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Seaside Naturalist Robert William Fraser (1810-1878)

posted 15 Jun 2016, 05:56 by Historie van de Oceanografie Club
From: R.W. Fraser, 1860. Ebb and Flow, the Curiosities and Marvels of the Sea Shore. Houlston & Wright, London, 251 pp.

by: Gerhard C. Cadée, Royal NIOZ, Texel (

Victorian seaside naturalists
There is probably no other country in the world where in the 19th century so many books on the seashore where published as the UK. The history of this ‘Heyday’ in the UK is well described by Lynn Barber (1980) and David Allen (1976). Many of the books appeared as well-bound volumes, nicely illustrated with engravings and sometimes coloured plates. Many collect these now, probably more for their nice binding and illustrations than for the text. Best known are of course those written by P.H. Gosse, but there are many other authors as we can find in Freeman (1980). We may be overwhelmed by the many guides for marine life and the sea shore that appear nowadays, but books on the ‘curiosities’, ‘marvels’ and ‘wonders’ of the seaside appeared also in high numbers in Victorian times.

These books were written in particular for the middle class families: they offered something to do, and there was nothing they needed so badly. The boredom of the affluent Victorian family is truly frightful to contemplate writes Lyn Barber (1980). One had the servants to do the work. And even a holiday by the sea could be boring. Dickens (1836) writes: “thus passed the days and the evenings of the Tuggs’s and the Waters’s, for six weeks. Sands in the morning – donkeys at noon – pier in the afternoon – library at night – and the same people everywhere.”

The natural history writers, stresses Barber (1980: p. 21), offered something to do and they were sure of an attentive audience and “natural history had a far superior claim to attention, one that did make it automatically more rational and respectable than all the other sciences put together. This was natural theology, the spiritual exercise that enabled one to look through Nature up to Nature’s God”. It is no wonder that many of the authors were parson-naturalists attached to a church like Gilbert White, Philip H. Gosse, Hugh Miller, Charles Kingsley, John G. Wood and Robert W. Fraser.

In his book The aquarium (1854) P.H. Gosse described his observations of coastal life and gave instructions how to build a miniature tidal pool at home. Keeping an aquarium became a craze in particular in England, but also in some other countries (Brunner, 2005). Collecting the tide pools of Devonshire and Cornwall in the footprints of Gosse also had its negative aspects. Gosse’s son Edmund collected the tide pools with his father as a boy. In 1907
he writes “There is nothing, now, where in our days [the 1850’s] there was so much. Then the rocks between the tide and tide were submarine gardens of a beauty that seemed to be fabulous”.[…] “Half a century ago, in many parts of the coast of Devonshire and Cornwall, where the limestone at the water’s edge is wrought into crevices and hollows, the tide-line was, like Keats’ Grecian vase, ‘a still unravished bride of quietness.’”

Robert William Fraser
I will pick out two books of one of these Victorian authors: Ebb and Flow, the Curiosities and Marvels of the Sea Shore (1860) (Fig. 1) and The Seaside Naturalist (1868) by Rev. R.W. Fraser. According to Fraser’s introduction the second book can be seen as a third and enlarged edition of his earlier Seaside divinity, of which appeared two editions in 1861. These books can also be visited on internet.
Details of Robert William Fraser‘s life are “tantalizing sparse” according to Moore (2013). Fraser studied probably at Edinburgh University and added M.A. to his name (Magister Artium, a type of master’s degree awarded by universities). However, he is not mentioned in a list of Edinburgh graduates. He was licensed to preach by the Edinburgh Presbyterian Free Church in 1840. He distinguished himself as an eloquent preacher and was chosen for St. John’s Church Edinburgh in 1844 and stayed there until his death. DNB biographies [1] gives a list of books he wrote. These include also a history of Turkey and one on romantic parish kirks and manses in Scotland. Moore (2013) deals in extenso with Fraser’s seaside books which appeared in 1860-1868. These were published after Darwin’s Origin of species (1859) and the avoidance of the issue of evolution by natural selection in Fraser’s books, in order not to shock his readers, is the main theme of Moore’s 2013 paper. Fraser’s closing sentence of the chapter on rayed animals - sea urchins in The Seaside Naturalist nicely illustrates this: “Truly the skill of the great Architect of nature is not less displayed in the construction of a sea-urchin than in the building of a world!”

Changing the title of a book with the appearance of a new edition, may help selling, but in fact the topics dealt with are almost the same in all his three seaside books. Apparently, Fraser’s books were appreciated, sold well and he was able to add many more illustrations in The seaside naturalist than in the earlier seaside books, which added much to their attractive power.

He used drawings by a range of artists: G.H. Andrews, H.N. Humphreys, J. Wolf, T.W. Wood, J.B. Zwecker and these drawings were engraved by the brothers Dalziel. I have selected a few of these illustrations to indicate what makes in particular The Seaside Naturalist even now delightful for a book collector, although the text may be only of historical interest. The frontispiece (Fig. 2) is a charming illustration of an old method of pilchard fishing on the Cornish coast. A large number of small boats are engaged and the man on top of the cliff is the cliff-watcher. When he discovers a shoal of pilchards by the movement of the water surface he directs, with the branch of a tree, the boats where to go. Figure 3 is illustrates fishery of lobsters, shrimps and oysters, but also a number of crustaceans and molluscs mentioned in other chapters. Publishing plates was expensive, however, the illustrator has elegantly succeeded in combining different objects in one plate. We see a comparable configuration in several of the other plates, for example on the one with seabirds (Fig. 4). The book has in total 30 text-figures and 7 plates. I will end with a very attractive picture of ‘maritime’ plants (Fig. 5). You may find them all on a sandy coast, but never flowering so near each other. The arrangement looks like the artistic paintings of bouquets in the 18th and 19th century, which show flowers that not always were blossoming in the same season.


Allen, D.E., 1976. The Naturalist in Britain. A social history. Penguin, London. 292 p.

Barber, L., 1980. The Heyday of natural History 1820-1870. Doubleday, New York. 320 p.

Brunner, B., 2005. The Ocean at Home. An illustrated History of the Aquarium. Princeton Architectural Press, New York. 143 p. (first published in German in 2003).

Dickens, C., 1836. The Tuggs’s at Ramsgate. Republished in: Sketches by Boz. Chapman & Hall, London. 292 p.

Freeman, R.B., 1980. British natural history books: 1495-1900, a handlist. Dawson, Folkestone. 437 p.

Gosse, Edmund, 1907. Father and son, a study of two temperaments. Heinemann, London. 335 p.

Moore, P.G., 2013. Seaside natural history and divinity: a science-inclined Scottish cleric’s avoidance of evolution (1860-1868). Archives of Natural History, 40: 84-93.