Monday, 26 October 2020

Nicknames for schoolmasters

In Summoned by Bells, John Betjeman describes his time at the Dragon School in Oxford. Charles Cotterill Lynam was the Headmaster, known to the boys as “Skipper”, and this is what Betjeman wrote about another master, Gerald Haynes [1]:

Much do I owe this formidable man
(Harrow and Keble): from his shambling height
Over his spectacles he nodded down.
We called him “Tortoise”. From his lower lip
Invariably hung a cigarette.
A gym-shoe in his hand, he stood about
Waiting for misdemeanours – 

Nicknames for masters were common in Betjeman’s day - although just among the pupils one presumes - and it was the same in my secondary school. Coming through the State system, I moved from Oldway Primary to Torquay Boys’ Grammar, as I described in Walking with Gosse [2]:

The atmosphere at TBGS was formal and all the familiarity, inclusiveness and enjoyment of learning at Oldway Primary were behind me. Masters wore gowns, were mostly rather severe, and learning was now a serious matter. I had embarked on the grim business of growing up.

Each subject was taught by a different master and was governed by a syllabus, as we needed to know various facts and principles for national examinations. There was some rote learning, but also problem solving, and insights into topics about which I knew very little...

It was quite a change. Our teachers at Oldway Primary were all women, with the exception of Mr Mitchell who had a BSc degree, something that elevated him to a very high level in our minds, as none of the other teachers had a University qualification. At TBGS, there were no mistresses and all the masters had degrees, or their equivalent. As mentioned in the quote, they all wore gowns (except the PE staff), with some, including the Headmaster, taking great pride in keeping their gowns in immaculate order. Others appeared to take the opposite approach and preferred a ragged and faded version, often having streaks of chalk dust embedded into the stuff fabric.

In addition to learning all the master’s surnames, new boys also had to memorise their informal names and nicknames, passed down to each new year group. We felt they were our secret, although I’m sure they were known widely among the staff. Some masters were referred to by their first names (or what we thought were their first names), but there were many with nicknames. Some of these had obvious origins, others were more obscure. The following are some that I remember (surnames have been omitted out of courtesy), together with a list of the first names that we used among ourselves. In addressing masters, they were always “Sir”, of course:

First names:

Bill – mathematics master
Chas – mathematics master
Chris – physics master
Dave – chemistry master
Don – chemistry master
Fred [1] – English master
Fred [2] – geography master
Geoff – geography master
George – languages master
Graham – biology master
Harold – chemistry master
Ian – English master
Joe – actually John (headmaster)
Percy – deputy headmaster
Tony – biology master

 Nicknames

Bilko – mathematics master, whose surname unfortunately led to Sergeant  
        Bilko
Bum (or Jim) – PE master, but unknown origin
Charlie Drake – master who resembled the comedy hero of the time
Chick – languages master, but unknown origin
Growler – mathematics master with a bad case of “small man syndrome”
Hoppy – music master; abbreviation of surname
Mole – physics master who used this pronunciation when describing molecules
Moon (or Bert) – languages master with a round face
Neddy – history master, but unknown origin
Piggy – languages master of rather large dimensions
Ptolo – classics master; short for Ptolemy
Rip-Rap – history master, but unknown origin
Taff – PE master; from Wales
Zip – geography master, but unknown origin

So, using first names and nicknames was a way of softening the secondary school experience, as was the camaraderie of friends. There was bullying, but I was never bullied by other students, only by two masters. My policy was to keep out of trouble and I only had one whacking and one detention in my time at TBGS. As to learning, a lot was drummed into us and a few masters commanded respect for their wide knowledge and humanity.

As readers of Walking with Gosse [2] discover, mine was not a distinguished academic career and I was given no honours for achievement, no honours in sport and failed to become a prefect or sub-prefect (almost all my classmates managed to achieve this status). I went on to success, of course, and it was my love of natural history that sustained me though the secondary school years. I was much more in tune with the approach to learning we had at Oldway Primary and that is something that I maintained in my own teaching career (where I was awarded three teaching prizes and also acted as Director of Studies). I wonder if my students gave me a nickname, or if this was a practice confined to UK boys’ schools long ago?

[1] John Betjeman (1960) Summoned by Bells. London, John Murray.

[2] Roger S Wotton (2020) Walking with Gosse. e-book (available widely!).


Below are pictures of me at Oldway Primary and at Torquay Boys’ Grammar School

 


 



Friday, 16 October 2020

Which matters more to success - ambition or talent?

The FT Weekend Magazine has a regular feature called “Inventory”, in which questions are posed to a range of famous people from many walks of life. The questions are the same each week and one of them is:

                            Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?

When reading the responses, it is difficult not to be introspective and I have no idea how I would answer, should the question be put to me.

The starting point in providing an answer depends on the word “success”. As the people interviewed by the FT Weekend Magazine are well-known in their fields, they must have been successful. Many strive for success to make them famous, while others have little interest in fame. Of course, almost everyone likes recognition for their abilities and what they have achieved, whether in a career or on a personal level. So, is ambition or talent more important in achieving success?

For me, being an Emeritus Professor at UCL is a mark of success, but how was this achieved? It was certainly not a target and, indeed, my PhD research supervisor told me that he thought that I lacked ambition. He was right, in that I didn’t have goals, although I knew that I wanted to follow a career in natural history and the best way of doing so was to become a university teacher. That would allow me to carry out research on whatever fascinated me at the time and it would also enable me to pass on my enthusiasm for the natural world to students.

That’s where luck comes into it. Armed with good references about my work as a postgraduate demonstrator in practical classes and field courses, I was lucky enough to gain a 3-year teaching position at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, followed by a permanent post at Goldsmiths’ College, and then a transfer to UCL. Research progressed from a continuation of my rather dull PhD studies, through the inspiration provided by wonderful colleagues in the UK, Sweden and the USA, to a fascination with how all aquatic ecosystems work. That led to questions that I was quite incapable of answering and, as a result, I stopped practical research and started to write reviews that crossed conventional boundaries. That was valuable for teaching, but I remained a child-like natural historian at heart and it was the wonder of Nature – from chemicals up to large organisms – that drove my approach.

Having established that I had little ambition, did I have talent? The origins of my fascination with natural history have been described in “Walking with Gosse” [1], but talents are difficult to define. That makes answering the question posed even more problematic.

Moving further down the questions in the FT Weekend magazine “Inventory” comes:

                   If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would he/she think?

I can certainly say that I would have been amazed that I ended up in my present position. If you told the person in the photograph below that they would become a Professor at a World-renowned university, give talks in the National Gallery in London, write books and reviews, and be awarded a higher doctorate, they would certainly not have believed you. How did it all happen? It’s a question we all ask in advancing years. 


[1] Roger S. Wotton (2020) Walking with Gosse, e-book. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Walking-Gosse-Roger-S-Wotton-ebook/dp/B08HMCJS9J

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

"Walking with Gosse" as an e-book

 

The COVID-19 pandemic influences everything at present. When the lockdown was announced in the UK, I decided that I needed something to occupy my time, so pressed ahead with a re-write of Walking with Gosse, first published as a paperback in 2012.

Since 2012, I have continued my interest in the story of Henry and Edmund Gosse, so there was a chance to make a revision, and update, of the book and, as the paperback was rather difficult to get hold of, I decided that an e-book was the best way forward. I knew nothing about e-book publishing before setting out, other than that it was a means of making books easily accessible on mobile telephones, tablets and desktop computers, so I needed advice. This came from Dr Bob Carling, who has wide experience in publishing, and he took me through the stages needed to transform my MSWord files into the form acceptable to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other e-book publishers. As I am a technophobe, it would not have been possible to publish this new version of Walking with Gosse without Bob’s help and technical expertise, just as I could not have published the paperback without the help of Dr Susan England of Clio Publishing.

One of the advantages of an e-book is that it allows a “clickable” list of contents to allow readers to navigate through the text, although I very much hope that the book is read from cover to cover, as that was the way it was conceived. It is part autobiographical (Part 1), part biographical (Parts 2-5), and part commentary on our current approach to natural history, creation and religious conflicts (Part 6).

The list of contents of Walking with Gosse is given below (as an appetiser):

 

List of contents

 

Preface


Part 1

 Growing up at the seaside

 Being a Christian

Schools, parents, and an interest in natural history

 Leaving home for University

 

Part 2

 Henry Gosse, The Aquarium and looking through microscopes

Henry Gosse’s early life and the development of his interest in natural history

Henry Gosse becomes a professional natural historian and writer

The development of Henry Gosse’s religious beliefs

 

Henry Gosse’s own family

 

Henry Gosse as a teacher, lecturer and leader of field courses

 

Recognition as a scientist

 


Part 3

Omphalos

 Reactions to Omphalos and Henry’s need to incorporate his religious views into his writing

 

The Romance of Natural History

 Sea serpents

Extinction, animals that fall from the sky, and mermaids

 


Part 4

 

Father and Son

 

Early life in London

 

Moving to St Marychurch

 

Edmund becomes a Saint

 

Edmund’s baptism and the move to a new chapel

 

Tom Cringle’s Log, meeting Eliza, and the beginnings of independence


Edmund’s Epilogue in Father and Son

 


Part 5

 

Learning more about Edmund

 

Eliza Gosse’s view of Henry

 

William Pengelly – a deeply religious man who believed in “creation by evolution”


Henry Gosse and Charles Kingsley

 

A feeling of connection to Henry and Edmund

 

Part 6

 Henry Gosse and or contemporary world

 Henry Gosse and the negativity of religious faith

 Creation, evolution and the origin of life

 When believing in creation seems like an easy option 

Tackling the supernatural 

Dr Dryasdust and contemporary trends in Biology

 Being interested in teaching and lecturing

 Natural history and the media

 Epilogue

 

References


Acknowledgements

 

Appendix 1

 Henry’s scientific publications

 

Appendix 2

 Henry’s solely religious writing

 

A series of posts about Walking with Gosse will appear on my blog over the next few months. They will highlight some of the sections of the book and give what scriptwriters might call the backstory. In the meantime, I hope that you enjoy the book.


 

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

The white dapperling – a mushroom that isn’t poisonous…


Fungi are remarkable organisms, essential for the recycling of nutrients by breaking down detritus. Most of us recognise mushrooms and toadstools – the fruiting bodies of many fungi – but we are less familiar with the huge numbers of wind-borne spores that they produce. Should the spores land in a suitable location, a complex mat of hyphae (threads that form the mycelium) then spreads underground, or through other substrata, using enzymes to digest organic matter and promote further growth. Mostly, the mycelium is also a mystery to us, but we know that the fruiting bodies must have grown from something because they don’t have roots. We can only speculate on how the fascinating life cycle of fungi evolved [1] and how the hyphae became organised for their various functions, including the rapid growth of fruiting bodies.

Last week, two unusual mushrooms appeared overnight on our lawn. They were white, with white spore-bearing gills and each appeared to grow from a bag-like structure around the base of the stem. They intrigued me sufficiently to pick one and take photographs of it (see below). Like many of us, I am aware that some mushrooms are highly toxic [1], so I treated the specimen I picked with caution. Fortunately, our local garage has a free supply of plastic gloves to prevent contact between hands and petrol, and I donned some of these (previously purloined for use in the age of COVID-19) to avoid direct contact. Even so, I washed my hands several times when I came back into the house (also a COVID-19 habit) as I was sure there was a possibility it was one of the deadly forms [1].



I needed help with identification and put the images on the Facebook page of the British Mycological Society. Fortunately, one of the members, Geoffrey Kibby, a well-known expert, suggested that my mushroom might be a specimen of Leucoagaricus leucothites that is common in lawns and which may cause gastrointestinal upsets in some humans, but is considered edible by others [2]. It seems I was being over-cautious.

Being a romantic, I was fascinated by the common name of “our” mushroom - the white dapperling – and that started me thinking once again about the common names that we give organisms [3]. Fungi are a rich source of such names and some are wonderfully descriptive, as a scan of any field guide will show. Some common names are connected to folklore, as mushrooms and toadstools have always fascinated us, and we have projected all manner of attributes to different types. As a result, common names are easy to remember and are used when we chat about mushrooms and toadstools, although many species are known only by their official name. Here is an abbreviated list taken from two of the best guides [4,5] together with the Latin binomial for each (some of which change from time to time) [3]:

Old Man of the Woods – Strobilomyces floccopus
Slippery Jack – Suillus luteus
Penny Bun – Boletus edulis
Slimy Spike Cap – Gomphidius glutinosus
Caesar’s Mushroom – Amanita caesarea
Death Cap – Amanita phalloides
Destroying Angel – Amanita virosa
The Blusher – Amanita rubescens
Stinking Parasol – Lepiota cristata
Amethyst Deceiver – Laccaria amethystea
Tawny Funnel Cap – Clitocybe flaccida
Clustered Tough Shank - Collibia confluens
Poached Egg Fungus – Oudemansiella mucida
Herald of the Winter – Hygrophorus hypothejus
Curry-scented Milk Cap – Lactarius camphoratus
The Charcoal Burner – Russula cyanoxantha
The Sickener – Russula emetica
Poison Pie – Hebeloma crustuliniforme
Lawyer’s Wig – Coprinus comatus
Fairies’ Bonnets – Coprinus disseminatus
Weeping Widow – Lacrymaria velutina
Chicken of the Woods – Laetiporus sulphureus
Witches’ Butter – Exidia plana
Jelly Babies – Leotia lubrica


Great names for fascinating organisms, aren’t they?

P.S. I wonder where the fruiting body that produced the spores that resulted in "our" white dapperlings was located?




[3]

[4] Stefan Buczacki (1992) Mushrooms and Toadstools of Britain and Europe. London, HarperCollins.

[5] Roger Phillips (1994) Mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain and Europe. London, Macmillan.










Friday, 15 May 2020

Monkeys and tulipomania


Greed is part of human nature and, from time to time, this is exploited in schemes that promise enormous wealth - and thus status. In recent times we’ve had explosions in the value of bitcoin, and giddy prices paid for shares of profitless technology companies in the dotcom boom of the late 1990s. In 1969, there was large-scale speculation in a mining company called Poseidon, rumoured to have struck it rich; and going much further back, we had the South Sea Bubble, when a raft of speculative investments rose spectacularly in value. All were followed by slumps and, while some people made large amounts of money by timing the market, many who were sucked in to the speculation lost a large part of their investment.

There are many other examples, but perhaps the oddest was the huge prices paid for certain types of tulips in Holland in the early 17th Century. Anna Pavord’s excellent book The Tulip describes what happened in the speculation and this is a brief excerpt [1]:

..tulip prices continued to rise inexorably. By 1623 the fabled flower “Semper Augustus” was already selling for 1,000 florins a bulb (the average income was about 150 florins).. ..”Semper Augustus” held its price over a long period.. ..In 1624 only twelve bulbs of the variety were known to exist, valued at 1,200 florins each; by 1625 the asking price had more than doubled. By 1633 though, estimates of 5,500 florins were floating round each bulb, almost doubling to 10,000 florins at the height of the tulipomania. The highest price ever asked for “Semper Augustus” was.. ..more than the cost of the most expensive houses on the canals at the centre of Amsterdam


“Semper Augustus” (see above) was prized for its “breaking” (the patterns of many types on an otherwise single-coloured bloom) that resulted from the action of a virus that could not be transmitted by seed, but only from offsets produced after flowering. These tulips were thus limited in numbers, as propagation took time, and there was also no guarantee that the flower produced in the next generation would be the same as the parent, as the expression of the virus attack could vary.

All was therefore set for exploitation by speculators and that is what is shown in the painting by Jan Brueghel the Younger, where humans have been replaced by monkeys. The use of monkeys to represent humans was made popular by Jan Brueghel the Younger’s grandfather, the innovative, and justly famous, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (shifts in the spelling of their name were used by members of the family) in a painting entitled Two Monkeys. Jan’s father, Jan Breughel the Elder also painted Feasting Monkeys, so he would have known about this satirical device. It became popular among Flemish painters of the time and led to the Singeries of early 18th Century France, that featured monkeys in a range of settings [2]. Monkeys were not depicted because of any allusion to human evolution; more to their usefulness as symbols of exaggerated human behaviour.







Jan Brueghel the Younger’s painting Satire on Tulip Mania, from the collection of the Frans Hals Museum (see above and [3] for a larger-scale version), depicts the fate of various players involved in tulipomania. Flowering tulips, including examples of “Semper Augustus”, are displayed in front of a large mansion, where the owners are enjoying the high life, supported by the vast sums of money being paid for tulips. A sale is being prepared for a noble monkey who is determined not to be left out, and the price to be paid is being negotiated, agreed, and formalised by a contract. To the right of the picture we see gamblers (tulipomania was a form of gambling), a monkey urinating on tulips (clearly ones that were not deemed good enough after they had been purchased – the monkey holds a contract note), and other monkeys being led into a courtroom dock (for getting into debt by speculating in tulips). In the background, it appears that a duel is being fought, and a lonely funeral procession moves away in the distance. Both indicate the folly of being drawn into such a strange competition for status.

As satire, the painting reminds us of some of the works painted by Hogarth to point out the mores of society. Tulipomania was certainly a strange event, but the desire to become rich, and having possessions that convey status, is always with us. It’s just that sometimes these desires get out of control and we lose our powers of reasoning.


[1] Anna Pavord (1999) The Tulip. London, Bloomsbury Publishing.



Monday, 11 May 2020

Castles in paintings


Castles were built for defence and also acted as symbols of power. Moats and drawbridges added to the fortifications, and walls were massive, and built to withstand attack by all manner of weapons, from rocks slung by trebuchets to iron balls fired from large cannon. Even if the outer walls were breached, or undermined, there were inner defences like keeps. If all attacks failed to result in surrender, then there was always siege and the starving of the castle occupants into submission.

There are hundreds of paintings that feature castles, but let me give six examples, grouped into three categories:

Castles as safe retreats

St George and the Dragon (1502) by Vittore Carpaccio


In The Golden Legend, Jacobus da Varagine (ca. 1230 -1298) describes how St George killed a dragon that terrorised the people of Silene, and rescued a princess who was to be the latest victim. In this painting, Carpaccio shows us the three principal characters in the drama, with the foreground strewn with the remains of previous victims, including humans, other vertebrates, and invertebrates. Among the remains is the shell of a large marine snail that the dragon must have captured from the nearby sea.

In the background, we have ships and other craft (being a Venetian, Carpaccio was familiar with these), and the town from which the princess has become isolated. There are several castles that would provide protection, but they are too far away, something that would have been perceived readily by mediaeval viewers of the painting.

Madonna del Prato (1505) by Giovanni Bellini


Bellini shows Mary in a pastoral setting, cradling the infant Jesus. As we look to the middle distance, we see cows and a cowherd, and a crane with wings partially outstretched, resembling the wings of an angel. Another bird sits in the branches of a dead tree, acting as a contrast to the crane, and this bird is black and is a symbol of death, a device sometimes used in paintings. On the right, we see the town from which the Madonna and Child are isolated, the castellated walls emphasising that it is a place of refuge. All viewers know Jesus’ eventual fate.

Castles as impregnable fortresses

The Enchanted Castle [Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid] (1664) by Claude Lorrain


The story of Cupid and Psyche is told in Metamorphoses by Apuleius, written in the second century of the common era. It is a complex story of love and passion, with Psyche falling hopelessly in love with Cupid, even though she had only met him in darkness. After she lit a candle to see what he looked like, Cupid ended the relationship and Psyche attempted suicide. The story did have a happy ending though, as they were reunited and Psyche became immortal.

In this painting we see Psyche yearning to see Cupid, who is in an impregnable castle and is thus unattainable. The symbolism is powerful and the melancholy atmosphere created by Claude certainly adds to the tension of the scene, with the luminosity of the background highlighting the adjacent landscape and casting the castle into shadow. It is a powerful painting.

Château de Chillon (1874) by Gustave Courbet


Château de Chillon was built on a rocky island on the shores of Lake Geneva, near Montreux. From the 12th to the 16th Centuries it was occupied by the Counts of Savoy and was then captured by the Bernese and, later, by the Vaudois. It has a commanding strategic position on the lake and alongside a trade route. In Courbet’s painting, we feel a sense of impregnability and the castle is the only obvious sign of human influence in an otherwise natural landscape.

The slope of the mountains in the background emphasises the isolation of the castle and the sunlight falling on one wall, echoed by the light on the distant mountainside, draws our attention to its massive construction. Further emphasis comes with the luminosity of the background behind the castle, focussing our attention on its imposing strength. The castle symbolises the power of the Counts, and also shows that humans can produce buildings whose grandeur matches that of Nature. However, we know that castles are only transient.

Castle ruins and despair

The Ruins of Castle Landskron in Pomerania (ca. 1825) by Caspar David Friedrich


Best known for his paintings of remote figures in harsh landscapes, Friedrich shows us how a ruined castle can convey a haunting sense of loneliness. It is isolated within the landscape, and what was once a bustling place, is now empty, with extensive damage around the windows, as well as to the main walls. We are left to wonder what life was like at Landskron, and what happened to its last residents: any power and influence has certainly gone and we are left with just a vestige, as successive owners neglected the castle and allowed it to fall into ruin. Painted in watercolours, Friedrich uses a light palette and we focus solely on the castle, and what became of it.

Hadleigh Castle. The Mouth of the Thames – morning after a stormy night (1828-9) by John Constable


If we get a sense of loneliness and quiet melancholia from Friedrich’s picture, we get rather different feelings from Constable’s painting of Hadleigh Castle. We know from the full title of the work that it shows the castle after an earlier storm, with the turbulent sky conveying the impression that it is still very squally. Being painted in oils, it has a much more disturbed feel than the watercolour by Friedrich, and both the castle and the sky convey a sense of anger. This is not surprising, as Constable’s wife had died in 1828 and anger is part of bereavement. The portrayal of a ruined castle, painted this boldly, gives an insight into how emotionally vulnerable Constable must have been when he painted it. Hadleigh Castle is all about pain and we can feel it.


There are so many other paintings that feature castles and it was difficult to choose six. My three categories for the symbolism of castles is not exclusive and it is interesting that castles are among the buildings that we most like to visit, whether intact or in ruins. They certainly stir the imagination.




 Large-scale illustrations of these works can be seen in these links:

St George and the Dragon (1502) by Vittore Carpaccio


Madonna del Prato (1505) by Giovanni Bellini

The Enchanted Castle [Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid (1664) by Claude Lorrain

Château de Chillon (1874) by Gustave Courbet

The Ruins of Castle Landskron in Pomerania (ca. 1825) by Caspar David Friedrich

Hadleigh Castle. The Mouth of the Thames – morning after a stormy night (1828-9) by John Constable





Wednesday, 25 March 2020

How a great auk “flew” from Durham to Glasgow


Fifty years ago, I travelled to Durham University to be interviewed for a PhD studentship to work with Dr Lewis Davies on the blackly larvae (Simuliidae) living in streams in Upper Teesdale. I had always liked moorland and the project involved regular sampling of streams on the Pennines, to collect larvae and then analyse the life histories and production of the populations. Among the questions I was asked at the interview were whether I was prepared to work on my own on the fells and whether I had a driver’s licence, as the studentship came with a short wheelbase Land Rover that would allow access to some of the rougher tracks that I would need to use. I was positive about the first, but I hadn’t passed my driving test and would need to do so. Despite this answer, I was offered the post and accepted readily.

I then needed to take an intensive course of driving lessons that resulted in a pass in what was a very high-pressure test. It was such a relief as I was very keen to go to Durham and I had been impressed by the wonderful city and, especially, the people whom I had met in the Department of Zoology. It wasn’t only the people that impressed – so did the stuffed great auk that had a prominent position at the foot of the staircase in the Zoology Building. I knew that these birds had become extinct but had never before seen a museum specimen and I found it fascinating.

When I moved to Durham, the great auk became a “friend” as I had to pass it as I made my way upstairs to the common room, where we took coffee. Recently, I was intrigued to read about its history, and current location, in a paper by R.A.Baker  in the Archives of Natural History [1]. It is worth quoting from his paper:

The ”Durham” Great Auk had a long association with the University of Durham, from about 1834 to 1977 – a span of over 140 years.. ..Canon Thomas Gisborne (1758-1846), a Prebend at Durham and early benefactor, bought and presented the Great Auk to the new university.. .. When science was re-established at Durham in 1924, the Great Auk was transferred to the newly-built Dawson building and insured against fire and theft. J.J.O.Mason, the Head of Science at the time, recalled “When I came, I begged it for the new department (Science), remarking that some day we should have a Zoology department, which would be glad of it.”.. ..By the late 1970s the Head of the Department of Zoology at Durham, Professor David Barker, decided to sell the specimen.. ..Some disquiet was expressed after the sale was agreed. The sale went ahead on the agreement that the money raised would be placed in a fund “to make purchases to maintain the quality of the zoological specimens teaching collection”.. .. The auction of the “Durham” Great Auk took place at Sotheby’s in London on Wednesday 21 September 1977 and was sold to a Michael Pilkington for £4200.. .Mr Pilkington eventually decided to sell the Auk, and gave the museum [the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, where it had been on loan] the first option on it. The Glasgow Great Auk Appeal, launched the day before the 150th anniversary of its extinction, helped to raise sufficient funds for the museum to purchase the specimen for £30,000 in 1994.

It continues to be exhibited at the Kelvingrove Museum (see below), although I have not been to visit my old “friend”


What is the attraction of extinct animals? We are all familiar with the enthusiasm that many have for dinosaurs and the ammonite fossils of the Jurassic Coast, and these animals became extinct millions of years ago, overtaken by evolution and climate change. Those factors may also explain the much more recent demise of mammoths (like dinosaurs, strong favourites with the public), but very recent extinctions, like that of the great auk and some other flightless birds, were the result of human exploitation. We know that Ole Worm (1588-1654) had a live specimen from the Faroe Islands that he fed on herrings and he also had at least one stuffed great auk in his private museum [2]. With the rise of interest by collectors in rarities, and with little defence against humans, great auks didn’t stand a chance, having already been taken as food and for their feathers [3,4]. Perhaps our fascination with them results from a sense of loss and a recognition that we have been responsible for their being wiped out - and knowing that we will never see one alive? 

It is all a long way from collecting blackfly larvae in Upper Teesdale, but the Durham great auk certainly had, and continues to have, a strong appeal for me. I think it is a pity that it was sold (at what appears a knockdown price), but good to know it “lives on” in Glasgow.


[1] R.A.Baker (1999) Going, going, gone – the “Durham” Great Auk. Archives of Natural History 26:113-119.

[2] A.V.DeLozoya, D.G.García and J.Parish (2016) A great auk for the Sun King. Archives of Natural History 43:41-56.

[3] W.R.P.Bourne (1993) The story of the Great Auk Pinguinis impennis. Archives of Natural History 20: 257-278.

[4] T.R.Birkhead (1994) How collectors killed… New Scientist Issue 1227 May 28th 1994.