Yarrell, William (DNB00)
|←Yarranton, Andrew||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 63
YARRELL, WILLIAM (1784–1856), zoologist, the ninth child of Francis Yarrell of Great Ryder Street in the parish of St. James's, Westminster, and his wife Sarah (born Blane) of Bayford, Hertfordshire, spinster, was born on 3 June 1784 in Duke Street, St. James's, where his father, in partnership with his uncle, W. Jones, carried on the business of newspaper agent and bookseller. This business was afterwards removed to the corner of Bury Street and Little Ryder Street, where it is still maintained under the style of the old firm. William was educated at Dr. Nicholson's school at Ealing, where he was regarded as a quiet studious boy, and among his schoolfellows was his cousin Edward Jones, who in after life became his partner in his father's business. But before settling down to his career William Yarrell began life as a clerk in the banking firm of Messrs. Herries, Farquhar, & Co., which he entered on 17 Nov. 1802, and left on 30 July 1803, a useful training for his father's business of newspaper agent and bookseller to which he succeeded. Having the advantage of a partner until 1850 (when on the death of his cousin the business became his own), he was able to take a certain amount of relaxation, and found pleasure in the pursuits of fishing and shooting. This afforded him opportunities for making outdoor observations in natural history, in various parts of the country, which later in life were turned to good account in the preparation of the standard works on ‘British Birds’ and ‘British Fishes’ which have since made his name famous. In the course of his outdoor pursuits he was able to secure many specimens of birds which he forwarded to Bewick, who engraved them with due acknowledgment.
Among his friends and correspondents were Sir William Jardine [q. v.], Prideaux John Selby [q. v.], Leonard Jenyns (who in 1885 printed a little memoir of him for private circulation); John Van Voorst, his publisher; Edward Turner Bennett [q. v.], secretary of the Zoological Society; Thomas Bell (1792–1880) [q. v.], president of the Linnean Society; John Gould [q. v.], the ornithologist; and Nicholas Aylward Vigors [q. v.], in whose ‘Zoological Journal,’ to which he became a frequent contributor, his first paper (on some rare British birds) was published.
Having taken up zoology as his hobby, he wisely went through a course of instruction in anatomy, which qualified him subsequently to write several useful memoirs on the structure of birds that were published in the ‘Transactions’ of the Linnean and Zoological societies. The first scientific society of which he became a member was the Royal Institution, which he joined in 1817. In November 1825 he was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society, and on the death of J. Forster in 1849 was appointed treasurer, an office which he filled together with that of vice-president until his death. In 1826 on the formation of the Zoological Society he became one of its original members, and took an active part in its proceedings both as a naturalist and as a man of business. When John Claudius Loudon [q. v.] commenced the publication of his ‘Magazine of Natural History’ in 1828, Yarrell became a constant contributor to its pages, as he did also to the pages of other journals, notably the ‘Annals and Magazine of Natural History,’ the ‘Entomological Magazine,’ and the ‘Zoologist,’ which was founded by Edward Newman [q. v.] in 1843.
As early as 1825 Yarrell had formed a fair collection of British birds and their eggs, as well as a collection of British fishes, to which he continued to make additions as opportunity occurred. These provided him with much material for his two great works, the one completed in 1836 under the title of a ‘History of British Fishes,’ the other in 1843 under that of a ‘History of British Birds.’ The former reached a third edition, revised after his death by John Richardson (1787–1865) [q. v.] in 1859, the latter reached a third edition in the year of his death (1856), and a fourth edition has since been published in parts (1871–85) under the able editorship of Professor Newton (vols. i. and ii.) and Mr. Howard Saunders (vols. iii. and iv.). The ‘History of British Fishes’ was the forerunner of that fine series of works on the natural history of the British Islands of which Van Voorst was the publisher, and which have materially helped to extend and popularise the study of nature among all classes of English readers.
Yarrell died at Great Yarmouth on 1 Sept. 1856. His remains were interred in the churchyard of Bayford, Hertfordshire, where those of his parents, his brothers and sisters already reposed. The grave is on the north side of the church, within a railed space allotted to his family.
In St. James's Church Piccadilly, at the west end of the north aisle his executors erected to his memory a marble tablet with a medallion portrait, supported by two swans, in appropriate allusion not merely to his own love of birds, but to the fact of his having added a new species of swan to the European avifauna, which he named in honour of the celebrated engraver, Thomas Bewick. Besides the medallion portrait referred to there is an oil portrait of him painted in 1830 by Mrs. Carpenter, which hangs in the meeting-room of the Linnean Society at Burlington House. A later and extremely good likeness in chalk by an unknown hand was in the possession of Professor Newton at Cambridge, as well as a miniature in watercolour by Mrs. Waterhouse Hawkins. In addition to these there is a lithographed portrait in what is known as the Ipswich series (it was prepared when the British Association held its meeting in Ipswich), and a good engraving by F. A. Heath from a photograph by Maull & Polyblank taken in 1855, the year preceding his death.
In estimating Yarrell's merits as a zoologist, it may be said that the value of his works and the admiration which they still evoke are due to the accuracy of the information which they impart, and to the simplicity of style in which they are written; while they have the further advantage of being well illustrated with wood engravings. The volumes on fishes and birds were issued in parts at a time when they were much needed, and the additions which have been since incorporated in successive editions have made them what they will long continue to be—the standard works on the subjects of which they treat.
[Archives of the Linnean and Zoological Societies; obituary memoir by Professor Bell in Proc. Linn. Soc. 1857; memoir by Edward Newman in the Zoologist, 1856; memoir by J. van Voorst prefixed to the third edition of the British Fishes; reminiscences by Leonard Blomefield (formerly Jenyns), privately printed in 1885; and personal recollections of Professor Newton, with letters in his possession.]