Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/St. John, Charles George William

ST. JOHN, CHARLES GEORGE WILLIAM (1809–1856), sportsman and naturalist, was fourth son of General the Hon. Frederick St. John (1765–1844), second son of Frederick, second viscount Bolingbroke. His mother was Lady Arabella, daughter of William, sixth earl of Craven. Born at Chailey, Sussex, on 3 Dec. 1809, Charles St. John was sent in due time to Midhurst School. The characteristic bent of his mind showed itself at school, where he is reported to have been a proficient in spinning for pike and catching eels in the river Arun. In 1828 he was appointed to a clerkship in the treasury, but the regular work and confinement proved irksome.

He left the treasury when his uncle, Lord Bolingbroke, lent him Rosehall, a shooting-box in Sutherland. There he devoted himself to the study of animals and birds. On 20 Nov. 1834 he married Ann, daughter of T. Gibson, a Newcastle banker, who brought him some fortune, and much sympathy with sport and natural history. He afterwards spent much time in Moray. The fine moors of Moray, studded with lochs, and the adjoining seaboard gave him exceptional opportunities of studying seabirds.

In 1844 some reminiscences by St. John of his sporting experiences were incorporated by his friend Cosmo Innes [q. v.], sheriff of the county, in an article which Innes published in the ‘Quarterly Review’ (vol. lxxvii.). St. John's contributions to the article included the story of ‘The Muckle Hart of Benmore,’ which charmed Lockhart, the editor of the ‘Quarterly.’ Thenceforth St. John made careful and regular notes of all he saw. In 1846 he issued ‘Short Sketches of the Wild Sports and Natural History of the Highlands.’ The work was recognised as that of an accurate observer and a writer of talent. Other sporting books followed; but on 6 Dec. 1853, when starting on a shooting expedition to Pluscardine, he was struck with paralysis. He was moved to the south of England, but never rallied, and died on 12 July 1856 at Woolston. He was buried in Southampton cemetery. The skull of a favourite retriever was buried with him.

As a sportsman St. John was keen and persevering, but took more delight in seeing his dogs work and in rambling over the hills and moors, taking his chance of finding varied game, than in securing large bags of partridges and pheasants. He was unrivalled as a field naturalist, never accepting facts on hearsay. With the birds of Scotland he was especially familiar. Possessed of considerable skill as a draughtsman, he drew and painted his specimens, and some of his books were illustrated by himself. His works preserve the memory of many curious birds and animals which are now scarcer than they were in his days, and may become extinct. His style is clear and direct, and the genuine appreciation of scenery is apparent beneath the sober details in which the books abound. His writings have sent multitudes of lovers of nature and sport to the rivers and moors of the north.

St. John left three sons and one daughter, who are still living. His sons include Colonel Frederick Charles St. John (b. 1835), of the Madras staff corps, and Rear-admiral Henry Craven St. John (b. 1837).

Besides ‘Short Sketches of the Wild Sports and Natural History of the Highlands,’ 1846, the ninth edition of which contains the author's notes and a life by the present writer (1893), St. John published:

  1. ‘A Tour in Sutherlandshire; with Extracts from the Field Books of a Sportsman and a Naturalist,’ 2 vols., 1849; 2nd edition in 2 vols., 1884, with an appendix on the fauna of Sutherland by J. A. Harvie-Brown and T. E. Buckley, and ‘Recollections of the Author,’ by his son.
  2. ‘Natural History and Sport in Moray,’ with a memoir by Mr. C. Innes, 1863; reissued with plates in 1882.

[St. John's books; Burke's Peerage; private information.]

M. G. W.