rat catcher to the establishment

Charles Waterton (1782 – 1865) was an English naturalist and explorer.

image found here

He was educated at Stonyhurst College where his interest in exploration and wildlife were already evident. Whilst at the school, he records in his autobiography that “by a mutual understanding, 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; the books were moderately well thumbed; and according to my notion of things, all went on perfectly right.

foumarts found here

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 Guiana, making four journeys between then and 1824, and reaching Brazil on foot — barefoot — in the rainy season. He was a highly skilled taxidermist and preserved many of the animals he encountered on his expeditions. However, 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 are surprisingly lifelike, even today. He also displayed his anarchic sense of humour in some of his taxidermy: a famous tableau he created (now lost) consisted of reptiles dressed as famous Englishmen and entitled “The English Reformation Zoologically Demonstrated.” Another specimen was the upper half of a howler monkey contorted to look like an Amazonian Abominable Snowman and simply labelled “The Nondescript.” 

Nondescript found here

Whilst in Guiana he taught one of his uncle’s slaves, John Edmonstone, his skills. Edmonstone, by then freed and practising taxidermy in Edinburgh, in turn taught the teenage Charles Darwin. Waterton is credited with bringing the anaesthetic agent curare to Europe.

Indian preparing curare found here

In the 1820s he returned to Walton Hall and built a nine-foot-high wall around three miles of his estate, turning it into the world’s first wildfowl and nature reserve, making him one of the western world’s first environmentalists. He also invented the bird nesting box.

image found here

A range of colourful stories have been handed down about Charles Waterton, not all of which are verifiable, but which add up to a popular portrait of an archetypal aristocratic eccentric:

Waterton had his hair cut in a crew cut at a time when a full head of hair piled up or brushed forward was in style.

unusual haircut found here

In 1817, he climbed St. Peter’s in Rome and left his gloves on top of the lightning conductor. Pope Pius VII asked him to remove the gloves, which he did.

Waterton sometimes enjoyed biting the legs of his guests from under the dinner table, imitating a dog.

dog imitating airplane found here

He tried to fly by jumping from the top of an outhouse on his estate, calling the exercise “Navigating the atmosphere”

Waterton died after fracturing his ribs and injuring his liver in a fall on his estate. His body is interred near the spot where the accident happened. His coffin was taken from the hall to his chosen resting place by barge, in a funeral cortege and followed at the lakeside by many local people. The grave was between two oak trees which have now disappeared. It is said that a flock of birds followed the barge, and a linnet sang as the coffin was being lowered.

linnet found here

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39 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Love that haircut that looks like a hat!

    • Isn’t it fantastic?

      • I completely would have missed that if not for the description. Welcome home.

      • If only my hair was Afro enough I’d have that cut!

  2. Remarkable he lived so long as handling mercury in any form is dangerously toxic. Probably made him crazy like biting people .

    • I hadn’t thought of that. You’re probably right Carl

      • It was the use of mercury in millenery that made The Mad Hatter mad.

      • oops! MILLINERY

  3. love that dog imitating airplane (:
    sooo cute

    • It’s planing because planking is so … first half of 2011!

    • Adorably so

  4. ‘off went the van with my old man in it, I followed on with my old cock linnet’

    • What’s that you’re quoting Syncy?

      • Cockney music hall song. (Ask nicely, I might sing it. )

      • I’m asking nicely 🙂

      • It’s a rotten song!

  5. like carl, i also suspect that some of the eccentricity was driven by mercury exposure… surprised he didn’t have himself preserved, perhaps as a hybrid dog-human…

    • I want to be preserved as a puffin 😉

  6. Biting my guests legs will henceforth be my party trick!

    • Your popularity may take a dive….

  7. If it makes you that interesting, I’m starting my daily dose of mercury tomorrow…

  8. At least he had fun…

  9. Hmm…
    I’m afraid I might be related to the nondescript…

  10. My grandmother was the secretary at Stonyhurst College in the sixties…’tis a very posh school.

  11. I need Mr. Waterton along with his crossbow to come and rid my estate of the darned woodchuck which has decided to eat my garden. Argh!

  12. I’d’ve liked to see the reptiles dressed up as the Establishment. Sounds cute.

  13. If I could shape my hair into a baseball cap I would die happy.

    There’s a hunting store near us called “Cabellos” that has taxidermied animals placed in tableaux. My husband liked to bring the boys when they were little because he thought it was a cool thing to see. I just found it creepy.

    • Ooh, I’d LOVE to see that. Maybe on my next visit…..

  14. “Sublimate of mercury?” Are they sure he didn’t die of mercury poisoning?

  15. Craaaaazy people…

  16. a famous tableau he created (now lost) consisted of reptiles dressed as famous Englishmen
    Oh how this tickled me!

  17. Depite his quirks he was quite an important naturalist…. but it is the foibles that are the interesting bit!

  18. Biting the legs of his guests under the dinner table? His female guests can’t have been best pleased to find large holes in their stockings. And did he bark at the same time?

  19. I find myself strangely attracted to Waterton – and that hairdo

    • The hairdo is pretty amazing

  20. I bet Charles’ father said he’d never mount to anything.

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