Book review: “A Passion for Natural History”

“. . . and when I saw him on his knees, having spread my drawings on the floor, the better to compare them, I forgot he was Lord Stanley, I knew only that he too loved Nature.”

John James Audubon (1)

I braced myself to be disappointed.  It’s that word ‘passion’ in the title.  A potent emotion, and therefore widely faked by people who have something to sell, however mundane.  You’d be amazed how many companies claim to be ‘passionate about laundry’ for example.  Publishers can be just as shameless, and that is why I mistrust any book that has a ‘passion’ in its title.  

Except this one. 

A Passion for Natural History: the Life and Legacy of the 13th Earl of Derby (2) is the story of a man whose devotion to natural history bordered on obsession.  He corresponded with all the leading naturalists of the day; was a founding member of the Zoological Society of London, and elected President of the Linnaean Society.  Several species are named after him.  Above all, he built up his own collection of animals and birds that were being discovered around the world, studied them, bred many of them, and bequeathed us a unique record.

Born in 1775, he was baptised Edward Smith Stanley, the eldest son of the 12th Earl of Derby and Lady Elizabeth Hamilton.  It had been a grand society wedding, but within three years of his birth his mother eloped with the Duke of Dorset.  His father refused to divorce her and she was ostracised by society (3).   Within three weeks of her death from tuberculosis, the 12th Earl had married an actress, Elizabeth Farren.  They were an unlikely couple: he short and stout, she tall and elegant; they made an easy target for satirical cartoons.

We can imagine the impact this had on the young Edward.  It may help to explain why the 13th Earl was so unlike his father, a colourful character and sociable man best known for his association with the turf (the Epsom Derby is named after him), or his son who was thrice Prime Minister.

After being educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, he was elected as MP for Preston (a borough he effectively controlled through family patronage) in 1796 and held the seat until 1812 before representing the County of Lancashire for a further twenty years.  Lord Stanley, as he was entitled at the time, was a member of the Whig party (4) but his political activities were dutiful rather than distinguished.  His only claim to political notoriety arose in the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre of 1819 when he played a leading role in supporting the actions of the magistrates and the military (5).

He succeeded to the title of Earl in 1834 and retired from politics the following year.  He devoted the rest of his life to his ‘passion for natural history’ at the ancestral home in Knowsley, to the east of Liverpool.  It is here that he began to build his legacy.

Knowsley was one of 32 ‘divisions’ throughout Lancashire owned by the Stanley family, which by the end of the Earl’s life amounted to 45,000 acres, including large chunks of Preston, Liverpool, Bury and other urban areas.  The family also owned property in London, Ireland, North Wales, Westmorland and Cheshire.  This made the Derby estate the largest in the North West of England, and the Earl one of the richest men in England.

The Earl spent a significant portion of the income from the estate on improvements at Knowsley: roads, ponds, the building of menageries, aviaries, an orchid house, and a wall ten miles long to enclose the park.  On top of that was the cost of acquiring stock, and of the staff and provisions to take care of them (6).  On his death, the inventory totalled 1272 birds of 318 species, 345 mammals of 94 species, plus fish and reptiles.  This was a larger collection than that of the Zoological Society of London.  More impressive still, 756 of them had been bred at Knowsley.

This distinguishes the Earl’s approach to natural history from many of his contemporaries who often acquired and displayed exotic specimens for their curiosity value.  The Earl’s focus was on the study of the birds and animals he owned. For example, he and his staff realised that the Passenger pigeon would only breed if kept in communal groups, and were so successful that some had to be released due to the pressure of numbers.  The dispersal sale included no less than 70 Passenger pigeons, but sadly that knowledge died with him because the birds were sold singly or in small batches and they disappeared from British aviculture (7).

In addition to living specimens, the Earl built up a huge collection of skins and stuffed birds and animals, many of which are now extinct.  As the young Lord Stanley, his first major acquisitions were over 100 specimens from the sale of the Leverian Museum collection in 1806, of which some 25 are still held at the Liverpool Museum,  He would also have been familiar with the Bullock Museum, a collection of ‘4,000 curiosities’, only eight miles away in Liverpool.  He acquired one of his collection’s greatest rarities, the white swamphen (8), at the museum’s dispersal sale in 1819.

Once he succeeded to the title of Earl, and no longer under his father’s restraint, he commissioned others to collect for him in regions as diverse as Scandinavia, South Africa, North America, Peru, India and Singapore.  He also exchanged specimens with owners of other collections, including Queen Victoria (9).  Transporting birds and animals before the age of steam ships posed a huge problem.  On one occasion the sailors ate their cargo; on another, an attempt to transport Kiwis failed even though they were fed a mixture of earthworms and chicken entrails.

A major feature of the Knowsley collection is the large number of paintings and drawings of natural history acquired by the Earl.  Amongst those to benefit from his patronage were John James Audubon (10) whom he knew for twenty years, John Gould (11) who was a regular visitor, and the artist most closely associated with Knowsley, Edward Lear (12).  

The Earl had met Lear through his work for the London Zoological Society.  This included a painting of the Stanley parakeet, which may have encouraged the Earl to commission Lear to paint specimens, both dead and alive, in his own collection.  Lear was very conscious of their differences in social  status, but over the seven years that he collaborated with the Earl, their shared love of nature matured into friendship.  Lear became a friend of the family and was invited to join them at meals, including Christmas dinner in 1836.  Lear noted “I never remember passing so happy a consecutive 6 weeks as I did this year”.

At his death in 1851, the Earl bequeathed his natural history collection to the Corporation of Liverpool.  The Derby Museum opened in 1853.  Part was destroyed during a bombing raid in the second World War, but the surviving collection is still housed at what is now known as the Liverpool Museum.

A Passion for Natural History is beautifully illustrated and written with a rare combination of scholarship and clarity.  It offers an insight to a time when the world was opening up to European and American explorers.  Many exploited those discoveries for their own benefit, and by that unsavoury standard, the13th Earl of Derby’s devotion to the study of exotic species marks him out as one of the good guys.  It is thanks to him that we have inherited an amazing record of the birds and animals discovered during the first half of the nineteenth century, many of which have since disappeared.   

However we need to remind ourselves that the Earl was a collector, not a conservationist. There is nothing in the book to suggest he was concerned about the exploitation of nature.  It is quite possible that the reverse was true: for many collectors, the rarity of an item is a major part of its appeal.  There was no incentive to save a species on the brink of extinction.

For all the scholarship, beauty and, yes, passion contained in A Passion for Natural History, it’s that sense of loss that lingers. 


“A Passion for Natural History: the Life and Legacy of the 13th Earl of Derby” is available for £8.00 plus £3.00 postage from the Liverpool Museum website .  A bargain.


All footnotes are gleaned from “A Passion for Natural History”.

  1. From Audubon’s journal, 5 August 1826.
  2. “A Passion for Natural History: the Life and Legacy of the 13th Earl of Derby”, edited by Clemency Fisher, published by the Board of Trustees of the National Museum & Galleries on Merseyside (2002).
  3. The relationship did not last, but unlike Elizabeth, the Duke of Dorset’s reputation did not suffer.
  4. By the standards of the day, the Whigs were liberal politicians who endorsed the supremacy of Parliament.
  5. The massacre occurred when a large public demonstration calling for parliamentary reform was broken up by the Manchester Yeomanry, later backed up by the 15th Hussars, resulting in 18 deaths and several hundred injuries.  Lord Stanley abandoned his liberal leanings, and supported the military and the magistrates who had ordered them to disperse the crowd.  He did so not only in Parliament, but also as foreman of the grand jury set up to investigate the massacre.  Perhaps it is not surprising that in the conflict of interest between his judicial role and his position as head of the Lancashire establishment, the latter should prevail.
  6. According to Thomas Moore, who managed the collection from 1843, there were 30 attendants on the pay list.
  7. Flocks of Passenger pigeons were so vast that Audubon described how ‘the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse’.   They were extensively hunted and the last wild Passenger pigeon was shot in 1900 and Martha, the last captive specimen, died at Cincinnati Zoological Gardens in 1914. 
  8. This is one of only two known specimens (the other is in Vienna).  It probably came from Lord Howe Island where albinism seems to have been a dominant characteristic of the indigenous population.  It became extinct thanks to predation by sailors in the early years of the nineteenth century.
  9. In his will, the Earl gave first pick of his collection to the Queen.  She selected the five Himalayan Monal, one of the most spectacular members of the spectacular pheasant family.
  10. The Earl subscribed to many of Audubon’s publications including his ‘double elephant’ folio The Birds of America, one of the most valuable books in the world.  ‘Double elephant’ refers to a very large paper size, approximately 100cm x 66cm.
  11. John Gould is best known for his books The Birds of Europe (1832-37) and A Synopsis of the Birds of Australia (1837-38).  The Gouldian Finch is named after him, and he is credited with bringing the first budgerigars to England in 1842.
  12. Lear is best known now for limericks such as The Owl and the Pussycat that he wrote for the Earl’s children, but he is responsible for many of the best paintings of birds and animals in the Knowsley collection.


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