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Letter NEWHM:1996.H67.320

William Chapman Hewitson to John Hancock (14 September 1845)

Hewitson describes his journey from Switzerland to Genoa, Italy and discusses the natural history of the areas visited with particular reference to birds and butterflies while bemoaning his health problems. He refers to a number of contemporaries including Harrington, Doubleday, Evans, Wailes and Van Voorst. He reminisces about a trip he made to Norway with Hancock and suggests a repeat visit.



You cannot write to me too often [inverted]

Genoa. Septr . 14th. [1845]

My dear Hancock

I was very much pleased when I received your letter yesterday because I had been anxiously expecting to hear something of you — from the time when I received the last wave of your hand — at Lucerne — I got to my destination here much sooner than I expected[,] for I found the Italian scenery quite inferior to that of Switzerland and the difficulties of travelling so much greater that I resolved to travel all night to avoid them[.]  The passage of the Great St. Gothard 1 is magnificently wild and just the country for the mountain birds[.] I saw abundance of Ac. Alpina 2 and at the hotel where we dined they give us a dish of 30 or 40 birds not bigger than a sparrow — of the history of which I could learn nothing except that they had red breasts — surely not dear Bobby but they kill everything on the Italian side of the Alps[. ] — –  On the rocks I saw abundance of the grand Saxifrage 3 we brought from Norway or else of one as fine[.] — I was at Como4 on the morning after I left you[,] its lake is nothing after Lucerne[.]  On Sunday I went to Milan which is an exceedingly fine city with beautiful drives round it & a cathedral worth a long ride to see[.] — On Tuesday morning I breakfasted in Genoa — and have since been so unwell that had I not been assured by a doctor that I should derive benefit by remaining a winter here I would have set off home again so grievously disappointed have I been with the place.  We have had beautiful weather since I arrived here but though it is not better than Switzerland I feel myself quite unable to take almost any exercise and have more trouble than ever with my obstinate guts. — In the city near the sea shore it is insufferably hot where one might see something interesting[.] [p.2]

Where we are on the hill behind the city we cannot get out without climbing or going down a steep hill and if we go beyond the city walls into what they call country here it is along a stinking road by the side of banks that were green 5 months ago but are now dried up — still there are a number of butterflies even there — and I have taken since I came five fresh specimens of Satyrus fauna – Van: L Album — and the orange rhamni and have seen lots of S. Circe & Briseis— & P. Daplidice 5– and won specimens of two blues new to me – females of C. Adusa are still out and also some of the black and white skippers[.] — I caught last week a beautiful green Mantis –& have got specimens of three shells I never saw before — and one day last week took 8 species of beautiful bees — not English which appear to be just now coming out — but insects are not abundant in species and though I sit out nearly all day under some vines & fig trees in our garden I scarcely even see any small beetles[.] — I have seen a private collection of European insects here and their owner has promised to get me a box of butterflies of my desiderata from a dealer at Turin where a great many species are taken[.]

The fish market here is a very interesting sight[,] there are very few large fish — but at one time I have seen not less than fifty species of small ones — and baskets full of the fry of larger species which they destroy here wholesale[.]  The anchovy and several other herrings are in abundance[.] — At a museum here they have many wonderful looking fish caught here and very well set-up as well as many strange crabs[.] –  I am most thoroughly home sick and would not remain here a day were it not that I hope for benefit and before long I shall leave either for Nice or some other place where I can get to the sea-shore or into the country — and spend my winter in the pursuit of Natural History — what will become of me next spring I know not but if I can absent myself from the old country I shall I think either go to the Pyranees [sic] or return through glorious Switzerland and try to take that blue 6 for I hear from Mr. Doubleday of Epping7 that you and his brother could find nothing like it in the museum though you forgot to tell me about it –  I shall send E Doubleday a drawing of it for if it is new or rare it will be worth looking after –you have also forgot to tell me whether Bowman[‘]s Norway fragment is like ours of the [1 word illeg.possibly genuine] 8


It is odd that you and Harrington9 should thus meet again –  he is determined to beat us all it appears but I fancy if he goes on at the same rate much longer his collections will come to the hammer — he must have had an immense number of things to cost £100 but I suppose they were not all butterflies[.]  I wish you were here to luxuriate in the fruit[;] there are delicious figs red and black and fine peaches at 2d a dozen and melons for 2d each and lots of pears and plums.  — Mr. Van Voorst10 tells me that Mr. Doubleday has been to him for £10 on my account for another speculation for a man who went out to the West Indies last year.  I hope from this that he has sent home some good butterflies[.] I still hope too to get some good things from Honduras[.]  You say nothing about your Iceland or Norway correspondents and therefore I fear you have heard nothing[.]  I feel particularly anxious to get the butterflies of those countries because I believe they are not to be bought and if I were not so far distant I would have been much inclined to have set off for Norway and Lapland next summer — but if you go it will do just as well.  I am determined to have the butterflies of that part of Europe and if I do not myself feel strong enough to go and no other means of getting them occurs I will send out a collector[.] –  I can hardly hope that you would [tear in manuscript – possibly ‘like’] to make another excursion with a cross grained fellow like myself but if you would and can remember only the [tear in manuscript – agreeable?] parts of the past summer I shall still hope that we may one day go north together for there is no one I know with whom I would so soon travel as yourself and I shall ever remember your kindness and forbearance & good nature during the past summer. 11 Pray don[‘]t loose [sic] any opportunity of securing the Norway butterflies[.]  I give a list of them below lest you should not yet have procured Boisduval’s catalogue 12

Lycaena (blues) pharetes [sic pheretes], which I suppose to be the Genuine one

Argynnis, polaris, freija [sic freyjal], frigga, ossianus

Melitaea[,] icnea [sic ichnea], iduna

Erebia embla, disa

Chionobas – norna, jutta, bore, ceno –

Syricthus [sic syrichthus] centaureae –

If anyone were to go to Norway and take most of these butterflies they would alone pay his expenses.  We must have them by some means or other[.]  I will give 5/- for a pair of any of those above if fine[.]


H Doubleday of Epping has got a fine moth which has not been seen in this country for 50 years — and I hear that Weaver13 has taken many fine & new things in Scotland this summer.  I am glad you got me some humming birds[.]  I hear from every one the same character of Evans he will have his shop to himself if he goes on in that way[.] —  I will write to you again when I change my residence[.] — I shall not expect to hear from you again whilst here unless you write so that your letter may reach me before the middle of Octr. — I am very glad to hear that Wailes has got me so good a tenant for Cullercoats. 14

I am very glad also to hear an account of Miss Hancock. I hope your sister Mary was pleased with the plants you collect[e]d for her — there are several here which I have never seen before but they are most of them shrubby thistle looking things[.]  The only birds here are sparrows[.]  I have only seen two other species they murder everything to eat — and have nets set in many of the gardens[.]  In the market I saw one day a Hoopoe[,] a wryneck — Ox eyes 15 & Chaffinches.  The last is their chief cage bird and in order to make them sing they put their eyes out[.] — I beg my kindest remembrances to all at home[.]  I will write to your brother Albany during the winter[.] –

You must possess the bump16 of caution or you would not have posted the letters at Rotterdam.  — I had heard of it before you told me[.]

With my best wishes always | Your most truly | William C Hewitson [signature]

John Hancock Esqr.

St Marys Terrace

Newcastle on Tyne


Sep 14th. 1845

W. C. Hewitson [in Hancock’s hand]

[Two postmarks illegible. Another “Newcastle-on-Tyne SP22 1845” Faint impression of a seal on black sealing wax of a falcon with wings expanded, the initials “WCH” and the Hewitson family motto “Let them talk”]


1. St Gotthard Pass is a high mountain pass in the Lepontine Alps of southern Switzerland.

2. “Ac. Alpina” – Probably the Alpine Accentor Accentor alpinus now known as Prunella collaris.

3. “grand Saxifrage” – Saxifrages are small perennial alpine or ‘rock’ plants found in the wild in the northern hemisphere.

4. Lake Como, Italy.

5.  Species of Butterflies:

“Satyrus” is a genus of butterflies, usually a drab brown in colour.

Van: L Album” is probably Vanessa, a genus of brush-footed butterflies.

The “orange rhamnia” is a type of Brimstone butterfly.

S. Circe & Briseis” is probably the Great Banded Grayling Brintesia circe and the Bath White Butterfly Pontia Daplidice.

“C. Adusa?” is possibly Colias edusa – the Clouded Yellow now known as Colias crocea

“skippers” a skipper is a butterfly of the family Hesperiidae, some of which are black and white in appearance.

6. ‘blue’ a species of blue butterfly

7. “Mr Doubleday of Epping” –  Henry Doubleday(1808-1875) who was the author of the first catalogue of British butterflies and moths, Synonymic List of the British Lepidoptera (1847–50). Hewitson also mentions his brother Edward Doubleday.

8. “Bowman’s Norway fragment” – Presumably a reference to Robert Benson Bowman (1808-1882) – a Newcastle based amateur botanist who collected in Norway.

9. “Mr Harrington” – Probably a butterfly collector

10. “Mr Van Voorst” – A publisher of Scientific books

11. In 1833 Hewitson went on an expedition to Norway with John Hancock and Benjamin Johnson.

12. Jean Baptiste Alphonse Dechauffour de Boisduval (1799 – 1879), French lepidopterist and physician. He developed the Boisduval scale and identified many new species of butterflies.

13.  Mr Richard Weaver (fl.1790-1860), an insect dealer based in Birmingham.

14. George Wailes, a solicitor in Newcastle upon Tyne, was Hewitson’s long term friend and together they were the Natural History Society’s first Curators of Entomology. The property in Cullercoats, Tyne and Wear, was left to Hewitson when his uncle Henry died in 1843. Wailes must have been acting as his agent.

15. “Ox-eyes”  – A colloquial name for birds of the Tit family (Paridae) usually the Great Tit Parus major.

16.  A phrenological allusion. The study of phrenology was a popular Victorian science where practitioners believed they could determine a person’s character from studying the bumps on their head.