Book cover of A Newsworthy Naturalist The Life of William Yarrell, showing a portrait of William Yarrell
A Newsworthy Naturalist cover

Christine E. Jackson

John Beaufoy Publishing


ISBN: 9781913679040

Reviewed by Richard Jones

William Yarrell was one of the most eminent naturalists of his day. He was also joint owner of a news agency (hence the title of the book), a bookseller, and was renowned for his shooting and fishing skills. He advised Darwin on guns and equipment for his Beagle voyage and taught him how to prepare specimens in jars of spirits using bladders, with foil and varnish. He is immortalised in the fish Yarrell’s Blenny (once Blennius yarrellii, but now Chirolophis ascanii), several birds including the British subspecies of the Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii), and it was he who first recognised Bewick’s Swan as distinct from the Whooper. These accolades are unsurprising, because Yarrell’s legacies are in the fields of ichthyology and ornithology, and his major works (authoritative long after his death) were his History of British Fishes (2 volumes, 1835–1836) and History of British Birds (3 volumes, 1837–1843). 

He appears not to have written anything about insects and his single contribution to anything invertebrate (Entomological Magazine, volume 1, p. 421–-422, 1833) was on the preservation of crustacea. So why review a book about him in Antenna

Yarrell, it turns out, was a founder member of the Entomological Society of London, its first treasurer, from 1834 to 1852, and he is one of the names on the first page of the Society’s signature book, along with luminaries like Hope, Newman, Stephens and Waterhouse. 

This was, of course, a time before specialisation, and if you were interested in natural history, you were interested in all of it, not just fish, or birds, or insects. Yarrell was a relatively wealthy businessman, and had his fingers in many pies. Apart from the Entomological Society he was a member of most of the other learned organisations of the age including Linnean Society, Zoological Society, Ray Society, Royal Institution and British Association for the Advancement of Science. He failed to gain membership of the Royal Society because, as his Times obituary put it: “the corrupt practice … of disregarding scientific claims of gentlemen connected with trade, while individuals were gaining admission to the society on account of mere social position and connoisseurship”. 

Although Yarrell may not have been an entomologist in the sense we imagine today, he was very much the 19th century gentleman naturalist with connections across all fields, and his history is woven into the RES, even if only tangentially. Christine Jackson has collected the manifold aspects of his life and collated them into this narrative. There is some repetition, and parts of the book read a bit like a catalogue, but I was fascinated by the details of his rise from farmer’s son to renowned shot, bookseller and newsman to the King William IV and Queen Victoria, and world-famous ornithologist and ichthyologist. 

As luck would have it, I was recently in the RES library and pored over the grand leather-bound signature book with its illuminated title page painted by Westwood and signed by Queen Victoria. There is Yarrell’s name, sixth on the list, begun in 1833. And nearly 150 years later there was mine.  We’re all part of history and the tendrils of connectivity run deep and wide, but I still find it moving and intriguing to find these tangible links across the years.

Book cover of A Newsworthy Naturalist The Life of William Yarrell, showing a portrait of William Yarrell