Tag Archives: Charles Waterton

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Forty Four

Charles Waterton and the Nondescript (1825)

It is a curious thing that until relatively recently those who were most enthusiastic about the animal kingdom were just as keen to kill and stuff and mount them. Take the eminent traveller, naturalist and taxidermist, Charles Waterton (1782 – 1865), someone we have met before when I was exploring eccentrics.

Waterton revolutionised the stuffy world of taxidermy with a new technique for preserving specimens. Using a mix of mercuric chloride and alcohol to preserve the skin, he would fill the body cavity and other parts with cotton and then stitch it all back to preserve the animal’s natural shape. The legs were kept in place through a series of careful stitches and for birds, bees wax was used to ensure the beak was closed. The carcass was then placed into a box filled at one end “three-fourths up to the top, with cotton, forming a sloping plane”. The advantage of Waterton’s technique was that the whole skin could be manipulated to ensure a natural posture.

The redoubtable Waterton kept most of his prize specimens in his home at Walton Hall, where, during the 1830s, he also created a walled enclosure and what was effectively the world’s first nature reserve. It proved a hit with the public, the most popular attraction being a caiman alligator which Waterton had captured himself by jumping on its back and riding it to exhaustion, or so he said.

In 1821 and again in 1824 Waterton made two trips to Guiana, coming back with hundreds of specimens of exotic South American wildlife, all carefully preserved and stuffed. In 1825 he wrote a book, Wanderings in South America, which became a best-seller and an inspiration to Charles Darwin. Bringing exotica back into the country caused Waterton some trials and tribulations with the customs officers, especially a zealous Mr Lushington who forced him to pay the highest import duty on his specimens. He ran into further difficulties in 1824 when he had in his possession the head and shoulders of what appeared to be a new species, albeit with vaguely human features.

Waterton wrote at the time, “I also procured an animal which has caused not a little speculation and astonishment. In my opinion, his thick coat of hair, and great length of tail, put his species out of all question; … he was a large animal, and as I was pressed for daylight, and moreover, felt no inclination to have the whole weight of his body upon my back, I contented myself with his head and shoulders, which I cut off, and have brought them with me to Europe”. To look at, what he called the Nondescript, resembled a human, albeit with a thick coat of fur around the face.    

When he displayed the exhibit at Walton Hall, it caused a sensation. Rumours, however, soon circulated to the effect that it was the head of a tribesman who Waterton had killed and that the authorities were complicit in a cover up of his crime. Others, though, that there was something fishy about the Nondescript. Waterton’s style was to preserve carefully his exhibits whole and here we only had the bust. Although Waterton had provided an explanation that due to its size and weight, he had trimmed it down, other experts were not convinced and soon realised that it was formed from the rear end of a howler monkey, sculpted to resemble a human. And not just any human. It is thought to have resembled the custom’s official who had given him so much trouble in 1821, Mr Lushington.

A Catholic aristocrat who had refused to swear the Oath of Allegiance, Waterton had form in what was known as anthropomorphic taxidermy. Many of his exhibits were given satirical titles like “Martin Luther after his Fall” and “John Bull and the National Debt”. He was making a monkey out of the custom’s official.

The rather gruesome exhibit still exists and can be seen at the Wakefield Museum.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone


Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Twenty Four

Charles Waterton (1782 – 1865)

It is a fascinating to see how our perceptions of someone have changed over time. Take Charles Waterton, for example. The Yorkshire born naturalist and taxidermist was viewed principally as one of the 19th century’s foremost eccentrics, not least because he featured in the pages of Edith Sitwell’s 1933 classic, The English Eccentrics. Today, he is viewed as a pioneering environmentalist.

Observing nature and conducting experiments in the tropics in South America in the 1810s required considerable ingenuity and was certainly not for the faint of heart. Waterton once jumped on to the back of a crocodile, seizing its front legs in a vice-like grip and riding it as if it was a bucking bronco, a feat of balance, determination and derring-do which he put down the training he had received riding with the foxhounds of Lord Darlington.

Keen to observe at close quarters the teeth of a boa constrictor, he couldn’t get his native guides to summon up the courage to bundle it up into a sack. Undaunted Waterton whipped off his braces and bound the poor creature up with them. I hope his trousers stayed up. The guides’ circumspection was perhaps justified. After all, when Waterton tried to interest a vampire bat to bite his toe in order to study the effect of its toxins, the ingrate creature swooped down and bit his amanuensis instead. The experiment was abandoned.

Returning to his family home, Walton Hall, in the 1820s Charles astonished his neighbours by building a three mile long perimeter wall around the estate, some eight to nine feet high. The purpose? Not to keep nosey parkers out but to keep fauna in. He was in the process of constructing one of the world’s first wildfowl and nature reserve. Perhaps slightly more unnerving, callers would often find him up a tree, “dressed like a scarecrow,” the better to observe birds or, on occasion, to return chicks which had fallen out of their nest in a storm. He is also credited with inventing the nesting box.

Waterton cut a striking figure. Eschewing the fashion of the time to sport a full set of whiskers and a luxuriant head of hair, he was clean-shaven and wore his hair closely cropped. That was the least that would unnerve an unsuspecting visitor. His house was full of strange creatures, including an albino hedgehog, a duck without webbing on its feet, and a Brazilian toad which, for a time, accompanied him everywhere. Anyone venturing into Waterton’s room would encounter a live three-toed sloth hanging from the back of a chair.

Taxidermy was one of his passions and he would often create grotesque creatures from the parts of two or three different animals. Guests were frightened out of their wits when they came across them in darkened passageways, Waterton adding to his sport by, as an ardent Catholic, naming the most extraordinary specimens of his work after prominent Protestants.

Dinner could also be a bit of a trial. He allegedly dissected a gorilla on the table after the dishes had been cleared away. He would surprise his guests by greeting them on all-fours and occasionally would nip them on the shins as if he were a dog. It is surprising anyone came around.

But Charles was also an environmentalist, waging a long campaign against a soap works adjacent to his property who he claimed were polluting the area. He won his case in 1839 and the company relocated to pollute (and bring employment to) nearby Wakefield.

Charles was deeply affected by the death in 1830 of his young wife in childbirth – the baby survived – and from that day on he slept, wrapped in a cloak, on the floor with a block of beechwood for a pillow, rising at 3.30am and breakfasting on dry toast, watercress and a cup of watery, black tea.

He died from injuries sustained in a fall and his body was taken by barge to its final resting place, between two great oak trees, which, sadly, no longer exist.

A naturalist with a streak of eccentricity, I would say.