Saturday, 27 February 2021

Natural History in the Middle of London

 'What's hit is history, what's missed is mystery.'

A rather gnomic comment, unless you are a birdwatcher who knows something of the history of their hobby. For rather than the simple, unalloyed pleasure of watching birds, your Victorian/Edwardian naturalist seems to have felt that his day (and it was inevitably a he, of course) was not complete without having shot a number of the objects of his study out of the sky.

The phrase immediately came to mind while poking about in the stacks of Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (where I am lucky enough - still - to work part-time) when I chanced upon L/SMB/E/5/2, the accessions book of the Stepney Borough Museum covering 1904-1933. An unremarkable volume perhaps, but I couldn't resist a peek and there under 15 May 1911 was confirmation that the Museum paid four shillings and took receipt of two specimens of the Blue-headed Wagtail (Motacilla flava flava)! These unfortunate Motacillas had been shot by one R. M. Presland at Walthamstow (Marshes, presumably) in August 1910, along with a Grey Wagtail (what did the man have against Wagtails I wonder). I immediately took against this Presland character, forming a mental picture of a mustachioed, trigger-happy oaf in tweeds, apt to blast away indiscriminately at anything that came in range. My dislike increased when I saw, with incredulity, that Presland also sold the Museum other specimens: a Red-backed Shrike, a Little Stint, a Brown Owl - a Tawny Owl presumably - a Blackcap and a Tree Pipit, the latter purchased for six old pence!

But personal dislike of this hitherto obscure historical character aside, a couple of points are worth making about this archival curio; firstly, who would have thought that the collections at THLHLA, with their overwhelmingly urban bias, would have furnished us with such a fascinating nugget of natural history. And secondly, were these specimens really Blue-headed Wagtails -  a pretty rare bird I thought, and the Wagtails are easily confused. 

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