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Thursday, 3 August 2017

A fishy tale

Frank Buckland (Wikimedia Commons)
   Get me down my filling knife,
   Get me down my stock
   Get me down my filling knife,
   We've a big job in the lock,
   — Dominic Behan, Get me down my filling knife.

I'm working on a big job myself, at the moment, so I shall draw on its pages for a bit of amusement (without saying what the job is).   Today's case for treatment is Francis (Frank) Trevelyan Buckland (1826 - 1880).

Science in the 19th century was the play space of the gifted and curious amateur – and “curious” sometimes took on more than one meaning. Frank Buckland is a prime example.

The son of a clergyman, he was ordained as a priest, but became an academic and practical geologist, the first Reader in Geology at Oxford, where his father, William Buckland, had presented a close argument for the way geology demonstrated Biblical truths in 1820.

William was one of those who regarded all fossils as relics of Noah’s flood. Later, the father was swayed by Agassiz’ theories on Ice Ages and modified his stance, but he remained opposed to the idea of evolution, up to his death in 1856.

Frank was memorable, among other things, for eating all sorts of animals: zebra, snake, earwig, puppy, sea slug and even a bluebottle, though he declared mole the most disgusting thing he had ever consumed.

Frank may (or may not, but legend says he did) have eaten the dried heart of King Louis XIV, but on his honeymoon, he identified some bones said to be those of St Rosalia as goat bones, and he investigated the alleged blood of a saint, which appeared fresh on a cathedral floor each morning. He lay on the floor, tasted it, and declared it to be bat urine (with which we assume he was familiar).

They don’t make scientists like that any more, but if he were alive today, Frank Buckland would surely be a leading television raconteur of science, with his own Youtube channel. Gilbert White would today be an environmental blogger, but White is another story for another day.

Here, before I start rabbiting on about  bestiaries and herbals, is the tale of the sturgeon, in his own words:

On Tuesday evening, at 5pm, Messrs Grove, of Bond Street, sent word that they had a very fine sturgeon on their slab. Of course, I went down at once to see it. The fish weighed, I was informed, 212 lbs [95 kilograms]; it measured 9 feet in length [nearly three metres]. I was anxious to make a cast of this fine fellow, but I confess the size and weight rather frightened me; however, they offered me the fish for the night; he must be back in the shop the next morning by 10 am.

Determined not to lose the chance, I called a cab, and we tried to get the sturgeon on the top of it, but he was “too much” for us, and we were obliged to give up all idea of this mode of conveyance of our huge friend from Bond Street to Albany Street.

Messrs. Grove then kindly sent him up in a cart, and we got him out of the cart easily enough on his arrival at my door, but it was with the greatest difficulty we hauled him up the doorsteps. We then thought of pitching him headlong over the railings into the area below, and thus getting him into the little front kitchen, which, though terribly small, I use as a casting-room; but his back was so slippery and his scales so sharp to the hands, that Master Sturgeon beat us again. However, I was determined to get him down into the kitchen somehow; so, tying a rope to his tail, I let him slide down the stone stairs by his own weight.

He started all right, but, “getting way” on him, I could hold the rope no more, and away he went sliding headlong down the stairs, like an avalanche from Mont Blanc. At the bottom of the stairs is the kitchen door; the sturgeon came against it “nose on” like an iron battering ram; he smashed the door open in a moment with his snout and slid right into the kitchen, gliding easily along the oil-cloth till at last he brought himself to an anchor under the kitchen table.

This sudden and unexpected appearance of the armour-clad sea-monster, bursting open the door — shut purposely to keep out the sight of “the master’s horrid great fish “ — instantly created a sensation scene, and great and dire was the commotion.

The cook screamed, the housemaid nearly fainted; the cat jumped on the dresser, upsetting the best crockery; the little dog Danny, with tail between his legs, made a precipitate retreat under the copper and barked furiously; the monkeys went mad with fright, and screamed “Murder” in monkey language; the sedate parrot’s nerves were terribly shaken, and it has never spoken a word since; and all this bother, because a poor harmless dead sturgeon burst open the kitchen door, and took up his position under the kitchen table.

— George Cox Bompas, The Life of Frank Buckland, London: Smith Elder and Co., 1886, p. 200.


  1. That tail/tale has the makings of a movie scene!!!

    1. Plans were well-advanced to insert that exact scene into my long-planned remake of 'Bambi', but it foundered on the lack of a stunt double for the sturgeon. Would you care to volunteer?