Selby, Prideaux John (DNB00)

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SELBY, PRIDEAUX JOHN (1788–1867), naturalist, was born in Bondgate Street, Alnwick, on 23 July 1788. He was the eldest son of George Selby of Beal and Twizell, Northumberland, his mother being Margaret, second daughter of John Cook, a captain in the mercantile marine, and granddaughter of Edward Cook, recorder of Berwick from 1711 to 1731. The father was head of one branch of an old and influential family long prominent in the history of Northumberland and the borders. Five members of the family received the honour of knighthood at James I's hands. One of them, Sir George Selby, mayor of Newcastle, obtained the sobriquet of King's Host from the sumptuous manner in which he entertained the king on his progresses to and from Scotland. From a very early age Prideaux Selby showed a strong bent to ornithology, and by the time that he was twelve or thirteen years of age had composed manuscript notes of the habits of our commoner birds, illustrated with coloured drawings remarkable for the delicacy of their execution and their truthfulness to nature. He received his early education at Durham school. A period of private tuition intervened before he entered as a gentleman commoner at University College, Oxford, on 2 May 1806. After spending some time at the university he left without taking a degree, and went into residence at Twizell (his father having died in 1804). He took an active part in the social and political life of his county. He was a magistrate and deputy lieutenant, and unsuccessfully contested Berwick at the general election as a reformer in 1812. In 1823 he served the office of high sheriff for Northumberland.

But he mainly devoted himself to natural history, more especially to ornithology, and after ornithology to forestry and entomology. The publication of his ‘Illustrations of British Ornithology’ (19 parts), dedicated to the Wernerian Natural History Society of Edinburgh, of which society Selby had become a member early in life, commenced with a volume of plates in 1821. The first volume of the text (‘Land Birds’) appeared in 1825, and the second volume in 1833. The whole was completed in 1834. Twenty-six of the 228 plates were contributed by his brother-in-law, Admiral Mitford; the rest were drawn by the author from specimens which he had for the most part obtained and set up himself. Experiencing a difficulty in getting his drawings engraved to his satisfaction, he himself engraved a considerable number of the copper plates. This work was the first attempt to produce a set of life-sized illustrations of British birds, and, although now superseded by those of Gould and others, it still remains of value and importance. Simultaneously with the production of this work Selby assisted Sir William Jardine [q. v.] in bringing out ‘Illustrations of Ornithology,’ 4 vols. 4to, 1825–43, and he also wrote the volumes ‘Pigeons’ (1835), ‘Parrots’ (1836), for Jardine's ‘Naturalists' Library.’ Although not an original member of the Berwickshire Naturalists' Club, he took an active part in establishing it, and was a frequent contributor to its ‘Transactions’ and to those of the Natural History Society of Newcastle, of which he was an early member.

In 1833 he joined Dr. Graham, Dr. Greville, and others in a tour through Sutherlandshire which yielded so much fresh information on the fauna and flora of the north of Scotland that in the following year an expedition on a much larger scale was organised by Dr. Greville, Mr. Wilson, Jardine, and himself. In 1837, in conjunction with Jardine and Dr. G. Johnston, he founded the ‘Magazine of Zoology and Botany,’ which in the following year became the ‘Annals or Magazine of Zoology, Botany, and Geology.’ Selby was one of the editors. Sir William Jackson Hooker [q. v.] and Richard Taylor [q. v.] afterwards joined the original conductors. With this periodical Selby's name remained connected until his death, but he took no active part in editing the last or third series.

Selby was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of the Linnean and other scientific societies. In 1839 the university of Durham conferred on him the honorary degree of master of arts. Three years later he published his well-known work on ‘British Forest Trees,’ in which he embodied an experience of nearly forty years, chiefly gained in the plantations which he began at Twizell on a large scale at an early age. The work was a popular rather than a scientific treatise. Selby also formed extensive collections of the entomology of his own district.

Selby was at once a sportsman, field naturalist, and scientific student, and few have combined the three characters more effectively. He died at Twizell on 27 March 1867. On 17 Dec. 1810 he married Lewis Tabitha, daughter of Bertram Mitford of Mitford Castle, by whom he left three daughters, but no male issue, and the male line of his branch of the family became extinct at his death.

Selby's collection of foreign bird-skins was presented to the university of Cambridge, and is now incorporated with those in the University Museum. His collections of coleoptera, hymenoptera, and lepidoptera were also presented to the university; the former still remain in their original cases; the two latter are incorporated with, and form the most important portion of the series of North British hymenoptera and lepidoptera in the University Museum. His collection of British birds was purchased some years ago by Mr. A. H. Browne of Callaly Castle, where they are still accessible to the public.

Besides the works already mentioned, he was author of numerous papers in the ‘Transactions’ of the Natural History Society of Newcastle, and of the Berwickshire Naturalists' Club, in the ‘Edinburgh Journal of Natural History and Geography,’ and the ‘Annals of Zoology and Botany.’

[Private information; Surtees's Hist. of Durham; Scott's Hist. of Berwick; Proc. Berwickshire Naturalists' Club, 1867; Agassiz's Bibliographia (Zoologie et Géologie), ed. Ray Soc.]

W. S. C.