The last egg of the Great Auk

Added about 3 weeks ago by W. G. Hale

GUEST BLOG: The Victorian ornithologist, explorer, and priest Henry Baker Tristram was a remarkable man. Author W. G. Hale tells us the story of the last collected egg of the Great Auk. 

Canon Henry Baker Tristram D.D., F.R.S. (1822–1906), described as “the most important biological scientist to have emerged from Durham” (J. B. Cragg, 1962), was the first person to support Darwin in print and a founder member of the British Ornithologists’ Union; what is more he was one of the great collectors of the Victorian era – 24,000 bird skins, most of which are now in the World Museum, Liverpool and a similar number of eggs, many of them now at Tring, in the Natural History Museum. He was a life-long friend of Alfred Newton, the first Professor of Zoology in the University of Cambridge, and obtained an egg of the Great Auk for his collection before Newton. Victorian ornithologists exulted the Great Auk to god-like status, largely because it was nearly extinct, and the acquisition of nine such eggs by Newton was an obvious reaction to beaing beaten by Tristram!

On the evening of 2 June 1844, two Great Auks were collected, together with a single egg, from the Island of Elday, off Iceland. These proved to be the last ever collected and shortly afterwards the bird was officially declared extinct. The specimens then were sent to Denmark for preservation and the skins were removed from the main parts of the bodies. The bodies remain to this day in Copenhagen (where they were identified as male and female) but the two skins and the egg disappeared. Several years had elapsed between the penultimate and last collection of specimens of the great Auk, and whilst single specimens came on the market they were rare by this time. The location of the egg remained a tantalising mystery.

During the research for my book on Tristram, I searched through hundreds of letters in various libraries and museums. In Newcastle, Mrs June Holmes was extremely helpful in sorting out material from the archives in the Hancock Museum. Here there was a letter from the archives of George Bolam – written from John Hancock to Bolam in 1844 or 1845 – stating that he (Hancock) had been offered two Great Auk skins and an egg, for the sum of £24 by the dealer Mechlenberg of Flensberg on the Danish border with Germany. These had been taken “a year or two previously” and originated in Iceland.  The rarity of such specimens makes it highly likely that these were the two birds and an egg collected on 2 June 1844. Hancock offered £10 for one bird and the egg and these are now in the Hancock Museum – almost certainly the last collected specimens of the now extinct Great Auk.

In his time, Tristram was Curator of the Durham University Museum. The museum contained a Great Auk which he jealously guarded. In its wisdom, the university sold this, in 1977, for £4,200 to the Dilemma Gift Shop, Knightsbridge (who subsequently sold it to Glasgow University for £30,000) despite vigorous opposition from University Staff and others (including myself). Tristram is probably turning in his grave as, no doubt, is Professor Jim Cragg, on whose filing cabinet the bird resided for many years, acting as a distraction to the supervision of his research students, of whom I am one (though most of my supervision took place in the New Inn!).

Here, then, is just another epitaph to the Great Auk, an icon of ornithology, as was Tristram himself to the development of the subject.

A photograph of Tristram’s Great Auk egg can be found in W. G. Hale’s book Sacred Ibis: The Ornithology of Canon Henry Baker Tristram, DD, FRS.