Nature 2018 December

Did you hear the one about the eccentric vicar?

It has struck me as interesting that so many of the naturalists who gained fame before the 20th century were often also vicars. A bit of research revealed there were so many more than I had imagined. In fact, almost every stone I turned revealed a country parson who had also been interested in the natural world. It seemed to go with the job. So I have picked a small selection whose behaviours were even found strange by their contemporaries.

The Reverend Charles Shaw was ordained in the late 1950s and practised his vocation in and around the Bolton area. Beyond his own parishioners what reputation he did have was not as a priest but as a botanist. His particular obsession was discovering alien plants that had invaded this country or had escaped captivity, somehow appearing on those marginal forgotten or ignored areas, such as industrial dumps or rubbish pits.

One of his favourite sites to visit was polluted ground beside the Crown Wallpapers factory in Bolton which was frequently flooded by the discharge of effluent from the factory. In pre-synthetic wallpaper days the paper was made using discarded rags and plant materials, much of which was imported from abroad. The paper manufacturing process used acids to break down fibres. Amongst the waste water dispersed were seeds and tubers. Subject to abrasion the seeds were stimulated to germinate and some of the tubers sprouted new growth.

Amongst the waste tip Charles found many exotic plants successfully growing and indeed propagating. Examples included date palms, carrots and parsnips. Over the years his reputation grew and he became known by his fellow priests as ‘the vicar of weeds’. Some of you may know Roy Lancaster (of Gardeners’ Question Time fame), who became Charles’ protégé, and accompanied him on plant hunting trips.

Charles went on to discover many new varieties of native species as well as a long list of ‘exotics’ that have since become semi-naturalised invasive species.

About the time Charles Shaw had begun to discover his exotic plants the Reverend Keble Martin was already 80 years old. Having studied botany whilst taking holy orders, Martin continued his botanical interest by first cataloguing and then publishing a flora of Devon. This achievement must have spurred him on to study the whole of Great Britain’s plant species, though it was not until his 80th year that he published his magnum opus: The Concise British Flora. As an accomplished botanical illustrator he produced a flora containing his own excellent drawings that are both accurate and naturalistic.

To achieve such realism Keble Martin was committed to sketching his botanic examples in situ. If seeking to draw cliff-edge plants, for example, he might take along ropes and grappling hooks and having secured the rope around a convenient rock and the other end round his waist, he would swing out to reach the ledge from which the specimen grew, and hanging there used pencil and notebook to sketch away.

Going back to the 18th century we find the earliest examples of what has been described as ‘the parson antiquarians’. Scientific study of the natural world was only in its infancy. One important explorer of the medical, natural and ancient world was the Reverend William Stukeley. Before he became a vicar he studied medicine. During his studies he was known to steal dogs so he could dissect them! He became a doctor in London, but on hearing that an elephant had died his old instincts came back and together with Hans Sloane, who would later found the British and Natural History Museums, he dissected the pachyderm as part of an autopsy. They concluded that the elephant’s death had been hastened by ‘a great quantity of ale’ given to it by spectators!

Stukeley was described as having acquired over the years most, if not all, the eccentricities of the gentlemen who became his acquaintances. He seemed universally liked and once, when he was laid up with an ailment, he was visited in a single day by over 120 of his friends. His biographer described him as simultaneously “a mixture of simplicity, drollery, absurdity, ingenuity, superstition and capable of being pathetic, charming, admirable, and laughable by turns”. He is known for his investigation and theorising over the purpose of Stonehenge which he concluded was down to the Druids. In later life he adopted the name ‘Chyndonax’ as he identified with the Druids in a personal capacity and was known by friends as ‘The Druid’.

Today almost all the scientific community and at least the majority of the population are comfortable with Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution by natural selection. As Charles also took holy orders and some of his habits were certainly eccentric, it’s tempting to include him as another eccentric naturalist vicar. However, I think we should consider Darwin an eccentric but genius protégé of a number of the more enlightened natural philosophers whom he met and corresponded with during his formative years.

One of these mentors was the Reverend William Buckland. He was firmly wedded to the biblical account of the creation of the Earth and subsequent deluges, the last of which being Noah’s Flood. However, during geological field trips Buckland discovered fossil evidence that caused him to question the biblical account of the history of the world. He discovered the fossil bones of the first giant reptile which he named Megalosaurus and led, twenty years later, to the coining of the term dinosaur by one of his contemporaries.

Despite Buckland’s sound scientific approach he too was an eccentric. He undertook field work dressed in gown and cap, lectured classes on horseback and filled his home with animals, both living and dead with whom he also conversed. Most extraordinarily, Buckland practised zoophagy. This is eating one’s way through the animal kingdom. He hosted dinner parties where guests were presented with everything from flies to mice, crocodile and panther. The story reached legendary proportions when he was once shown a heart, believed to be that of King Louis XIV. Before anyone could intervene he had grabbed it and gobbled it up in its entirety!

Looking at the lives of these vicars it is perhaps not totally surprising why so many were also interested in studying the natural world. Studying holy orders at University was mostly the vocation of the sons of gentlemen and as the curriculum was not that taxing there was plenty of opportunity to take up and pursue other pastimes; hunting or collecting being suitable activities. Perhaps the loneliness of the country parson, starved of the company of like-minded gentlemen, also meant they were just one step away from acquiring eccentricities.

I hope you have enjoyed or at least been amused by this bunch of eccentric vicars.