Waterton, Charles (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 59
Waterton, Charles

by Norman Moore
1904 Errata appended.
Contains subarticle Edmund Waterton (1830–1887).

WATERTON, CHARLES (1782–1865), naturalist, eldest son of Thomas Waterton and his wife Anne, daughter of Sir Henry Bedingfeld of Oxburgh in Norfolk, was born at the family seat of Walton Hall in Yorkshire on 3 June 1782. His family was one of the most ancient in the north of England, and, besides having the honour of mention in Shakespeare (‘Richard II,’ act ii. sc. 1), his ancestors distinguished themselves at Agincourt and at Marston Moor, after which battle Mrs. Waterton held Walton Hall for the king against the attack of a parliamentary force.

Charles was educated as a Roman catholic, and in 1792 was sent to a school kept at Tudhoe, four miles from Durham, by a priest named Arthur Storey. He wrote for a cousin, George Waterton, some amusing recollections of the discipline and events of his school-days (Norman Moore, Life, p. 9). In 1796 he was sent to Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, and remained there till 1800. His master, Father Clifford, advised him never to drink wine or spirits, and having made in 1798 a promise to follow this advice, he kept it throughout life. He always retained a warm affection for the jesuits, and visited Stonyhurst nearly every year. In 1802 he went to Cadiz and thence to Malaga, where he stayed for more than a year with two maternal uncles who had settled in Spain, and witnessed the great fever epidemic, known as the plague of Malaga. He returned in 1803, and enjoyed a season's hunting in Yorkshire, but his health was not good, and he decided to try a warm climate, and visit some family estates in Demerara. On the way he visited his uncle, Sir John Bedingfeld, in London, and they dined with Sir Joseph Banks, who became a firm friend of Waterton. He sailed from Portsmouth on 29 Nov. 1804, and, after a voyage of six weeks, landed at Stabroek, now George Town, in what had just become British Guiana. He stayed till 1813, with occasional visits to England, managing the estates, a duty which he gave up in April 1812, and then started on an expedition into the forests with the object of obtaining some of the wourali or arrow poison of the Indians, then thought likely to be a remedy for hydrophobia. On this occasion he penetrated to the savannahs on the frontiers of Brazil. He was successful in his quest, but illness obliged him to return home, and a severe tertian fever forced him to decline in May 1813 a commission from Lord Bathurst, then secretary of state for the colonies, to explore Madagascar. In March 1816 he sailed from Liverpool for Pernambuco, and there collected the birds of the district, went on to Cayenne, and thence to Demerara, where he spent six months in the forest observing birds and beasts. At the end of 1817 he visited Rome, and, with an old schoolfellow, climbed to the top of the lightning conductor of St. Peter's, and stood on the head of the angel which surmounted the castle of St. Angelo.

Waterton succeeded to the estate of Walton Hall in 1806, and made it his home for most of his remaining life. The house, which was built in the eighteenth century in the place of a more ancient structure, stood on an island in a lake of about thirty acres, surrounded by a well-wooded park. He enclosed the park with a wall nine feet high, and allowed no guns to be fired within it. It thus became a safe retreat for all the species of birds known in the district, and in winter many species of waterfowl frequented the lake. In January 1865 there were visible on the lake, within view of one window of Walton Hall, 1640 wild duck, widgeon, teal, and pochard, 30 coots, and 28 Canada geese. In February 1820 Waterton went to Demerara again, and passed into the interior by the river Essequibo. He remained eleven months in the forest, and collected 230 birds, two land tortoises, five armadillos, two large serpents, a sloth, an antbear, and a cayman. This last was caught by a bait on a four-barbed wooden hook made by an Indian. It was then dragged out of the water by seven men, while Waterton himself knelt on the beach with the canoe mast in his hand. When the cayman was within two yards of him he threw down the mast and jumped on its back, seizing the forelegs to hold on by. The reptile was drawn further up, with Waterton on his back, the jaws were tied up and the throat cut, the object of the adventure, the securing of an uninjured skin, being thus attained. On his return to Liverpool after this voyage Waterton's specimens were made to pay a duty of twenty per cent. after a long detention, which killed several eggs which he had brought with the object of rearing the tinamou in England, and caused him much just irritation.

The perusal of Wilson's ‘Ornithology of the United States’ made him wish to visit that country, and he sailed to New York in the early summer of 1824, travelled in Canada and the United States, had his portrait painted by Titian Peale in Philadelphia, visited several of the West Indian Islands, at last landed in Demerara, and proceeded into the forest some two hundred miles up the river. Here he studied the habits of the jacamars, the red grosbeak, the sunbird, the tinamous, and the humming-birds, as well as of vampires, sloths, and monkeys. It was his last stay in the forests, and he sailed for England in December 1824. In 1825 he published an account of these four journeys in a quarto volume, entitled ‘Wanderings in South America, the North-west of the United States, and the Antilles in the years 1812, 1816, 1820, and 1824.’ A large octavo edition was published in 1828. The ‘Wanderings’ were widely read, and the book obtained a permanent place in English literature. Sydney Smith reviewed it in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ (February 1826) in a kindly and entertaining article. Waterton's descriptions are concise and exact, so that it would be possible to identify all the species which he mentions; but his aim was not to draw up a museum catalogue, but to write his observations in a readable form. His favourite English prose writer was Sterne, whose influence is often to be traced in his manner of expression. To the travels are appended ‘original instructions for the perfect preservation of birds, &c., for cabinets of natural history,’ and in accordance with this method Waterton prepared all the specimens he had brought home, and arranged them on the staircase of Walton Hall. The method of preparation was to soak the whole skin in an alcoholic solution of perchloride of mercury, to keep this moist, and to model the form from the interior, letting it harden when finished. Internal stuffing was thus rendered unnecessary, and admirable results were obtained. The frontispiece of the ‘Wanderings’ represents a human face made from that of a red monkey by this kind of modelling.

In 1829 he was married in the chapel of the English convent in Bruges to Anne, daughter of Charles Edmonstone of Cardross, at whose house in Demerara he had often stayed. She died a little more than a year after the marriage, leaving an infant son, Edmund (see below). Waterton placed a picture of St. Catharine of Alexandria, which resembled his wife, over the mantelpiece of the room in which he usually sat, and to the end of his life often fixed his eyes upon it as he sat by the fire. His wife's two sisters thenceforward kept house for him. In 1838 he published a volume of ‘Essays in Natural History,’ in 1844 a second series, and in 1857 a third. Each was preceded by a portion of autobiography. A few of the essays are on tropical subjects, but the majority are on English birds and wild animals, and they belong to the same kind of literature as Gilbert White's ‘Natural History of Selborne,’ and are not inferior to it in the quality of their observations. Several of the essays first appeared in Loudon's ‘Magazine of Natural History.’ He spent the winter of 1840–1841 in Rome, where he attended mass every morning at four in the church of the Gesù, made many ornithological observations, and prepared examples of most of the birds of the district. In later years he often visited Aix-la-Chapelle, generally went to Scarborough for a month late in the autumn, and visited Stonyhurst College at Christmas, for the rest living entirely at Walton Hall. His writings sometimes involved him in controversies, of which the chief were with William Swainson (1789–1855) [q. v.] and with Audubon, on the method by which the vulture finds out its food. Audubon maintained that sight alone led a vulture to a putrid carcass, while Waterton was of opinion that scent as well as view guided the bird. His remarks are published in the volumes of ‘Essays.’ He lived on good terms with his neighbours, who frequently visited him at Walton Hall, where he exercised a continuous and genial hospitality. He always slept on the bare floor of his room, with a block of wood for a pillow, and rose at three. He then lit his fire, and lay down for half an hour while it burned up. He then dressed, and spent the hour from four to five in his chapel. He then read a chapter in the life of St. Francis Xavier, and one in Don Quixote, both in Spanish, and then wrote letters or stuffed birds till eight, when he breakfasted. He dined at half-past one, had tea at six, and spent a great part of the day in his park. He was almost six feet high, and wore his white hair cut very short. Indoors he always wore an old-fashioned swallow-tailed coat. ‘Grongar Hill,’ ‘The Traveller,’ ‘The Deserted Village,’ ‘Chevy Chase,’ the ‘Metamorphoses’ of Ovid, and Vida's ‘Christiad’ were his favourite reading in poetry, and in prose he read again and again ‘Don Quixote,’ White's ‘Selborne,’ Sterne, and Washington Irving. He arranged part of his park as a pleasaunce for picnics, and from May to September threw it open to schools and associations who applied beforehand. On his eightieth birthday he climbed an oak tree in his park. On 25 May 1865 he had a severe fall while carrying a log on his shoulder, and died of internal injuries on the 27th. He was buried between two old oaks, on the shore of the lake in his park, under a stone cross which he had put up a year before, with the epitaph ‘Orate pro anima: Caroli Waterton: cujus fessa juxta hanc crucem sepeliuntur ossa.’

A few years after his death Walton Hall was sold by his son to its present owner. His natural history collection is preserved at Alston Hall, Lancashire.

An engraving of his portrait by Peele is prefixed to the first series of his ‘Natural History Essays,’ and there is a bust of him by Waterhouse Hawkins. His ‘Essays,’ with thirty-six of his letters and his life by Norman Moore, were published in 1870. His ‘Wanderings’ have been several times reprinted, and were edited, with illustrations and some alterations, by J. G. Wood (London, 1879, 8vo).

Waterton's only child, Edmund Waterton (1830–1887), antiquary, born at Walton Hall, in 1830, was educated at Stonyhurst College, and was throughout life a devout Roman catholic. He wrote several essays on the devotion to the Blessed Virgin in England; formed a collection of rings, many of which are now in the South Kensington Museum; and collected editions, printed and manuscript, of the ‘De Imitatione Christi.’ He also published a brief description of some of his rings. He had studied the genealogy of his family, and when abroad used to write ‘twenty-seventh lord of Walton’ on his visiting cards; but soon after his father's death he sold Walton Hall, and was content afterwards to believe that an obscure house near the village of Deeping St. James in Lincolnshire, in which he afterwards lived and where he died, was part of a more ancient possession of the Watertons. He died, after a long illness, on 22 July 1887. He was twice married—first, in 1862, to Josephine Margaret Alicia, second daughter of Sir John Ennis, and by her he had several children.

[Personal knowledge; original letters and papers; Works.]

N. M.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.275
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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