Brandy-Drinking Porpoises And Intellectual Fleas: The Bizarre World Of Frank Buckland

Laurence Scales
By Laurence Scales Last edited 23 months ago
Brandy-Drinking Porpoises And Intellectual Fleas: The Bizarre World Of Frank Buckland

Zebras in the zoo is one thing, but what about turtles on the Thames Clipper? Victorian naturalist Frank Buckland (1826-1880) published four volumes of Curiosities of Natural History between 1857 and 1872, based on his colourful encounters with street vendors, sideshow proprietors and others. He also dissected interesting specimens that came his way (which often ended up in his frying pan). Some abridged extracts here evoke a vanished London.

The teeth of opposition

When house-surgeon at St. George's Hospital, I was called on to treat a boy who had been bitten in the forefinger by a viper which he had caught on Wandsworth Common. He had carried it up to London by the tail without its touching him: he then, out of bravado, put it on the table of a public-house, and began to play tricks with it; in an instant it bit him.

I ordered him (half-an-hour after the infliction of the wound) to suck it as hard as he could. This he did for nearly two hours. Some slight inflammation of the arm followed, but in four days he was quite well, and went about his usual occupation again. The viper, it being the middle of summer, was in good condition, and on dissecting him I squeezed only two or three drops out of the poison-glands, showing that the boy must have had a full dose of the venom.

Adder. Photo: Highlandtiercel under a Creative Commons License

Shell shock

A few weeks ago, when on my way to see the great iron ship opposite Greenwich, a boy got into the steamer at London Bridge carrying a turtle on his back. The turtle was a very large specimen, and it was as much as the boy could carry. I observed that the boy had got the rounded back of the turtle and not the flat side towards his back. This, I thought, was a clumsy way of carrying it, as the turtle continually rolled about, even though the boy had got a tight hold of its flippers.

I soon got into conversation with the boy, particularly as I observed that his hand was tied up as if injured. He told me his business was to fetch turtle from London when wanted for one of the hotels at Greenwich, and that he generally carried the creatures with the flat side towards him; But the last turtle he so carried 'caught hold of his hand, and nearly bit off four of his fingers,' and it was a long time before he could get it out of his mouth. In future, he intended always to carry the turtle with its flat part outermost, as it could not then turn its head and bite him.

Brandy for medicinal porpoises

On Thursday morning Mr. Bartlett sent a messenger to say that he had just received a live porpoise. I immediately went over to the Zoological Gardens, and found the poor beast placed in a tank of sea-water behind the aquarium-house. I at once perceived that the porpoise was ‘very bad.’ His breathing, or rather blowing, was hard and laboured.

I could not but advise stimulants, as with a human being; and, having gained the permission of Mr. Bartlett, we agreed to give the porpoise a dose of ammonia. There was only one way; so I braved the cold water and jumped into the tank with the porpoise. I then held him up in my arms (he was very heavy), and, when I had got him in a favourable position, I poured a good dose of sal-volatile and water down his throat with a bottle.

This treatment I really think had some salutary effect, for his respirations, which when I first saw him were eight in the minute, increased to ten, and then to twelve. In two hours' time I paid him a second visit, lifted the poor beast up, while Mr. Bartlett poured down his throat a good glass of stiff brandy and water. Again the results were good; the respirations increased to thirteen a minute.

Frank Buckland. Photo: S.A. Walker (Wellcome Library, London) under a Creative Commons license.

Performers that suck

In the month of July 1856, I discovered an individual who for twenty years had devoted his life to the intellectual training of fleas. He carried on his operations in a little room in Marylebone Street. I entered, and saw fleas here, there and everywhere. All of them were luckily chained, or fastened in some way.

They must be human fleas: dog fleas, cat fleas and bird fleas are of no use — they soon break down in training. The best fleas are imported from Russia, and come over in pill-boxes packed in the finest cotton-wool. When our friend makes his annual tour into the provinces, his wife sends him weekly a supply of fleas in the corner of an envelope, packed in tissue paper. She is careful not to put them in the corner where the stamp goes.

A flea cannot be taken up from its wild state; like a colt or a puppy, it must undergo a course of training and discipline. The first lesson given to the novice is to walk. To arrive at this state of training requires about a fortnight.

Among the trained fleas already at work, I noticed the following. A coach with four fleas harnessed to it. An orchestra composed of fleas. There is a large flea, whose daily task is to drag along a little model of a man-of-war. He once had a flea, a patriarch, who for eighteen months was occupied in pulling up a little bucket from a well.

The fleas are not kept always in harness; every night each flea is taken out of his trappings, is fed, and placed in a private compartment in a box for the night. They take their meals from the hands of their owner— sometimes he has nearly all his fleas on the backs of his hands, biting and sucking away simultaneously.

Peep show

Not long afterwards, in another part of the town, I came across another microscopist. He did not sell anything, but merely charged a halfpenny for a peep. His apparatus consisted of a tin box, the size of a common tea-caddy, placed on three legs. The fee being paid, the slide was drawn away from the peep-hole, and the observer addressed in the following words: — ‘Here you see a drop of Thames water, which looks like a gallon; the water is full of heels, snakes, and hadders a-playing about and a-devouring of one another.’ It was filled with numerous little creatures, which, having very small bodies, have as a sort of compensation received very large Latin names from their discoverer. Many of them were swimming about, pursued by what appeared to be immense sea-snakes. Others were quietly reposing on weeds, which looked like elm-trees.

By Laurence Scales, @LWalksLondon

Last Updated 01 December 2015