live and dead specimens of everything, from elephants to earwigs. Here are a few highlights:

“It is no easy matter to kill a large Tortoise or Turtle .... the traveller will consider whether it may not be possible to bring the animal to Europe alive, as it can live for ten or twelve months without food in some corner of the ship. If this is impractical a long knife should be thrust into the base of the neck in the direction of the heart......”

“Snakes of greater length than 10 feet cannot be preserved in spirit .... they must therefore be skinned.”

“Large pythons and boas are so frequently brought to Europe alive that most museums have opportunities of obtaining good skeletons; and therefore it is not worthwhile for a traveller to preserve them, unless they are of a size to verify reports in which Pythons exceeding 25 feet and Anacondas of over 30 feet are mentioned.”

“Some sharks attain a length of 30 feet, and some Rays a width of 20 feet; and according to very reliable reports, they may even exceed these limits. It is extremely desirable to obtain such gigantic specimens for museums”.

There were helpful tips for dealing with cantankerous customs officials too: “The opening of cases by Customs officers in docks and on the frontier of foreign states is often more fatal than a very long journey to the contents of the boxes. Bribery in such cases seems permissible, to ensure lenient treatment of collections”.

With hindsight, and unfairly judged by current standards of conservation ethics, all this sounds horrific but at the time it was perfectly acceptable practice for furthering scientific investigation and satisfying public curiosity about the living world. In some ways the Victorian and Edwardian eras were a Golden Age of Natural History Avarice, as far as the accumulation of specimens was concerned, even though it did lay the foundations of many aspects of biological sciences. Today many of the old-established naturalist's field clubs may be in decline but in many respects we are now in the real Golden Age of Natural History, when digital cameras and the world wide web allow naturalists - or anyone with curiosity and a willingness to pursue it - to record, disseminate and discuss their findings far more widely than our Edwardian ancestors ever could, from every corner of the planet.


  1. Nice post. People might be interested that you can download this book or read online here

  2. At last some wisdom has dawned on humans.

  3. Thank goodness many of us have different ethics today!

    I love these old books - what a fascinating time in which to live.

  4. While we can't only judge history from our own perspective, we can see that the mistakes of the past were actually mistakes, even if based on ignorance. We can change what we do now, and look currently at the present in the hopes of realizing what mistakes we are making due to our own ignorance.
    Thanks for the very interesting post. If I run onto a bothersome tiger, I'll be ready.

  5. Thanks for the link Dave - that's a great web site for old natural history books, isn't it!?

  6. Hello lotusleaf, just in time, too, I think, in the case of many endangered animals

  7. Hi Ellen, can't resist old natural history books, I've been collecting them for years. It is a great time to be alive - couldn't agree more. Kind regards, Phil

  8. Thanks Nellie, you're absolutely right, we need learn lessons from the past to avoid repeating them. Best wishes,Phil

  9. Hello Phil,

    That was a great post. It ties in nicely to an exhibition I'm putting together in Ludlow. I'm a curatorial trainee and am focussing on the Zeitgeist of the Victorian age in terms of Natural History. This and the link above have helped me, thanks! Feel free to check out my blog about it:

  10. Hi Russell, Glad it was of some use. Your blog is fascinating - I'll be a frequent visitor. Good luck with your work. Kind regards, Phil