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Letter NEWHM:1996.H67.1048

Henry C St John to John Hancock (19 March 1876)

St John, on board HMS Sylvia, replies to Hancock’s letter of December 1875 [Letter 1046] discussing the list of specimens he is collecting. He mentions procuring a large Japanese Spider Crab for the Museum. He writes about the geologist Hugh Miller and the latest views on creationism versus evolution, stimulated by his observations of the animal and plant life he sees during the dredging operations. He asks for Hancock’s opinion on where the line can be drawn between animals and vegetables.





Japan Mch. 19 — [18]76

Dear Mr. Hancock

Yr. letter of 20 & 24 Dec I have recd. safe & sound –

At last I have procured a big crab Inachus Kaempferi from tip to tip “he” measures 11 feet 5 inches — I intend presenting him to y r. museum –

As far as I know all birds, that become pink or red, as crossbills & linnets once — do so only once — reverting to the sober general plumage aftr. — My little Yeso Bullfinch did the same –

I have launched out from collecting rare species of birds, to others, less so –

I am glad to see you are of the same opinion as I am regarding the time Seagulls begin breeding — some of these beautiful birds do not appear in their adult plumage until evidently the 3rd.  Season — So that [p.2] they must be three years old, before maturing –

You shall have the fruit of the Salsburia [sic Salisburia] Adiantifolia — if it is to be got — which I have no doubt about — It is a glorious tree and in the autumn turns a lovely golden yellow.

The very day I rec d. your letter I shot a fine specimen of Scolopax major — one of the birds you mention in your list –

I don’t know the “Merlin like hawk” unless it is a lovely species of “hobby” — to be had — but rarely — in Japan[.]

The Hobby proper I have –

The two species of Pheasant you mention as described in the Fauna Japonica viz P. versicola & P. Soemmerigii [sic]  [p.3] are the common green — & copper Pheasants –The drawings I sent belong to neither –

As for the Pigeon rejoicing in that fearful name C. (Carprophaga [sic]) janthina  –  I have killed many — have examined the irides when the bird was alive, as well as the tip of the bill — The former is invariably Brown — and the latter, as I described to you, light greenish blue.

I consider anyone who has seen and watched with care or the slightest interest the Snipe neighing can come to but one opinion, as to how the sound is produced — viz by the wings — What Mr. Meves writes is perfect folly –

The bird “something like a Magpie” you mention as being figured in the Fauna Japonica is a stranger to me — but I will keep a look out for it –

I have the Missel Thrush [p.4]  it is not a very common bird out here — & differs from our’s[sic] —

The Skull of the Seal I have — without doubt I think it is the female of the crested Seal –

Have you seen the catalogue of shells which I dredged last commission — now published by the B. Museum –?

You know H. Miller’s books his interesting books the Old Red Sandstone — Testimony of the Rocks &c — Of course I am a partial flood believer, as no doubt you are — more, or — as much for the simple reason that there was no necessity of their [sic] being anything but a partial one — Miller’s arguments regarding the fauna that were introduced into the Ark are ingenious but not without


2.  error, — particularly as to the distribution of Species — Miller was a wonderful man — as a self educated, self made man, a shining light [deleted words illeg.] — Geology of course was his forte — and it is not to be wondered at, that he should make some slips & mistakes, in other branches, which only bore as adjuncts & props — to his hobby –

He mentions that the common Raven is more distributed throughout the globe than any single species of Pigeon — Now without doubt the most general distributed bird known, both N. S. E & West — in high & low latitudes, tropical & sub Arctic circle &c. is the Common Rock Dove, ‘Columbia Livia’ [sic Columba livia] — & in all parts, where ever found, has identically the same habits, lives in caves, along the Sea shore — and in plumage is undistinguishable — whereas the Raven is not found every where — I call this Corvus japonensis a true Raven — am I right –?

[p.6]  Is the Apteryx still found in New Zealand –

I see they have got my Seyshell friend in the Zoological Gardens – The Big tortoise –

I shall be glad to hear what Mr. Hewitson thinks of my Butterflies — probably this summer I may get both more and rarer ones –

Apropos of Snipe, — according to Swinhoe the large snipe found in Yeso — and which I have frequently also found as solitary birds, both in the N. & S. of Nipon [sic Nippon] — is the Australian bird Galleiago Australis (Lath) –  This bird I have killed 7oz. in weight — It is very similar in habits to the Solitary snipe — seldom two being found in the same [p.7] spot. –

People begin to think Japan is not the co[u]ntry it has been supposed to be — particularly as regards its great mineral wealth –

I differ and am of a difft. opinion — so far as coal goes.  I do not think it is a country where much will be found –  all that is, is some 2000 or more years too young –  But I feel sure, from the general configuration of the Islands — and the kind of rock which forms by far the greater part of the land — that Iron, Gold, Tin, Silver & other metals will be found in very fair if not great quantities –

Have you ever taken interest in deep sea work — sounding & dredging — there is one point relating to the bottom of the Sea, which is both curious & interesting — viz the strange way that the substance formg. the bottom varies — [p.8] for instance, I often take a line of soundings & dredgings say in 3 or 400 fms –  1st I get a clear fine white sand or skeleton life, worked up into ooze — close to I find a dark mud, same depth — next time a brown mud well stained with oxide of iron –  Then black, or perhaps a clear yellow — & so on — on shore there is nothing resembling such variety of soil — I dropped the lead not long since, evidently into a sub aqueous volcano, getting 6000 feet, with 300 close to it, but had not time at the moment or since the opportunity of examing. it further –  I want your opinion of where the line between, animal & vegetable life is to be drawn. It seems to me a very fine point — Scientific men also do not agree — but the resemblance in the low scale of animal & the high of vegetable life is very similar consequently very difficult to decide –


3 — dont suppose me a Darwinite — have not got quite so far yet — but it is difficult to say what one may become in these terrible days of speed — Leaving the sponge as a decided animal — we go a step back, to the Rhizopoda, a creature I presume it may be called, — the development of which almost nothing is known — The point I am after is the line, between the two — It appears evident there is, must be a line, but where — by going back & back as science is enclined [sic] now a days.  It appears to me they will suddenly start up by finding themselves, unwittingly gone bang into the clearest, simplest type of vegetable — and open their wondering eyes & brains with an exclamation, “Good gracious what have we been about” — but let me have your opinion –

There were men of the earth professor So & So — John, Dick & Harry — will never [p.10] I know full well venture an opinion on such a ticklish point –

I am not by any means well up enough to venture one myself.  The point of course is, does, circulation — & what must circulate — blood or water — stomach, digestion, & moving powers — decide the Animal — of course the reproducing organs also must be considered –  Sponges by ova & spermatozoa & by the way by various other bodies, the nature of which is not yet determined –  however, let me have yr.ideas –

I do sincerely wish you were out here, with me — how you would enjoy this beautiful wild country –  My time is now drawing to a close — and if I am ever to see anything of my numerous bairns — It is about time I should — I shall look forward to having many [p.11] a long yarn with you some of these days –

Since I have taken to the Gulls — which before I never could bring myself to kill — I have picked up several very interesting species — but am fairly puzzled in many points — first of all I find they vary in size very much, two mature birds of the same species never measuring the same — but not improbably differing to a very considerable extend [sic] — This by the way is the is also the case with the Albatross. The largest I have ever measured of that Bird, was 13 feet 6 inch — but this was by no means one of the largest — simply an average size — frequently amongst a dozen of those birds sailing round the ship, and clustering close under the stern picking up what is thrown overboard [p.12] you immediately pick out one or two prodigiously larger than any of the others — immediately shying a string & toggle overboard in hopes of one of these grand fellows taking it — the bait is seized by one of the flock — you haul him in & find he is only 13 feet,  an ordinary bird –  To return to the gulls — I have got the L. ridibundus  in mature winter plumage –

Dimens  extreme length  16.½ inch

Tip to Tip            39.½

Bill & legs    vermilion

Another Bird.  =

Dimens extreme length  14½

Tip to Tip          36

Legs orange  Bill orange –

Again I find the immature [sic] 1st Bird, to have orange legs & Bill with the grey streak across wings — in fact identical with the small bird — Is the small bird Larus Brunnicephalus


4 — The young of Ridibundus is supposed to have a reddish bill — at the base — with a Brown Tip — I have killed I grieve to say 8 or 10, lately all with orange bill — I always take the dimensions — before the bird is skinned and color [sic] of irides & feet immediately –

I shot & have skinned a splendid Diver —  not long since — 28. inches extreme length — Tip of Bill to end of feet 33 — Tip to Tip 45. The bird agrees with none I know — is I believe mature –

but now adieu | with kind regards to your sisters. | ever yrs sinly.,| H. C. St. John [signature]



Capt. St. John

Japan [Hancock’s hand]

Jh. Hancock Eqr

S t. Marys Terrace

Newcastle on Tyne




Dated: 06/11/2009 HRH Queen Elizabeth II touring the Great North Museum in Newcastle city centre which she later officially opened, pictured here with Director of Tyne and Wear archives Alec Coles ...

The Queen admiring St John’s Japenese Spider Crab

1.  “Inachus Kaempferi” (Temmick, 1836)  is now known as the Japanese Spider Crab, Macrocheira kaempferi, a large marine crustacean still found in the waters around Japan. St John’s specimen is still on display in the Great North Museum: Hancock in the Biodiversity Gallery.

2.  “My little Yeso Bullfinch”. Yeso is a Japanese name which historically referred to the lands to the north of Japan.

3.  “Salisburia Adiantifolia” is the Ginkgo biloba Salisburia adiantifolia, a unique species of tree initially described by Linnaeus in 1771.

4.  The “Scolopax major” of Hancock’s list was probably Latham’s Snipe Gallinago hardwickii. 

5.  “P.versicola” (sic P. versicolor) is the Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus versicolor and P. soemmeringii is known as the Copper Pheasant.

6.  “Carpophaga janthina” now known as the Japanese Wood Pigeon Columba janthina. “Irides” is the plural of iris.

7.  Mr W. Meves, a taxidermist at the Stockholm Museum, was the first exponent of the  theory that the drumming noise a Snipe makes during the breeding season is produced by means of the two outer rectrices or tail feathers. He communicated a paper in 1858 on the subject to the Zoological Society of London. Hancock discusses at long length this theory in his ‘Catalogue of the Birds of Northumberland and Durham’ pp.106-113 stating ‘the neighing or bleating of the Snipe results from the action of the wings; and that any sound produced by the tail-feathers is inaudible.’ Most ornithologists now agree with Meves.

8.  Probably a specimen of White’s Ground Thrush Turdus dauma.

9.  St. John captained HMS Sylvia from 1869-1872 and made extensive collections of molluscs off the coast of Japan and in the Korean Sea during 1870. These were later presented via John Gwyn Jeffreys to the Natural History Museum, London, then known as the British Museum, Natural History.

10.  Hugh Miller (1802-1856) was a 19th-century Scottish geologist best known for his work on the Devonian fossil fish of Scotland in his book The Old Red Sandstone, 1841.  He was also renowned for holding Creationist views but not adhering to the current ‘global flood’ theory, as mentioned by St John. His later books Footprints of the Creator, 1849 and The Testimony of the Rocks, 1857 discuss his beliefs in full.

11.  The Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos japonensis, is a widespread Asian species of Jungle Crow.

12.  Apteryx is the generic name for the various species of flightless birds known as Kiwis endemic to New Zealand.

13.  St John presented his live specimen of the Blackish Sternothere Sternothaerus subniger now known as the East African Black Mud Turtle Plusios subniger(collected in the Seychelles) to the Zoological Society of London on 2 April 1873. It is recorded in Zoological Society of London List of the vertebrated animals now or lately living in the gardens of the Zoological Society of London, 1883. p.569.

14.  Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus

15.  Brown-headed Gull  Larus brunnicephalus