The Dennis Leston Collection: Reverend J. G. Wood and natural history in Victorian Britain

The Natural History Museum Library holds over 30,000 rare books including several named collections that have been acquired through donation, purchase or bequest. One such collection is that of the entomologist Dennis Leston (1917-1981). Comprising just ninety-nine volumes, it is the smallest named collection and was donated to the Museum’s Library by Leston in 1958.

Black and white photograph of Dennis Leston sat at a desk in the British Museum (Natural History). Date unknown.
Dennis Leston, in the British Museum (Natural History), date unknown. Source: NHM Library and Archives portrait collection.

Dennis Leston was born in London on 21 February 1917 and was educated at St. Clement Danes School which he left after passing the General Schools Certificate. By his own account he worked in the street markets of London by day and played jazz music in illegal clubs by night. He served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in World War II and spent most of his service in the Far East.

Being in the Far East piqued Leston’s interest in entomology so, at the recommendation of one of the Medical Officers, he ordered a copy of Imms’ A General Textbook of Entomology (1925) from a New Delhi bookshop. Having no formal university education in the form of a first degree, Leston read scientific literature voraciously and developed a keen interest in Heteroptera. He collected, studied and dissected with indefatigable energy and developed an extensive private library by purchase and exchange.

Leston joined the (then) South London Entomological Society in 1948 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society a year later, making his mark as a regular attendee, exhibitor and contributor to discussions. Leston was described by his contemporaries as a ‘chirpy’ cockney, a hypobolic [sic] extrovert and a brilliant morphologist, collector and field worker.

The Leston Collection

A selection of decorative bindings from volumes in the Leston Collection
Selection of volumes from the Leston Collection in the Natural History Museum Library

In 1958 Leston donated a selection of books to the Natural History Museum Library. The collection comprises solely of various editions and issues of the works of Reverend John George Wood (1827-1889), the volumes are bound in richly decorated Victorian cloth bindings or have fabulously colour-illustrated covers. Each volume has a book plate on the front pastedown that reads: ‘Presented by DENNIS LESTON, Esq. 1958’. Despite being the smallest named collection, it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful assembly of books on the shelves within the Library due to so many of the books having been bound in decorated cloth bindings.

The significance of this collection, however, goes far deeper than decorative bindings and gilt edges as these volumes are amongst some of the most popular books to be published in Victorian Britain.

Popular Natural History in Victorian Britain

In the middle of the 19th century, natural history had become something of a craze. Where it was once the sport of the aristocracy and wealthy collectors, it was now gaining momentum amongst the middle and working classes. The practice of natural history itself – rambling, observing, collecting – generally required little equipment which could be cheaply obtained or made by hand and with the wider industrial advances in transportation, technology and mass production of books, this made the practice and study of the natural world more widely accessible. Developments in mass book production techniques reduced printing costs and fuelled a thriving book industry which meant that increasingly natural history literature was abundant, available and affordable.

Not only were natural history books more readily available, but the content was also transformed. Scientific terminology was replaced in some cases with more generalised and comprehensible language for the layperson and was therefore accessible to an audience wider than the typical scientific circles of the time. Publications on natural history were only marginally less popular than the novels of Charles Dickens. Reverend J. G. Wood would become one of the most prolific natural history authors of the day and his substantial literary career further embedded natural history in the realms of popular culture in Victorian Britain.

The Reverend John George Wood (1827-1899)

Side-profile portrait of J. G. Wood and print of his signature
Portrait and signature of J. G Wood, frontispiece of Wood’s My Back Yard Zoo, 1886.

John George Wood was born in London on 21 July 1827 before moving to Oxford with his family in 1830. This enabled the young Wood to lead an outdoor life and develop an interest in natural history; Wood once described himself as ‘a six-year-old naturalist with a magnifying glass in one hand and an empty pill box in the other’. Even as a child he recorded all his findings and checked them at the nearby Ashmolean Library in Oxford.

From an early age, Wood intended to take the Holy Orders. He was ordained deacon in 1852 and went on to undertake several church appointments throughout his lifetime. In 1850, to supplement his clerical salary, Wood decided to take up literary work to generate some income from his interest in natural history.

At the time, according to Wood’s son Theodore, the study of natural history was a ‘hard, dry science, teeming with technicalities and incomprehensible phraseology’ and was largely inaccessible to those who lacked formal scientific education. Wood set out to write a small natural history encyclopedia for the general reader using simple and comprehensible language, declaring that his aim was to ‘fill the study of natural history with poetry and spirit’. His first book Illustrated Natural History was published in 1851 by Routledge & Co. and was so well received that he resolved to continue writing.

Over the following years, Wood continued to expand his literary output. Common Objects of the Sea-shore appeared towards the end of 1857 and was met with an immediate and marked success, creating a demand that the publishers could scarcely keep pace with. Even more popular was Common Objects of the Country (1858) with the first edition of 100,000 copies selling out within a week. These charming pocket-sized books were an instant success and saw various new editions and re-issues over many decades, several of which are held in the Leston collection.

Notwithstanding the wider cultural interest in natural history, the popularity of these volumes can be attributed to several key factors. The language was plainly intelligible and engaging, and any use of scientific terminology was accompanied by simple explanations. The volumes themselves were small and therefore easily portable to coastlines and the countryside where they could be used as field guides. The richly illustrated covers and bindings captivated buyers and the pages peppered with fine illustrations and clear descriptions made identification of species easier. Wood valued the importance of illustrations and employed some of the most prolific artists of the day to illustrate his works. For Common shells… Wood enlisted the talents of George Brettingham Sowerby II (1812-1884), grandson of the famous naturalist James Sowerby (1757-1822).

Frontispiece and title page of Wood's The common shells of the sea-shore volume. Displaying illustrations of shells and molluscs.
Title page of The Common Shells of the Sea-Shore, J. G. Wood, with illustrations by G. B. Sowerby. From the Leston Collection in the Natural History Museum Library.

Books as objects: documentary heritage

As book historian David Pearson writes: ‘The ways in which books are made, owned, written in, mutilated and bound all add something to the documentary heritage which is central to the record of human civilisation.’ By assessing their condition, bindings and annotations, the volumes in the Leston Collection grant us a unique snapshot of Victorian culture. A wonderful example is the illustrated front covers of undated editions of Common Shells of the Sea-shore and Common Objects of the Sea-shore. Both depict scenes of people in Victorian dress combing the beach for shells and other objects. Interestingly, the people depicted are mostly women, which demonstrates that Wood targeted a wider audience outside of the largely male-dominated natural history and scientific circles.

The popularity and usefulness of these books is revealed by their condition; many are well-worn, damaged from travel and frequent use, displaying stained covers, tattered bindings and pages cockled from exposure to the elements.

Two images of illustrated front covers of Wood's Common objects of the sea-shore and Common shells of the sea-shore
Front covers of Common Objects of the Sea-Shore and Common Shells of the Sea-Shore from the Leston Collection in the Natural History Museum Library

Although some would lament their condition, these books were made to be used, to be taken to the seaside and countryside, to be shared and to be treasured. Many were given as gifts to loved ones, evidenced by inscriptions on their title pages and flyleaves. That these books were being presented as gifts decades after their first press is demonstrable of their enduring popularity.

Three images of inscriptions made in the title page of books by Wood. First reads to Alexander, 5th March 1885. Birthday gift. From Father. The second reads To my darling George, with best love from Mother. Jan 1927. The third reads Reggie. With his brother Charlie's best love. Christmas, 1914.
Handwritten inscriptions inside various volumes of J. G. Wood’s work, from the Leston Collection in the Natural History Museum Library

Natural history and religion

Wood was a dedicated member of the clergy as well as a passionate naturalist, and these two interests seemed to compliment each other well. Wood felt that as a holy man and a ‘true zoologist’, it was his duty ‘to search into the essential nature of every being, to investigate the reason why it should have been placed on earth, and to give his personal service to his Divine Master in developing that nature in the best manner and to the fullest extent.’ Like the sermons he gave over the course of his life, Wood wanted to share his knowledge of the natural world with the widest possible audiences.

Natural history also aligned with Victorian Christian values of education, morality and duty – and of keeping the hands and mind busy. In a wider societal context, Wood lived and published at a time when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was sweeping through scientific circles and the western world more widely. Although Wood was generally opposed to the idea of evolution, he acknowledged that Darwin’s theories were in no way opposed to religious thinking. 

A prolific literary output

In his lifetime, Wood published more than seventy books and undertook extensive lecture tours, seeking to make the study of the natural world bright, interesting and accessible. Wood set out to further popularise the study of natural history and to engage those of a non-scientific background. In that he was an undoubted success, and the enduring popularity of his work is undeniable; the printing of Common Objects of the Country came to an end after its 20th edition in 1922, sixty-four years after its first press. As a result, Wood has been cited as ‘a forerunner of today’s natural history authors and TV presenters.’

The volumes in the Leston Collection in the Natural History Museum Library are artefacts that today represent a national passion for natural history in Victorian Britain. These well-thumbed volumes tell a bigger story than their words alone. These books are physical evidence of the popularity of natural history and how the study captivated a wider audience.

Perhaps Dennis Leston, having no formal scientific education himself, found inspiration in Wood’s volumes and decided to donate this wonderful collection to the Natural History Museum Library to inspire future generations to study and engage with the natural world.

Front cover of Wood's New Illustrated Natural History
Wood’s Illustrated Natural History, 1851. From the Leston Collection in the Natural History Museum Library.

Many J. G. Wood titles are now freely available to view online at Biodiversity Heritage Library:

The common moths of England

Common objects of the country

Common objects of the microscope

Common objects of the sea shore

Common shells of the sea-shore

Illustrated Natural History

Out of doors; a selection of original articles on practical natural history

Wood’s popular natural history

Bibliography and further reading

Deely, J. and Deely, T. 1990. Who was… Rev. J. G. Wood? Biologist : journal of the Institute of Biology, Vol.37 No.3

Merrill, L. (1989) Romance of Victorian Natural History. New York ; London: Oxford University Press.

Southwood, T. R. E. 1982, Dennis Leston, PhD (Ghana), D.I.C., 1917-1981, Antenna, Vol.6, No.1

Wood, T. (1890) The Rev. J. G. Wood: his life and work. London: Cassell.

For more information about the Library and Archives and to search across all of our collections please visit our webpages.

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