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British Industrial History

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Charles Waterton

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Charles Waterton (3 June 1782 – 27 May 1865) was an English naturalist and explorer. He is best known as a pioneering conservationist.

Waterton is chiefly remembered for his association with curare, and for his writings on natural history and conservation. David Attenborough has described him as “one of the first people anywhere to recognise, not only that the natural world was of great importance, but that it needed protection as humanity made more and more demands on it”

In 1804 he travelled to British Guiana to take charge of his uncle's estates near Georgetown. In 1812 he started to explore the hinterland of the colony, making four journeys between then and 1824, and reaching Brazil walking barefoot in the rainy season. He described his discoveries in his book 'Waterton's Wanderings in South America'.

Waterton was a skilled taxidermist and preserved many of the animals he encountered on his expeditions. He employed a unique method of taxidermy, soaking the specimens in what he called "sublimate of mercury". Unlike many preserved ("stuffed") animals, his specimens are hollow and lifelike. He also displayed his anarchic sense of humour in some of his taxidermy: one tableau he created (now lost) consisted of reptiles dressed as famous English Protestants and entitled "The English Reformation Zoologically Demonstrated". Another specimen was the bottom of a howler monkey which he turned into an almost human face and simply labelled "The Nondescript". This specimen is still on display at the Wakefield Museum, along with other items from Waterton's collection.

While he was in British Guiana, Waterton taught his skills to one of his uncle's slaves, John Edmonstone. Edmonstone, by then freed and practising taxidermy in Edinburgh, in turn taught the teenage Darwin.

Waterton was an early opponent of pollution. He fought a long-running court case against the owners of a soap works that had been set up near his estate in 1839, and sent out poisonous chemicals that severely damaged the trees in the park and polluted the lake. He was eventually successful in having the soap works moved. [See below]

The foregoing information is selectively extracted from the informative Wikipedia entry, which highlights other interesting aspects of his life and work, including some of his alleged accentricities. A darker side of his character was brought to us by his own pen, in a long letter to the Leeds Intelligencer in 1843, 6 months after the employment of child chimney sweepers was made illegal by Act of Parliament. Waterton described the Act as 'this unnecessary nuisance, which mistaken philanthropy has most unfortunately inflicted upon us.' He bemoaned the inconvenience to householders, and, while recognising that the children would be forced into other evil forms of employment, he referred to the victims' 'supposed hardships', and called them 'healthy little climbers'. He envied their teeth, 'white as ivory', 'the soot has polished and preserved them'.[1]

The soap works referred to in the Wikipedia entry was probably the chemical works of Hodgson and Simpson of Wakefield. There was a long-running court case, Atha v. Simpson, and a report of the proceedings in 1847 referred to Mr. Waterton of Walton Hall as 'a gentleman of eccentric habits', who had brought an action in 1847, following which the defendant had agreed to give up one of the factory's activities, the production of 'salt cake' (sulphate of soda). The defendant had gone to arbitration, at a cost of £7000, and wished to be spared further harrassment and expense. Various expert witnesses spoke in his favour, and the jury returned a verdict for the defendant.[2]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Leeds Intelligencer - Saturday 7 January 1843,p.7
  2. Bradford Observer - Thursday 26 July 1849