Illustration of the chicks of Ross's Gull and Pectoral Sandpiper

‘My book of collectors’: Henry Eeles Dresser and Victorian ornithological networks

To mark the RSPB's Great Garden Birdwatch on 27-29 January 2023, we discuss the work of the eminent Victorian ornithologist, Henry Eeles Dresser, and his recently catalogued album of correspondence and photographs.

In the twenty-first century there is huge interest in birds, as well as concern over the decline of species due to habitat loss and climate change. In Britain today ‘twitchers’ use cameras and binoculars to collect bird species, the rarer the better. It was very different in the nineteenth century, when ornithologists collected physical specimens of birds and their eggs, sometimes in vast numbers. Moreover, the fashion industry’s demand for decorative feathers had a huge impact on some species. This in turn gave rise to the embryonic conservation movement.

Henry Eeles Dresser (1838-1915) isn’t a household name now, but he was one of the most influential ornithologists of the nineteenth century. The Library holds an important album of letters and photographs compiled by Dresser, which has recently been catalogued.

Henry Eeles Dresser. Library of Congress image

Dresser began to collect birds’ eggs and specimens in his early teenage years. Later, the family business, first in the Baltic timber trade and latterly in the iron industry, gave him both opportunities for international travel and the wealth to indulge his obsession with collecting on a global scale; he amassed some 60,000 eggs and 10,000 specimen skins. Dresser apparently saw no contradiction between collecting specimens and eggs and his passion for birds; in fact, he was an early advocate of conservation and was heavily involved in the early Society for the Protection of Birds (which later became the RSPB).

Dresser epitomised the amateur gentleman-naturalist in the period before natural history was professionalised within scientific institutes, universities and museums. He published more than 100 scientific papers and a number of important monographs on birds, which drew upon his own extensive collections and his international scientific networks. He established and maintained an extensive correspondence network with fellow ornithologists and natural scientists in Britain, Europe and North America.

In 2007 the Library purchased an album compiled by Dresser, which contains some 219 letters and 225 photographs and other portraits of over 250 individuals, including most of the leading ornithologists and naturalists in Britain, Europe and North America during the last third of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth.[1]

Letter from Charles Darwin to Henry Dresser, [10 September 1875], and Carte de visite photograph of Darwin. English MS 1404/52-53. The letter is recorded in the Darwin Correspondence Project, ‘Letter no. 13836F’, accessed on 20 December 2022,

Dresser clearly intended the album to serve as a proud and tangible record of his extensive scientific connections, for it appears that he explicitly utilised his networks to solicit correspondence and photographs to include in the album. His biographer, Henry McGhie, states that Dresser: ‘valued his acquaintances with other naturalists greatly and collected signed letters and photographs from them from the mid-1860s onwards, which he kept in an album. He wrote to John Harvie-Brown in 1869: “Please send me a photo so that the light of your countenance may shine in my ‘bird room’ when I open my book of collectors.” His album […] represents fifty-odd years of social advancement in ornithological society.’ Henry A. McGhie, Henry Dresser and Victorian Ornithology: Birds, Books and Business (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), pp. 75-6.

Photograph of Horace William (Horatio) Wheelwright (1815-65), ‘the Old Bushman’, Australian hunter, naturalist and writer. In common with a  number of subjects in the album, Wheelwright is posed with a gun. English MS 1404/91/a.

The album constitutes an important source for the historiography of natural history (especially ornithology) in the period from the 1860s to the 1900s, for the history of international scientific and social networks, and for the history of portrait photography.

We have recently completed a detailed catalogue of the album (English MS 1404), which is now available online via the Archives Hub and our own Elgar site. Although the album has not been fully digitised, many of the individual photographs can be viewed online via our Library Digital Collections at

Photograph of Lucy Bakewell Audubon (1787-1874), educator and philanthropist, wife of John James Audubon; she is one of only two women represented in the album. English MS 1404/152/b.

[1] Purchase of the album was generously supported by grants from the former Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material (PRISM) fund and from Manchester Museum.

John Hodgson is Head of Special Collections at The University of Manchester Library.

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