Charles Waterton

Charles Waterton was born near Wakefield in 1782. He was educated as a Roman Catholic at Tudhoe, near Durham and at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire. He sailed for Spain in 1802, escaping an outbreak of the plague in Malaga. In 1804 he travelled to the family plantations in Demerara, returning home on the death of his father in 1805. He continued to take responsibility for the plantations until 1812, at which time he set out on an expedition to the Demerara forests. He went to search for samples of curare poison, which he obtained and later brought to widespread knowledge for its anaesthetic properties. He sailed for England in 1813, probably suffering from malaria. He spent the next three years at Walton Hall, declining an invitation to explore Madagascar due to continuing ill health.

In 1816 he returned to South America, collecting more than 200 specimens of birds. He developed an alternative method for preserving his specimens using alcohol and bichloride of mercury. He taught this method to John Edmonston, a freed slave, who later taught Charles Darwin how to stuff birds.

After spending some time in Italy during 1817-18, Waterton returned to South America in 1820. Despite contracting yellow fever, he managed to spend 11 months in the forest, collecting 230 birds, a cayman, giant anteater, sloth and five armadillos, amongst other things. On his return he enclosed the grounds of Walton Hall with a wall (completed in 1826), banning the use of guns and creating the country's first bird sanctuary and nature reserve. He returned to South America for the fourth time in 1824. In 1825 he published Wanderings in South America, the north-west of the United States, and the Antilles in the years 1812, 1816, 1820, and 1824. He married in 1829, but his wife died in 1830 following the birth of their only child, Edmund.

Waterton travelled to Europe in 1830, 1840 and 1844, collecting many new specimens. Despite his many absences, around this time he made many improvements to Walton Hall, including improving the drainage of the lake, and laying out a new garden and pigeon cote.

After the death of his wife, Waterton adopted some eccentric habits, including sleeping on the bare floor of a small room at the top of Walton Hall and wearing shoes which were several sizes too large. He sustained severe internal injuries in a fall in May 1865 and died a few days later. He was buried by the lake at Walton.

Bibliography

Foote, Yolanda, 'Waterton, Charles (1782-1865)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Oct 2006) [ accessed 29 June 2009]

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