George Lyell's letters

In addition to the development of his moth and butterfly collection, George Lyell’s letters reveal much about his personal relationships, including a close friendship with fellow entomologist and collector GA Waterhouse.

Sepia portrait of a young man
Portrait of George Lyell, Nada Studio, Sydney, c.1895 / Source: OLDERSYSTEM~03408, Museums Victoria Archives

Professor Deirdre Coleman, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, and Simon Hinkley, Entomology Collection Manager, Museums Victoria, and I were awarded a McCoy Seed Fund Grant to spend a year studying George Lyell (1866-1951), a moth, butterfly and orchid collector who lived much of his life in Gisborne, Victoria. Lyell’s moth and butterfly collection is held at Museums Victoria, totaling 51,216 specimens. Lyell also donated his library, archive and entomological equipment to the Museum. Lyell’s pressed orchid collection is held at the National Herbarium of Victoria.

Lyell’s letters revealed significant information about his exchanges and purchases of insects with other collectors, techniques for preparing moths and butterflies, the types of specimens collected and Lyell’s thoughts on those specimens, and details of the research and manuscript preparation for Butterflies of Australia (1914) which Lyell co-authored with Gustavus Athol (GA) Waterhouse (1877-1950).

Waterhouse and Lyell corresponded from 1891 – 1947; they co-authored Butterflies of Australia (1914); shared a passion for moths and butterflies, and were close personal friends. Waterhouse was an honorary entomologist at the Australian Museum and later curator and executive officer in the division of economic entomology at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Among many other of his responsibilities, he sat on a number of committees and authored a number of books on butterflies of Australia.

Black and white photographs of butterflies, “Butterflies of Australia” proofs, c. 1914.
Black and white photographs of butterflies, “Butterflies of Australia” proofs, c. 1914 / Photograph: Nik McGrath / Source: Oldersystem~03036, Museums Victoria Archives

An important part of the work on the McCoy Seed Fund Grant has been the transcription of Lyell’s inwards and outwards correspondence. Museums Victoria Archives hold over 400 letters from Waterhouse to Lyell. Waterhouse has beautiful handwriting, typical of the late 1800s and early 1900s. But a letter of a personal nature dated 12 July 1943 stopped me in my tracks. Written in pencil on a very small piece of paper, the writing itself was like that of a child. It reads: “You will be disappointed to learn that three weeks ago I had a slight stroke. I have been out of bed for 3 days now in a wheel chair. I am writing this with my left hand sitting in the sun on our balcony. I am hoping to get the use of my right hand soon. So far I can move everything more or less normally on the right arm down to the wrist. The right leg is almost normal. Today I walked a few steps with the nurse […] I think I have made a good start with writing with my left hand. It is barely 14 days since I made the first attempt”.

My heart sank when I transcribed this letter. It was like learning that a close personal relative was ill. Also, I knew how hard it would be for Waterhouse not to go out in the field. Lyell and Waterhouse lived for climbing mountains and collecting the moths and butterflies they so desperately loved.

Transcribing letters can be devastating, at times. Readers may agree that you become close to the correspondents, feeling that even though the letters are historical and the authors of the letters have long ago passed away, the authors themselves have been immortalised in the archives. It sometimes feels like their voices can be heard, as if they are still alive, perhaps in spirit.

I transcribed 20 years of correspondence between Lyell and Museum Directors and Entomologists in a file in the Museums Archives entitled ‘National Museum of Victoria - Entomology - George Lyell Collection - 23 Jul 1932 - 15 Jan 1952’. Knowing full well that Lyell passed away in 1951, it still stung to come across the following letter: ‘Miss JC Benson, c/- G Lyell, Gisborne, Victoria / Deepest sympathy to you all in the loss you have sustained. From Director and staff of the National Museum of Victoria. […] Wreath ordered from Mr Love, Bacchus Marsh. […] Lyell Collection received on May 30, 1951’.

The letters in the Museums Victoria Archives are often transactional, such as the donation of items or the exchange of information about collections. However, personal notes such as I have mentioned here are also found within the pages of files. These moments of intimacy often catch me off guard, leave me feeling sad for what has been lost. Sometimes too I feel like a voyeur on the past, and that too can be troubling.

The George Lyell Collection: Australian Entomology Past and Present McCoy Seed Funding Project is led by Professor Deirdre Coleman, School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Nik McGrath, Archivist, Museums Victoria, is the coordinator at Museums Victoria, with colleague Simon Hinkley, Collection Manager, Entomology and Arachnology.


Written by Nik McGrath, Archivist, Museums Victoria

If you’re interested in learning more about the project, see our previous articles Butterflies of the nightLike moths to a flamePressed OrchidsThe sting of the final letterLight sheetsKindred spiritsMoths are beautiful too and On the wing.

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