Edward’s Wife

Arthur GROTE formed a close friendship with Edward BLYTH in Bengal. I don’t know if they journeyed back to England together but they took lodgings close to each other in London and must have kept in touch. A couple of years after Edward died, Arthur wrote  a memoir of his friend that was published originally in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol.xiv  (August 1875) and reprinted in Loren Eiseley’s Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X in 1979.

Arthur gives us some useful detail about ‘the Father of Indian Ornithology’ but is somewhat vague with regard to Arthur’s marriage.

In 1854 Blyth was married to Mrs. Hodges, a young widow whom he had known as Miss Sutton, and who had lately come out to join some relatives in India.

Elizabeth Mary Turner SUTTON was 13 years younger than Arthur. She was born in London and would have been seventeen when Arthur left England for the sub-continent. It is a bit of a stretch to say that Elizabeth was lately arrived in India because she married John Charles HODGES in Calcutta in December 1846. He was 26 years-old and the register says he was commander of the Brig Amity. He had been captain of the ship for at least two years.

(This was not the Amity that transported European settlers to Australia.)

In the fifth year of marriage, Elizabeth was widowed. John died on the west coast at Colaba near Bombay on 19 April 1851. Though the date is precise, I haven’t found the cause of his death at age 31. (Some sources give his birth two years earlier than the marriage register implies.)

After fourteen years, Edward’s salary at the Asia Society’s museum was barely adequate to keep his own body and soul together, but Elizabeth married him anyway. In 1855 he asked for an increase in salary and a pension “after a certain number of years’ service”. The Society pleaded poverty.

In December 1857, Blyth had the misfortune to lose his wife. His short married life had been of the happiest, and the blow fell heavily on him. His letters to his sister for the early months of 1858 are painful to read. The shock proved too much for him, and brought on a serious attack of illness; it threatened paralysis of the heart, and he seems to have been subject to partial returns of similar attacks for the rest of his life. His health too suffered much from the isolation imposed on him by his straitened means, and from want of proper exercise.

Arthur doesn’t name the sister with whom Edward corresponded but it was almost ccertainly the middle one of three, Sarah Clara.

Ten years after returning to England, Edward went to Antwerp “for a change” and on his return called on Arthur.

…[he was] feeling better, though claiming of great prostration. He seemed full of what he had seen in the Antwerp Zoological Garden, where he thought he had found another new species of Rhinoceros. This was our last interview. Though nursed by a tenderly attached sister, his weakness increased, and he died of heart disease on the 27th of December, within a day or two of his sixty-third birthday.

In 1871, Edward was living alone in rooms in Cecil Street, St Clement Danes, in a property that would be demolished with others to make space for a hotel and much later the Shell-Mex building. Arthur was a mile away in more salubrious Pall Mall lodgings. And Sarah Clara may have already settled at Regent’s Park Terrace, three miles from Cecil Street but only a few hundred yards from London Zoo.

Sarah’s home for at least ten years before her death in 1891 is partially hidden by the tree. I’d like to think she brought her brother here for his last days, and that he could hear the roars, bellowings and trumpetings of the larger mammals from his sick room window. (If you wanted to buy her house nowadays the mortgage payment would be around  £13,000 a month.)

Find Edward on the FamilySearch Shared Tree.

Tree 40 · Martin’s Ravine


I can’t resist photographing the the Tufted ducks whenever they visit the Glen Gardens boating lake. The white flanks of the males usually dazzle but this morning…

Even if I hadn’t read Edward Blyth on moulting at breakfast this morning I would have assumed this was the phase he was going through.

I know precious little about “the feathered tribes” and was startled at the complexity of moulting in birds. Edward the Influencer explains:-

from “Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds”, The Magazine of Natural History, Vol 9, 1836, reproduced in Darwin and the Mysterious Mr X, by Loren Eisely, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1979.

Numerous as are the writers in this department of zoology…it still appears to me, that the numerous and very diversified regular changes of plumage and general external appearance, observable in this interesting subclass of animals, have been hitherto very greatly and strangely overlooked, and that, in consequence, the many valuable physiological inferences deducible from their investigation have been quite lost to the purposes of science and of classification.

It is true that many naturalists have in so far attended to the mutations of plumage which some particular species undergo, as that they are able at once to recognize them in every  livery they assume; but the exact ages, and seasons, of molting; the precise nature of the general, or only partial change that is undergone, and the various accordances and dissimilarities observable between the changes of distinct species; the endless characters of agreement and difference, so important in pointing out affinities, in showing what apparently similar races could never be brought to hybridize together; would seem to have been passed over as unworthy of notice, as undeserving of particular investigation.

…It is to be remarked, then, that some species of birds (as, for example, the larks and starlings, the crows, the woodpeckers, and various others) molt the whole of their immature, or nestling, plumage the first year, including the wing and tail primaries; while a very few (as the bearded pinnock, Calamophilus biarmicus, and rose mufflin [Parus caudatus Linnaeus], Mecistura rosea) shed the primary feathers of the tail the first season, but not those of the wing: numerous other races (as all the modifications of the fringillisous and thrush types) molt their clothing plumage very soon after leaving the nest, and retain the primaries till the second autumn; the Falconidae, again, and some others, undergo no change whatever until that period. All those which I have as yet mentioned change their feathers only once in the year, towards the close of summer, immediately on the cessation of the duties towards their progeny: but there are various other tribes (as the wagtails and pipits, Motacillinae, and most of the aquatic races) which regularly undergo another general molting in the spring; though in no instance, that I am aware, are the primary wing feathers shed more than once in the year; those of the tail, however, in some rare instances are; and the different coverts, together with the second and tertiary wing feathers, in most, if not all,  double-molting birds, are changed twice. In some migrative species (as the cuckoo, and most of the swallows), the young of the year do not change their plumage until the winter months; whereas the old birds molt in the autumn; and in other birds, again (as in various ducks), two general changes of feather take place within the short period of about four months. Very many other similar diversities, of a more or less subordinate character, might be enumerated, if enough have not already been mentioned to show that a wide field for observation is here open to the practical ornithologist.

There have been two pairs of Tufted ducks on the lake during human lock down but the chap pictured was on his own this morning.

Tree 39 · Martin’s Ravine

A Victorian Influencer

Born in 1810, Edward BLYTH used a small inheritance to open a pharmacy in London. A passionate interest in zoology led to him neglecting the business and it failed. Suffering ill-health, his future seemed uncertain but, partly on the strength of articles he had written for leading scientific journals and notes written for a re-issue of Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne (1837), he was recommended for the job of Curator of Zoology at the Museum of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. He sailed for Calcutta in 1841. Though not universally respected at the museum he was considered by some to be “the greatest of Indian naturalists” (Allan Hume), and known for many years as the Father of Indian Ornithology. (Thirteen bird species carry his name. One, Blyth’s pipit, occasionally loses its way on migration from Mongolia or India and fetches up in the land of Edward’s birth. The count of confirmed sightings in the UK is in the twenties I think.)

Edward married the Widow Hodges (née SUTTON) in 1854 but she died three years later. His health broke down altogether and he returned to England in March 1863. Had he recovered his strength he might have returned to the sub-continent to supervise the transmission of the Asiatic Society’s collections to the Indian Government and become the first Superintendent of the Indian Museum (Christine Brandon-Jones). Instead, he suffered a total breakdown, spent some time in a private asylum, and took to drink (Wikipedia). He died in London of heart disease on 27 December 1873.

1864, photographer unknown, Woodbury Company, public domain

Edward’s representation on the FamilySearch Shared Tree is minimal, giving the lie to this post’s title.

There are sources on FamilySearch that can expand the pedigree a little and Geni offers more connections. I’m hesitating to add some of the information I have found because of doubts regarding Edward’s father. One online tree says Clare Blyth died in 1820. Another Clare died in 1837 aged 78 and the calculated birth year of 1759 fits a birth record but indicates a late age to marry in 1808 and have four children with Catharine SAUNDERS. (Catharine’s parents and sisters have representation on the Shared Tree.)

Another puzzle regarding Edward’s father is this notice in a newspaper.

It seems odd that a 31 year-old worsted weaver would feel threatened by the press-gang. Fourteen years later a Clare Blyth in London ended a partnership with  Leeds woolstapler John BELL.

Note the Ironmonger Lane address. When an English census enumerator finally caught up with Edward in 1871, our naturalist was very precise when giving his birthplace.

Two years before his death, Edward was mentioned in a Pall Mall Gazette article titled Fragments of Science.

The custom by which literary men of the present day collect and publish in a convenient form the separate contributions which they may have offered to periodical literature during a certain period is one which has been acted on so extensively for the last few years that we are not surprised when Professor Tyndall contributes his own quota to the roll of self-connected articles. Such a plan is infinitely preferable to that adopted by many other scientific men as, for example, the late Dr. Hugh Falconer, whose memoirs throughout life were scattered through an enormous series of partially accessible publications, and were not collected in a systematic form until after his decease. Perhaps one of the most prolific and excellent among our living zoological writers, Mr. Edward Blyth, is the one whose contributions to scientific literature are the most scattered and the most inaccessible. If the best of of our scientific authors had adopted the plan on which so few have really acted, and had preserved copies or at least references to their contributions to scientific literature, great advantage would result…

Poor Edward, almost gone but not forgotten. One of the scientists who paid heed to some of the ideas expressed in his prolific output was Charles DARWIN. The more eminent Victorian hat-tipped Edward in print, invited him on several occasions to Down House and they exchanged many letters.  In Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X, Loren Eiseley suggests that Edward contributed more to the great man’s theory of evolution by natural selection than was publicly acknowledged. He ends his chapter Darwin, Blyth and Natural Selection thus:-

But let not the world forget that Edward Blyth, a man of poverty and bad fortune, shaped a key that dropped half-used from his hands when he set forth hastily on his own ill-fated voyage. That key, which was picked up and reforged by a far greater and more cunning hand, was no less than natural selection. At that moment, probably in 1937, the Origin  was born. When Blyth died in 1873 there was found among his papers a fragment of a work which he was preparing “On the Origination of Species.” It was not, his literary executors opined, worth publishing. It was derivative. In truth it was the dry seed husk fallen from what had grown to be a great tree.

The End of Slavery

If only slavery had ceased. Candace Owens reminds us that large numbers of Afric’s children are being trafficked still – by people of colour.

Bird 86 · Churchyard Crow