Bird Haunts and Nature Memories/Chapter 14

THE WORKING-MAN NATURALIST OF THE PAST

THERE are to-day amongst the working classes a large number of men who fully deserve the title naturalist; they attend science classes, read at the libraries, often have a small but well selected library of their own, and both possess and know how to use a microscope. These men, by careful use of spare time, a keen delight in their hobby, and a determination to see and find out for themselves, often have a more intimate knowledge of wild nature than the systematic and academic scientists whose names figure in the scientific journals. But about the middle of the last century there flourished men of a very different type, whose counterpart hardly exists to-day; a few, but only a few, survive. They had few books, and indeed seldom referred to books, though they took delight in clapping systematic names to their boarded specimens; they were collectors and especially competitive collectors; their great pride was the possession of rare specimens which their companions had not got.

The keen interest taken in sport, football in particular, is largely responsible for the lack of enthusiasm about natural science, though the artisan often takes pleasure in seeing wild beasts and loves flowers and the songs of birds. The working man, when not looking for the latest winner, often reads short and generally erroneous paragraphs about natural history in his Sunday paper, or in the trashy paste-and-scissors journals, gleaning a smattering which is worse than no knowledge at all. Unfortunately he believes anything which is in print.

Within my memory many of the old school have passed to happy hunting-grounds; those who remain will not be hurt by recollections of their companions of the past. One by one they pass—forgotten. Few of these men boasted general knowledge; they took up some special hobby and made a collection, striving with untiring zeal to obtain specimens of everything within their reach. Botany and entomology were the favourite callings, but the accumulating of stuffed birds, birds' eggs, land and fresh-water shells, and of geological specimens occupied the attention of many. Taxidermy was the employment of leisure time, and not only did the devotees of this art stuff their own specimens, but they added to their incomes by preserving and setting-up foxes, dogs, cats, and cage birds for their friends, and some were expert in making plaster casts of fishes, the record catches of the local angling clubs. These works of art have in many cases perished, but others still grace the walls of small public-houses or, from time to time, appear, unclaimed, in the pawnbroker's window.

Beetles were what Old Joe went in for, and a very fine and valuable collection he gathered together. He had hunted for and captured beetles in every locality near Manchester, had mounted them carefully and arranged them in boxes, each specimen with its scientific name. His heart was in his work, and he loved order; the smallest beetles, too tiny for the finest pins, were neatly fixed on cards. In his palmy days, say in the fifties. Joe would go any distance for a beetle. There were no cheap excursions, and had there been his purse would have been too empty; so he would tramp or beg a lift in a farmer's cart. On Saturday, soon as his work ended, he gathered together a few boxes and nets, tied his food in a handkerchief, and walked twenty to thirty miles to some likely hunting-ground, Delamere Forest being one favourite. When darkness cut off hopes of further finds he would lie down and sleep for a few hours, the bracken his bed, the trees his shelter; often the springy fir-needles provided a soothing couch. Up with the lark, he would beat through the woodlands the whole of Sunday, and at nightfall, weary and footsore, but happy it his pockets were full of coleopterous treasures, he would tramp back to Manchester, arriving in time for work on Monday morning. An accident deprived him of one leg and stopped these pedestrian excursions, but it did not quench his enthusiasm; he never tired of showing and arranging the collections, comparing notes with others, and relating the adventures of the past. Joe has gone, but his collection lives, and it contains much of great interest now that the city and other towns have spread and destroyed many of his old haunts.

A very different man was Sam. Like one of Bret Harte's heroes, he was "frequently drunk." Anything was game that came to his net—birds, butterflies, reptiles, fishes. He lived alone in a dirty cabin of a house; probably his rent was in arrears, for he was reluctant to let us cross the threshold until he had satisfied himself that we really only desired to see his collections. He was very drunk then, but not too drunk to remember the localities whence he obtained his dusty, moth-eaten specimens. Yet he was shy about giving information, though he undoubtedly knew the countryside. His collections have probably polished; they would be a danger in any museum, riddled by moth, mite, and beetle. He was a battered, unpleasant specimen himself, drink-soaked and dirt-encrusted; it is, however, fair to say that he was a rare type of working-man naturalist; the majority that I have met have been steady, sober men.

One of the best type, warehouseman in a well-known Manchester house, made a well-earned name for himself as an all-round, reliable naturalist; he saved and retired, ending his days in the enjoyment of the hobby of his life. He stuffed birds in his spare time, and very well he did them. Thoroughly trustworthy and honest, he hated anything that savoured of fraud or sham; he made many life friends and many bitter enemies by his outspoken exposure of deceit in his brother naturalists. Greedy collectors, by no means an extinct class, have only themselves to thank for much of the fraud which surrounds the "identity" of specimens. A school of collectors and taxidermists discovered that there was a market for British or locally obtained specimens which could be supplied by substituting specimens from abroad or from other areas than those stated on the labels. Wild-fowl, and often ornithological oddments, arrived from abroad in the wholesale markets, and these were speedily snapped up, and often shown to the collector "in the flesh" with an entirely spurious local history. How many black woodpeckers are preserved in museums or collections as British? This practice our honest warehouseman exposed and frustrated, cutting off much illicit gain. It was from such men as he that we learnt how skins of ruffs were imported from Holland, mounted and sold as locally obtained; how American skins were treated in the same way to obtain the big prices for "British killed" rarities. It is an old fraud; has it ended?

In suburban Liverpool lived one who in his day was counted the great authority on all local natural history matters; Liverpool scientific societies knew his name, published his notes. He was past his four score years when we visited him, and no doubt a failing memory accounted for some of the strange "facts" he related. As we entered his garden we were hailed by the screams

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Mere Clough, haunt of the old Lancashire naturalists.

of a bateleur eagle, caged near his front door; in the window was a bleached but historical specimen of a Greenland falcon. His specimens were unlabelled, and he either could not or would not tell us whence they came; few of these old collections ever are labelled with date and locality; the owner prided himself that he knew all about them, and forgot that a day would come when his word would be no longer available. Then he passed, and the value of the collections, many of them invaluable, passed also; friends and relatives try to realise upon the hoarded goods, but the scientist refuses to purchase. All the labour has been in vain; for lack of a little care, a notebook, or a catalogue, the specimens become so much lumber. The house was crammed with natural history objects, but the glass cases were cracked and broken; dust and dirt, moth and mite, had found their way through many crevices; the whole place, the man himself, showed the waste of years. A life and a life work practically wasted!

The objection to stating localities was not always laziness, but was the result of the competitive system; these men dared not reveal where they had found their good specimens, for fear that their associates would also find them and so lessen their fictitious value. It had its value for the species; it has its value to us to-day. One or two instead of a score or more raided the locality; many plants and insects would long since have vanished had their habitat been disclosed. Very many years ago the entomological world was astonished by the discovery of a new moth near Manchester; the finder had not one or two, but many specimens. He refused to disclose the source of supply, and gloated over the envy of his less fortunate companions. Time went on, and drink and consequent poverty induced him to part with two or three specimens, one to be figured in Curtis's "Entomology." At last, for the price of a drink, he disclosed the locality, but either the information was incorrect or the stock had been exterminated: the eager collectors who hurried to the spot, to the very tree, failed to find a single larva, pupa, or moth. More liquor loosened his tongue, and he admitted that the moths had been left in pawn against his score at a low beer-house, but when the searchers investigated they were met with the disquieting information from the landlady that, thinking the "flies" of no value and that they would never be reclaimed, she had "stuck the box behind the fire." Œcophora woodiella (Curtis)[1] has never been seen since. Three specimens remain: two were in the Manchester Museum, but one of these is now in the British Museum, and the third, the one Curtis named and figured, is in Australia. The fifty or sixty others which were taken about 1840 on Kersal Moor perished in the flames.

Yet another, a true naturalist at heart but not always accurate, was my first taxidermist. Ducks, gulls, and waders, sometimes song birds, purchased in the market, or the victims of the uncertain aim of my boyhood's gun, were "put into skin" for me, their necks often woefully stretched, their bodies bloated by too much tow; but until I could make a skin for myself all my spare cash passed into his hands. Many were his stories of the "pothunting" fraternity, mouching along the hedgerows with a gun, men who shot for "sport," but who traded any good species they obtained. Many a rare migrant or accidental wanderer passed through his unskilful hands. He would give me specimens of snakes and lizards, fresh-water sponges, or rare plants. He was a constant reader of the popular natural history journals that flourished in those days, but he did not write himself. Later he became poetical, and many a doggerel verse, recalling days gone past, has been penned for me. He became an ardent bird protector in his poetical days, and a keen botanist; he was a character, but a good sort.

The working-man naturalist has, perhaps, evolved rather than vanished; he has, to a great extent, ceased to collect for mere collecting's sake. There are to-day many small local natural history societies in the Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Cheshire manufacturing towns, and some, though not so many as formerly, hold their meetings and have their "museums" in public-houses. I have drunk bad beer and eaten potatoes roasted in their "jackets" in order to attend these meetings, and, frankly, have enjoyed myself, though the dialect, to a southerner, would have been a foreign language. Many societies have a much better tone and more scientific ideals; they are led by men who love nature for nature's sake, and care about their collections as means of increasing knowledge. The pity is that the records of the older clubs were badly kept or not kept at all; they seldom had a recorder; each member was jealous of the others, and kept his knowledge to himself.

When we were parting from one old collector, he asked:

"Do you collect birds?"  "No."  "Do you stuff them?"  "No."

We explained that we wanted to get records, to write about them. He looked at us with pity. "Come any Sunday; you'll meet lots of practical men here."

Writers about birds and recorders are evidently not practical. Perhaps they are not!


  1. Now Euclemensia woodiella (Wikisource contributor note)