Thursday, 20 April 2017

Wonderful first-hand observations of shore life

We can all learn from the observational skills and industry of Nineteenth Century Natural Historians. Equipped with hand lenses, microscopes, pens, pencils, paper and paints, they recorded what they saw and this formed the basis of the classification of organisms and the ecology and behaviour that was to follow. I hold them in very high regard, especially when it is now so easy to record an image, or access information. Yet I wonder whether we have lost some of the skills shown during the heyday of Natural History? Much of our information now comes from television and video programmes that have excitement engendered by Hollywood-style production values, "appropriate" music, and a charismatic presenter to front the whole package. We are just passengers, often receiving what we are told uncritically.

The enthusiasm, powers of observation, and skill in illustration of Nineteenth Century Natural Historians are exemplified by William Pennington Cocks (1791-1878), whose work is included in the Haddon Collection in the Horniman Museum [1]. Although Cocks was interested in a wide range of animals, the Collection contains the notes he made on sea anemones that were used by Philip Henry Gosse in the preparation of Actinologia Britannica, his book on the British sea anemones and corals. Here are some examples of the notes that he sent to Gosse:


In the first (above, upper), we have a water colour sketch of sea anemones attached to the under-surface of a rock. This gives little detail of the animals, although Cocks provides the name of the species in the heading, but we certainly have a feel for their location. Next (above, lower), there are several species of sea anemones, all painted in colour and with detail of their structure and their positioning. Several locations are given, including Gwyllyn Vase, a favourite site of Cocks on the shore near Falmouth and now known as Gyllyngvase. He also placed sea anemones into jars, or tumblers, of sea water to facilitate observation (below, excuse my thumb in the first picture) and the drawings show details of structure that would be very helpful to others working on the biology and classification of these animals. 


Cocks recognised the value of the microscope and this is emphasised in a note (below): "If you have not examined the tentacula microscopically I would recommend a campaign in that quarter – we know little or nothing of the anatomy of the actinias".

His study of the biology of sea anemones included their feeding and three examples are given below, complete with the examination of two fish that had been partially digested. The lowest illustration shows a sea anemone with stinging acontia discharged [2] – "the appearance of one of these irritable fellows a few moments after removal from natural quarters".


Cocks' interest in anatomy and diet is not surprising as he was trained as a surgeon and became well known in London for his medical illustrations. He had a gift for drawing and for painting in water colours, although he appears to have received no formal training (unlike Gosse, whose father was a miniaturist). This is what Tom Barnicoat writes in an article entitled "The Gilbert White of Falmouth" [3]:

Born in 1791, the son of a Devon surgeon, Cocks took up his father's profession in London before retiring to Falmouth in 1842 at the age of 50. This was apparently due to recurring bouts of unspecified ill-health which continued for the rest of his life. Cocks' constitution must have had an underlying strength, given his active life and longevity: for the next 36 years, he was not only a prolific naturalist, but also keenly engaged in local politics, for the Liberal cause. His main contribution was a stream of lively cartoons and caricatures. Cocks was also an acute social observer, in his writing and drawings of contemporary mores..

..That he was a man of his time is clear, a certain type of Victorian professional with sufficient leisure (and thus means) to pursue a wide range of interests in that age of curiosity and discovery. From all the published sources, it would seem he was also an inveterate bachelor, there is no mention of family life anywhere.

F. Hamilton Davey in his appreciation of Cocks in 1909 adds [4]:

While Cocks will always be spoken of as a distinguished local naturalist, no reference to his life's work can be deemed complete which omits mention of his achievements in departments other than those connected with natural science..

..Everyone who knew Cocks speaks of him as a most genial companion and a man who never, even in his old years, lost touch with young men. To spend an evening with him, or to accompany him on one of his natural history rambles, was an event long to be remembered. He had a fine sense of humour, was a brilliant conversationalist, and his memory was as reliable as a written diary.

Clearly, Cocks was of a quite different personality to Gosse, who was shy and dedicated to his literalist Biblical beliefs. We know of the importance of Gosse to the increasing popularity of marine science, parlour aquaria and microscopy in the Nineteenth Century, as Edmund Gosse wrote two biographies of his father, including the well-known Father and Son. Few are familiar with Cocks, yet we know that he corresponded with Gosse and others about sea anemones and his correspondence was valued, which is why the notes by Cocks were retained and then gathered into the Haddon Collection. Stella M. Turk wrote in 1971 [5]:

If like Proust we think of our personal pasts as stilts on which we must balance, then we must also believe that science itself rests on its past – often precariously. The ability to manoeuvre such stilts is related to an understanding of their origins. Our present highly specialised, statistically-based professional attitudes in biology could not have come about had it not been for the few highly articulate, industrious and many-sided amateurs who helped to lay the foundations of modern natural history studies in the last century. Dr. W. P. Cocks, still alive less than a century ago, and in his working life a valued correspondent of such outstanding authorities as Milne Edwards, Yarrell, Gosse, Couch, Johnston and Ralfs.. ..was just such a naturalist.

Food for thought for those of us who continue to believe in the importance of the study of Natural History. Viewing the Haddon Collection was an exciting adventure for me, as I greatly admire the Natural Historians of the Nineteenth Century, their powers of observation and their means of communicating what they saw. Would Cocks have been surprised to know that someone was admiring his field notes in a Museum, more than 150 years after they were written?

[3] Tom Barnicoat (2008/2009) The Gilbert White of Falmouth. Thepolymagazine  pages 11-13.

[4] F. Hamilton Davey (1909) William Pennington Cocks, M.R.C.S. Reports of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society 76: 82-91.

[5] Stella M. Turk (1971) Wiliam Pennington Cocks (1791-1878), a West Country naturalist. Journal of Conchology 27: 253-255.

I would like to thank the Horniman Museum for allowing me to view the Haddon Collection and to reproduce the illustrations in this post. Michael Carver, Judith Hann and the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society provided valuable insights into the work of W. P. Cocks and it is a pleasure to acknowledge their help, together with that of Anna Holmes and Graham Oliver of the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

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