I first became familiar with Charles Waterton many years
ago when I read ‘Animal Fakes & Frauds’ by Peter Dance
(1976 SBN 562 00045 3), a highly recommended book for anyone interested
When I started Grymm’s World of Wonders a Non-descript loosely
based on that made by Charles Waterton was one of the first
exhibits that I made, it was cobbled together from a doll’s head
with bright green eyes to catch the visitor’s attention, a bit of
old leather and some rabbit fur. It was OK but it took me a long
time to find a piece of fur that matched that original. At long
last I found just the right stuff and my non-descript has had a
full make over for the 2008 season. The story of this nondescript
will always remain one of my favorites and always gets a good reaction
from the visitors.
In 2006 I even managed to get hold of a little copy of Waterton’s
In South America’ sadly the frontispiece showing the ‘nondescript’
only appeared in the first edition of 1825.
Waterton was an adventurer, humanist, author, trickster and environmentalist
and the following piece is a tribute to a most remarkable man. The
famous image that we have of Charles Waterton is a portrait
that shows an elegantly dressed Waterton with his characteristic
short crop hair accompanied by two of his specimens; a stuffed cat’s
head and what appears to be a royal
Charles Waterton was born in Walton
Hall near Wakefield, Yorkshire 3rd June 1782, his family
had migrated from Lincolnshire to Yorkshire several centuries earlier
and its pre-Reformation members in many cases were eminent in the
service of the State. Staunchly Royalist as well as Catholics, the
Waterton family suffered the consequences of political and religious
change becoming impoverished by fines.
Charles's mother was a Bedingfeld of Inburgh, Norfolk, granddaughter
of Sir Henry, the third baronet, and his paternal grandmother was
Mary More, the seventh in descent from Sir
Thomas More. In fact Waterton claimed seven Roman Catholic
saints in his ancestry When he was 10 Charles was sent to a catholic
school at Tudhoe, near Durham and in 1796 went on to Stonyhurst
for his higher studies. Four years at Stonyhurst, made him a good
Latin scholar and there he also developed his passion for natural
history, especially ornithology. He also became an accomplished
controller of vermin “I was considered rat-catcher to the establishment,
and also fox-taker, foumart-killer, and cross-bow charger at the
time when the young rooks were fledged. . . I followed up my calling
with great success. The vermin disappeared by the dozen…”
of Amiens in 1802 gave young Charles his first chance to
travel abroad and he went to Spain where two of his maternal
uncles had settled and while in Malaga survived a plague
epidemic. He returned to England in poor health and then
headed for South America where he took on the administration
of his uncles' estates in British Guiana, living in Georgetown
from 1804 to 1812, with occasional visits home.
When his father died in 1806 Charles became heir to Walton Hall,
handing over estates to their owners, he started exploring the hinterland
of Guiana and between 1812 and 1824 Charles Waterton conducted four
expeditions into the interior which are described in his well known
"Wanderings in South America".
Waterton writes extensively about the use and manufacture of wourali,
a poison we now know as curare
and this became the object of his first expedition and he is credited
with bringing curare to Europe. He also describes the making of
blow pipes and darts used by the Indians for hunting.
Waterton collected many specimens and also perfected the art of
taxidermy; he used a Mercuric Chloride compound to harden the specimen
so that his exhibits ware hollow rather than stuffed in the traditional
manner. He passed on his skills to one of his father’s slaves, John
Edmonstone who, as a free man, continued to practice taxidermy
in Edinburgh. John Edmonstone went on to teach a disillusioned
16 year medical student named Charles Darwin.
Some of Waterton’s taxidermy was unorthodox to say the least; he
would join various parts together to create caricatures and satirical
creatures. This cost him a considerable amount of credibility amongst
the scientific bodies of the time. Amongst his most famous creations
were the National
Luther after His Fall and the famous Nondecript.
The ‘capture’ of this strange creature is mentioned in ‘Wanderings’.
On returning to Walton Hall in 1820 Waterton dedicated his life
to observing and protecting the wildlife of the estate and created
what is probably the world’s first nature reserve. He built a wall
around the estate at the cost of £9,000, a considerable amount of
money in 1824, equal to around £2.5 million today. Buying a telescope
to watch birds probably also makes Waterton the world’s first bird
watcher. Another first was his introduction of nest boxes for owls,
sand martins, starlings and jackdaws, hollow trees were also left
for the owls - strange and eccentric behavior to say the least in
an age when most wild life was viewed as food, vermin or sport.
Returning from one of his trips in 1821, Waterton was stopped by
customs at Liverpool, one particular customs inspector told
Waterton that he would have to pay the highest commercial duty for
the importation of animal specimens from the New World. Despite
Waterton’s protests that the specimens were of no commercial value
but museum pieces, the inspector remained unmoved and Waterton had
to pay an exorbitant price to get his specimens home.
On his next trip Waterton returned with a creature that he called
“The Nondescript”, having acquired the animal in South America
he had only managed to salvage the head and shoulders. The almost
human features of the beast fooled quite a few naturalists before
it was revealed as a hoax. While this little joke may have damaged
his reputation among serious scientists, Waterton liked it so much
that he used an illustration of it in ‘Wanderings in South America’
which was published in 1825. More to the point Waterton had remembered
Mr. Lushington of the Liverpool Customs office all too well
and had not only made the nondescript to look like Lushington but
had also made it from the rear end of a howler monkey!
Some sources have J.R. Lushington, as secretary to the Treasury,
whom Waterton detested. I prefer the ‘customs’ version of the story
and use that when I talk about 19th century fakes.
Waterton fell in love with Anne Edmonstone (the daughter
of an old friend, although one source claims that she was an orphan).
Anne was descended from Arawak and Scottish royalty,
she was 17 years old and he was 48, they married in a Belgian
convent in 1829. Anne died a year later during childbirth, leaving
him with one child, a boy, Edmund, Waterton blamed himself
and thereafter he is reputed to have slept on the floor wrapped
in a blanket with a block of oak for a pillow as a penance.
Waterton fought a long-running court case against the owners of
a soap works which had been set up near his estate in 1839. Poisonous
chemicals from works severely damaged the trees in the park and
polluted the lake. He was eventually successful in having the soap
In 1842 Waterton introduced the first little
owls to Britain from Italy, they lived a few years and failed
to breed. There were several other attempts at introducing the little
owl to Britain in the latter part of the 19th century but it was
not until the turn of the century that it became a resident breeding
bird. He had more success with herons and encouraged his favorite
bird to breed in the park until there was a colony of some 40 pairs.
Over a thirty year period Waterton recorded 119 species of bird
in the park including rarities like peregrine, hobby, merlin and
cormorant. Presumably cormorants were a rarity on inland waters
in the mid-19th century.
Charles Waterton died in May 27, 1865 at the age of 83, having
survived plague, yellow fever and riding a cayman he met his death
in his own park when he tripped on briar-root. He suffered severe
internal injuries and died a few hours later. He was buried near
the spot of his fatal accident.
Waterton’s son Edmund, having established himself as a noted antiquary,
sadly did not continue with his father’s good work. To pay off his
debts he held shooting parties in the park and in 1877, after 14
generations, Walton Hall was sold off. The Hall and its grounds
went to Edward ‘Soapy’ Simpson, the very man whose soap works
had polluted the grounds many years earlier.
Today the Wakefield
Museum is home for Waterton’s animals while Walton Hall
has become a hotel complete with conference and leisure centre.
The Park has been turned into a golf course but there are still
public footpaths. There is the Waterton
Countryside Discovery Centre and the heronry that Charles
Waterton established is thriving again.