Frank Buckland’s 1874 Lecture to the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Commerce and Manufactures

In January 1874, the naturalist, writer, publisher and fisheries inspector, Mr. Frank Buckland Esq., gave one of his famous lectures to a large audience, which consisted principally of parents with their young children. The event was billed as a holiday diversion ‘especially for juveniles’ and it was held at the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Commerce and Manufactures premises in London, specifically to capture the Christmas audience. This organisation is better known today as the RSA.

Although Frank Buckland was not an eminent, innovative scientist, he was, nevertheless, no ordinary orator . His writings, first in ‘The Field’ magazine, and later in his own paper, ‘Land and Water’ made him famous. His subsequent reports to government on the nation’s fisheries further elevated him as a public figure, but he remained much loved and widely respected as an eloquent and entertaining authority on natural history. More importantly, he was an amusing character with a gift for simple, homely, anthropomorphic analogy. He was, therefore, the natural choice for the Society’s inaugural ‘juvenile’ lectures, scheduled for the first week in January of 1874.

In all, Buckland gave four post-Christmas lectures for children: two at the Society’s rooms; one at his Museum of Fish Culture, at that time held in the Natural History Museum; and one at Brighton Aquarium. I discovered an account of the first lecture in ‘The Aberdare Times’, a regional newspaper that employed the widespread practice of padding out its broad sheets with miscellany from the capital city. It’s remarkable for the detailed picture it paints of Buckland at the peak of his fame, charming his listeners into submission with tongue-in-cheek allegory and laconic comic relief.

If you are going to lecture the public then I suppose it goes without saying that you should assume the high moral ground. Buckland certainly did, but his particular brand of self-effacing delivery was a skilful hedge against any accusations of condescension. He was determined to speak his mind, but he must have been acutely aware that he was fast losing ground (and face) in his arguments against Darwinism. His tactic was to leave them laughing and in that respect, he won hearts, if not minds.

One reason for Buckland’s popularity was his taste for showmanship and his adroit handling of some astonishing props. The likes of David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell have invariably felt compelled to have a live example of nature on or about their person in the course of their pieces to camera. Some wildlife presenters have even been rash enough to engage physically with some of their more robust and dangerous subjects. Few would pitch up for a lecture in the round with a carnival of live animals at their disposal.

The wide-ranging topic of Buckland’s lecture was ‘the structure of birds, beasts, and fishes’ and he chose to illustrate it with ‘(the) skins of animals, stuffed specimens of wild beasts and birds, models of limbs of men and animals, preserved heads, beaks, and claws of birds….and…a large collection of living birds of various sizes, and a sloth, from the collection of Mr. Jamrach.’ His opening remarks, however, would today empty the Albert Hall before the first interval.

His gambit, in which he dwelt on the ‘works of the Creator’, was to set the tone for the rest of the lecture. He wanted to make clear from the outset that he had a serious point to make. His intention was to undermine, if not to debunk Darwin’s theory, and his modus operandi was to apply disarming humour to a generous helping of obfuscation. Certainly, it appeared to work both on his suggestible audience and the hard-boiled press of the day, who happily reported his words verbatim.

‘It was not true…. (he said)….that man had descended from the monkey, for there were points of distinction between them which could not be reconciled. He was not a monkey himself, and yet it had been said that where there was a slight projection on the top of the ear, (which he had himself) that proved the human animal was descended from the monkey. The gorilla was most like man, but it would be found that his teeth were made for cracking nuts, and not for eating Christmas pudding (laughter).’

Buckland’s artful misdirection of facts and his misrepresentation of Darwin’s theory may seem woefully disingenuous to us, but his position gave succour to many undecided doubters. The contemporary momentum was with Darwin, but critics like Buckland had the people on their side, many of them unwilling to sacrifice a cherished narrative on the cold altar of science.

Not content with that, Frank Buckland produced a myriad factoids and vignettes that he flourished like a stream of conjurer’s coloured handkerchiefs. He had nothing up his sleeve, though, except the intention to dazzle. He regaled his young fans with a whirlwind tour of the animal kingdom. No creature was too great or too small in his consideration, and all of them supported the Creationist argument that threaded through his oratory like a matching button sewn firmly onto a comfortable, old coat.

‘Wild cats from the Duke of Sutherland’s estate at Dunrobin, and bears, kangaroos, red deer, the eagle, woodpecker, ant eater, dodo, the Amherst pheasant, piping crow, Australian laughing jackass, zebra finches, chestnut finches, piping bullfinches, the North American wolf, the red, black, blue, and white fox, and the buffalo were then severally explained and specimens of them exhibited; the ant eater’s and the wood- pecker’s organisation was described, and some splendid specimens of fox and wolf furs were shown from the stores of Mr. Nicholas, of Oxford Street…..The lecturer explained that these furs were always at their best in the coldest part of the year in the countries from which they came, the Creator having so provided for the wants of his creatures that not one of them suffered from the variations of climate’

Buckland had the homely touch when it came to homily, and his anthropomorphic anecdotes about ‘Guy Fawkes’, the baby hippo who ‘cheeked his father and made faces at him’ ensured that his sermon-in-disguise was ‘listened to with great attention throughout and appeared to be heartily enjoyed by the hundreds of little holiday folks who were present.’

Yet, posterity almost immediately left Buckland in its wake as Darwinism spread rapidly to become the new testament of science. In the years following Buckland’s untimely death in 1880, many of those who had disavowed Darwin fell by the wayside, or were converted or, like Buckland, were quickly forgotten. Buckland’s short illness was, by all accounts, debilitating and clearly incurable. A man has time to think when the measure of his last days is a known quantity. He will dwell not on Creation, but on oblivion.

Buckland’s poignant and widely quoted deathbed words have always struck me as ambiguous. I don’t think he had doubts at the last, but it does seem that his faith had been shaken by ill-health and regret at the thought of unfinished work on Earth.

“God is so good, so very, very good to the little fishes that I do not believe he would let their Inspector suffer shipwreck at last…I am going on a long journey where I think I shall see a great many curious animals. This journey I must go alone.”

Perhaps, I am projecting my own uncertainties onto Buckland, whose writing in his final years, posthumously published, is laced with an uncharacteristic irascibility and detectable levels of rancour, if not outright bitterness.

Buckland had many unfulfilled ambitions but he led a very full life of indefatigable enquiry. It is his endless wonderment at the provisons of nature that I find to be his most admirable trait. We may argue about how humanity came to be gifted with this wonderful world, but we must surely agree that it is a very great treasure.


I’d like to thank Evelyn Watson at the RSA for kindly supplying important information about Frank Buckland’s involvement with the Society.

Follow this link for more information about the RSA