Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains

Colonel Montagu

Colonel George Montagu (1755-1815) is not a star of great magnitude in the firmament of illustrious dead naturalists. I cannot even claim for him that, like Patrick Mathew, he anticipated Darwin, or that, like Gilbert White, he wrote a book which everybody reads. Yet English field-naturalists have always been ready to give him his due as one of the earliest observers to describe with accuracy and scientific precision the many singular and interesting animals inhabiting our shores and countryside. Professor Edward Forbes wrote of him:

“Montagu’s eminence as a naturalist depended upon his acute powers of observation and the perspicuous manner in which he regarded the facts which came under his notice. . . . I have had occasion chiefly to test the observation of Montagu in cases where marine animals were concerned and have been astonished at the extent, variety and minuteness of his researches. He laboured at a time when there were few people who took an interest in marine zoology . . . but Montagu did not shrink from his work because he met few companions or found little sympathy. He steadily pursued his chosen task and laid the foundation of that thorough investigation of the Natural History of the British seas which now forms so distinctive and appropriate a feature of the science of our country.”

The older English naturalists — Yarrel, Rennie, Fleming, Selby, Day — all bear testimony to the value of Montagu’s work.

It may be surmised that we are about to deal with a very dull fellow indeed. Certainly it may prove difficult to stimulate general interest in the secluded life of a simple-minded country gentleman who spent his days in catching worms and starfish. Moreover, Montagu’s is not a personality requiring subtle psychological analysis. lie had no “temperament” and no “mission.” He started no movement and was the centre of no new “culture.” Neither the Pre-Raphaelites nor the Transcendentalists will be called into account. Let the dead bury the dead. Montagu was “un cœur simple,” and those happily unsophisticated few who still can pursue with delight the fortunes of Dr. Primrose and his spouse will not be slow in discovering in the chequered career and naive personality of this warrior-naturalist the same charm and the same idyllic quality which distinguish “The Vicar of Wakefield.”

There is no gainsaying Montagu’s enthusiasm for zoology. In 1789 he wrote to Gilbert White that were he not bound by conjugal attachment he would have liked to ride his hobby into distant parts. Lady Holland, the famous grande dame, records meeting him one day at dinner, when the Colonel “launched forth on the topics he is au fait of and during a three hours’ assemblage of people at and after dinner, he gave the natural history of every bird that (lies and every fish that swims.”

To trace the genesis of his love of natural history, which in those days must have distinguished him as a very eccentric person, it is necessary to go back to his early youth, when at the age of nineteen he fought in the War of the American Colonies as an officer in the 15th Regiment of Foot. In America he first began to shoot and collect birds, a few of which he prepared with his own hands, though with no further intention than that of presenting them to his Lucasta on returning from the wars.

Montagu had already, at the age of eighteen, married Anne, the eldest daughter of William Courtenay and Lady Jane Courtenay, sister of the Earl of Bute, who was Prime Minister to George III. Montagu himself was a man of some quality, his mother being the granddaughter of Sir Charles Hedges, Queen Anne’s Secretary; and his father, James Montagu, being descended from James Montagu, who was the third son of Sir Henry Montagu, first Earl of Manchester.

Montagu’s marriage turned out unhappily. Dates, and details are not available, but it is perhaps sufficient to say that he became eventually separated from his wife, and in 1799 was living with another lady at Kingsbridge in South Devon, where most of his best work in marine zoology was carried on.

Lady Holland, after remarking upon his reputed ill-temper and the separation from his wife, adds sardonically that he “. . . might inherit an estate from his brother if he would be united to her, but the condition is too hard and he renounces the possession of a benefit so encumbered.” His eldest brother James, dying childless, left the family estates at Lackham in Wiltshire to the Colonel’s eldest son, the Colonel himself receiving only a rent charge of £800 a year. A lawsuit followed, and father and son were arraigned against each other. The litigation was prolonged, and this, coupled with the son’s extravagance, ultimately deprived the family of their estate. Colonel Montagu was forced to endure the mortification of seeing all the fine old timber on the estate cut down and sold, and the valuable library and collection of relics and curiosities at Lackham House sold and disboursed under a decree of the court.

In later years, the loss of his three lusty soldier sons, John, James, and Frederick, brought further sorrow into the old gentleman’s life, and in the Parish Church at Lacock may be read the touching memorial he erected to the memory of Frederick, his favourite, who fell pierced through the heart by a musket ball, while leading his men to the charge at the Battle of Albuera in 1811.

In spite of Lady Holland’s gossiping references to a threatened court-martial, there is every reason to believe that Montagu himself was a very gallant soldier who lived up to the best traditions of English honour. His book, “The Sportsman’s Directory,” contains some very curious passages of instruction in the art of fighting a duel.

His house at Kingsbridge was full of curiosities and trophies, and “there were live birds all over the grounds,” and ducks, gulls, and all sorts of swimming-birds on the pond. This recalls Walton Hall, the residence of Charles Waterton, the “mad Englishman,” famous as a naturalist and as the author of the “Wanderings in South America.”

Life in the little town in Devonshire must have flowed very quietly. Although of ancient and honourable descent, Montagu founded his claims to respect upon individual merit rather than upon noble ancestry. He disliked pomp and ceremony of all kinds, and found his true measure beating through the brushwood to identify the song of the wood-wren, or digging up worms from the mud in the estuary: a life of seclusion broken occasionally by the “staggering” discovery of some new kind of beast or by the presentation of his memoirs to the Linnean Society. His mistress, Eliza Dorville, seems to have proved herself a valuable helpmate to the naturalist, for many of the drawings of the animals he studied bear her initials.

Montagu died of lockjaw in 1815 after treading on a rusty nail during the course of some repairs to the house, when a lot of old timber was lying about. His authoritative biographer, William Cunnington, in his short memoir in the Wiltshire Magazine, tells us that in his last illness, Montagu bore his sufferings with the equanimity of a philosopher and the fortitude and resignation of a true Christian. An old friend, the Rev. K. Vaughan, of Modbury, was at his bedside when he died. On being asked where he would like to be buried, the Colonel replied calmly, “Where the tree falls, there let it lie"; which seems to show that he met even the Last Enemy with a stout heart.

Many years ago when Kingsbridge Church was being restored, the vaults in the aisles were opened and the lead stolen from the coffins. Montagu’s coffin was the most massive of all, but the thieves succeeded in ripping off the lead, the remains of the coffin and the naturalist’s bones being pitched back into the vault.

Montagu’s fame as a naturalist rests mainly on his Ornithological Dictionary, which, at the time of its publication in 1802, formed an excellent compendium of information on the structure, life-history, and habits of our British birds. This curious old book, arranged in alphabetical order, established Montagu’s reputation. Even a superficial survey will convince the student of its worth. It was Montagu who first made known to science the beautiful Roseate Tern, which he named Sterna Dougalli in honour of Dr. M’Dougall, who sent him specimens from the Cumbraes in the Firth of Clyde. One of these historic specimens is still preserved in the Natural History Museum at South Kensington.

By paying strict attention to the changes of plumage incidental to age, sex, and season, Montagu achieved a great deal of useful work, and, among other things, proved that the “Greenwich Sandpiper” was only one of the many varieties of the Ruff; that the “Ash-coloured Sandpiper” is really the Knot. Similarly, he disposed of the “Winter Gull” which was only Larus canus, and corrected the mistake of “that celebrated author, Mr. Pennant,” concerning the “Brown Owl,” which was merely a variety of the Tawny species (Syrnium aluco). Montagu gave us the first adequate account of the natural history of the Dartford Warbler, and those who have learnt to recognize and admire the beautiful Cirl Bunting may like to know that Colonel Montagu first discovered the bird in this country. With the characteristic caution and critical discernment of the scientific man, Montagu hesitated to embrace Gilbert White’s heresy of the hibernation of swallows, believing the majority to migrate while a few only were detained by accident and, becoming torpid, perished before the return of warmer weather. It is usually stated that Mrs. Blackburn (Nature, 1872, Vol. V., p. 383) first confirmed Jenner’s controverted statements about the cuckoo’s ejection of the young of the foster parent. But Montagu’s remarks on this subject in the Dictionary in 1802 support and confirm Jenner’s remarkable discovery, and there is no reason to disbelieve the Colonel’s word that his own observations were actually made before those of Jenner.

We learn from Cunnington that Montagu always kept his word, was always punctual, precise in his methods of work, punctilious over questions of fact, and in industry indefatigable. These jots and tittles of evidence point straight to the conclusion that the Father of English Ornithology was a good type of the average man of science — accurate, conscientious, thick-fingered, laborious, practical, excellent. Perhaps he was also pig-headed, irascible, and proud. Anyway, if the reader be tempted to dip into the Ornithological Dictionary — and I heartily recommend the experiment — he will find therein revealed another characteristic which easily falls into line with the rest and completes the picture for us: the Colonel could not spell, and he struggled with the English Syntax like a lion in a net! The critics — oh! serious critics! — taxed the old gentleman with writing “ossious,” “curviture,” “delatable,” and for such formidable English as, “With all these reflections formed on the known laws of Nature, evinced by daily experience, we can have no more doubt of the identity of these two shrikes as distinct species than we have that they are different from the Cinereous Shrike.”

Using the butt end of his pen, he repulsed the attack of his critics by likening them to “assassins with hands continually imbued with blood.” Critics and assassins followed “congenial trades,” for “each stabs in the dark and are too frequently actuated by similar motives.”

Proficient in the use of the gun, pistol, and scalpel, the gallant Colonel probably found the pen fiddling work, and after all, love, marriage, and war at the age of nineteen scarcely form the right psychological climate for acquiring a pure English style.

There is no space to speak fully of Montagu’s interesting discoveries in marine zoology. He discovered several new fishes, and added the beautiful Butterfly Blenny to the British list. In the “Testacea Britannica” 470 molluscs are enumerated, upwards of a hundred of which had not been described before, or else were then for the first time ascertained to be British.

Quite a tour de force in its way was his “Spongia Britannica,” for in Montagu’s time it was no easy matter to write a book on British sponges, as next to nothing was known of their structure, and systematic writers therefore had to rely upon inadequate and superficial characters for differentiating species. Montagu himself speaks of it as an “occult science,” and it is very much to his credit that succeeding authors have been unanimous in regarding his sponge work as “good as far as it goes.”

It is natural of course to compare him with his correspondent and more famous contemporary, Gilbert White, the association being more by contrast than similarity. Both were neld-naturalists who drew “the hidden treasures from their native sites.” But Montagu was an efficient zoologist who mentally photographed and faithfully recorded phenomena in a series of memoirs to learned Societies. White strolled in his garden or on Selborne Hanger, and then wrote a letter telling us what he had observed. Moreover, White was a scholar and wrote tolerable verses. There is a delightful personal flavour in his book, and the “Natural History of Selborne” is as fresh to-day as if the ink were still wet on the page. The hard, impersonal verities, which Montagu recorded with a graceless pen, have long since passed into the body of our general information, and there remains no particular cause, unless it be curiosity, to seek out the archives in which they are entombed, and no bounden duty, unless it be gratitude, to perpetuate the memory of the man to whom, whether naturalists know it or not, they are indebted for a large proportion of our seaside natural history and the natural history of our British birds.

1915. Reprinted from Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London.

HTML edition by Ray Davis, free for any use.