The Life of William Ruskin Butterfield – Curator of Hastings Museum

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Preface

This article is in draft form as I will be gathering more information about the life of Butterfield and his compatriots. I will also hopefully be interviewing the current curator of the Hastings Museum, which holds large boxes of old papers dating to before 1900 for the Hastings and East Sussex Natural History Society.

Draft Article

Queen Victoria was born on 24th May 1819. From 1822 onwards the bones of the dinosaur called Iguanodon were turning up in quarries and excavations in Sussex and Kent. In 1829 the first Neanderthal remains were found in Germany. Queen Victoria was crowned in Westminster Abbey on 28th June 1838 – the Victorian era had begun. She ruled the British Empire for 63 years and seven months and died 22 Jan 1901. During her reign people were waking up to nature. There was a huge movement of naturalists, amateur archaeologists and other lovers of nature all trying to be first to discover something new. Furthermore, the proof that something existed was best ensured if it was shot and stuffed.

Charles Darwin was born in 1809 and died in 1882, aged 73. During his life he changed the way we think about evolution. At the same time as Darwin was publishing Origin of the Species (1859)  and The Descent of Man from Apes (1871), an equally clever and observant man, Alfred Wallace (1823-1913), published his own evolutionary theory in a joint paper with Charles Darwin in 1858. These findings cause a ferment of argument and ridicule and even today in 2021, the mechanics of evolution are still being teased out.

Our hero, William Ruskin Butterfield was born in Bradford in 1872 and later trained and qualified as a schoolteacher. Considering the discoveries of the dinosaurs, the skulls of early human lineage and the amazing ideas behind evolution, he must have felt strongly that he was living through the most exciting age of discovery that Man had ever experienced. His character soon emerged as a young energetic idealist, full of hope and good intentions. He was keen to surround himself with the great and the good, not for fame for himself, but to ‘get things done.’ It was getting things done that eventually killed him.

In 1894 at the age of 22, he came to Hastings and took up residence at 4 Stanhope Place, St Leonards-on-Sea, near the sea front, not far from the Victoria Hotel and the writing room of novelist Rider Haggard. In 1895 there was a major Chess Tournament held at the Brassey Institute, said to have the ‘strongest chess field in history’. In Butterfield’s mind, maybe the elitist nature of Hastings made him feel he was in a hot spot of intellectual glory. Judging by the course of his life from then on, he was determined to be at the centre of all things clever.

The Brassey Institute, located in Trinity Passage in Hastings, was the idea of Earl and Lady Brassey. William Brassey MP for Hastings was knighted in 1881 and made an earl in 1886. So they too were keen to ‘get things done.’ They had sailed round the world between 1876 and 1877 on their yacht The Sunbeam, collecting items suitable for a natural history museum. This must have impressed Butterfield because he soon got to know them. The Brassey’s encouraged Butterfield.

Famous scientist and inventor of electric current generation, Michael Faraday had been to Hastings in 1831 and it is likely that he supported the foundation of The Hastings Literary and Scientific Institution formed in 183. However, rather than join this august society, Butterfield and others began a new one in 1893 – the Hastings Natural History Society (now the Hastings and East Sussex Natural History Society). Butterfield was a powerhouse of a man and a serious amateur field naturalist, but he could be easily fooled. His enthusiasm made him naïve.

By 1905, when he was 33 years old, he had proved his worth and had developed useful connections with Lady Brassey. He was appointed as the Curator of the Hastings Museum, at first located in the Brassey Institute building. Back in those days it was vital to get to know people – make good contacts – even better if they were upper class. In 1907 the remains of the early human pathway called Homo Heidelburgensis was discovered in Germany, making for more exciting reading by many naturalists.

In 1908 Butterfield was in direct contact with Lord Rothschild who had his own museum at Tring in Hertfordshire. In 1909 Butterfield became the librarian of Hastings Library also located in Lady Brassey’s building. The museum grew, mainly due to his hard work in developing a local interest across south-east Sussex in natural history, archaeology, and the arts.

He was deeply involved with the collection of birds’ eggs and the shooting and stuffing of birds from all over the world. The Victorians shot or trapped birds with a variety of weapons – for example. Punt guns, air guns and catapults and they put down traps, nets, and wire snares to catch their specimens. Some died naturally and were found after a ‘hard frost’ or having flown into telegraph wires.

Butterfield became an identifier and recorder of wildlife. Even before he came to Hastings, he had purchased a book (in my possession) titled The Sussex & Hants Naturalist – Volume 1 dated 1893. He signed his name inside the book, as did two other men who also owned this book – W. E. Helman Pidsley and Thomas Parkin – both avid collectors of birds’ eggs including the extinct Dodo and Great Auk. Pidsley was the author of The Birds of Devonshire dated 1891. Pidsley was also in correspondence with Lord Rothschild concerning the discovery of valuable birds’ eggs. In the Volume 1 I have here, are adverts for drills to extract the contents of bird’s eggs so that they can be added to collections. There are also excited comments in which hunters delighted in ‘Shooting a Sardinian Warbler near Hailsham.’ There are also pleas from collectors asking people anywhere in the world to shoot birds that were needed to fill gaps in otherwise comprehensive collections.

Parkin, who has his crested bookplate inside my bool, was the greatest collector of the three. He was born to the Reverend John Parkin, vicar of Halton, Hastings, and his wife. He tried to become a vicar, then tried barrister, yet did not succeed in either aim. However, as an ornithologist, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Historical Society in 1845. He was the co-founding president of the Hastings (and East Sussex) Natural History Society and he helped Butterfield to form the Hastings Museum. He had served in the Royal Cumberland Militia, held a Master of Arts degree and was a justice of peace but even so he found time to travel around the world, perhaps emulating Darwin, and Wallace. He sailed to Australia via the Cape of Good Hope in 1887, then on to New Zealand and Tasmania. Upon his return he visited Spain, North Africa, and France before settling back down in England and he died in 1932. The letters these men wrote to Lord Rothschild at Tring are preserved in the British National Archives.

Once again to consider our hero Butterfield. During this period before the First World War he had developed many contacts with a group of people who were trying to find out if England was the true birthplace of Man. Darwin had suggested that Man was descended from apes. Queen Victoria’s empire was so large that it is said the sun never set upon it. To have such a magnificent monarch and such an amazing empire, must mean that Britain was paramount and the humans who had developed in that great country must be the finest specimens of humanity – the peak of creation. It followed that the bones of the early wonders of Britain could be found – and what better place for human origins than Sussex?

In this group of friends of Butterfield were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Jesuit priest Teilhard du Chardin, and a solicitor from Lewes called Charles Dawson. Dawson was the founder member of the Hastings & St Leonards Museum Association and also had warden/conservator responsibilities at Barkham Manor. He had made many discoveries – thanks to some hard work digging at Piltdown in east Sussex, Dawson had discovered, so he said, the absolute proof that Man really was born in England – and most thankfully – in Sussex, not Germany! To paraphrase William Blake…and did those feet in ancient times…?

By 1929, John’s Place Mansion in Hastings was purchased by the Borough Council as the new home for Hastings Museum. The reference library was relocated to the old museum building and the town also now had a lending library thanks to Butterfield’s endless efforts.

Back in 1886 there had been a Colonial and Indian Exhibition and the artefacts from that great event had been obtained by Lord Brassey. When he died the bequeathed the items to the Hastings Museum and Butterfield worked unceasingly to develop what is now called The Durbar Hall. It was said of him that he was unable to delegate responsibility and this overdrive eventually killed him. First, he became exhausted and ill even though he was arranging an exhibition for Lord and Lady Brassey, called The Voyage of the Sunbeam. He died suddenly on March 24th 1935, at the age of sixty-two years.

The Damage to Butterfield’s Reputation

Because of his naivety and his passion for discovery come what may, Butterfield was an easy target for tricksters. Here are some examples of how he was too keen for his own good.

After Butterfield’s death, the Piltdown Skull was shown to be a fake, along with all the other discoveries that Charles Dawson had claimed. Scientists began to investigate the fake skull material – a mix of orang-utan and human bones with artificial age staining. Authors speculated about the case, wondering who else could be involved in a conspiracy to defraud.

In 1955, Francis Vere, who,  in his book, was trying to defend Charles Dawson, accused a male farm labourer – a Barkham Manor site worker with the unusual name of Venus Hargreaves, of being the culprit who had ‘salted’ the spoil heap of earth where the Piltdown bones were ‘discovered’, allegedly by Teilhard de Chardin who gave them to Dawson.

Later, another author, Professor Guy Van Esbroek of Gand University (Ghent in Belgium), suggested in his 1972 book, Pleine lumiere sur l’imposture de Piltdown, that Venus Hargreaves had been given the false mix of ape and human bones by Butterfield. He had then hidden them in a gravel bed spoil heap of excavated earth for Charles Dawson to find, thus undermining Dawson – because Dawson had previously slighted Butterfield. Certainly, Dawson and co-explorer Sir Arthur Woodward were paying Venus Hargreaves to dig for them. As work progressed so interested photographers of the time took shots of Hargreaves working on the site, together with a ‘ferocious goose’ that kept visitors at bay.

Van Esbroek’s rationale was that Dawson had found Iguanodon dinosaur bones in a Hastings quarry and had rapidly taken them to the Natural History Museum in London rather than giving them to his ‘good friend’ Butterfield for Hastings Museum, so Butterfield had paid him back for his ‘betrayal.’ How did Butterfield know that Dawson had found Iguanodon bones? Van Esbroek claimed that it was a chance remark by Teilhard de Chardin overheard by Butterfield that ‘gave the game away,’ showing Dawson up as being a traitor. This has been confirmed when, in 1965, letters were published showing that on 1st July 1909, Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin wrote to his parents about a trick played on Butterfield – un aventure assez comique.

After Butterfield died, Hastings Museum became tainted by all this, because when his rival Charles Dawson predeceased him, Dawson in his Will left a large number of items to Butterfield to curate in the Museum. Later when the Piltdown Hoax was discovered, all these items were the suspect and the same ‘Dawson infection’ trauma occurred at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. Every item touched or donated by Dawson had to be re-checked.

Another incident in Butterfield’s life also highlights the problem of his character. My history teacher at Hastings Grammar School was Mainwaring-Baines who took over Hastings Museum as its next curator when Butterfield died. He was told upon appointment that Butterfield was ‘bizarre.’ In fact Butterfield was too keen to help naturalists, and insufficiently wary of the mendacity of others. This incident was called The Case of the Hastings Rarities.

The Hastings and East Sussex Naturalist Society, founded by Butterfield in1893, worked on the basis of publishing annually the ‘finds’ of dead birds and other creatures brought to them. Over the period of 1892 to 1930 a very large number of rare birds began to appear in the Hastings area, causing great excitement amongst naturalists. Why was Hastings so blessed with these amazing discoveries? What was happening to change nature so that flocks of rare birds were flying along the south coast from all over the world, only to be shot in this corner of Sussex? Within the Society, often it was Butterfield who recorded the birds and William Parkin who identified them – sometimes their roles were reversed with Butterfield doing the identification. Who brought these birds to Butterfield and Parkin is not always known but much later more than 500 birds identified or recorded by the Society were struck from the record as being false sightings – admittedly later some were reinstated because there were real new sightings of a few rare ones – but in the main, The Hastings Rarities were no more.

So what had been going on? It was simple. The local Hastings taxidermist was receiving birds from all over the world and stuffing them. They were passed to Butterfield to identify or record. He and Parkin did so by assuming that they really had been found in the Hastings area. That was what they were told by the taxidermist. If Butterfield and Parkin had taken the time to think – how is this possible? – then all the subsequent derision would have been avoided, but being Victorian Naturalists, ever-keen to discover something new and publish, they failed to spot a massive number of hoaxes.

When the Piltdown Hoax was discovered, this caused Dawson’s cousin A. P. Chamberlain to claim that Butterfield had been falsifying his Society’s bird records. To protect his cousin, Chamberlain reminded Dawson’s accusers ‘of recent press articles on suspected ornithological frauds on the Sussex coast about the same period’ – as Piltdown.

One final incident shows Butterfield’s naïve character in the full glare of sunlight. When Conan Doyle told Butterfield that an Iguanodon bone had been found in a quarry near Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s home in Crowborough, north Sussex, Butterfield jumped on his bicycle on 13th May1911 in St Leonards-on Sea and cycled up hill and down dale, all the way there to see the alleged bone – and then cycled back – a round trip on an early form of bicycle of 56 miles. But the whole trip was caused by not by a deliberate trick of Sherlock Holme’s creator but by the incessant desire of Butterfield to see unusual natural things – even if a mere rumour.

Conclusion

Butterfield’s over-enthusiastic and sometimes hot-headed character made it possible for him to get into trouble – but was he also guilty on one or more occasions of falsifying natural evidence?

Taking the case of the Piltdown Skull first of all, I do not think he was involved at all. If he had been the guilty party rather than Dawson, then he would probably not have advised Dawson to send his skull discoveries to the Natural History Museum for inspection. However, he did ask for a copy of the skull for Hastings Museum. On 20th December 1912, he wrote:

‘I am venturing to ask whether a plaster-cast of the skull and jaw discovered

in Sussex by Mr. Dawson could be made to the order of this Museum. The

discovery has interested me very much, and I am anxious to have here, if

possible, a cast of the specimen.’

Lastly, what about the Case of the Hastings Rarities? It seems that although Butterfield was accused of importing foreign birds and passing them off as local rarities, in fact people were killing birds in Europe and bringing them to Hastings in boxes of ice. They were then given to the taxidermist and gunsmith George Bristow who had a shop in St Leonards. He then ‘believed’ that they had been found in Hastings and Butterfield and Parkin had believed Bristow’s assurance and listed them as amazing rarities. This was discovered in the 1960s when the publication British Birds Edition 55 re-evaluated on pages 299 to 385 a collection of so-called rarities then in the collection of a man called Nichols. Five hundred and ninety-five records were deleted, and sixteen bird specimens were removed from the list of birds ever sighted in Britain. As mentioned above, a few of the sixteen were later accepted as true because these rare birds were turning up after all.

I do feel that despite his bizarre reputation, he was not dishonest but could be easily fooled due to his energetic determination to ‘get things done’ and that is what killed him.

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