W is for Charles Waterton

This is my contribution to Round Fourteen of ABC Wednesday. For the fifth time I am focusing on people – some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, but all with a tale to tell.

Charles WatertonCharles Waterton is another of my English eccentrics, but more than that he was also an eminent naturalist, an early environmentalist, as well as making a major contribution to medicine.

Waterton was born in 1782 to a well-t0-do family at Walton Hall, Wakefield, Yorkshire, and was educated at the Jesuit Stonyhurst College in Lancashire.

His interest in wildlife and exploration were already present. In his biography, he wrote of his time at Stonyhurst:

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.

In 1804 Waterton travelled to British Guiana to take charge of his uncle’s estates near Georgetown and between 1812 and 1824 he explored the hinterland of the colony and reached Brazil having walked there barefoot in the rainy season.

He described his discoveries in his book Waterton’s Wanderings in South America which inspired the young Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, about whom I must write more at some point.

It was during this time that he pursued his interest in collecting and preserving the birds and animals he found in the jungle and he developed his own taxidermy techniques. (You can see evidence of his skills by enlarging the portrait above)

When he returned to Walton Hall he built a three mile nine foot high wall around the estate to create the world’s first wild fowl and nature reserve, making him one of the earliest environmentalists. Waterton is also credited with inventing the bird box.

But inside the house could be found his collection of stuffed birds and animals which he set up as exhibits such as The English Reformation Zoologically Demonstrated, a series of ‘portraits’ of famous Protestants made from preserved toads, lizards and other loathsome creatures. He was a militant Roman Catholic after all!

The Nondescipt

The Nondescipt

Waterton also exhibited something he called the Nondescript, a Red Howler monkey whose face he manipulated into a startlingly human cast that variously fooled, frightened or horrified those who saw it.

He married in 1829 and took his bride on a tour of Europe for their honeymoon, visiting Paris, Antwerp and Ghent where the ‘sights’ she saw were every significant collection of stuffed animals and birds in Northern Europe.

Sadly his wife died in childbirth in the first year of marriage and after that Waterton would only sleep on the floor with a wooden block for a pillow.

He always kept a fire going in the house, no matter what the weather or time of year and even outdoors he would build a fire if he was staying in one place for more than a few minutes.

Waterton was a believer in blood-letting, or ‘tapping my claret’ as he put it. It became something of an obsession for him and he would after take between 16 and 20 ounces of blood from himself.

Perhaps it had something to do with his time in South America where he slept for weeks in a hammock with his left leg hanging out, trying and failing to provoke a vampire bat into biting him.

And he demonstrated other eccentric before, not least the buzz cut you can see in his portrait, an unconventional style for its time. Other examples include:

  • Climbing St. Peter’s in Rome, leaving his gloves on top of the lightning conductor, going back to retirieve them when asked to do so by Pope Pius VII
  • Yipping like a dog and biting the legs of his guests from under the dinner table
  • Riding a large black alligator that Makuxi Indians had brought ashore in British Guina
  • He tried to fly by jumping from the top of an outhouse on his estate, calling the exercise ‘navigating the atmosphere’

The Wourali PoisonHowever, I mentioned that Waterton made a contribution to medicine by bringing back his collection of arrow poison from the South American jungle. Among them was the muscle-relaxant curare and he demonstrated it potential use to Fellows of the Royal Society by ‘killing’ a number of animals with it and reviving them with a set of bellows.

One of the subject was a donkey called Wouralia who lived for almost 25 years at Walton Hall and after her death Waterton published her obituary in the St James Chronicle.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

4 comments… Add yours
  • lesliebc 18th June 2014

    Right close to the beginning, I recognized that he had something in common with Darwin.

    abcw team

  • Roger Green 18th June 2014

    One of your interesting guys who was NOT a villain!

  • Elizabeth 18th June 2014

    Bless his heart; if only he’d not been sent to Lancashire for his education! Ian, you do find the most brilliant quirky stories…

  • Nana Jo 18th June 2014

    I enjoyed reading about this sublimely eccentric man. I often think that intelligence coupled with quirkiness creates just the right amount of ‘interesting’. Thanks for introducing me to Mr. Waterton.


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