In the eighteenth century, trade and exploration flourished as the British Empire expanded. However, it wasn’t all about creating colonies and importing produce. Dru Drury (1725-1804), an eighteenth-century London silversmith, naturalist and author, saw the chance to develop an insect collection of unprecedented scope.
In the manuscript collection of the Library and Archives, we hold a number of Drury’s unpublished papers which consists of letters, instructions to ships’ captains, and private notebooks. His correspondence is interesting for many reasons as he was in contact with many of the great naturalists of the time including Carl Linnaeus but also his business dealings with goldsmiths all over Europe – the letters of which are more business-like, and quite formal.
Drury is best known for his insect collection and the publications drawn from it having amassed over 11,000 specimens at the time of his death. The relevance of his collection remains today as Drury’s collection, along with others like it, help scientists get an idea of the global biodiversity at that point in time.
Drury’s collection came from all over the Empire. He didn’t travel much, but he sought the assistance of fellow naturalists, sailors, and ships’ captains by convincing them to collect wherever they travelled. He wrote out instructions (including killing methods of fire or boiling water), and sent collecting equipment like pins, nets, and cabinets.
The rarer a specimen, the more he paid. Sometimes though, his collectors were a bit too keen – one sailor sent a box of specimens in which the butterflies had been carefully pinned, but other insects not properly killed resulting in Drury receiving a box of dead beetles and shredded wings.
Within the collection there are two particular little notebooks that tell us the most about Drury himself, and consist of an accounts ledger, recipe book, and medical text, with random musings in between. He makes notes to himself about everything from the dimensions of the room in which he writes, to the cost of burlap (hessian cloth) in London and a reminder to himself to wash his legs!
Original material like this can tell us so much we can see how literate someone is (Drury has a lovely hand, even if reading it for too long makes your eyes a bit tired) what they’re interested in, and gaining a sense of their personality.
This can be the really fun part – diaries and private notes show us that people two hundred years ago aren’t that different to us. They might not be worried about PC breakdowns, but they’re still concerned about money, parenting issues, and wonder how to balance life and work. Reading Drury’s notes, a picture begins to emerge of man with an orderly mind; this can be seen in his packing lists for trips to town or country, and detailed accounts of travelling expenses.
We can also use papers like these to get an idea of someone’s daily life, and the world they lived in. Drury read a lot of academic works, but he also enjoyed less serious publications, such as The Gentleman’s Magazine. This was a very well-known publication, published in London from 1731 until the early 20th century. It was very diverse in content – one 1760 issue alone covered Treatment of the disorder in horses, Rules for the German Flute and Flannel waistcoats improper for the army.
We know Drury was a keen reader of this periodical, as his notebooks mention many articles – Dr Parsons’ cure for the bite of a mad dog, recipes for making current wine, medical uses for eel skins. In copying out articles like Extracts from Count Rumford’s Essays on Cheap Food, he also tells us he was keeping an eye on household expenses (even if pounding herrings into soup, or soaking barley with wood ash doesn’t seem that appealing to us now).
To learn more about the collections held by the Library and Archives and how to make an appointment to research in the public reading room, please visit our webpages.
Written by Grace Touzel, Bibliographic Services Librarian