Frank Buckland: 'the man who ate the zoo'

From front cover of 'The man who ate the zoo' by Richard Girling, published by Chatto & Windus.
From front cover of 'The man who ate the zoo' by Richard Girling, published by Chatto & Windus.
As Victorian eccentrics go, Frank Buckland was a prime specimen, writes Martin Spray. But this new book about his rich and remarkable life is much more than a collection of anecdotes about his extraordinary doings, his inordinate curiosity about the natural world, and the animals he kept - and ate: a stimulating companion for wet days, cold evenings and wakeful nights.
Frank sampled a splendid range of pieces of zoo deaths, but he also acquired and sampled whole or parts of bodies of almost everything from whales down to earwigs. Why? To know what they tasted like.

In her fascinating book English eccentrics, the eccentric English poet Edith Sitwell describes the long-bearded lord who spent his days in his bath, the 140-year-old countess who climbed an apple tree, and a scale of commoner mortals who might all be gathered into the folder labelled 'Mad'.

Yet none of them seems to be better suited there than the subject of Richard Girling's book, Francis Trevelyan Buckland.

Girling has written the hilarious and sometimes unbelievable story of the ludicrous programme of exploits that filled the life of someone who, though little remembered today, was once as esteemed as Charles Darwin.

He was also one who could share his dining table with luminaries of the calibre of Michael Faraday, Thomas Henry Huxley, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel, and John Ruskin - and also with dwarves, giants, 'exotic' natives, and conjoined twins.

The comparison is interesting, although Frank Buckland was unlike Darwin in several respects. First, he was no Darwinist: indeed, he was a resolute Victorian creationist. Nor was he properly a scientist: he was not a dispassionate gatherer of evidence for (and against) some general theory, but was a tireless seeker of answers to questions that his experiences prompted.

Torrents of creative energy ...

Some people - Frank was an exemplar - have apparently inexhaustible stores of energy and determination to spend on finding these answers. Those of us who do not, look upon them with awe, admiration, and blatant envy. The routine 14-hour day that Girling suggests Frank worked seems somewhat inadequate for the task.

And it was not just the finding of answers. There was then the writing of accessible and popular articles that flowed from his pen in torrents.

Among them were articles on a generous array of all the topics that intrigued the naturalist, as well as many that interested an observer of human nature, and subjects that today we would think at least twice about popularising, known then as (human) freaks, and commonly viewed for a few pennies at the peep show.

These torrents went to magazines such as Bentley's Miscellany, The Field, Land and Water, and Charles Dickens's Household Words, and to newspapers. Later, his experience and knowledge were collected into books with such titles as Curiosities of natural history, Notes and jottings from animal life, and The natural history of fishes, and towards the end of his life into official reports.

His writings were lucid for Victorian readers, though sometimes he seems to have been too quick to find an answer to questions that niggled him - a characteristic that I think he did not share with Darwin, who, for instance, allowed himself to draw only "tentative conclusions" on The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms after years of observations and experiments. If only some of today's scientists were so cautious and patient ...

Frank sampled a splendid range of pieces of zoo deaths, but he also acquired and sampled whole or parts of bodies of almost everything from whales down to earwigs. Why? To know what they tasted like.

Rampant 'acclimatisation' of exotic species

A topic that recurs several times in the book is the 'acclimatisation societies' that appeared around the middle of the century. These are largely forgotten - which I find a little odd with the increasing interest in and controversy of introduced plants and animals around the globe.

Frank established such a British society, modelled on one founded in Paris in 1854, which, although it had a life of only a handful of years, was itself a model for others in the Anglophone world. It fostered Frank's concern to find new sources of protein to add to the diet of Britain's poor underclass.

The society experimented tentatively, receiving, for instance, two emus and a wombat, and erecting a fish hatchery. Frank's interest in fish and fisheries grew, and his reputation; so much that in 1867 he was thrilled to become a Home Office Inspector of Fisheries - a post in which he appears to have worked himself to death.

Frank was involved in the introduction of varieties of non-British fish, as well as paving the way for the reestablishment of natives, notably salmon, where our sewer-substitute rivers could be cleansed. He provide the Antipodean acclimatizers with fish eggs, got by standing in mid-stream in mid-winter. This was not a way of improving his health.

An extreme curiosity about the natural world

Frank's curiosity about the world - 'natural' and human - stayed with him to the end. It had become insistent at an early age. A trail of notes, quotes and anecdotes allows Richard Girling to follow Frank's eccentric experiences from his first recorded words as nearly a four year old - "the vertebrae of an ichthyosaurus" - to his last, at a few days over 54.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this is the child-ish attitude with which Frank explored the world, and which he never lost. It may not have been the openmindedness that (theoretically) the scientist has (and some actually have), but it ensured that everywhere and any time there was likely to be something of interest to find and explore. In that respect, I think he and Darwin found common ground.

I would not wish to spoil your reading of the book by pre-empting that with a detailed review of the things and episodes that engaged Frank - just a few appetisers. First, though, the zoo: This is not meant quite literally. Frank sampled a splendid range of pieces of zoo deaths, but he also acquired and sampled whole or parts of bodies of almost everything from whales down to earwigs. Why? To know what they tasted like.

At school, he was a "universal favourite", at least with his fellows, who "brightened with amusement at the sound of his loud voice and merry laugh". With teaching and domestic staff, he must have had a mixed, dynamic, relationship, fuelled by such things as dissections-in-progress stored under his dormitory bed, and de-fleshing skeletons put on the roof.

The undergraduate Lord Byron was (in)famous for the menagerie, including bear, he kept. Frank Buckland also kept his bear cub while at university - and his monkey, jackal, marmots, rats, eagle, snakes, frogs ... and lesser beings, preferably poisonous. Escapes seem to have been frequent.

When he was a surgeon with the 2nd. Life Guards, he dissected a mare. His colonel asked the sentry where Frank was. "Inside the charger, sir." Where else? But this was not his most unusual dissection. The Royal College of Surgeons has an exhibit consisting of five vertebrae and an occipital bone. They were part of his father.

A richly Victorian entertainment

This is a book for a wet day, or perhaps when you can't get to sleep. It is written in straightforward but lively prose, with a good selection of quotations, and a lesser selection of mostly contemporary illustrations.

You are unlikely to learn more than a few snippets of natural history from it, but there are also succinct and sensible comments on Frank's attitude, and Victorian society's attitude to aspects of natural history, science, and the society itself.

You will see how eccentric some eccentrics can be; and will probably gain a fuller picture of English Victorian life. And you are likely to be entertained.



The book: 'The Man Who Ate The Zoo: Frank Buckland, forgotten hero of natural history' is by Richard Girling, and published by Chatto & Windus.

Martin Spray is an editor and writer for Ecos - A review of conservation.

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