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W. Furneaux (William S. Furneaux)


Young Collector's Handbook

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

When I was aged about seven I was given this book by an older boy who was staying at the same hotel as we in Edinburgh, at the beginning of the second world war. I was deeply interested in natural history, especially insects, and it was a constant companion for me for a number of years.

The book has a preface to indicate its intended audience: boys. Furneaux doesn't appear to consider the possibility that girls might be interested in natural history. There is, of course, no thought of conservation in the author's mind: the emphasis is on 'collecting, preserving, and studying natural history objects', though he does have information about keeping some of them alive in aquariums. The book is not, he says, intended to convert boys into full-blown naturalists but rather to stimulate their interest, give them a hobby, and serve as a foundation for later study. I should say that it definitely achieved this end for me; it shaped much of my early thinking about the natural world.

I know next to nothing about the author, who was evidently a Victorian collector in the nineteenth-century style. He has the letters FRGS (Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society) after his name. From Wikipedia I learn that he had already written a book on British butterflies and moths in 1894 (the same year that the first edition of The Outdoor World appeared) and he went on to write books on field and woodland plants and the seashore, the last appearing in 1922. He also produced an anatomical book (A Pictorial Representation of the Human Frame).

There are three sections, of uneven length. The first and longest is about animal life, starting with insects and ending with birds and mammals; the second is on plants; and the third, much the shortest, is on minerals and fossils. The book is illustrated throughout with halftones and coloured plates of excellent quality. Detailed instructions are given about collecting and preserving the various kinds of specimens.

Collecting birds' eggs was a pretty standard practice in my youth and there is plenty about this, as one would expect. But some of the other material is alarming. A killing bottle is to be used when collecting insects. This may contain potassium cyanide(!), which 'may be bought at the chemist's, providing he knows you and is satisfied as to your intentions'. Would a Victorian chemist really be prepared to sell potassium cyanide to a boy, or indeed to anyone, on the assumption that they weren't contemplating murder and would be able to handle the stuff safely? Did Victorian chemists even stock it, and if so, why? An alternative to the cyanide is said to be crushed laurel leaves, which would certainly be safer, though I seem to remember that they didn't work as described.

In his discussion of reptile collecting Furneaux has advice on catching vipers. You can either hit the reptile on the head to stun it or you can let it attack a stick until it is exhausted, when you can pick it up on the stick and drop it in a bag. 'Remember that this or any other method of capturing live Vipers is somewhat dangerous, and it is always advisable to be prepared for emergencies. Should you be bitten, however slightly, suck the wound immediately as powerfully as you can, or get someone else to do it for you; and also rub ammonia well into the place.' I'm not sure how the ammonia is supposed to work.

I never had the opportunity to capture any vipers as a boy, but I did try Furneaux's 'simple' recipe for extracting the shell of a slug (yes, slugs do have them) 'with a sharp penknife'. I still have the scar on my finger to prove it.

The section on the mineral world doesn't involve killing things, of course, but it is so short and perfunctory that it would have been better omitted. There is a little information on the kind of equipment to use (hammer and chisel, mainly) but nothing at all on what you are looking at or what any of it might mean.

Many of the species described in this book, abundant some seventy years ago, are now rare or even extinct in Britain. The activities of Furneaux and his colleagues no doubt contributed to this end but habitat destruction and pollution with pesticides and industrial chemicals have been the main culprits. It is unfair to blame our Victorian forebears for not sharing our modern views on preserving wildlife, and although there is a lot about collecting things here that is not Furneaux's main interest: there is even more about how the creatures live in their habitats—about natural history, in fact. But what I do find surprising in this book is that its author, writing almost fifty years after the publication of The Origin of Species, makes no reference to evolution. (This may explain his failure to give any details about fossils.) This fact reminds us that, by the beginning of the twentieth century, Darwin's great discovery of natural selection had still not been fully assimilated by mainstream scientific thinking.

8 September 2009

%T The Outdoor World
%S Young Collector's Handbook
%A Furneaux, W.
%I Longmans, Green and Co.
%C London, New York, Bombay
%D 1900
%P vi + 411pp
%K natural history
%O illustrated

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