Grymm Tooms Travelling Museum

Charles Waterton - A Most Remarkable Man
By Prof. Grymm

 

 

 

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 in curios.

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 Wanderings 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 most 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 flycatcher.

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…”

Peace 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 Debt, Martin 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 works moved.

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.