An Unexpected Newt in the natural garden of the Wilson family

It’s one of the optimistic clichés of the natural world that the discovery of a rare newt can stop plans for building on green land. Since the water which passes through the Astley Ainslie grounds is largely confined to pipes, finding a newt seems a bit unlikely.

But history is unlikely.

Engraving of Woodville, frontispiece to Memoirs of James Wilson, Esq, Naturalist.

In the mid nineteenth century, the naturalist and gardener, Henrietta Wilson (d. 1863), wrote a book called The chronicles of a garden: its pets and its pleasures. She lived with her uncle, James Wilson who was also a naturalist, next door to the main Canaan site at Woodville in Canaan Lane. Their approach to nature and gardening was at variance to that of their immediate neighbour at Millbank, Professor James Syme. The Millbank garden was run with the efficiency and scientific rigour, which would have equalled Syme’s practice in the Royal Infirmary; the Wilsons’ overflowed with life

James Wilson wrote to Henrietta in 1850, about South African succulents growing at Millbank:

you must go into Millbank, and see the Crassula coccineas, which are each as large as umbrellas, and covered with flowers from top to bottom. The garden there is in excellent order throughout, but … it is not in pulling [ie picking] order, from the want of a large supply of common things. Everything stands by itself, and is a separate thing, as if there was only one of it in the world, so that a nosegay is quite out of the question. Our own useful blow of roses, honeysuckle, &c., is coming to an end, although the Chinese and damasks [roses] will give us an autumnal show. The gooseberries are ripening fast…i

The Wilsons’ pleasure in gardening embraced large trees, old-fashioned and wild flowers, and even daisies in the lawn. Henrietta wrote, tongue in cheek:

It is very wrong, I believe, to admire a mossy lawn, or to allow daisies to spring up among the grass; now both are so delightful to me, that I would not care half so much for the little lawns or grass plots in the garden, if they were not soft with velvet moss, and white as snow with gowans…ii

She makes a good point. The extraordinary determination to eradicate moss and cheerful weeds like the daisy and the buttercup and indeed the dandelion – all beautiful flowers – is one of the oddest features of our gardening in this wet country.

The Wilsons kept and observed large numbers of birds, mammals and insects. They even brought up glowworms from Kent and reared them. Since the female glowworm signals for a mate from long grass, it is pleasing to think of the daisy-filled lawns with these little green-gold lights gleaming among the flowers.

Most of the naturalists of the period focused on classification, collection and, generally, dissection. The Wilsons preferred close observation and opened their house to wild life. Henrietta explained:

As to “pets” properly so-called, it would require a volume to describe those that have been reared, trained, tamed, and fed within the precincts of our small abode. The mere list would appal most people: at different times we have had a succession of dogs, an ichneumon, a coatimondi, monkeys, rabbits, guinea-pigs, mice, squirrels, hedgehogs, and, occasionally, cats and kittens. In the ornithological department, we have had eagles, hawks, owls, cormorants, seagulls of all kinds, silver-pheasants, grouse, quails, ravens, rooks, magpies and jackdaws; starlings, jays, a cockatoo, parrots, parroquets, pigeons, bantams, and small cage-birds of almost every kind. The chief peculiarity about our pets was their tameness, and agreeing in general most wonderfully with one another.

She gives a fascinating sense of a garden of Eden, and explains their success:

The great secret of training and attaching animals, seems to be kindness and quietness, and a certain sort of friendly intercourse with them, which, perhaps, is only understood by those to the manner born. All teasing them, even in fun, should be avoided, if you wish them to trust you and be gentle… there are few, either among quadrupeds or birds, that will not soon get attached to the person who feeds them; but they are frequently far more strongly attached to the individual who understands them, and keeps up a quiet friendly intercourse with them. Unless this sort of “rapport” is established between us and our pets, they are (to my mind) hardly worthy of the name; they degenerate into “captive animals,” and can neither give pleasure to others, not be made happy themselves.

The Wilsons’s experience offers a cheering forerunner – a hundred years beforehand – of Gerald Durrell’s account of the wildlife on the island of Corfu, My Family and Other Animals. It is not surprising that the children of the neighbourhood came to play and they must have learnt a great deal about wildlife.

And the newt?

Henrietta gives her account of this:

I can recall a summer when a glass globe, usually filled with gold-fish, about the most uninteresting of pets, was converted into a fresh water aquarium, and all sorts of queer creatures kept therein… no one entered the drawing-room who did not examine and watch with interest the reptiles and insects living there, an interest the pretty but stupid gold-fish never excited. One large water-newt was an especial object of curiosity; he did not object to being taken out of the water and handled: indeed he had to submit occasionally to be made a plaything of by the children of the family, and more than once he was dressed in a doll’s frock and carried about tenderly, the little fat forelegs of the newt being suggestive of infantine arms!

History now has to encompass a newt in a dress – surely unique?

The Chronicles of a Garden, page 164

Sara Stevenson, February 2019.

i Letter from James Wilson to Henrietta, 24 July 1850, Memoirs of James Wilson, Esq, Naturalist, p. 247.

ii For this and the following quotations, with the engraving of the newt, Henrietta Wilson, The chronicles of a garden: its pets and its pleasures, New York edition, 1864.