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Thomas Whitelegge, a workingman naturalist

By: Vanessa Finney, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 05 Dec 2012

The lantern slide collection reminds me of the story of Thomas Whitelegge - factory hand, biologist, Darwin correspondent and single father.

Book: Rare and Curious Specimens Chapter 5. A Scientific Staff

 © Australian Museum

Whitelegge was born in 1850 in Cheshire, England into a life of real and immediate poverty, the son of an illiterate brickmaker. He left school aged only eight to work in a factory to help support his family after the death of his father.

According to his obituary published in the Records of the Australian Museum, during one particularly hard year young Whitelegge 'used to rise at daylight on Sundays to scour the countryside for blackberries and mushrooms, and occasionally seized potatoes and turnips from the properties of unsuspecting farmers'.

Self-educated in all the branches of natural history but with a special interest in botany, Whitelegge worked hard to study and collect in his local Lancashire district, eventually amassing an herbarium of over 1,000 species.

By 1878, so proficient and knowledgeable had he become that he confidently corresponded with Charles Darwin on the cross-fertilisation of plants. In what must be the compliment to wait a lifetime for, Darwin remarked in his reply that "your activity and powers of observation seem very great".

By 1883, Whitelegge and his growing family were living in Sydney. Here Whitelegge, used to adversity and ever resourceful, took on work as a plasterer while he awaited more interesting work.

During this period it was said that he 'took solace' in the evenings examining 'strange creatures' (he had a special interest in pond slime and moss) under the microscope at an open street window. This led to a serendipitous meeting with  a brewer named Kingdon who introduced him to Reverend Tennison-Woods, President of the Linnean Society. In Sydney's small science circles, Whitelegge soon after came to the notice of Edward Ramsay, Curator of the Australian Museum who eventually employed him as senior scientific officer in charge of Lower Invertebrates.

And this is where the lantern slides come in.

Commonly used in educational lectures up to the 1950s to project images, Whitlegge's set of lantern slides now held in the Archives were probably made for the lectures he gave at the School of Arts and the Sydney Technical College during the 1880s and 1890s. Perhaps his involvement with public, adult education reflected its importance in his own incredible life story.

We don't have any more information on the lectures, but it looks like they were about the fauna of Sydney Harbour. They are the oldest lantern slides in our collection of over 15,000 slides.

Whitelegge worked at Museum until 1908 and died in 1927.

Unfortunately we don't hold Whitelegge's personal papers at the Australian Museum -- these have found their way to the Mitchell Library collection, including Darwin's letters of 1878.