Charles Waterton's 160-year old letters unveiled

28/05/2019, PR-9064

Ahead of his time: Newly acquired letters by Wakefield's Charles Waterton highlight 160 year old environmental warnings

Disappearing bird species, freak weather, badger culls and dangerous levels of air pollution.

Sounds like the news today but they are discussed in letters written by Charles Waterton (1782 - 1865).

The environmental warning were penned in letters to Alfred Ellis (1821 - 1879) who lived in Leicester and was Chairman of the Midland Railway.

Waterton was Wakefield's pioneering conservationist and explorer in the 1860s who created the world's first nature park in the grounds of his family home, Walton Hall.

He encouraged and nurtured bird species and took legal action against industries who had polluted his land in a time when there was no laws to protect the environment.

Wakefield Council has bought the letters from a private collector with support from the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund.

Wakefield Museums and Castles have acquired ten letters written by Charles Waterton to Alfred Ellis (1821 – 1879). Ellis lived in Leicester and was Chairman of the Midland Railway.

Cllr Jacquie Speight, Cabinet Member for Culture, Leisure and Sport said: "The letters further confirm Waterton's pivotal role in the development of environmental awareness. He was way ahead of his time, in the letters he is swapping notes with Ellis on bird habits and habitats and dealing with poachers. It would be decades before this kind of attitude was culturally acceptable. His protests still sound fresh today and, considering the present, fragile state of earth's ecosystems, we need to listen."

John Whitaker, Curator, said: "Waterton was a prolific letter writer often rising at 3am to write for an hour before attending to his home and park. We are privileged to have many in the museum collections, along with his notebooks. These, previously unpublished, are a hugely important and valuable addition our collections."

Ahead of his time

Wakefield Museum at Wakefield One includes The Extraordinary Life of Charles Waterton, a gallery which displays many of the preserved birds, animals and other unusual creations Waterton made for his museum at Walton Hall including the caiman he rode in a river in South America. The collection is on long term loan from his former school, Stonyhurst College.

Some examples from the letters:

On Ornithology:

"The year before last, the sand martins built in every hole which I had made for them in the garden.  This last summer we had none." Walton Hall, near Wakefield, 30th November 1859

On the weather:

"It was indeed the severest storm I ever witnessed….a limb of one of my choicest cherry trees was struck by the lightening, and a woman near the stables had her parasol broken by the same stroke." Walton Hall, near Wakefield, 29th July 1859.

On Other naturalists:

"Some of our great Doctors in zoology, having taken the adventurer [P. du CHAILLU, 1835-1903] by the hand, seemed determined to support him at the expense of truth." Walton Hall, near Wakefield, 10th July 1861.

On Hunting:

"Hen roosts are plundered; and our dovecotes rendered desolate." Walton Hall, near Wakefield, 4th December 1863.

"It will be no easy matter to encourage the barn owl ... shot by every farmer & every farmer's lad." Scarborough, 7th November 1856.

"The people of England seem determined to destroy the whole race of birds." Scarborough, 7th November 1856.


"The rooks seem gradually disappearing from our wretched, smoky, pestiferous and suffocating atmosphere." Walton Hall, near Wakefield, 1st May 1864.

"My Fauna, unlike to yours, does not thrive amongst our long-chimney Cannibals." Walton Hall, near Wakefield, dated 4th January 1864, postmarked 1865.

The Purchase 

The Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund is a government fund that helps regional museums, record offices and specialist libraries in England and Wales to acquire objects relating to the arts, literature and history.

It was established at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in 1881 and continues to be part of its nationwide work.

The annual grants budget, currently £724,000, is provided by Arts Council England National Lottery Funding

Each year, the Purchase Grant Fund considers some 150 applications and awards grants to around 100 organisations, enabling acquisitions of over £3 million to go ahead.

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