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The Squire

ISSUE:  Autumn 1934

Like many other human beings, Charles Waterton of Walton Hall suffered from the world’s calumny and misrepresentation. After the publication of his “Wanderings in South America” he was accused of a “strong propensity to dress fact in the garb of fiction.” Even though he had ridden regularly to hounds with Lord Darlington, his account of riding a live alligator was received with derision; and his account of the three-toed sloth, afterwards proved to be accurate, met a storm of contempt and contradiction, since it was entirely different from that of Buffon and other authorities who had never been to South America. The Squire met these and other aspersions on his veracity with the candour of a gentleman and the charity of a true Christian. Time, he said, would prove he was right; and in most cases it did. When he guessed the offender was not malicious but merely an honest blunderer, as like as not the Squire would invite him down to Walton Hall, and gently banter him out of his error, with liberal quotations from the classics. A specimen of the creature in question, preserved with the exquisite skill of which Waterton alone at that time held the secret, would clinch the matter.

Yet there was one calumny which even the great-hearted and good-humoured Squire could not forgive. A closet naturalist, said to be an Oxford man, referred to him in a leisurely aside as “the eccentric Waterton.” Whether the Oxford man was right or wrong, perhaps this modest account will show. At any rate the Squire was deeply hurt by that “eccentric,” so much hurt that we may be sure the “Oxford man” would never have used it if he had guessed how much his unlucky phrase would haunt the honest old gentleman. Whenever this topic came up, as it frequently did, while he strolled about his park with one of the guests for whom he kept open house, the Squire would pause in his eager talk about the birds and trees and beasts he loved so well, and demand to know if he were eccentric. “But now,” he would answer himself. “It is a vulgar calumny. I am the most ordinary, the most commonplace of men. It would be impossible for me to do an eccentric thing, so ordinary am I.” And then sitting down to take off his boots, he would add, “But come, my dear friend, let us forget this fellow, mon~ strum horrendum, informe. Mount with me to the top of this noble elm. I want to show you a nest.” And up the octogenarian Squire would go, barefooted on account of his prehensile (“prensile,” he called them) toes, as nimbly as a Middy up the rigging.

Only England could have bred the Squire and only England could have loved him as he was loved, in spite of that ever regrettable “eccentric.” As one of his biographers says:

It was perhaps eccentric to have a strong religious faith, and act up to it. It was eccentric, as Thackeray said, to “dine on a crust, live as chastely as a hermit, and give his all to the poor.” It was eccentric to come into a large estate as a young man and to have lived to extreme old age without having wasted an hour or a shilling. It was eccentric to give bountifully and never allow his name to appear in a subscription-list. It was eccentric to be saturated with the love of nature. . . . It was eccentric to be ever childlike, but never childish.


Charles Waterton, or the Squire as he was known to everybody for twenty miles round Wakefield, was born in 1782 of a very old and staunch Roman Catholic family. In consequence of their obstinate adherence to their Faith, neither he nor any of his family since the days of good Queen Mary “was considered worthy to serve his country in any genteel or confidential capacity.” We may regret this ostracism on general grounds, but who can doubt, when he comes to know the Squire, that genteel employment would infallibly have meant his getting himself gallantly killed at Trafalgar or Badajoz? For by instinct the Squire was a fighting man. Once in ci-devant Dutch Guiana he successfully opposed a police party sent to arrest a friend of his, and consequently received a peremptory order to wait upon the Governor General. But let us pass the pen to the Squire:

On my name being announced, he came into the hall. Whilst looking at me full in the face, he exclaimed, in a voice too severe to last long: “And so, Sir, you have dared to thwart the law, and to put my late proclamation at defiance?” “General,” said I, “you have judged rightly; and I throw myself on your well-known generosity. I had eaten the fugitive’s bread of hospitality, when fortune smiled upon him; and I could not find in my heart to refuse him help in his hour of need. Pity to the unfortunate prevailed over obedience to your edict; and had General Carmichael himself stood in the shoes of the deserted outlaw, I would have stepped forward in his defence, and have dealt many a sturdy blow around me, before foreign bloodhounds should have fixed their crooked fangs in the British uniform.” “That’s brave,” said he; and then he advanced to me, and shook me by the hand.

Whether the Squire’s obstinate recusancy was due to family tradition, a Stonyhurst education, or his own lack of eccentricity, cannot be known; but, though his son took Sir Robert Peel’s oath and was appointed Justice of the Peace, the Squire never would.

“In framing that abominable oath,” he declares energetically, “I don’t believe that Sir Robert cared one fig’s end whether the soul of a Catholic went up, after death, to the King of Brightness, or descended to the king of brimstone.”

So there the matter rested, and anything genteel or confidential remained out of the question. And so the Squire turned his attention to natural history, the true passion of his life after the Church, softening even his misgivings about the National Debt and his indignation with Henry VIII, “our royal goat.” Whether “wandering” in the forests of Guiana, among which he made four voyages, or “sauntering” on the Continent, or in the recesses of Walton Park, natural history was the very stuff of the Squire’s life. As a boy he was flogged, often and severely, for birds’ nesting, and suggests that as colours are burned into crockery, so the love of nature was flogged into him. At Stonyhurst, the kindly Fathers took a more lenient view, and gave a colour of legality to his irresistible propensity by appointing him “ratcatcher” to the establishment, and also “fox-taker, foumart-killer, and crossbow-charger, at the time when the young rooks are fledged.” The Squire always declared that he owed to Father Clifford the fact that he did not die in the unhealthy jungles of Guiana, for his master made him promise never to put his lips to wine or spirituous liquors. He had fevers and chills galore, but thanks to his temperance always recovered.

Endless are the stories of the Squire’s doings and “dodges” in the bird-sanctuary of Walton Park, whose two hundred and ninety odd acres he enclosed with an immense wall, at a cost of over ten thousand pounds. He who would comprehend them in all their variety and ingenuity must soak himself in the Essays, the Autobiography (a golden document), and the memoirs of the Squire’s friends. It says much for the Squire’s popularity that none of his neighbours protested at his fostering innumerable starlings, rooks, carrion crows, hawks, magpies, jays, and owls, at a time when there was no Wild Birds Protection Act, when preserving game was invested with almost Norman sanctity, and birds were looked upon as pests to be destroyed. No fowling-piece was ever discharged in the Squire’s territory, and the gamekeeper really was a keeper, not a destroyer, his job being to see that no wild life was interfered with. True, pheasants’ eggs vanished, ducklings and young chickens were carried off in hosts, cherries and strawberries suffered devastation, but “he grudged them not.” And many an essay was penned in his unhandy style, laden with quotations from Ovid and Horace, in defence of the Squire’s feathered darlings.

Waterton’s life was distinguished by a kind of generous frugality; he was generous to others and frugal with himself. It is said that his personal expenses never equalled the wagesof one of the labourers on his estate. Through living so much with birds he seems to have acquired some of their habits; at least he went to bed with them at eight and got up with them at three. He had a horror of entering beds which had been slept in by other people. As he said, the last inhabitant might have been some lovely form divine, but was just as likely to have been a horrid alderman, “pimply with turtle and curacao.” How was this problem to be met by a man who delighted in travelling? After much meditation, the appropriate Watertonian solution was found—the Squire would sleep on the floor. It took him a fortnight to learn to do this with comfort, and thereafter he never entered a bed. At Walton Hall he slept on the boards of a small uncarpeted room, wrapped in a blanket, with a piece of wood for a pillow. But he was no savage, and rigidly opposed the hirsute mania of the Romantic epoch. At a time when long locks and flowing beards were considered attractive in the young and venerable in the aged, the Squire was clean shaved by four every morning, and he never allowed more than half-an-inch to his comely white hair. After prayers in his private chapel at four, the Squire dealt with the reports of his bailiff and read Latin or Spanish until eight was struck by a clock which was said to have belonged to his ancestor, Sir Thomas More. The rest of the day was spent out of doors.


The pursuit of science is thought to render men sceptical, but this was not so in the Squire’s case. Himself an honourable man, incapable of deception, he was inclined to believe what he was told. Thus, as we have just seen, his clock was Sir Thomas More’s. An inlaid gun given him in Spain, was “the identical gun used by the Duke of Alva in the Low Countries,” while an ivory crucifix acquired at the same time had been “stolen from a church in Rome by a French General.” The Squire made a special journey to Naples to witness the miraculous liquefaction of the blood of San Gen-naro, which to his immense gratification duly occurred. Indeed, his candour was such that he was apt to miss the point of eighteenth-century irony, and quotes with triumph a remark made by Sir William Hamilton to the effect that an eruption of Vesuvius ceased directly the relics of San Gennaro came in sight of the mountain.

Perhaps it is unjust to accuse the Squire of being scientific. He was a lover of wild things, especially birds, much as other men love books or music or pictures. Even in Rome he cared much more about birds than for antiquities. Every morning he was in the bird market, looking for rare birds on the stalls, and gently remonstrating with the Romans for eating larks and nightingales. He was greatly interested by noticing that a solitary thrush (the passer solitarius of the Psalmist) had made its nest under the roof of the College of the Propaganda, and only refrained from climbing up to have a look at it, for fear of giving scandal. Scientific names and the new-fangled theories put forward by a fellow named Darwin he could not abide. All living things had been created to the greater glory of God. And as for names, well, a Salempenta is a Salempenta, why burden the poor creature with Teius Teguexin? Somebody in America discovered a hawk and called it Falco Harlani. “Pray,” cried Waterton sarcastically, “Who or what is Harlani? A man, a mountain, or a mud-flat?”

Now that classification has long been more or less settled, many of us may be more disposed to agree with the Squire than with his opponents, when he says that the true object of zoology is not “to ticket animals in a formal inventory” but “to study their life-nature.” It is obvious that the basis of the Squire’s activities was not “scientific interest” but love. Many are the stories of his astonishing success in getting wild birds to breed in the nooks he prepared for them, of his skill in making holly hedges grow more swiftly than anyone else could do, and of his saving the lives of trees apparently doomed to decay. Most of the trees in his park were given names, and there were few the Squire had not climbed. On fine days he would climb “to the top of a favourite tree” with Horace in his pocket, and in between the odes keep a sharp eye on the Canada geese and the doings of the game-keeper. A guest one day found the keeper in grave perturbation. Someone, probably a poacher, had wounded a tree with pellets. “Depend upon it,” said the man, “Squire will find it out and I shall have to answer for it.” Within four hours Waterton had noticed the wound, and the keeper had to pass a rigid examination.

The Squire’s success with all living things he wished to foster was obviously due to the fact that he put himself in their place, so to speak. The first thing was to find out exactly what most suited them, and then to give it to them. Some have thought he carried this identification of himself with animals a little far. There is, for instance, the affair of the civetta owls. Who but Waterton would have thought of carrying a dozen owls in “a commodious cage” from Rome to Yorkshire? They scraped through the Genoa customs on the ingenious plea that they were Italianissimi, crossed the St. Gotthard in perfect health, traversed Switzerland and Germany, and came to Aix-la-Chapelle, where the Squire took a bath. “A long journey, and wet weather,” he says, “had tended to soil the plumage of the little owls; and I deemed it necessary, that they, as well as their master, should have the benefit of a warm bath.” And bathed they duly were. Unluckily, five of them died of cold that night, and only five of the twelve survived to enjoy the pleasures of Walton Hall.

There can be no doubt, however, that in spite of little accidents like this, the Squire had uncanny power over wild creatures, even the most noisome reptiles, and when occasion offered he was only too glad to display it for the pleasure of his friends and the confusion of his enemies. Some of his tales about snakes and alligators in the “Wanderings” had been doubted. Unfortunately, it was not then practicable to import an alligator; otherwise he would undoubtedly have ridden it to hounds with Lord Darlington as he had ridden one on the banks of the Essequibo. But by a great stroke of luck there one day arrived in Leeds a large box of live rattlesnakes. The Squire invited friends and detractors to a public hall, and before their eyes transferred all the snakes to another box, and then back again, with his bare hands. He modestly explained that he merely took advantage of the reptiles’ sluggish nature, and offered to teach anyone to handle them as freely as he did—an offer unaccountably declined. Who can doubt that this friendliness with rattlers was due to the same kind of sympathy which made him rebuild his stables so that the horses could converse with each other, and arrange his pig-sties so that the pigs could lean comfortably against them without damaging the gates while they passed the time of day with each other. Only thus can we explain his deep interest in that creature so ill-treated by Providence, the Rumpless Fowl.

No account of Waterton can dispense with at least a brief reference to the Ass Wouralia. In the wilds of Guiana the Squire obtained a supply of the Wourali or Urari poison, used by the natives for their poisoned blow-gun arrows. Waterton was greatly taken with this poison, and much interested in finding an antidote. He tried many, such as immersing the victim up to its neck in water, but apparently never tried the simpler remedy of putting salt in its mouth. That was too simple. He excogitated a truly Watertonian remedy, which singularly enough was successful. A young ass was purchased, stabbed with poisoned arrows in the presence of the Duke of Northumberland, and duly lay down and died. Then, under the Squire’s direction, a slit was made in the animal’s throat, bellows were applied (the method was afterwards much perfected), and after two hours the ass stood up, shook its ears, and appeared perfectly well. By the Duke’s command the ass was tenderly conveyed to Walton Hall, where it lived in peace and plenty, under the name of “Wouralia,” for three and twenty years. On its death, the Squire wrote a prose elegy, and offered to perform the same operation on any sufferer from hydrophobia, protesting that he would stand his trial at Leeds Assizes as a murderer before he would neglect any opportunity of saving the life of a fellow creature.


If the Squire was a bit rough with the donkey, it cannot be said that he spared himself in the matter of doctoring. To read his account of how he dealt with “a smart attack of fever” may well make the flesh creep on the stoutest. Appallingly large doses of jalap and calomel were assisted by frequent and abundant blood-letting. The Squire believed in the lancet (perhaps it had been favoured at Stonyhurst in his day) and generally operated on himself. In his old age he told a friend that he had blooded himself one hundred and thirty-six times. Since his usual measure was from twelve to twenty ounces, the reader may well pause in awe at the thought of such an effusion of blood. But such things were trifles to the hardy Squire. In Guiana, he investigated the habits of the vampire bat and its blood-sucking propensities. He saw quantities of the bat; he saw the wounds it made in cattle and in human toes; and he longed to be able to say that a vampire had sucked his blood. Night after night the Squire slept with his naked toe hopefully sticking out of his hammock. But could he succeed in his wish? No! “The provoking brute refused to give my claret a solitary tap.”

The immunity of the Squire’s toe to vampires may have been due to hardening of the epidermis by going barefoot. Considering the nature of the growth in tropical forests, one would think stout boots and puttees the best wear, but the Squire said that one should go barefooted. And barefooted he went. Barefooted he was on the famous occasion when he captured the large live snake which “instantly sprang at my left buttock, seized the Russia sheeting trousers with his teeth, and coiled his tail round my right arm.” Barefooted he entered Rome for the first time. The public talk about this last feat distressed the Squire. It was said that he had done this from reverence to the eternal city. He had no claim to such merit, he protested. He had walked the last fifteen miles, yes; and yes, barefooted; but it was simply because he had been accustomed to do so in Guiana. Unluckily, the Pope’s pavement seems to have been harder than the Guiana swamps. The Squire took the skin off his feet, and was laid up for three weeks.

Ghastly accidents befell this intrepid investigator of Nature, and his death at eighty-three was due to a heavy fall in his own grounds. It is pleasanter to turn from these to his climbing feats, which began at eight and lasted until eighty-two. There he had only one accident, and that was due (at sixty-eight) to his using a queer ladder of his own devising, despite the agonised pleadings of his son. Down he came and broke his arm badly, from which he drew the moral that it was unsafe to use ladders in climbing trees. His most famous feat in climbing resulted in no such disaster and occurred in 1817, when the Squire (then aged thirty-five) was in Rome.

. . . I fell in with my old friend and schoolfellow, Captain Jones. Many a tree we had climbed together in the last century; and, as our nerves were in excellent trim, we mounted to the top of St. Peter’s, ascended the cross, and then climbed thirteen feet higher, where we reached the point of the conductor, and left our gloves on it. After this, we visited the castle of St. Angelo, and contrived to get on to the head of the guardian angel, where we stood on one leg.

The Squire omits to add that the Pope ordered the gloves to be removed instantly, since they rendered the lightning conductor useless. Nobody could be found bold enough to attempt the task, so in the unwanted presence of a large and delighted Roman audience, the Squire had to go up again and fetch his own gloves.

And here we may appropriately take leave of the Squire, standing on one leg on the head of an angel. Who that has grown to love him can ever hereafter pass the Castello without thinking of that spare figure poised so perilously over the City, which embodied for him a loyalty superior even to ornithology and the British uniform? His noble park and all its “dodges,” if it still exists, must be smoke-blackened and withered by the exhalations from that human hell, the Black Country. If the Squire could return to his old haunts, he would scarcely be able to watch the great flights of rooks going westward to feed, as he loved to do. His science, such as it was, is obsolete; his Wanderings superseded; but the memory of his great heart and noble whimsical nature will live on in the hearts of some of his countrymen.


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