Album of Correspondence and Photographs of Henry Dresser, Ornithologist

  • Reference
      GB 133 Eng MS 1404
  • Dates of Creation
      1811-1907 [bulk 1865-1905]
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
      English . Some letters are in French , German  and other European languages.
  • Physical Description
      300 x 240 mm. 1 volume, i + 22 + 122 + i folios, paginated pp. 1-242 (pp. 174-239 blank); gathering of tabbed index leaves at the front of the volume (22 ff.). Contains 461 items (including 219 letters, 205 photographs and 15 printed reproductions of photographs). Medium: paper. Binding: half-bound in red morocco, buckram covered boards, marbled pastedowns, all edges gilt.
  • Location
      Collection available at The John Rylands Library, Deansgate

Scope and Content

Henry Dresser’s album contains 219 letters from, and 225 photographs and other portraits of, over 250 individuals, including most of the leading ornithologists and naturalists in Britain, Europe and North America during the last third of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. The album serves as a proud and tangible record of Dresser’s extensive scientific networks, for it appears that Dresser began to compile the album in the 1860s and that he explicitly utilised his networks to solicit correspondence and photographs to incorporate in the album. His biographer, Henry McGhie, states that Dresser ‘valued his acquaintances with other naturalists greatly and collected signed letters and photographs from them from the mid-1860s onwards, which he kept in an album. He wrote to John Harvie-Brown in 1869: “Please send me a photo so that the light of your countenance may shine in my ‘bird room’ when I open my book of collectors.” His album [...] represents fifty-odd years of social advancement in ornithological society.’ (McGhie, pp. 75-76)

Among the notable ornithologists and naturalists represented in the album are: George Augustus Boardman (/9/e-f, /45/c, /84/a); Charles Darwin (/52-53); Daniel Giraud Elliott (/31/b, /43/d, /48/b); Arthur Hay, Viscount Walden, ninth marquess of Tweeddale (/40/a, /63/d, /78/b, /87/b); Wilfrid Hudleston Hudleston (/163/a-b, /164/d, /173/c); Thomas Huxley (/56/a, /142); Sir John Lubbock (/55/c, /88/a); Alphonse Milne-Edwards (/48/a, /49/c); St George Jackson Mivart (/68/b, /138/a); Alfred Newton (/i/b-d, /1/a, /96/b); Thomas Littleton Powys, fourth Baron Lilford (/40/b, /93); Heinrich Gottlieb Ludwig Reichenbach (/41/e, /49/b); Count Hercules Turati (/8/b, /9/b, /10/b); Jules Pierre Verreaux (/18/a-b, /19/b); and Alfred Russel Wallace (/32/b, /39/b, /41/c, /241/a-k, /242/a).

As is evident from the preceding list of significant subjects, the 219 letters, 205 photographs and 15 printed reproductions of photographs are pasted into the volume in no obviously meaningful order. They are not arranged by surname, date, nationality or discipline, and while a letter and photograph relating to a single individual may appear on the same or adjoining pages, frequently an individual’s letters and photographs are widely dispersed through the album. Some pages are crowded with items, and yet the last quarter of the album remains blank.

Dresser’s album constitutes an important source for the historiography of natural history (especially ornithology) in the period from the 1860s to the 1900s, for the history of international scientific and social networks, and for the history of portrait photography.

Administrative / Biographical History

Henry Eeles Dresser (1838-1915) was born in Thirsk, Yorkshire, the eldest son of Henry Dresser, a bank manager and later a Baltic timber merchant, and his wife Eliza Ann née Garbutt. In the early 1850s Henry junior was sent to Germany, Sweden and Finland to learn the local languages and to prepare him to take over the family business. He developed an interest in ornithology in his early teens, collecting birds’ eggs and skins. During the 1860s Henry Dresser travelled extensively in Europe and twice visited Canada. He also travelled to Mexico and Texas during the American Civil War, trading on behalf of Liverpool and Manchester merchants.

Dresser became one of the leading ornithologists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, epitomising the amateur gentleman-naturalist in an era before natural history was professionalised within scientific institutes, universities and museums. His commercial success (from 1870 in the iron industry) provided the wealth and opportunities for travel that enabled him to develop both vast collections of birds’ eggs and skins and an extensive international network of contacts with fellow zoologists and ornithologists. He was elected a member of the British Ornithologists’ Union in 1865 and served as its secretary from 1882 to 1888. He was a member and fellow of the Linnean and Zoological societies of London and was an honorary fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union. He knew all the leading ornithologists of his day, both in Britain and overseas, and he was a close friend of several, such as Alfred Newton, Thomas Littleton Powys, 4th Baron Lilford, and Alfred Russel Wallace. Despite amassing vast collections of specimens and eggs, Dresser was an early advocate of conservation and he was heavily involved in the early Society for the Protection of Birds (which later became the RSPB).

Dresser published more than 100 scientific papers and a number of important monographs on birds, which drew upon his own extensive collections and his international scientific networks. The monographs included A History of the Birds of Europe, with Richard Bowdler Sharpe (1871-81, supplement issued in 1895-96); A Monograph of the Meropidae, or bee-eaters (1884-86); A Monograph of the Coraciidae, or rollers (1893); A Manual of Palaearctic Birds (1902-03); and Eggs of the Birds of Europe (1905-10).

Dresser’s collection of some 10,000 specimen skins was purchased by Manchester Museum in 1899 for £1000, the funding being provided by John Thomasson of Bolton (McGhie, pp. 196-7). Dresser’s main egg collection was also bought by Manchester Museum in 1913 (after initial transfer in 1911), the purchase being part-funded by the sale of the Museum’s copy of Audubon’s elephant-folio Birds of America.

Henry Dresser married Eleanor Walmisley Hodgson (1854-1937) in 1878. They had three children: Henry Joseph (1879-1916), Brenda Eleanor (b. 1879) and Phyllis Caroline Eeles (b. 1884) who all adopted the surname Walmisley-Dresser. Henry Joseph had a distinguished military career; he served with Paget’s Horse in the South African War, and in the First World War he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, before being killed in the Battle of the Somme on 17 September 1916.

Sources: Henry A. McGhie, Henry Dresser and Victorian Ornithology: Birds, Books and Business (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017); Wikipedia contributors, ‘Henry Eeles Dresser’, in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia (11 March 2022), retrieved 6 November 2022.


The items are listed according to their physical arrangement in the album. The numbering system represents the page on which an item appears; where there is more than one item on a page, they are differentiated thus: Eng MS 1404/1/a, Eng MS 1404/1/b, etc.

Access Information

The volume is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

The volume was purchased by the Library from the London booksellers Maggs Bros Ltd in July 2007, for £28,000, with generous financial support from the Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material (PRISM) Fund and Manchester Museum.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the volume can be supplied for private research and study purposes only, depending on the condition of the material.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the volume. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, The John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

The custodial history of the volume after it left Henry Dresser’s possession is unknown.

Related Material

Cambridge University Library holds 299 letters from Henry Dresser to the leading zoologist Alfred Newton (1829-1907), 1860-93, ref. MS Add. 9839/1D/208-507.

The Natural History Museum Archives, London, holds various documents from or relating to Henry Dresser, including: 55 letters, 5 postcards, 2 invoices and 1 list of birds’ eggs from Dresser to the Tring Museum, 1893-1902, refs TM/1/1/17, TM/1/6/19, TM/1/12/14, TM/1/19/17, TM/1/26/19, TM/1/33/16, TM/1/42/8, TM/1/49/5, TM/1/55/14, TM/1/62/7; 41 letters, 15 postcards, 1 memorandum and 1 specimen list from Dresser to Ernst Hartert, 1903-1913, refs TR/1/1/24/116, TR/1/1/25/129, TR/1/1/26/152, TR/1/1/27/144, TR/1/1/28/150, TR/1/1/29/175, TR/1/1/30/129, TR/1/1/31/162, TR/1/1/34/132; 5 letters and 1 postcard from Dresser to A. C. L. G. Günther, 1875-90, refs DF ZOO/200/2/237, DF ZOO/200/11/146, DF ZOO/200/13/197, DF ZOO/200/25/84, DF ZOO/200/38/98-99; 2 letters from Dresser to the Palaeontology Dept, 1907 and 1909, refs DF PAL/100/43/40, DF PAL/100/47/263; 1 letter from Dresser to William Henry Flower, 1887, ref. DF ZOO/200/31/130; 1 letter from Dresser to the Bird Section, Zoology Dept, 1896, ref. DF ZOO/230/1/62; 2 letters from Dresser to the Reptile Section, Zoology Dept, 1907 and 1908, refs DF ZOO/235/1/1/8/58, DF ZOO/235/1/1/9/61; 1 letter from Dresser to Walter Rothschild, 1904, ref. TR/1/1/25/12.

According to Henry McGhie’s biography (pp. 2-3), there are over 70 letters from Dresser to the American ornithologist George A. Boardman in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington DC, 1862-71, ref. SIA RU007071; 22 letters to the ornithologist Richard Sharpe in the Blacker-Wood Autograph Letter Collection at McGill University Library, Montreal, Canada; 62 letters to the Scottish ornithologist and naturalist John Harvie-Brown in the library of National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh, 1869-73; and almost 100 letters to the Russian ornithologist Sergei Buturlin in the Ulyanovsk Museum of Local Lore, History and Economy, Ulyanovsk, Russia.


G. W. H. Davison, ‘Dresser, Seebohm, and the Scope of Palaearctic Ornithology’, Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, Supplement No. 29 (2013), 259-68.

Henry A. McGhie, Henry Dresser and Victorian Ornithology: Birds, Books and Business (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017).