The day the ‘Sea elephant’ came through the roof – Explore Your Archive Week | Library and Archives

Elle Larsson is a PhD student at King’s College London, researching the specimen and archival collections related to Lord Walter Rothschild, at the Natural History Museum (at both South Kensington and Tring). A significant part of this involves going letter by letter through the volumes of correspondence of the Museum at Tring. In the following blog, Elle highlights one particular letter which describes the planned arrival for a very large #AnimalArchive acquisition in 1900.

Being able to delve into the Archives of the Museum has to be one of the most exciting things about doing a collaborative PhD with the Museum. In my case I’m looking at the Tring correspondence collection, the papers and letters which came from Lord Walter Rothschild’s (1868-1937) Zoological Museum at Tring (now the Natural History Museum at Tring). I am not a scientist but a historian and am looking to find out more about Rothschild’s zoological enterprise and scientific work. The Museum Archive is a critical source of information for my research.

Photograph of a paper unfolded in its middle with several lines of cursive handwriting on each side of the fold.
7 April 1900 correspondence between Lord Walter Rothschild and Ernst Hartert

In recent weeks I’ve come across some fantastic items including original watercolour drawings completed by Clara Hartert the wife of Tring curator, ornithologist and zoologist, Ernst Hartert (1859 – 1933), while on an expedition with her husband; a letter which contained feathers originally sent in 1894; and cheque stubs which reveal the colossal sums of money that changed hands as natural history specimens were traded. However it is the letters which relate to specimens held in the Museum collections, which add a whole new dimension to the work I’m doing. Recently I came across two letters which referred to a ‘Sea Elephant’ and one which can still be seen in Gallery 5 at the Natural History Museum at Tring.

It’s a huge specimen and easily comparable to the dramatically overstuffed and famous Walrus of the Horniman Museum in South East London. These two letters, sent to Hartert on 7 April 1900, reveal both Rothschild’s excitement at the prospect of receiving what he calls a ‘unique specimen’, but also his trepidation about how to actually get it into the museum and onto display.

Photograph showing the mounted skeleton hanging from the ceiling with the taxidermy walrus on top of some cases beneath the skeleton
When you visit Gallery 5 and look up the mounted Walrus skin is on top of the cases and the mounted skeleton is hanging nearby

The letter begins with Rothschild recalling how he’d been to Gerrard’s, one of his favoured taxidermists, to ‘inspect’ the sea elephant. He describes it as being ‘18 feet 9 inches from tip of mouth to end of flippers & about 5 feet through from side to side’ concluding that ‘It certainly is most extraordinary & quite unlike the ♀ in the B.M’.

Photo showing the animal from its side and below, with the roof of the Museum visible above.
The sea elephant as seen from side on

In fact, Rothschild recalls how in life it was reported to weigh 4 tonnes ‘just the same weight as “Jumbo” the great African elephant’ famously owned by London Zoo.

Contemplating the arrival of such a large specimen Rothschild concluded that it would:

‘be impossible to turn it between the door & the staircase’ and instead proposed that they ‘pull it up to the roof, take out the skylight & let it through so’.

You can imagine that what followed may have been a rather comedic scene, as the sea elephant finally arrived and was hauled into place by museum staff! Sadly, I’ve no photographic evidence of this but the letters themselves do a good job of animating this story and recreating an aspect of life at the museum, one where every specimen has its own story to tell.

By Elle Larsson (@Elle_Larsson)

To learn more about the collections held by the Library and Archives, including the electronic resources we subscribe to (most of which can be accessed by external researchers using our reading room), and how to make an appointment to research in the public reading room, please visit our webpages.

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