Papers of John Cordeaux

Scope and Content

The collection includes lecture notes, copies of articles, four ornithological field notebooks (1876-1888) and several hundred letters, including over 100 from Gatke (1874-1895) and 95 from Professor Alfred Newton (between 1868 and 1899).

Administrative / Biographical History

John Cordeaux was one of the foremost ornithologists of his day. He was the eldest son of the Reverend John Cordeaux (b.1802) who held livings successively at Tothill, Lincolnshire, and Foston and Flickney in Leicestershire. John the elder married Elizabeth Taylor of Tothill, and they had six sons and five daughters. John, their first child, was born at Foston Rectory on 27 February 1831. He began his education at Sheffield Collegiate School, after his father had become vicar of St Mary's, Sheffield. On his father's move to St Giles, Liverpool, young John and his four brothers moved to Liverpool College. As a child he often visited the home of his maternal grandfather, Christopher Taylor, at Tothill, near Louth, and it was here that he first gained his love of nature, exploring that part of Lincolnshire between the Wolds and the sea. Ironically, he enjoyed shooting from an early age - wild duck, snipe and golden plover. When he was about 22, his great uncle, Richard Taylor, died and left him the right of occupancy of Great Cotes House and the tenancy of an adjoining farm and land. He later became agent for Sir Richard Sutton, and managed the Sutton estates in the Great Cotes area, where he remained for most of the rest of his life. In 1860 he married Mary Anne Wilson of Horton Hall, Cheshire. They had two sons.

Great Cotes, close to Grimsby and about one mile from the Humber estuary, was an ideal place for the study of birds and their migration. Cordeaux's visitors were customarily treated to a 20-mile trek through the marshes to Tetney. His comprehensive natural history records are shown in his four surviving notebooks, one entry from which is particularly poignant:

2 Dec [1879]. Very severe frost, water froze in hand basin in bedroom soon after being poured out. Walked in marshes in afternoon . . . there was a flock of 10,000 golden plover . . . when they rose I could not see daylight through them.

Like Morris, his early publications were modest affairs. His first contribution to The Zoologist appeared in April 1864, and concerned an influx of goldcrests on the east coast in October 1863. His first pioneering work was in the area of bird parasitology, in an article which appeared in The Zoologist in March 1869. As a meticulous recorder of natural life, his Birds of the Humber District was based chiefly on observations made during the previous decade. In it he listed 276 species, and provided details of their habitats in the Humber area, including Spurn, to which he was a regular visitor. A revised edition appeared in 1899, in which 322 species were listed.

However, the area in which he perhaps made his greatest impact was migration studies. This may have been influenced by the visit he made in September 1874 to Heinrich Gatke, secretary to the governor of Heligoland (which was a British possession until 1890). Gatke was a renowned expert on bird migration. The two men kept in regular contact by letter thereafter, describing their respective findings to each other.

Cordeaux began his first small-scale enquiry into migration patterns on the Yorkshire and Durham coasts in the autumn of 1876, and published the results in a short paper in The Zoologist in January 1877. These were based on observations collected from lighthouse and lightship keepers. In his own recordings he noted how many of the migrating birds were shot as they came in to land. On repeating the experiments in 1877 and 1878, it quickly became apparent that a rapid fall was occuring in certain species, notably the short-eared owl, as a result of large-scale shootings in previous years. In Scotland, John Harvie-Brown followed Cordeaux's example, and organised a similar enquiry. Cordeaux and Harvie-Brown undertook a joint enquiry in the autumn of 1879. Printed forms and letters of instruction were sent to 64 lighthouses and lightships around the Scottish coast and 37 stations on the east coast of England. Their report was published in the May 1880 issue of The Zoologist. Alfred Newton, Professor of Zoology at Cambridge, delivered a paper to the British Association at Swansea in August 1880 on their findings and as a result he, Harvie-Brown and Cordeaux were invited to form a committee, with the last as secretary, to report on the next survey. This survey was expanded to cover the west coast of England, the Channel Isles and the Isle of Man, and about 160 stations were involved. Thereafter the Committee became more formally constituted, with an annual grant from the British Association. The ninth and last report was issued in 1887. A summary of the reports was eventually published in 1896.

Between 1864 and 1898 Cordeaux produced some 476 papers, reviews, and other publications. His stature as a researcher was recognised fairly late in life: in 1893 the Lincolnshire Naturalists' Union was founded, and Cordeaux was elected President. In 1896, the Yorkshire Naturalists' Union invited him to be their President. He died on 1 August 1899 and is buried in Louth cemetery.


U DCR/1 Photocopies of articles and lectures, 1883 - 1898

U DCR/2 Photocopied correspondence, 1864 - 1899

U DCR/3 Photocopies of notebooks and notes, 1876 - 1897

U DCR/4 Photocopied miscellanea, 1869 - 1899

Access Information

Access will be granted to any accredited reader

Conditions Governing Use

Dr W L Cordeaux

Custodial History

Deposited by Dr W L Cordeaux, March 1979, through the good offices of John Cordeaux's biographer (and former head porter in the Brynmor Jones Library) the late Brian Pashby. Transferred into the custody of the British Trust for Ornithology, 16 April 2004.

Related Material

Papers of T Michael Clegg [U DCG]

Papers of Reverend F O & Reverend M C F Morris [U DX21 & U DP180]

Records of the Association for the Protection of Sea Birds [U DSB]

Location of Originals

Originals held at the British Trust for Ornithology [GB 3119]