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Letter NEWHM:1996.H67.523

Alfred Newton to John Hancock (27 February 1871)

Newton replies to Hancock’s letter of 24 February 1871 [Letter NEWHM:1996.H67.522] discussing a classification format for his proposed new ‘Catalogue of Birds’. Newton dismisses Temminck preferring Nitzsch, which he will modify for his own new edition of Yarrell’s Birds and agrees with Hancock on the unfortunate recent trend in subdividing genera.




Magd. Coll.


27 Feby. 1871.

Pro. Newton [Hancock’s hand]


My dear Sir,

I am very glad to hear you are busy with a Catalogue of Northumberland & Durham birds & I hope it may set a good example to other authors engaged on a similar task for I declare I do not know one that I could recommend to you as a model worthy of imitation.

As to arrangement that indeed is a difficult subject.  I have not been able to find one that satisfies me, & yet the subject is one upon which I must immediately enter, for I have [p.2] forthwith to begin upon the new edition of Yarrell’s “Birds” & must make extensive alterations in the classification followed by him in order to bring it up to the mark of the present state of knowledge.

I have a very strong objection to Temminck’s system.  Without sufficient reason he threw over all the Orders of Linnaeus & proposed others which are certainly not on the whole improvements.  His order Insessores for instance is in many respects more unnatural than thePasseres of Linnaeus, & his Grallatores more unnaturally arranged than [p.3] Linnaeus’s Grallæ– for example when he interposes the Herons, Storks & Cranes between the Plovers & Sandpiper groups which I defy any systematist acting on sound principles to place apart.

I think the nearest approach to a natural classification was made by Nitzsch in his “Pterylography” of which the Ray Society published a Translation & I shall so far as I can (i.e. with some modifications) use that as my ground work in the new Yarrell.  The whole subject has more or less occupied my thoughts for a long time, but I hope [p.4] in the course of 2 or 3 weeks my ideas will be crystallized into some definite shape.  I shall be very happy to send you the main results when I have arrived at them if they will be in time for you.

I quite agree with you as to the inexpediency of following the present rage for subdividing Genera — & I intend to set my face against it.  It is especially unnecessary in a local work.

Pray remember me kindly to your brother & sisters and believe me | Yours very truly | Alfred Newton [signature]

John Hancock. Esq.

Did you ever publish any notice of the Sanderling you shot flying from some eggs?  I have the real egg sent to me from Arctic America very unlike any other egg I know.





1.  The Sanderling Calidris alba is a small wader. It breeds in the Arctic but is often found wintering on the North East coast.

2.  Hancock, John. (1874) ‘A Catalogue of the Birds of Northumberland and Durham’ in the Transactions of the Natural History Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland and Durham, Volume 6.

3.  William Yarrell published his three volume work A History of British Birds, in 1843. Newton is referring to a fourth edition (1871-1874) of four volumes with volume one revised and enlarged by himself, published in London by John Van Voorst.

4.  Coenraad Jacob Temminck (1778 -1858) was a Dutch aristocrat and zoologist. His important ornithological works included Manuel d’ornithologie ou tableau systématique des oiseaux qui se trouvent en Europe.  Parts 1-4, 1820–1840. To read the Manuel, please click here.

5.  Christian Ludwig Nitzsch (1782 – 1837) was a German Professor of Zoology at the University of Halle, in Saxony-Anhalt, East Germany. He is principally known for the study of pterylosis or the classification of birds based on the distribution of their feather tracts. His book on the subject System der Pterylographie was published posthumously in 1840 and later, in 1867, translated into English by P L Sclater for the Ray Society publication Nitzsch’s Pterylography.