Category Archives: Family

But Not the Hippopotamus*

The Trimmer family ran a brickworks in Brentford (across the River Thames from Kew) for over a century. Digging for clay unearthed fossils and other interesting oddities.  Under the watchful eye of Joseph Banks, William Kirby Trimmer (1770—1811), built up a collection, or cabinet, of such finds.  His report on the stratigraphy of two fields and the fossils that had been discovered there was published posthumously in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1813. At the time, few such sources of fossils around London were known.

Here is his description of the first field:

The first field is about half a mile north of the Thames at Kew bridge; its surface is about twenty-five feet above the Thames at low water. The strata here are first, sandy loam from six to seven feet, the lowest two feet slightly calcareous. Second, sandy gravel a few inches only in thickness. Third, loam slightly calcareous from one to five feet; between this and the next stratum, peat frequently intervenes in small patches of only a few yards wide, and a few inches thick. Fourth, gravel containing water; this stratum varies from two to ten feet in thickness and is always the deepest in the places covered by peat; in these places the lower part of the stratum becomes an heterogeneous mass of clay, sand, and gravel, and frequently exhales a disagreeable muddy smell. Fifth, the main stratum of blue clay, which lies under this, extends under London and its vicinity, the average depth of this clay has been ascertained by wells that have been dug through it, to be about two hundred feet under the surface of the more level lands, and proportionably deeper under the hills, as appears from Lord Spencer’s well at Wimbledon, which is five hundred and sixty-seven feet deep…

In the fourth stratum were found teeth and bones of both the African and Asiatic elephant, teeth of the hippopotamus, bones, horns, and teeth of the ox. A tusk of an elephant measured, as it lay on the ground, nine feet three inches, but in attempting to remove it, it broke into small pieces.

He then gives the location and stratigraphy of the second field, and continues:

In the first stratum, as in the other field, no organic remains have been observed. In the second, but always within two feet of the third stratum, have been found the teeth and bones of the hippopotamus, the teeth and bones of the elephant, the horns, bones, and teeth of several species of deer, the horns, bones, and teeth of the ox, and the shells of river fish

The remains of hippopotami are so extremely abundant, that in turning over an area of one hundred and twenty yards in the present season, parts of six tusks have been found of this animal, besides a tooth and part of the horn of a deer, part of a tusk, and part of a grinder of an elephant, and the horns with a small part of the skull of an ox.

Who knew that hippopotami were once “so extremely abundant” on the Thames?

Hippo tooth

A hippo tooth

Apparently, hippos and elephants did roam around London during the delightfully-named Ipswichian interglacial period about 125000 years ago when the climate was more balmy. Maybe it’s time to bring them back: But Yes the Hippopotamus.

* With apologies to Sandra Boynton.

Joshua Kirby (1716 – 1774)

Joshua Kirby died on June 21, 1774 and is buried at St. Anne’s, Kew.


His gravestone is no longer especially legible, and my pictures certainly don’t help.

2013-07-07 09.49.35

Here is my attempt at a transcription.

Joshua Kirby FRS-AS/ died 21st June 1774 Aged 58 / Sarah his wife / died [ ] August 1775 / Aged 57 Years / William Kirby / Son of the above / Joshua & Sarah / died 13th July 1771 / Aged 28 Years / / CGH Kirby Son of / William and Elizabeth Kirby / died an Infant / 29th October 1767 / Elizabeth wife of / William Kirby died January / 1796 Aged 49 Years

Update: Here is another view of the armorial at the top of the gravestone.



William Kirby of Barham

William Kirby (1759—1850) was a long-time rector of Barham in Suffolk and a famous entomologist. He was the son of Lucy Meadows of Witnesham and William Kirby, Joshua Kirby’s brother.

William went to school in Ipswich and then up to Cambridge before taking orders. He soon landed a ‘snug berth’ as curate, and later rector of Barham, a position he held until his death. “I walked over one evening from my father’s house carrying my own bundle and here I have been ever since and a nice snug berth it was for a young fellow to step into.”

Kirby’s interest in the natural world was sparked by his mother, and having exhausted local plants, he turned to insects. He came to entomology at a fortunate time. Few humans had ever paid much attention to bugs and the field was wide open. William Kirby was a patient, detailed observer, carefully seeking out the defining characteristics of his specimens. His first major work, Monographia Apum Angliae, was published in 1802, detailed and related some 200 species of English bees, about 90% of which he had caught in and around his own parish. This book was followed by the monumental multi-volume Introduction to Entomology, written with his long-time collaborator, William Spence. Kirby and Spence became a classic work, on the shelves of all with an interest in insects.

As his fame grew, fellow collectors sent him specimens from all over the world, but most of his own collecting was done quite locally. He would go out and, quite literally, “beat the bushes” with his walking-stick, catching falling insects on a sheet of newspaper.

Kirby brought a deeply religious humility to his studies. Firmly convinced that his research was uncovering God’s intricate design, his belief in the fallibility of imperfect human reasoning made him cautious about sweeping generalizations. He was aware of how little was known.

Two quotes from his obituary in the Gentlemen’s Magazine sum up both his achievements and his character:

Rev William Kirby FRS

July 4. At Barham, Suffolk, in his 92nd year, the Rev. William Kirby, M.A. Rector of that place, Rural Dean of the of Claydon, and an Hon. Canon of Norwich; Honorary President of the Entomological Society of London, President of the Ipswich Museum, Fellow of the Royal, Linnean, Zoological, and Geological Societies, and an honorary member of several foreign societies.

The true secret of his passing through a long life, extending to nearly 92 years, with so much esteem and regard, and of his passing to another world with so much love and affection clinging to his memory, was that he endeavoured to live by the precepts of the Gospel, and to adorn the doctrine of God his Saviour in all things.

John Kirby

Joshua Kirby was one of a dozen children of John Kirby (c. 1690 – 1753) and Alice (Brown) Kirby (ca. 1685—1766). Not much is known about Kirby’s father’s background. He is supposed to have been a schoolmaster at some point, and when Kirby was growing up was a miller in Wickham Market, Suffolk. More importantly for Joshua Kirby’s future development was his father’s sideline as a topographer, drawing up plans of estates for the local gentry. This business took him around the county and developed his contacts with the wealthier members of society.

John Kirby by Gainsborough

In the 1730s, John Kirby made a survey of the whole of Suffolk, which resulted in a large-scale map of the county (at a scale of 1″ to a mile), and accompanying book, the Suffolk Traveller, describing all the towns and important places of the county together with the distances by road between each place.

The map, engraved on four large plates, cost 10 shillings, and the book came free with the map. To help cover the costs of the survey and production of the book and map, which took several years, Kirby raised money by subscription, building a large network of agents who could take in subscriptions for him. A subscriber put half the money down, and paid the balance on receipt of the map and book. Another device Kirby used to gain interest and subscriptions was to engrave the coats of arms of local nobility and gentry on the map – eventually he had over 120 arms depicted.

The contacts John Kirby made in Suffolk, and the technique of raising money though subscription, were subsequently used by Joshua Kirby in furthering his own career.

A Brief Biography

Joshua Kirby was born in 1716 at Parham in Suffolk, the second or third son of John Kirby and Alice Brown. The Kirby family lived at Wickham Market where his father kept a mill. John Kirby is now remembered for his Suffolk Traveller, a book detailing the roads and places of Suffolk, with accompanying large map. The book was published in 1736, and a few years later Kirby’s drawings of Scole Inn appeared. By now in his early twenties, Joshua had moved to Ipswich and obtained work at house-painting. In 1739, he married Sarah Bull. They had four children, of whom two died in infancy. Surviving were a son William, and a daughter Sarah.

Joshua’s brothers, John, Stephen and William all received legal training. John was Under Treasurer at Middle Temple, Stephen died in 1741 while working with his brother, and William married into the local landowning family of Meadowes and spent his career administering his wife’s estates. I know very little about his sisters, none of whom seem to have married.

Kirby’s next project was a series of engravings of local castles, abbeys, and monuments, each dedicated to a local patron, and the set of Twelve Prints accompanied by a brief Historical Account of the locations was published in 1748.

It was around this time that his great friendship with Thomas Gainsborough began, and many of Kirby’s Suffolk subscribers to his Twelve Prints sat to Gainsborough for portraits in the 1750s. It is not clear to me whether Kirby met William Hogarth through Gainsborough or through engravers, but Hogarth became a great promoter of Kirby. After the Twelve Prints, Kirby set to work on writing a volume on perspective painting. The project took several years, with much encouragement from Hogarth, eventually being published as Dr. Brook Taylor’s Method of Perspective Made Easy in 1754. This was Kirby’s big break. He gave a series of lectures on perspective to the St. Martin’s Lane Academy that were so well received he was immediately elected a member (many of the members of the Academy had subscribed to the book, with Hogarth taking 6 copies). He moved to London, gave another series of lectures on perspective from his house and rushed out a second edition of the book. Among the many new subscribers to the second edition were Thomas Sandby, Draughtsman to his Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland, and John Shackleton, Principal Painter to his Majesty. Also subscribing was the Earl of Bute, who had charge of the education of the Prince of Wales, and soon appointed Kirby as tutor on perspective to the prince.

After five years as a tutor, and with the accession of his pupil as George III, Kirby, along with his son, was appointed Clerk of the Works at Kew and Richmond, a post he retained for the rest of his life. Kirby was elected to the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries in 1767 and in 1768, during a period of furious factionalism was elected President of the Incorporated Society of Artists. Despite strong networking, Kirby was not really a political operator and he was unable to prevent the formation of the rival Royal Academy and fading of the Incorporated Society. He resigned in 1770, and in 1771 his son William died. Kirby’s health deteriorated and he died in 1774.

Kirby has not been well-served by biographers, and the most extensive description of his life is the article, “Joshua Kirby (1716—1774): a Biographical sketch” by Felicity Owen in the Gainsborough’s House Review of 1995.

Alice Kirby

When Gainsborough moved back to Suffolk from London, he painted a number of portraits of the Kirby family, including this extraordinary one of Joshua Kirby’s mother, Alice, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Alice Brown was born about 1685, married John Kirby in 1714 and had about a dozen children, not all of whom survived. She died in 1766. The exact date of the portrait is not known, but it was probably painted around 1752-5. Gainsborough painted a companion portrait of Kirby’s father, who died in 1753.

Charles and Robert Beaumont

The brothers Revs. Charles (1710—1758) and Robert (1724—1792) Beaumont came from one strand of the large and complicated Beaumont family in Suffolk. Their father Robert (1683—1737) was educated at Queen’s College Cambridge, and became Rector of Witnesham in 1708 and later Vicar of Henley and Vicar of St. Lawrence in Ipswich. The extended family included several other members of the clergy, including Charles Beaumont, DD (1660—1726), Fellow of Peterhouse College who left land and money to his cousin the elder Robert and thence to his godson, Charles.

Of the brothers, I know less about Robert. He would still have been only about thirteen when his father died. He did go on to Cambridge and was ordained in 1746, being appointed Rector of Helmingham and vicar of Framsden in 1760, posts which he retained for the rest of his life. His subscription to Kirby’s Historical Account is the only subscription of his I know.

Charles, the eldest son, has left more of a record. He went to Peterhouse, gaining his BA in 1731 and MA in 1734, was ordained in 1735 and succeeded his father as Rector of Witnesham in 1736.

Charles continued his father’s practice of giving sermons in support of the Charity Schools, the Grey-Coat boys and Blue-Coat girls of Ipswich, and seems to have resided, at least some of the time, in Ipswich. Witnesham is only about four miles from Ipswich, so this hardly counts as not living in the living.

It is presumably Charles, rather than Robert, who provides the link with Kirby. Witnesham Hall was owned by the Meadows family (and had been it its hands for several centuries) and Joshua Kirby’s brother William, a lawyer by training, married Lucy Meadows and lived at Witnesham Hall administering the family property. Charles subscribed to both the Historical Account and the first edition of the Method of Perspective.

Charles married Elizabeth Vesey and they had three children, although the first died young. The middle daughter, Elizabeth, married Philip Broke and their son, Sir Philip Bowes Vere Broke, was captain of HMS Shannon when she captured the USS Chesapeake in the War of 1812.