Friday, 10 May 2019

Giant sea scorpions.. ..and other foods


In his book Why Not Eat Insects? Vincent M. Holt [1] does not confine himself to this group of invertebrates. In addition to remarks about slugs and snails, he also has this to say:

..Spiders have been relished as tid-bits, not only by uncivilized nations, but by Europeans of cultivation. For Reaumur tells of a young lady who was so fond of spiders that she never saw one without catching and eating it. Lalande, the French astronomer, had similar tastes; and Rosel speaks of a German who was in the habit of spreading spiders, like butter, upon his bread.

Spiders are chelicerates and, had Holt travelled to China, Thailand or Vietnam he would have been aware of other chelicerates, scorpions, being eaten, often as “street food”. Scorpions have a sting that is used to inject venom but, when cooked, the venom becomes denatured and the whole animal can be eaten. A common method of preparation is to line scorpions on skewers that can then be grilled (see below), or they can be stir fried. Those who eat scorpions compare their flavour to
that of crabs, or shrimps, and scorpions are rich in protein, so provide a readily available and nutritious food [2].


The largest chelicerates, the eurypterids, became extinct about 250 million years ago, so there is no possibility that they co-existed with humans, or close human ancestors. However, just as we like to imagine co-existing with reptilian dinosaurs (equally impossible), it is fun to think what our attitude to eurypterids would be should they still be present today.


In the image above, adapted from an illustration in a paper by Braddy, Poschmann and Tetlie [3] we see the body form of the eurypterid Jaekelopterus.  It is typical of the “sea scorpions” in having four pairs of walking legs, chelicerae (limbs with claws), a pair of paddles and a segmented body ending in a flattened extension. Two compound eyes are present and, in a comparative study of the fossilised remains of eurypterids of several types, it is concluded that Jaekelopterus was likely to be an active predator and that competition with more successful vertebrate types led to its extinction [4], alongside all the other eurypterids.

The location of fossils shows that Jaekelopterus lived in “marginal marine environments” [3] so, had these creatures survived to modern times, they would have been easily accessible to humans and, no doubt, would have been made extinct by human hunting. At this point, we need to consider the size of the animals: the scale bar in the illustration shows 1 metre, so specimens of Jaekelopterus were up to 2 metres long and thus substantially longer than the average human (2 metres being equivalent to 6 feet 6 inches). If their chelicerae were disabled, they would be easy to catch and they did not have the defensive sting present in today’s scorpions (they are not closely related).

Letting our imagination free, we can fantasise that Jaekelopterus, with its long and muscular body, would be good to eat, especially when prepared using the cooking skills of modern humans – “eurypterid thermidor” anyone? Nonsense of course, but what fascinating creatures they must have been, had we been able to observe them.


[1] Vincent M. Holt (1885) Why Not Eat Insects? Faringdon, E.W.Classey Ltd.


[3] S. J. Braddy, M. Poschmann and O. E. Tetlie (2008) Giant claw reveals the largest ever arthropod. Biology Letters 4: 106-109.

[4] V. E. McCoy, J. C. Lamsdell, M. Poschmann, R. P. Anderson and D. E. G. Briggs (2015) All the better to see you with: eyes and claws reveal the evolution of divergent ecological roles in giant pterygotid eurypterids. Biology Letters 11: 2015.0564.


Friday, 3 May 2019

Death of a devout Christian


We don’t like talking about death, yet it is a natural process that we must all go through. The stages of dying are described factually in The Natural Death Handbook [1] and anyone fearing the event will hopefully be comforted by the account given in the book. That also applies to those around the dying patient, as it is as hard for the watchers as it is for the dying: shown clearly in Edvard Munch’s painting By The Death Bed (1896):


Of course, death can also be sudden and dramatic and the act of dying may not follow the sequence described in the book. There is also the emotional involvement in the process that religious belief has conditioned into us. In Christianity, death is the end of our time on Earth before our soul passes to an afterlife and, hopefully, entry to Heaven. The “fire and brimstone” school of Protestant preaching is designed to make us scared of the alternative: something that might happen if we move away from a particular set of religious beliefs and practices that some preachers espouse.

Although I am not a Christian, I would have thought that belief in Heaven and the death of Jesus to save our souls would bring comfort, but I wonder if it does? To try and find an answer, I wanted to see what happened to Philip Henry Gosse as he was among the most devout Christians that I have read about.

Gosse was an outstanding naturalist and achieved both popular, and scientific, fame from his books, papers and lectures. It can be argued that the most important events of Henry Gosse’s life were the death of his first wife Emily; his young son Edmund being “saved”; and the challenge to Creation (as described in Genesis) provided by ideas on evolution and the concept of geological time. He was a member of the Brethren (leading his own group) and had a profound belief in the imminence of the Second Coming, when believers would be carried up to Heaven in rapture.

Emily died of breast cancer [2] after being subjected to an “alternative” treatment that was more like quack medicine. During her final days, Henry was busy on writing and natural history projects, so Edmund and Emily spent much time together. Later, Henry wrote an account of Emily’s last days and I have not read it, nor am I likely to, as there are few copies still in existence [3]. She had a deep Christian faith and, while suffering a great deal of pain, I imagine that, at the end, she was happy to make the transition to Heaven, her main anxiety being that Edmund would be “saved” after the adult baptism that the Brethren practised.

As it turned out, Henry arranged that Edmund would be baptised as an “adult believer” three weeks after his 10th birthday, an act so unusual that people came to Torquay from miles around to witness the act. In his autobiography, Edmund, too, recognised that this was a very significant event in his life [4], but he went on to reject the rigid beliefs that Henry followed and this caused much tension between the two men. Edmund was also very involved in the Arts World of the time and Henry could not identify with this, or with Darwin’s important work in promoting ideas on evolution. In the year that Emily died, Henry had published Omphalos [5], that contained his theory that everything was created in six days; even rock strata that appeared to be millions of years old and which contained the fossilised remains of plant and animals. Unsurprisingly, Omphalos was rejected by both the scientific, and religious, communities and this further isolated Henry, making him even less able to shift from his strict literalist stance. I’m not sure how happy he was after becoming estranged from Edmund; being ridiculed by some readers of Omphalos; and generally worrying about being on the straight and narrow, although he was so dogmatic on that front that his passport to Heaven must have been assured in his own mind. 


He did enjoy the company of his grandchildren (the photograph above shows him in old age) and Edmund describes a happy time when the family spent 19th September 1887 at Goodrington, collecting along the shore [6]. It was shortly after this that Henry became ill with congestive heart disease and he died at “Sandhurst”, his home in Torquay, a little before 1 a.m. on 23rd August 1888; his nurse recording his last words as “It is all over. The Lord is near! I am going to my reward!” [7]. It was a peaceful end, as one would expect of someone with such a strong religious faith. Yet we know that, in the days before, Henry was angry with God, as his belief in the Second Coming was so strong that he hadn’t contemplated the act of dying that he had seen Emily pass through. How odd that such a devout Christian felt let down by God because he had to die, even though this is the fate of all humans.

Henry’s final days are described by Eliza [7]:

Even within the last fortnight, seeing me distressed, he said, “Oh, darling, don’t trouble. It is not too late; even now the Blessed Lord may come and take us both up together.” I believe he was buoyed up almost to the last with this strong hope.

Although Eliza describes being supported by Henry, Ann Thwaite [8], in her brilliant biography, details Henry’s own distress:

Eliza said that, though Henry Gosse had never had a revelation that he would himself be “one of the favoured saints who shall never taste of death”, he had waited and hoped and prayed. “This hope of being caught up before death continued to the last and its non-fulfilment was an acute disappointment to him. It undoubtedly was connected to the deep dejection of his latest hours on earth.”

So, does a religious faith help us when dying? I guess it all depends on the nature of one’s beliefs, whether one feels bad about past misdemeanours, and whether there are terrible threats of what might happen if one is on the wrong side in the afterlife. Of course, I don’t know whether I will make a deathbed religious conversion and I have no idea when, or how, I will die. However, I’m grateful to have been able to be broad and imaginative in my thinking and not constrained to what seems like the straitjacket of religious belief. Fancy going through all that for nothing.

  
[1] Stephanie Wienrich and Josefine Speyer (eds.) (2003) The Natural Death Handbook. London, Rider.

[2] Robert Boyd (2004) Emily Gosse. Bath, Olivet Books.

[3] R.B.Freeman and Douglas Wertheimer (1980) Philip Henry Gosse – A Bibliography. Folkestone, Dawson.

[4] Edmund Gosse (1907) Father and Son: a study of two temperaments. London, William Heinemann.

[5] Philip Henry Gosse (1857) Omphalos: an attempt to untie the geological knot. London, John Van Voorst.

[6] Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-shore: the life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

[7] Eliza Gosse (1896) Appendix I in Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-shore: the life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

[8] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: the life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810-1888. London, Faber and Faber.





Thursday, 18 April 2019

Looking for the sublime


I was fascinated by Canada as a teenager. It came from looking at pictures in books that I borrowed from the local lending library and, while I appreciated the skyscapes of the prairies, it was the grandeur of the mountains, the lakes and the forests that had the most appeal. There was also the sense of scale and the vastness of it all.

The interest in the Canadian landscape re-surfaced when I was an undergraduate. Fascinated by animals and plants, I knew that I wanted to continue to study Biology by conducting research in the field. I mentioned this, together with my feelings about the boreal landscape, to one of my lecturers and he kindly put me in touch with possible research supervisors in Canada. These contacts resulted in several provisional offers, providing I could get funding from teaching assistantships or research grants. However, nothing more came of it and I stayed in the UK; my fascination for boreal landscapes being given reality when I studied lakes and rivers in northern Sweden and in Finland. It was in these countries that I could get a sense of wilderness; of something that appeared to show no influence of humans. I can sum up this sense by using, as illustration, Gallen-Kallelas’s painting Lake Keitele (see below). Gallen-Kallela was a seeker of “virgin Nature” and I can easily empathise with that [1].


During my undergraduate years, I spent many happy Saturdays visiting the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery (as it was then) in London. Torbay, where I grew up, was not a centre for looking at a wide range of paintings and I felt drawn to the galleries and to certain works. It wasn’t because of any skill that I had in art, as I have no artistic talent, but I felt a strong connection with some of the images and the way that landscapes had been portrayed. It was similar to looking at pictures of Canada when I was younger - something “clicked” and I didn’t know why, nor was I interested in thinking about that.

As an old man, I realise that my interest in the boreal landscape, and the various ways in which it was illustrated in great paintings, were part of the same identity – I am an unabashed Romantic with a love of the sublime. The latter possibly comes from a religious upbringing that clearly influenced me, even though I left formal religion when I was twelve. It now takes a nebulous form, but it is certainly there (and not only in paintings, but also from music and poetry). While artists like Caspar David Friedrich and Harald Sohlberg introduced Christian symbolism into their paintings of sublime landscapes, there seems to me something even more powerful if the landscape overwhelms without any obvious theistic force (although theists might suggest that I was just being blind).

It’s not to say that I don’t appreciate both natural and painted landscapes that do show human influence. The Renforsen rapids on the River Vindel in northern Sweden always fill me with awe [2] and, during the spring flood caused by snow melt in the mountains, there is something about their impressive power that certainly stirs the soul. There are, however, so many signs of human influence here: bridges, paths, a hotel, a café, mill buildings, car parks, etc. that one realises it is far from wilderness. If part of the splendour of being in wilderness comes from tranquillity, Renforsen, other rapids, and raging seas are part of another kind of awe; that which contains an implied threat. Compare Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele with Johan Christian Dahl’s The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss (see below) to see examples of this contrast. Both portray the sublime.


Of course, the art and aesthetics of the sublime have been written about many times and I’m not saying anything new. Rather, in a pretentious way, I’m trying to understand my personal view of landscape and what has made me so enraptured by some natural and painted scenes. I’m hooked.










Thursday, 28 March 2019

Bee orchids, Darwin and Creation


I have often thought that it is easier to believe in the creation of organisms than in their evolution. All that is required is a belief in a Creator, but if one does not have that, one is left to pondering the many steps that must have occurred to produce the extraordinary adaptations of, and associations between, living organisms that we see around us. We cannot comprehend the time scales over which these changes have taken place, so all we are left with are our speculations.

In the past few weeks, I have been taking a WEA course on the influence of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species on 19th Century thought. It is led by Paul Ranford, the excellent historian of science, who introduced us to other works by Darwin, including his book The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects, orchids becoming a consuming passion of the great man while he recovered from the effort of producing the “Origin”. It set me to reading what Darwin had to say about the bee orchid (Ophrys apifera – see below, with an illustration from Darwin’s book). 



These are some extracts from Darwin's book [1]:

The Bee Ophrys differs widely from the great majority of Orchids in being excellently constructed for fertilising itself..

..When a pollen-mass is placed on the stigma and then withdrawn, the elastic threads by which the packets are tied together break, and leave several packets on the viscid surface. In all other Orchids the meaning of these several contrivances is unmistakeably clear – namely, the downward movement of the lip of the rostellum when gently pushed – the viscidity of the disc – the depression of the caudicle as soon as the disc is exposed to the air – the rupturing of the elastic threads – and the conspicuousness of the flower. Are we to believe that these adaptations for cross-fertilisation in the Bee Ophrys are absolutely purposeless, as would certainly be the case if this species has always been and will always be self-fertilised? It is, however, just possible that insects, although they may have never been seen to visit the flowers, may at rare intervals transport the pollinia from plant to plant..

..The whole case is perplexing in an unparalleled degree, for we have in the same flower elaborate contrivances for directly opposed objects..

..As it can hardly be doubted that O. apifera was at first constructed so as to be regularly cross-fertilised, it may be asked will it ever revert to its former state: and if it does not so revert, will it become extinct?

The question is a valid one and Darwin involved his correspondents in finding out more about the fertilisation of bee orchids. One of his regular correspondents was Philip Henry Gosse, the avid creationist, who was busy in 1863 “examining bee orchis for Darwin at Petit Tor” [2].

The bee orchis (orchid) gets its common name from its appearance, said to resemble a solitary bee and we know that male bees are essential for the fertilisation of some orchids. We do not know whether the flower looks like a bee to bees but we do know that the floral pigments give signatures under untraviolet light that may act as attractants. Since Darwin’s time, we recognise that another important mechanism is involved in attracting pollinators and this is of much greater significance than the appearance of the flowers, that so fascinates humans. Orchids in the genus Ophrys secrete chemicals that mimic sex pheromones produced by female bees and these vary from species to species, thus attracting specific pollinators, although accidental fertilisation by a range of insects may also be a possibility. Ophrys apifera is fertilised by a solitary bee in Mediterranean regions but, as Darwin discovered, self-fertilisation occurs in the northern part of its range.

There is a lively contemporary debate on the significance of the various factors involved in the fertilisation of Ophrys [3,4,5] and, fittingly, this exchange of views took place in a journal of the Linnean Society, the society that was instrumental in introducing Darwin’s ideas on evolution. The three papers (and there are many others on the topic) show clearly just how complex the evolution of the orchids has been. Mention must also be made of why male bees are often the agents of fertilisation of the orchids, by transferring pollen from one flower to another. The females of solitary bees mate soon after emergence from the pupa [6] and it is probable that there is a surplus of males or, if mating is a once only event, there are males constantly looking for mates and, by deception, being attracted to orchids.

The whole arrangement is a remarkable example of co-evolution and one wonders about the timing of the steps involved in the association and whether they were gradual or rapid (over geological time). What came first? Was it the mating biology of bees, the selection of colour patterns in Ophrys flowers that became attractive to insects, the production of a series of chemicals that act as attractants, differences across the range of the plants, or what?


[1] Charles Darwin (1862) The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects. London, John Murray.

[2] Edmund Gosse (1896) The naturalist of the sea-shore: the life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

[3] E.Bradshaw, P.J.Rudall, D.S.Devey, M.M.Thomas, B.J.Glover and R.M.Bateman (2010) Comparative labellum micromorphology of the asexually deceptive temperate orchid genus Ophrys: diverse epidermal cell types and multiple origins of structural colour. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 162: 504-540.

[4] N.J.Vereecken, M.Streinzer, M.Assaye, J.Spaethe, H.F.Paulus, J. Stöckl, P.Cortis and F.P Schiestl (2011) Integrating past and present studies on Ophrys pollination – a comment on Bradshaw et al. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 165: 329-335.

[5] R.M Bateman, E. Bradshaw, D.S.Devey, B.J.Glover, S. Malmgren, G.Sramkó, M.M.Thomas and P.J.Rudall (2011) Species arguments: clarifying competing concepts of species delimitation in the pseudo-copulatory orchid genus Ophrys. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 165: 336-347.





I would like to thank Paul Ranford and my WEA classmates for their stimulating discussions. It is great to leave a course with many more questions than answers – after all, that’s the fundamental nature of science.



Wednesday, 6 March 2019

A gray whale off the coast of South Devon?



The gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus – see above) is today only found in the north Pacific Ocean, yet skeletal remains have been found in the eastern Atlantic [1]. Indeed, Gray named the genus [2] from a cervical vertebra that bore a very close resemblance to vertebrae of an “imperfect skeleton” discovered in Sweden. This vertebra was sent to Gray by William Pengelly FRS of Torquay (see below), a distinguished palaeontologist and famous for his excavations of local cave fauna, especially those of Kent’s Cavern,


This is what Pengelly wrote [3]:

A few years ago, but the exact date has escaped me, there was brought to my house [“Lavorna”] a large bone which had been washed ashore on Babbicombe beach [the old spelling], near Torquay. It was not difficult to see that it was part of the vertebral column of a cetacean, and that it had undergone considerable abrasion. That, however, which chiefly arrested my attention was the fact that such parts of its surface as were unrubbed were covered with a darkish stain, from which the abraded parts were free: a fact which led me to conclude that the stain was superinduced.


The staining reminded Pengelly of that on bones from deposits formed from a submerged forest within the current Torbay [4] and which had subsequently become flooded. These deposits contained the bones of deer and other terrestrial animals, but whales clearly could not have existed here. Radiocarbon dating of the vertebra, and two others that were also collected from Babbacombe Bay, just to the north of Torbay (see above), showed the bones to be 340 ± 260 years old – very recent compared to the submerged forests and thus likely to have become stained by falling on to the sediments. It is presumed that there was a population of gray whales in the eastern Atlantic until the 17th Century [1], but how the Babbacome vertebrae came to be washed ashore remains a mystery. The bones are large (the one illustrated below being 41 cm across) and that only adds to all the questions as to their origins. Perhaps gray whales were regular visitors to Babbacombe Bay and Torbay? Perhaps the bones were thrown overboard from a ship returning from the Pacific with unusual mementoes? Who knows?



[1] P.J.Bryant (1995) Dating remains of gray whales from the eastern North Atlantic. Journal of Mammalogy 76: 857-861.

[2] J.E.Gray (1865) Notice of a new whalebone whale from the coast of Devonshire, proposed to be called Eschrichtius robustus. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London pages 40-43.

[3] W.Pengelly (1865) On cetacean remains washed ashore at Babbicombe, South Devon. Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association 1(iv): 86-89.



Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Wotton’s place in the history of Biology


Stanley Goodman, the eminent economist and historian, mentioned the name of Edward Wotton to me. As Stan is a polymath, it came as no surprise that he had come across Wotton, but I knew nothing of my namesake (and no relation, I presume). Of course, I was then prompted to find out more. It turns out that Edward was an important figure in the history of Biology, yet he is not mentioned in Charles Singer’s textbook on the subject [1]. So, who was Edward Wotton and why was his book - De differentiis animalium libri decem [2] - an important influence on contemporary biologists and those who were to follow?

Born in Oxford in 1492, Edward was educated at Magdalen College School, where he was a chorister, and at Magdalen College Oxford, graduating in 1514 [3]. He then moved to the newly-established Corpus Christi College to teach Greek, although he retained rooms at Magdalen. Bishop Fox, the founder of Corpus Christi, granted Edward leave and he travelled to Padua, a great cultural centre, with its well-established University (founded in 1222) and glories such as the Scrovegni Chapel and its wonderful interior by Giotto. At Padua, Edward studied for an MD and returned to Oxford to receive the same degree in May 1526 [3].

Edward Wotton was admitted as a fellow of the College of Physicians and, like so many of those who practised medicine at the time, developed an abiding interest in natural history, not so much from first-hand study but from extensive scholarship of known texts, especially of those by Aristotle and his followers. The result was the publication of De differentiis animalium libri decem in 1552, an encyclopaedic account of the knowledge of the time. I find it a challenge to read as it is in Latin, so I am dependent on others to inform me of its details. Animals are described under headings, starting with many-toed mammals and ending with zoophytes (plant-like animals).


A feature of the book is that it separated factual material from that embellished by folklore [4], like the Natural History of Pliny, who was described by Singer as:

..a man of immense industry with an enthusiasm for collection. He did not, however, collect natural history objects, but only information or rather misinformation about them.. ..Unfortunately, Pliny’s judgement was in no way comparable to his industry. He was excessively credulous. Thus his work became a repository of tales of wonder, of travellers’ and sailors’ yarns, and of superstitions of farmers and labourers. As such it is a very important source of information for the customs of antiquity, though as science, judged by the standards of his great predecessors, such as Aristotle or Theophrastus or Erasistratus, it is simply laughable.

Given this attack on Pliny [1], it is even more surprising that Wotton’s book is given no mention in A Short History of Biology, especially as Wotton, like Pliny was a collector of information rather than a first-hand observer. However, the book is cited in Mayer’s The Annals of European Civilization 1501-1900 [5].


Unlike Edward Wotton, Thomas Moufet (or Muffet or Moffet) was a collector and carried out extensive field studies on insects. Like Edward, he studied medicine in mainland Europe (in Basel, after graduating with a BA from Gonville Hall Cambridge, having transferred from Trinity College [6]). Moufet’s book Insectorum, sive, Minimorum animalium theatrum draws on Edward Wotton’s knowledge [7 (and see above)] and was published posthumously in 1634. This book is mentioned by Singer [1] as being important in the history of Biology, but:

The significance for science of classical scholarship was on the wane, and the work of the later schools is conducted in a new spirit.

Interestingly, one reviewer, Haller, believed that Moufet “gave credence to too many fabulous reports [but] acknowledged him to be ‘the prince of entomologists’ before John Swammerdam” [6]. He was certainly inundated with specimens that were sent to him and Singer recounts that he was urgently in need of descriptive terms [1].Some of the illustrations from Insectorum sive are shown below and they enable us to identify insects today, so they must have been very powerful images in their day. There are hundreds of them and the shift in approach from Wotton to Moufet is significant, as Singer points out. It presages the approaches to the study of Zoology that were to follow, but Edward Wotton certainly had an important rôle in the development of studies in the subject.






[1] Charles Singer (1931) A Short History of Biology. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

[2] Edward Wotton (1552) De differentiis animalium libri decem. Paris.

[3] A.F.Pollard (revised by Patrick Wallis) (2004) Wotton, Edward (1492-1555). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/29999

[4] Encyclopaedia Britannica (Eleventh Edition) 1910-11 https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:EB1911_-_Volume_28.djvu/1052

[5] Alfred Mayer (1993) The Annals of European Civilization 1501-1900. New York, Barnes & Noble.

[6] Victor Houliston (2004) Moffet [Moufet, Muffet], Thomas [T.M.] (1553-1604). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/18877

[7] Thomas Moufet (1634) Insectorum, sive, Minimorum animalium theatrum. London.


My thanks to Stan Goodman for introducing me both to Edward Wotton and to Alfred Mayer.

Friday, 18 January 2019

Honouring Sid Wotton


In her anecdotal history of small-town life in Paignton [1], Peggy Parnell writes of a local outfitter’s business and its progress from a humble start to having several successful shops. Perretts was considered “up-market” and had a year-round clientele, as well as the casual summer trade found in any seaside resort. The company was run by three generations of one family and was staffed with tailors to make alterations to clothes, and shop assistants to “measure-up” and engage in sales patter. It was so different to today’s internet-dominated approach to clothes retailing and, of course, the business no longer exists.

Included in Peggy Parnell’s chapter on Perretts is the paragraph shown below:


Obviously, a tragic occasion as he was only 59 years old, but who was Sid Wotton and, if he left such an impression on the owners and the staff of the company, what was his effect on the public who shopped in Perretts?

Firstly, Sid Wotton had a deep knowledge of outfitting, was unfailingly courteous, remembered returning customers and their requirements, and was very loyal to the Perrett family, as they were to him. Add to these qualities, the ability to make a sales pitch and you have all the essential ingredients of a valuable employee in the old world of retailing. What else do we know about him?



Sid Wotton was born on 17th August 1909 in Princes Street, Paignton, and he remained in the town (except for war service in Belgium, see above) all his life. On 10th October 1934 he married Doris Youlden at Winner Street Baptist Church (see above), attended by both, and where Sid was a member of the choir. In 1933, he had been involved in the selection of a new organist [2] and Sid had a fine tenor voice, singing hymns and oratorios with gusto. In addition to his singing, Sid also spoke at Church garden parties (see below) and it is easy to see that his skills as a salesman were useful if these parties involved fund-raising.


Sid and Doris had three sons, all brought up to attend Winner Street Church each Sunday, and the anniversary of the founding of the church was usually celebrated by a group photograph, like the one below. In addition to his connection with the church community, Sid was a Freemason, becoming Worshipful Master of Torbay Lodge No. 1358. Outside those interests, life revolved around Perretts and the growing family, but then illness intervened. Doris, who was anxious by nature, suffered from uncontrollable hypertension and this led to a stroke from which she died aged 49. This must have been a very difficult time for Sid, especially as he had been diagnosed with diabetes and then developed cardiovascular disease. By 1965 all three boys had left home and we come to the events described by Peggy Parnell. That’s not how Sid should be remembered.

Andy Warhol suggested that everyone should be famous for 15 minutes. I’m not sure that a paragraph in a book counts as fame, especially when the ending is so tragic. Rather, I want to celebrate the Sid Wotton who was such an important person to those who knew him and who showed fine qualities of loyalty and service in everything that he did. It’s all history now, of course, but that doesn’t make celebrating the man any less important.


[1] Peggy Parnell (2013) A Paignton Scrapbook. Stroud, The History Press.

[2] Patricia M. Leaman (1986) A History of the First 100 Years of Winner Street Baptist Church, Paignton. Publisher unknown.   


I would like to thank David Wotton for telling me about the reference to Sid Wotton in Peggy Parnell’s book.