Charles William George St John (1809–1856), English naturalist and sportsman, son of General the Hon. Frederick St John, was born on the 3rd of December 1809 at Chailey, Sussex.
St John was educated at Midhurst, Sussex, obtaining a clerkship in the treasury in 1828. He resigned this post in 1834 when he married Anne Gibson, the daughter of a rich banker in Newcastle. His passion for mountain sport led him to move his growing family to Scotland living in a succession of rustic residences in the Highlands; Ross-shire, Inverness, Nairn, and Moray.
It was during this time that he maintained his friendship with John Hancock which was to continue with his sons Henry Craven and Frederick Charles.
In 1853 he suffered a paralytic seizure which affected the left side of his body, and for the benefit of his health he moved to the south of England, although he never recovered the use of his limbs. He died at Woolston, Hampshire, on 22 July 1856, leaving his widow, three sons, and a daughter.
St John kept a diary of his daily exploits in the field which he subsequently published. His works are:-
They are written in a graphic style, and illustrated with many of his pen and ink sketches.
Extract taken from Charles St John: A Memoir by Cosmo Innes added to Charles St John’s Note Books 1846-1853, Invererne, Nairn, Elgin. Edited by Admiral H C St John. Edinburgh. 1901.
Innes refers to Hancock visiting the St John family in Scotland.
“In 1848 and 1849 he [St John] spent some time in Edinburgh, making excursions from thence to Newcastle on the one hand, and into Sutherland on the other. From his early residence at Rosehall, Sutherland had always interest with St John. But no one could live an open-air life on the coast of Moray without being attracted powerfully to the most picturesque outline of the Sutherland shore. The country was then little known. Its mountains, seen across the great firth, are most peculiar and picturesque in outline, suggesting ideas of great insulated mountains and precipices, of different structure from the continuous ranges of our midland highlands. There were rumours, too, of eagles, land and water eagles, now exterminated elsewhere, still holding their ancient reign there, and it was known that the line of limitation of the breeding of several birds of passage ran through the northern peninsula, which gave it much additional interest with a naturalist who studied and desired to collect eggs as well as birds. All these things were inducements with St John, and led to his recording his wanderings across the Moray Firth, in two pretty volumes, which, for some reasons not worth pointing out, have not been so popular as his earlier work.
One chapter of that book a vivid description of hill sport in winter forms the last chapter of “Sport in Moray;” another, without date, but which seems to embody his recollection of life at Rosehall, I have been induced to add as an appendix to this Memoir.
In the autumn of 1849 he established his family at “The College” beside Elgin a most convenient and pleasant residence for a sportsman with a family to educate. The house was large enough, and there was a big wild garden with some great old trees and surrounded by an old ivy-grown wall, which served as a secure retreat for the pets of himself and his boys. There is a pleasant society in and round the old cathedral city, embracing some men of science and students of nature, with whom St John soon became a favourite. The children had the advantage of good schools; and for sport and the study of the habits of animals, was there not the Loch of Spynie and the rocks of Covesea, where the peregrine breeds? St John’s enjoyment of his Elgin residence was much increased by his friend and companion in sport, Captain Gordon Cumming, or later, Major Gordon Cumming, having a house in the neighbourhood.
His life at Elgin was indeed, I believe, very happy. His letters were full of active pursuits, with now a fair mixture of literary work. All his talents were turned to account. No walk or drive but furnished a note on his favourite study. He no longer complained that he was an idle man.
I sometimes visited him at “The College,” and used to admire, perhaps a little to envy, his manner of living among his children. The boys were the constant companions of his sport when school permitted, and sometimes the schoolmaster was forgotten when the car came to the door to take papa and Rennie to the Loch. Then, on return, there were the contents of the game-bag to examine rare specimens to note, and sometimes to preserve and stuff after Mr Hancock’s directions, who was a great friend and ally of old and young. In the evening the drawing-room table was a pretty sight. Some rare bird, or if no rarity offered, a good, handsome, old blackcock was displayed en pose for the artists, and father and children made studies in water-colours of a head, a claw, or a tail of the fine bird. Without pretending to much skill in art, St John drew easily and coloured dexterously what was placed before him, and he made all his children able to do the same. I remember with what pride he showed me the journals sent him by Harry on his first voyage in Admiral Seymour’s ship, where the young middy described the places he visited as well as he could, and supplied defects by views drawn on the margin.
St John spent some happy years at Elgin, and his friends looked forward to many days of life and enjoyment for one so vigorous and active, and of most temperate and healthy habits; but this was not to be. He had been for a long time subject to violent attacks of nervous headache, quite disabling him for any exertion; but these were of short duration, and we little thought that they might be symptomatic of some cerebral affection, as it seems they were. He had one of the worst of those overpowering headaches in the beginning of December 1853, but in a few days he had apparently thrown off’ the disease, and on Tuesday, 6th December, was on his way out to shoot when he was struck down by paralysis of the whole left side. He was carried home quite powerless, assisted by Major W. Pitcairn Campbell, 23rd Fusiliers, but retaining his senses entire. In the midst of overwhelming grief for such a calamity, Mrs St John and the whole family did what their strength allowed to alleviate his sufferings, but it required a man’s strength to move the helpless sufferer, constantly requiring change of posture; and he owed much of what rendered life supportable, for some weeks, to the untiring and tender care of his friend Major Gordon Cumming.
He never recovered the use of his limbs, but his health was so far restored as to allow of his trying a change of air and scene. He moved to Brighton, and afterwards to Southampton, without deriving much benefit from medical treatment or change of climate. His heart still clung to the scene of his youthful sport, and to the last he indulged the hope of returning “to some place between Spey and Ness,” but in vain. He died at Woolston, near Southampton, on the 12th July 1856.
He was buried in the Southampton cemetery. At his feet, within his coffin, was placed, by his own desire, the skull of “Leo,” a favourite retriever, “Grip’s” successor.
Of the many amiable qualities which endeared him to his family and his personal friends I must not speak. I may be allowed to point out for imitation the extreme care and accuracy of his observations of nature a rare merit and his guarded and simple statements of the results. His taste for rural pleasures, his love of sport, and his natural unaffected style, will long endear his memory to naturalists.
“In May 1851 I was at the Loch of Spynie with my father and Mr John Hancock looking for the shoveller’s nest ; and having watched one of these birds alight in the long grass bordering the open water, we approached quietly and the duck flushed close to us. The nest with several eggs was in some long grass. At the time I speak of, this bird was not common in the locality, and its really nesting was not certain. Great was Mr Hancock’s pleasure at procuring an authentic specimen of the egg.”
“May 17 1853
Snowie sent Mr Hancock the skin of a fresh killed female golden eagle width. 6 ft. 10 in.; also two eggs of the golden eagle.” [Mr Snowie of Inverness]
“March 22 1847
My friend Mr. Hancock tells me that he has succeeded in keeping many kind of sandpipers, and even the common snipe alive and in good health by feeding them principally on boiled liver minced small, which seems to approximate more closely to the usual food of insectivorous and worm-eating birds than any other substance.”
“April 22 (1851).
Drove down to the sea-coast to-day, and after certain trouble, manoeuvring, and stalking, I shot a pair of peregrines – male and female. I shot the female passing over me dead as a stone, in the clouds. The male was sitting afterwards halfway up the rocks, and I stalked him from the top. I had determined to succeed, but I should not have shot the birds for any other reason than to oblige Mr. Hancock, and see them live again as stuffed by him.”
Peregrines at this time were hunted by gamekeepers but St John records that they were abundant, regularly breeding in the district (p.121)