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

the luckless duck

A letter to the Editor of The Times, May 1878


Last year you recorded the curious incident that a wagtail had built her nest on the framework beneath a third class carriage on the London and South-Western Railway, running between Cosham and Havant four times daily. The male bird was regularly observed by the station master to be waiting with manifest interest and anxiety for the return of his family from their periodical tours.

Australian Wagtail (image by David Satterthwaite)

I would like to again report the somewhat remarkable coincidence that this year the same bird has returned and built her nest in precisely the same position under a third class carriage, and with her family of four little ones, takes the same daily return journeys from Cosham to Havant.

Cosham Home Guard found here

The framework being nearly the same in all the carriages, it is difficult to account for the selection of third class. The same interest and anxiety has been evinced by the male bird. During the absence of his family he promenades or rests impatiently on the telegraph wires, but no sooner are the carriages shunted into the siding than he enters the nest, doubtless to exercise the supervision of a good father.

Good father found here

And from The High Peak Advertiser, August 1893

Nearly 300 years ago in 1601, a duck was seen flying towards an ash tree in the village of Sheldon. It entered the tree and then mysteriously disappeared. This tale was passed down from one generation to the next and the tree became known as the duck tree.

Flying Duck Game found here

Recently the tree became decayed at the bottom and it was cut down and sold to Messrs. Wilson and Son, joiners of Ashford. When it was cut open, two boards taken from the centre gave unmistakable evidence of the genuineness of the lost duck story.

Duck carved from a single grain of rice found here

On one side of each of these boards, about an inch in thickness, was the perfect form of a full sized duck, minus the feet and tail. The body measured 8 inches across and the length from beak down was 21 inches. The bird appears to have flown head foremost into a hole which was known to be in the tree, and couldn’t get out again. In the course of time, the parts became united and thus there was an end to the duck.

recipe for Duck with Root Beer Glaze found here