Charles Waterton

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Charles Waterton.

Charles Waterton (June 3, 1782 – May 27, 1865) was an English naturalist and explorer.


"Squire" Waterton was born at Walton Hall, Wakefield, Yorkshire to Thomas Waterton and Anne Bedingfield.

He was educated at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire where his interest in exploration and wildlife were already evident. On one occasion Waterton was caught by the school's Jesuit Superior scaling the towers at the front of the building; almost at the top, the Superior ordered him to come down the way he had gone up.[1] Whilst at the school, he records in his autobiography that "by a mutual understanding, I was considered rat-catcher to the establishment, and also fox-taker, foumart-killer, and cross-bow charger at the time when the young rooks were fledged. . . I followed up my calling with great success. The vermin disappeared by the dozen; the books were moderately well thumbed; and according to my notion of things, all went on perfectly right."[2]

Waterton was an early opponent of pollution. He fought a long-running court case against the owners of a soapworks which had been set up near his estate in 1839, and sent out poisonous chemicals which severely damaged the trees in the park and polluted the lake. He was eventually successful in having the soapworks moved.

South America[edit]

In 1804 he travelled to British Guiana to take charge of his uncle's estates near Georgetown. In 1812, he started to explore the hinterland of Guiana, making four journeys between then and 1824, and reaching Brasil walking barefoot in the rainy season. He described his discoveries in his book Waterton's Wanderings in South America[3] which inspired young British schoolboys like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

He was a skilled taxidermist and preserved many of the animals he encountered on his expeditions. However, he employed a unique method of taxidermy, soaking the specimens in what he called "sublimate of mercury." Unlike many preserved ("stuffed") animals, his specimens are hollow and lifelike. He also displayed his anarchic sense of humour in some of his taxidermy: a famous tableau he created (now lost) consisted of reptiles dressed as famous Englishmen and entitled "The English Reformation Zoologically Demonstrated." Another specimen was the upper half of a howler monkey contorted to look like an Amazonian Abominable Snowman and simply labelled "The Nondescript". This specimen is still on display at the Wakefield Museum, along with other items of Waterton's collection.[4]

Whilst in Guiana he taught one of his uncle's slaves, John Edmonstone his skills. Edmonstone, by then freed and practising taxidermy in Edinburgh, in turn taught the teenage Darwin. Waterton is credited with bringing the anaesthetic agent curare to Europe. Back in London, with Fellows of The Royal Society, he killed several animals, including a cat and a she-ass, with his curare and then revived them with a bellows. The ass was named Wouralia and lived for years at Walton Hall.

In the 1820s he returned to Walton Hall and built a nine-foot-high wall around three miles (5 km) of the estate, turning it into the world's first wildfowl and nature reserve, making him one of the western world's first environmentalists. He also invented the bird nesting box. The Waterton Collection, on display at Stonyhurst College until 1966 is now in Wakefield Museum.

Waterton died after fracturing his ribs and injuring his liver in a fall on his estate. His body is interred near the spot where the accident happened. His coffin was taken from the hall to his chosen resting place by barge, in a funeral cortege led by the Bishop of Beverley, and followed at the lakeside by many local people. The grave was between two oak trees which have now disappeared. It is said that a flock of birds followed the barge, and a linnet sang as the coffin was being lowered.

Alleged Eccentricities[edit]

A range of colourful stories have been handed down about Charles Waterton, not all of which are verifiable, but which add up to a popular portrait of an archetypal aristocratic eccentric:

  • Waterton had his hair cut in a crew cut at a time when a full head of hair piled up or brushed forward was in style.
  • In 1817, he climbed St. Peter's in Rome and left his gloves on top of the lightning conductor. Pope Pius VII asked him to remove the gloves, which he did.
  • In southern British Guiana (Guyana) his Makuxi Indians caught a large black caiman, hauled it onto a sandbank, and Waterton famously leapt onto the thrashing saurian and rode it for some minutes to the delight of his guides. He attributed this feat to his years of riding to fox hounds.
  • Waterton sometimes enjoyed biting the legs of his guests from under the dinner table, imitating a dog.
  • He tried to fly by jumping from the top of an outhouse on his estate, calling the exercise "Navigating the atmosphere".[citation needed]
  • He devised his own methods for preserving animal skins and used them to create unusual caricatures of his enemies. He also utilised his taxidermy skills to create models critiquing political events of the day.
  • He believed in the medical remedy of blood-letting, which was largely an abandoned practice at that point in time. When ill he bled himself heavily.


On 11 May 1829, at the age of 47, he married 17-year-old Anne Edmonstone. Anne was the granddaughter of an Arawak Indian. "His wife died shortly after giving birth to their son, Edmund. She was only 18. After her death he slept on the floor, with a block of wood for a pillow." [5]

Waterton was of a Roman Catholic landed gentry family descended from Reiner de Waterton. His ancestry[6] is alleged to include eight saints: Vladimir the Great, Saint Anna of Russia, the Holy Martyrs Boris and Gleb, Saint Stephen of Hungary, Saint Margaret of Scotland and Saint Mathilde together with Saint Thomas More, Humbert III of Savoy and several European royal families.

He was a descendant of the Old English Chieftain Ailric, Kings Thane to Edward the Confessor, who held Cawthorne and much of South Yorkshire before the Conquest. The heiress Sara le Neville inherited a vast estate from her grandfather Adam FitzSwain (the grandson of Ailric) and it passed to the De Burghes, then they to the Watertons in 1435. The Watertons were one of the few aristocratic families that refused to convert to the new Protestant religion during the reign of Henry VIII, and consequently the vast bulk of their estates were confiscated.[6] Charles Waterton was a devout, ascetic Catholic and maintained strong links with the Vatican.


Waterton is chiefly remembered for his association with curare, and for his writings on Natural History and Conservation. He has been described by David Attenborough as “one of the first people anywhere to recognise not only that the natural world was of great importance but that it needed protection as humanity made more and more demands on it”.[7]

His house, Walton Hall, approached only by a pedestrian bridge to its own island, is now the main building of a hotel. There is a golf course in the vicinity and various public footpaths, some leading to a nature reserve.

Waterton Lakes, now a national park in Alberta, Canada, was named after him by Thomas Blakiston in 1858. A Wakefield road and school are also named after him (Waterton Junior and Infant school) in the estate of Lupset, Wakefield.


  1. ^ Hewitson, Stonyhurst College, Present and Past
  2. ^ CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Charles Waterton
  3. ^ Waterton's Wanderings in South America. 
  4. ^ "Wakefield Museum". Culture 24, UK. Retrieved March 24, 2011. 
  5. ^[unreliable source?]
  6. ^ a b J W Walker OBE FSA. The Burghs of Cambridgeshire and Yorkshire and the Watertons of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. (1931) The Yorkshire Archæological Journal XXX 314-419.
  7. ^ Wakefield Express 23rd February 2013


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