Friday 23 October 2015

Eleanor Glanville: Butterfly Mad

Good to hear that the National Trust is buying more land on the Isle of Wight by way of encouraging the rare and beautiful Glanville Fritillary, a butterfly that occurs only on the extreme southern fringes of the British Isles - Wight and the Channel Islands. Actually that's not quite true: the Glanville has been reintroduced several times over the years in various parts of Southern England, with varying degrees of success, usually short-term. One reintroduction that seems to be working is, improbably, at a small nature reserve on the fringes of Croydon - I'll be heading there next summer to have a look...
 The Glanville Fritillary is almost the only British butterfly that is named after an individual (the other is Berger's Clouded Yellow, which hardly counts) - and what an individual! Eleanor Glanville, who died in 1709, was a pioneer lepidopterist, working at a time when very few men and no women were studying butterflies. Her collection and the extent of her knowledge astonished the men: she had, wrote William Vernon, 'the noblest collection of butterflies, all English, which has sham'd us'.
 Though she was generally referred to as Lady Glanville, Eleanor had no such title, but was 'of good family' (her parents, great horticulturalists, first cultivated the delicious Ribston Pippin apple). She seems to have developed her interest in butterflies in her middle age, after the breakdown of her second marriage, to Richard Glanville, a violent man who once held a loaded and cocked pistol to her breast and threatened to shoot her dead.
 She started corresponding with the small (all-male) band of butterfly collectors, and sending them specimens - one of which was to become the Glanville Fritillary, though it began life as the rather more prosaic Lincoln Fritillary, as Eleanor first caught it near that fine city. Eleanor Glanville was seriously interested in every stage of the butterfly - and moth - life cycle (and might have been the first person to refer to Geometrid larvae as 'loopers'). There's an incredulous eye-witness account of her larva-collecting methods: 'She and her two female apprentice girls would carry a sheet out under the hedges and bushes and with a long pole beat the said hedges and catch a parcel of worms.' Recently three original specimens from Eleanor Glanville's collection were rediscovered in the Sloane collection in the Natural History Museum.
 After the marital breakdown, Eleanor's husband was determined to get his hands on her money by hook or by crook, on one occasion kidnapping one of her sons in the hope of getting him to disclaim his inheritance and transfer it to him and his new mistress. This kind of thing led Eleanor to arrange to leave the disposal of her estate in the hands of trustees. However, on her death, the will was disputed by her eldest son, on the grounds that his mother had gone mad. One of the signs, sure enough, was her pursuit of butterflies. As well as beating bushes to knock worms out, she had been seen chasing around all over the locality, often 'without all necessary cloathes' and even dressed 'like a gypsey'. In the end, the will was indeed upset and the eldest son inherited. It was agreed by one and all that no one 'not deprived of their sense should go in pursuit of butterflyes'.


  1. Good news indeed Nige and remarkable, the NT are, at this moment in their history, decidedly threadbare in the bank account department. So short of cash that their latest 'policy' when acquiring new property is not to fettle the place but leave 'as was,' peeling wallpaper and rising damp included.

    Even more good news, the lakes and the dales national parks are to be wedded, including those wild areas east of the M6 and, and! moves are afoot to create a Scottish borders national park which will include Melrose, we are about to be ring fenced, ouch.

  2. The Croydon Glanvilles should be seen in Mid-May, but have been as early as 7th May. Keep an eye on various blogs including Martins Butterflies nearer the time for details. They were called Dulwich Fritillary at one point, and recorders used "Dulwich" for records in the Addington Area, so Hutchinsons Bank could have been that site in the 1700s