Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Montagu, George (1751-1815)

MONTAGU, GEORGE (1751–1815), writer on natural history, born at Lackham in 1751, was son of James Montagu (d. 1790) of Lackham, Wiltshire, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of William Hedges of Alderton Hall, Wiltshire, a granddaughter of Sir Charles Hedges [q. v.], Queen Anne's secretary. A brother James was high sheriff of Wiltshire in 1795. Montagu's father was fourth in descent from James Montagu, third son of Sir Henry Montagu, first earl of Manchester [q. v.] (Foster, Peerage, s. v. 'Manchester'). At an early age George entered the army, and served as a captain in the 15th regiment of foot during the war with the American colonies. Subsequently settling at Easton Grey, near Tedbury, he acted as lieutenant-colonel of the militia of Wiltshire for many years. But he mainly devoted himself to scientific study, and was always an indefatigable and very careful worker in natural history. Two extant letters from him to Gilbert White illustrate his devotion to science. In one, dated 29 June 1789, he writes : 'I have delighted in being an ornithologist from infancy, and, was I not bound by conjugal attachment, should like to ride my hobby to distant parts.' Montagu was among the earliest members of the Linnean Society (instituted 1788), and wrote for it many dissertations and memoirs on the bird' and shells of the south of England. Late in life he removed to Knowle House, near Kingsbridge, Devonshire, where he died, 28 Aug. 1815, aged 64, of lockjaw, owing to a wound in his foot caused by a rusty nail. He had married, at the early age of eighteen, Anne, daughter of William Courtenay, by Jane, sister of John Stuart, marquis of Bute. She died at Bristol Hotwells 10 Feb. 1816. By her Montagu was father of George Conway Courtenay Montagu (1776-1847), his heir, who succeeded to the estates of Lackham and Alderton ; of Frederick, an officer in the army, killed at Albuera, and of two daughters.

Montagu was an active collector of books and coins, birds and other animals. Leigh & Sotheby sold his library in 1798, and his coins in the same year, and after his death his Greek coins and English medals were also disposed of, along with more than three hundred letters of John, duke of Marlborough, a few of Queen Anne, and other papers descending to him through his wife's grandfather, Sir Charles Hedges (6 Aug. 1816). His collection of birds and other animals was purchased by the British Museum.

Montagu's chief works are:

  1. 'The Sportsman's Directory,' London, 1792, dedicated to Lord Porchester. This treats with much detail on the penetration of gunpowder, on shooting flying, and the like. It condemns rifled barrels, and gives curious directions to duellists on the best position in which to stand when receiving an adversary's fire.
  2. 'Ornithological Dictionary or Alphabetical Synopsis of British Birds,' 2 vols. London, 1802, followed by a 'Supplement' (Exeter, 1813) with twenty-four plates. In this book Montagu's industry and caution are seen at their best. It is an admirable compendium for the time at which it was written. Thus he gives the great black woodpecker a place in his list, 'with considerable doubt;' he 'cannot speak of it from his own knowledge.' Modern ornithologists entirely bear him out. His account of the great bustard is very valuable, now that the bird is extinct in Great Britain, while his characteristic reticence in the presence of a paucity of facts is apparent in his account of the great auk : 'it is said to breed in the isle of St. Kilda.' Montagu's dictionary was reprinted with additions by Rennie in 1831 ; by E. Newman, also with additions, in 1866 ; and again (n.d.) by Sonnenschein and Allen
  3. 'Testacea Britannica, a History of British Marine, Land, and Freshwater Shells,' in two parts, 1803 (Romsey). A 'Supplement' was published at Exeter in 1808. Montagu here follows in the researches of Lister and Da

Costa, the coloured plates of shells are of considerable beauty, and the book is a monument of careful study and enthusiasm.

The following are Montagu's minor contributions to science. For the Linnean Society he wrote: ‘Observations on British Quadrupeds, Birds, and Fishes’ (vii. 274); ‘On the Horseshoe Bats and the Barbastelle’ (ix. 162); ‘On three rare Species of British Birds’ (iv. 35); ‘On Falco cyaneus and pygargus’ (ix. 182); ‘On some rare Marine British Shells’ (xi. 2, 179); ‘On the Black Stork’ (xiii. 19); ‘On remarkable Marine Animals discovered on the South Coast of Devon’ (vii. 61, ix. 81, xi. 1); and ‘On Five British Species of Terebella’ (xii. 2, 340). For the Wernerian Society he wrote: ‘On some rare British Fishes’ (i. 79); ‘On the Gannet’ (i. 176); ‘On Fasciola in Poultry’ (i. 194); ‘On British Sponges’ (ii. 67); ‘On Fishes taken in South Devon’ (ii. 413); ‘On a supposed new Species of Dolphin’ (iii. 75).

[Gent. Mag. 1815, pt. ii. p. 281; Agassiz's Catalogue of Books on Zoology, by Strickland, 1852, iii. 614; two letters to Gilbert White in Bell's History of Selborne, ii. 236; Memoir by Mr. Cunnington in the Wiltshire Mag. 1857, iii. 87; Nichols's Lit. Illustrations, vi. 718–20, 725, 896.]

M. G. W.