Correspondence of Charles Waterton, Naturalist

Scope and Content

Bundle of correspondence to and from Charles Waterton. Includes notes on contents and correspondence provided by Jessie M Sweet.

Administrative / Biographical History

Charles Waterton was born on 3 June 1782, at Walton Hall, Sandal Magna, near Wakefield. He was the eldest son of Thomas Waterton and his wife Anne.

Waterton attended a small preparatory school at Tudhoe, near Durham, and then Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, where his interest in wildlife was already apparent. It was said he became a formidable rat catcher on the establishment.

In 1802 Waterton sailed for Spain with his younger where they stayed with uncles in Malaga. Following an outbreak of the plague the brothers escaped the quarantined area and returned to England.

On 29 November 1804 Waterton travelled to British Guiana where he took charge of the family plantations at Demerara. He later gave up this responsibility and travelled extensively. Whilst travelling he successfully obtained samples of curare. He later demonstrated the anaesthetic properties of the drug that influenced its widespread use in later years.

In 1813 he sailed home to England having contracted an illness. He spent three years at Walton Hall to recover.

On 19 March 1816 Waterton returned to South America, landing in Brazil. He successfully collected animal specimens and returned to England in 1817. Waterton preserved his specimens using a unique method, soaking them in a solution of alcohol and bichloride of mercury (corrosive sublimate), and then shaped from the interior, leaving a hollow, rather than stuffed specimen.

In February 1820 Waterton set sail for his third visit to South America. He contracted yellow fever, and prepared his own cure, which included bloodletting. During this trip he collected 230 birds, 2 land tortoises, 5 armadillos, 2 large snakes, a sloth, a giant anteater, and a cayman. On his return his collection was withheld for several weeks until the duty was assessed.

After returning to Walton Hall, Waterton erected a wall which enclosed the park, turning it into a nature reserve and bird sanctuary, which was probably the first of its kind.

In 1824 he sailed to New York, and from there he travelled in Canada and the United States. In the autumn of 1824 Waterton sailed from New York to the West Indies, and travelled on to Demerara. In January 1825 he completed his final tour of Guiana, and sailed back to Southampton.

In August 1825 Waterton published his account of his travels in Wanderings in South America, the north-west of the United States, and the Antilles in the years 1812, 1816, 1820, and 1824.

On 18 May 1829, Waterton married Anne Mary, daughter of Charles of Cardross Park, Dumbarton, and his wife, Helen. However the marriage was cut short when, after the birth of their first child, Anne Mary died on 27 April 1830.

From 1830 Waterton travelled in Europe, but continued to make improvements at Walton Hall when he was in England.

In 1865 Waterton died after a bad fall in his estate. He was buried on 3 June 1865 between two oak trees in his park.

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Archivist's Note

Description prepared National Museums Scotland Library.

Created by Jane Ronson (Archives Hub team) using the Archives Hub EAD Editor, March 2014.