Legacies from letters | International Women’s Day 2022

As International Women’s Day drew closer, and with preparations for the move of millions of collections well underway, it got me thinking about the role women played in the original 1881 move of collections from the British Museum in Bloomsbury to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, as well as their contributions to the early development of the collections and research.

The Museum as we know it today first opened on Easter Monday, 18th April 1881, following the move of 50,000 minerals, 338 volumes of the Sloane Herbarium, huge fossil specimens such as Archaeopteryx and much more. This was followed a year later with the move of the zoological collections which took 394 trips by horse and cart, over 97 days! At the time women weren’t formally able to be employed at the Museum, a rule that stayed in place until 1928, but many women had already played a key role in helping to build the collections and uncover more about the natural world.

With the incredible guidance of the Museum’s Archives team, I was lucky enough to spend some time trawling through past letters, artwork and more to seek out new tales, titbits, and stories of some of these lesser-known women of the collections and Museum science.

Some of the earliest records of women in the Museum archives are often found in one-off letters sent to the science departments. These were usually with the offer of specimens, requests for identifications or visits to the collections, or even proposals for new collecting trips. You could spend hours searching through these archives (trust me I’ve done it!) just to get a small glimpse into the early life of the growing collections – from Victorian ‘curiosities’ to averting infestations or notes from a field trip.  Here’s a few of the favourites we found…

1855 – A ‘great curiosity’ for sale

In 1855 Miss Heath of ‘New Brentford’ presented a curiosity for sale to the British Museum. ‘I have a very great curiosity, that I want to dispose of, it is a stuffed Colt with only three legs!’ Although it is difficult to work out whether the specimen was actually acquired for the collection, this would no doubt have been just one of many diverse and wonderful offers to the curators at the time.

1875 – Early research

A third person letter from the house of Miss Prentice of Crayford, Kent highlights a very early example of women visiting the collections to carry out their own research. In the letter she requests a visit to the geological department to study the specimens, although it is unclear what she was specifically intending to research.

1877 – Avid collectors

A beautiful note presented by Miss Margaret Gaubbe of Blythburgh lists a whole range of herbarium specimens collected by a Miss Julia Gaubbe of Southwold between 1877 and 1884. The list shows the specimens had been collected from across the UK from her local area of East Sussex to much further afield in Amersham, Teddington, Forest of Dean, Colwyn Bay, Pendower and even Hampton Court!

1878 – Unwanted additions

A letter from Miss A Peckover to Dr Gunther (Keeper of Zoology) in 1878 sheds light on some of the less desirable additions to the collections and the complications with shipping specimens back from many thousands of miles away. In the letter she ‘requests [Dr Gunther] will kindly have the box of birds be destroyed as she fears they may do harm, she is very sorry’. It appears she is writing on behalf of an expedition from Madagascar. She ‘is much obliged for his kind suggestions for future packaging’, indicating increasing understanding of the problems of pest infestation and the potential threat this posed to existing collections.

1886 onwards – Meteorite marvels

An interesting series of letters comes from Miss A E M Anderson-Moorshead, who’s letters/postcards to L Fletcher, Curator of Minerals span from 1886 to 1899. The first letter is sent from the Industrial School of Andover suggesting she was likely a teacher. These schools were set up following the Industrial Schools Act 1857 which sought to remove ‘disorderly’ or neglected children from a ‘harmful’ home environment to a boarding school with a very severe learning and training regime. In this letter she talks about boys ‘who usually speak the truth – say they saw two meteors in the sky from Otterbourne Hill, between Winchester and Southampton – on the night of Nov 27. They describe them as seeming to meet each other and rebound. There was, I understand, no noise. Do you consider this a possible form of a meteoric fire-ball?’

She then goes on to visit the meteorite collections on multiple occasions to study them in person – on her first visit making her gender clear… ‘I am a lady and not a gentleman!’. She also asked for illustrations, for teaching and lectures on meteorites at different schools.

Before 1938 – Building the herbarium

A letter dated 1938 from Eastbourne Natural History Society provides details of Miss E Bray’s collection of dried plants and flowers. The collection includes pressed specimens and a larger album of dried plants annotated with ‘for talk: evidently’ indicating that Miss Bray not only built up a scientifically valuable collection of interest to the Museum but also used her collection to share and educate others on the natural world.

Maud Horman-Fisher (1859-1904) – Illustrations and exhibitions

The archives also make it clear the significant role of Maud Horman-Fisher in the science department. From the late 1800s she created exquisite entomological drawings for research publications and exhibitions and played a major role supporting the museum and the scientific community. There are also references to her work being used for gallery exhibitions, specifically working with Ernest Edward Austen, then Keeper of Entomology, on around 85 different coloured drawings for the insect gallery from 1897.

Although she was well-known and well-respected at the time, some letters show Maud’s requests for additional work and indicates that she relied heavily upon illustration commissions to assist her mother and her family.

Emily Mary Bowdler-Sharpe (1868-1928) – A research first

One of the many scientists that Maud Horman-Fisher provided illustrations for was Emily Mary Bowdler-Sharpe. Emily was an English entomologist and scientific illustrator who was one of 10 daughters of Richard Bowdler-Sharpe, curator of the bird collection at the Natural History Museum from 1872 until his death in 1909. Her illustrations supported countless publications on entomology and led to her being the first woman to be a first author on a paper in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London.

One letter from 1897 to Miss Bowdler-Sharpe shows the influence she had on the development of the insect collections. Charles C Baldwin Seal writes from Darjeeling (India) offering moths and butterflies for the collection. ‘I am making arrangements for the supply of moths and butterflies of this district’ ‘This latter district has never been properly worked and many new species should turn up.’ Interestingly they were also trialling out new fieldwork methods ‘this district is also likely to field new species as they [seem] to be attracted from far and near by the electric light which has lately been installed.’ There are also letters from significant donors such as the SS Duke of Buckingham.

Emily Mary Bowdler-Sharpe went on to describe new species of butterflies of Papilionidae and Pieridae collected on expeditions predominantly from Kenya.

This is just a minuscule snapshot of the wide-ranging impacts women have had on the Natural History Museum’s collections across its long history before and after the move from Bloomsbury. Why not take a look at some of the work of the current scientists, who are investigating everything from securing food systems to how the solar system began? The Museum has also recently launched brand new free Women in Science tours, which is the first of a future series of tours, Highlighting Histories, which will be shining a light on marginalised and historically underrepresented voices.

To find out more about the Natural History Museum at Harwell and to sign-up for email updates, including information on collections closures, visit our website . If you enjoyed this blog, why not share with your networks or on social media? You can also follow the project on Twitter and LinkedIn.