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Victorian Church’s Doctor Dolittle

13 April 2017

Serenhedd James on a naturalist who did the salmon a favour

The Man Who Ate the Zoo: Frank Buckland, forgotten hero of natural history

Richard Girling

Chatto & Windus £18.99


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I HAD not heard of Francis Trevelyan Buckland (1826-80) until I encountered him in the rooms opposite Richard Meux Benson’s at Christ Church in the mid-1840s, courtesy of Mildred Woodgate’s Father Benson: Founder of the Cowley Fathers (Geoffrey Bles, 1953).

Buckland père, William, was successively a Canon of Christ Church and Dean of Westminster, and one of the world’s leading naturalists; and his far-ranging work was ably supported by his talented and accomplished wife, Mary. Their son Frank was just as gifted as his parents, and perhaps even more eccentric in his pursuits.

When Buckland fils went up to Christ Church in 1844, he took with him a burgeoning menagerie of animals, which he lodged in his rooms and in the courtyard outside. It included marmots, snakes, a jackal, a monkey, an eagle, several guinea pigs, to name but a few. The benign chaos that they visited on the college was appreciated and enjoyed by many of his contemporaries; although, after sauntering into evensong one afternoon, the tame bear was sent packing by the Dean, even though it had been wearing a gown. Today’s undergraduates are barely allowed to keep goldfish.

Buckland’s interest in animals ranged far and wide, and his written output was prodigious. His adult expertise — a combination of incessant practical study and an uncanny intuition that was almost always accurate — made him the most sought-after authority on zoology of the mid-Victorian era; and he was admired, literally, by prince and pauper alike.

Buckland is, incidentally, the man to thank for the fact that salmon may still be caught in the rivers of the British Isles. Had he not, as Inspector of Salmon Fisheries, recognised and insisted on the necessity of adding salmon ladders to the new weirs that straddled ancient waterways after the advent of the Industrial Revolution, they might well have disappeared for ever.

After decades of neglect, Richard Girling has brought Buckland out of the shadows with panache. Buckland was clearly a man of parts who exuded bonhomie from every pore; and he never quite seems to have lost the sense of boyish glee which he brought to his work. A profoundly attractive character, he nevertheless died exhausted and relatively young.

Buckland was a devout theological conservative, and (by today’s lights) a Creationist. Girling is a self-professed atheist; but he is punctiliously fair in his judgements. It is impossible not to be left with the impression that Frank Buckland was one of the most remarkable men who ever lived; and Girling does him proud.


Dr Serenhedd James is Director of the Cowley Project, and Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

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