George Lyell’s letters

Portrait of George Lyell, Nada Studio, Sydney, c.1895 / Source: OLDERSYSTEM~03408, Museums Victoria Archives

Professor Deirdre Coleman, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, and Simon Hinkley, Entomology Collection Manager, Museums Victoria, and I were awarded a McCoy Seed Fund Grant to spend a year studying George Lyell (1866-1951), a moth, butterfly and orchid collector who lived much of his life in Gisborne, Victoria. Lyell’s moth and butterfly collection is held at Museums Victoria, totaling 51,216 specimens. Lyell also donated his library, archive and entomological equipment to the Museum. Lyell’s pressed orchid collection is held at the National Herbarium of Victoria.

Lyell’s letters revealed significant information about his exchanges and purchases of insects with other collectors, techniques for preparing moths and butterflies, the types of specimens collected and Lyell’s thoughts on those specimens, and details of the research and manuscript preparation for Butterflies of Australia (1914) which Lyell co-authored with Gustavus Athol (GA) Waterhouse (1877-1950).

Black and white photographs of butterflies, “Butterflies of Australia” proofs, c. 1914 / Photograph: Nik McGrath / Source: Oldersystem~03036, Museums Victoria Archives

Waterhouse and Lyell corresponded from 1891 – 1947; they co-authored Butterflies of Australia (1914); shared a passion for moths and butterflies, and were close personal friends. Waterhouse was an honorary entomologist at the Australian Museum and later curator and executive officer in the division of economic entomology at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Among many other of his responsibilities, he sat on a number of committees and authored a number of books on butterflies of Australia.

An important part of the work on the McCoy Seed Fund Grant has been the transcription of Lyell’s inwards and outwards correspondence. Museums Victoria Archives hold over 400 letters from Waterhouse to Lyell. Waterhouse has beautiful handwriting, typical of the late 1800s and early 1900s. But a letter of a personal nature dated 12 July 1943 stopped me in my tracks. Written in pencil on a very small piece of paper, the writing itself was like that of a child. It reads: “You will be disappointed to learn that three weeks ago I had a slight stroke. I have been out of bed for 3 days now in a wheel chair. I am writing this with my left hand sitting in the sun on our balcony. I am hoping to get the use of my right hand soon. So far I can move everything more or less normally on the right arm down to the wrist. The right leg is almost normal. Today I walked a few steps with the nurse […] I think I have made a good start with writing with my left hand. It is barely 14 days since I made the first attempt”.

My heart sank when I transcribed this letter. It was like learning that a close personal relative was ill. Also, I knew how hard it would be for Waterhouse not to go out in the field. Lyell and Waterhouse lived for climbing mountains and collecting the moths and butterflies they so desperately loved.

Transcribing letters can be devastating, at times. Readers may agree that you become close to the correspondents, feeling that even though the letters are historical and the authors of the letters have long ago passed away, the authors themselves have been immortalised in the archives. It sometimes feels like their voices can be heard, as if they are still alive, perhaps in spirit.

I transcribed 20 years of correspondence between Lyell and Museum Directors and Entomologists in a file in the Museums Archives entitled ‘National Museum of Victoria – Entomology – George Lyell Collection – 23 Jul 1932 – 15 Jan 1952’. Knowing full well that Lyell passed away in 1951, it still stung to come across the following letter: ‘Miss JC Benson, c/- G Lyell, Gisborne, Victoria / Deepest sympathy to you all in the loss you have sustained. From Director and staff of the National Museum of Victoria. […] Wreath ordered from Mr Love, Bacchus Marsh. […] Lyell Collection received on May 30, 1951’.

The letters in the Museums Victoria Archives are often transactional, such as the donation of items or the exchange of information about collections. However, personal notes such as I have mentioned here are also found within the pages of files. These moments of intimacy often catch me off guard, leave me feeling sad for what has been lost. Sometimes too I feel like a voyeur on the past, and that too can be troubling.

The George Lyell Collection: Australian Entomology Past and Present McCoy Seed Funding Project is led by Professor Deirdre Coleman, School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Nik McGrath, Archivist, Museums Victoria, is the coordinator at Museums Victoria, with colleague Simon Hinkley, Collection Manager, Entomology and Arachnology.

Written by Nik McGrath, Archivist, Museums Victoria.

If you’re interested in learning more about the project, see our previous blogs: Butterflies of the night; Like moths to a flame; Pressed orchids; Sting of the final letter; Trading Nature; Light sheets; Kindred spirits; Moths are beautiful too; On the wing.

On the wing

Professor Deirdre Coleman, Nik McGrath and Simon Hinkley in the ABC Radio Melbourne Studio, 19 November 2019 / Photographer: Chloe Strahan

Simon Hinkley, Collection Manager, Entomology and Arachnology Collections at Melbourne Museum is a regular guest on Afternoons with Richelle Hunt on ABC Radio Melbourne. Simon contacted Chloe Strahan, Producer, ABC Radio Melbourne, about Professor Deirdre Coleman, University of Melbourne; and Nik McGrath, Archivist, Museums Victoria, joining him for a chat with Richelle about a McCoy research project, a collaboration between Museums Victoria and the University of Melbourne, linking letters with specimens in the George Lyell Collection. Studying George Lyell’s letters has enriched our understanding of the moths and butterflies George Lyell donated to the National Museum of Victoria (predecessor institution of Museums Victoria). The transfer of 12,000 butterflies and 40,000 moths from Lyell’s home in Gisborne (54km north-west of Melbourne), to the Museum in Melbourne was carried out between 1932 and 1946.

Simon, Deirdre and Nik were expecting some comments like ‘moths eat your clothes’, ‘how do you kill moths?’; ‘moths come out at night and they’re scary!’, and ‘moths aren’t as pretty as butterflies!’ We were pleasantly surprised about the positive response of listeners sharing their memories and sightings of moths in Victoria. The following is a transcript of the interview, including links to resources and images to illustrate what was discussed on air, including some interesting talkback from ABC Radio Melbourne listeners. The Emperor Gum Moth was discussed at length, and many callers commented that they hadn’t seen them as often as they did a decade ago, or for some, several decades. Simon has some interesting theories why that might be.

Hunt – “Today we’re talking about the George Lyell Collection (Moths are beautiful too) and can I say already there is a lot of love coming in [texts and calls from listeners] for moths. Does that surprise you?”

Hinkley – “It does a little bit and it’s actually really nice to hear that people are thinking about these beautiful moths. One of the things that Deirdre, Nik and I have been looking at in this [McCoy seed funded research project] is the incredible diversity in the moth fauna. There’s many more species of moths than there are butterflies. People often have a negative association with moths, so it’s really great to hear that people calling in are big fans.”

Hunt – “Before we get into this incredible research project that you’ve been working on, and the people, and the woman, in particular, behind it, there’s been a little bit of reminiscing about the Emperor Gum Moth [by callers], so I want to have a chat to Rosalind, who is in Dandenong. Hi Rosalind.”

Opodiphthera eucalypti, Emperor Gum Moth, Urban Wildlife Bioblitz Survey, Westgate Park, Port Melbourne, Victoria, 2016 / Photographer: David Paul / Source: Museums Victoria

Rosalind – “Hi, I grew up in Gippsland and they were a regular visitor, Emperor Gum Moths. They’ve got brilliant blue eyes on their wings, one-each side, but also with moths, tell your daughter, they have feather feelers. Butterflies only have dull knobs.”

Hunt and McGrath – *laughing*

Rosalind – “…and that powder is magic flying dust!”

Hunt – “Awww you’re good Rosalind, just when I thought I had a moment of parenting genius you came along with your magic fairy dust! That’s incredible. Have you always loved moths Rosalind?”

Rosalind – “I just like butterflies. But when was the last time you saw an Emperor Gum Moth? It’s the same as Christmas beetles, we no longer get those psychedelic Christmas beetles.”

Hunt – “I’m trying to remember that and lots of people are. I might put this to our guests. Nik, is this a moth… I mean some people like Chris, my earlier caller, said he hasn’t seen one in 50 years.”

McGrath – “I remember as a little girl growing up in Brisbane we used to see a lot of butterflies in the backyard and I think I have seen far fewer butterflies and moths generally, you know, as growing up… I don’t know if you feel the same way as this Simon, do you think you’re seeing less in your backyard gardens and things like that?”

Watercolour pencil & ink illustrations (D #221 & #226) of Emperor Gum-Moths, Opodiphthera eucalypti, by Arthur Bartholomew; commissioned by Frederick McCoy as part of his zoological research; these illustrations are adults of larvae originally collected near Melbourne in April 1860 / Source: Museums Victoria

Hinkley – “The Emperor Moth one is a really good question. … It’s a large moth, and it’s a beautiful moth, people are very aware of it and we do get quite a few enquiries at the Museum of people saying ‘when I was a kid’, that thing of ‘I saw a lot more of them’. And they love peppercorn trees, so whether or not we’ve lost some of the peppercorn trees in Melbourne is a possibility. One possible theory is that European wasps take a large percentage of the caterpillars. So it could be introduced insects, as well, at play in the apparent reduction of populations. Christmas beetles is another one that we get with people saying ‘where are they?’, ‘when I was a kid you saw them’. Whether it was a matter of when they were kids they were out in the ground, on the ground looking for them…”

Hunt – “digging around”

Hinkley – “or the populations have actually declined, possibly a little bit of both.”

Hunt – “Let’s talk about Lyell. This is part of the research and collection project in collaboration with Melbourne University. Who was George Lyell, Deirdre?”

Coleman – “He was someone who started collecting around the age of 18 and collected to the end of his very long life. He lived outside Melbourne in Gisborne, and he amassed an enormous collection, and much bigger collection than any that was held in the Museum.”

Hunt – “What period are we talking here, when was he collecting?”

Portrait of George Lyell, c.1940 / Photographer: unknown / Source: Gisborne and Mount Macedon Districts Historical Society Inc

Coleman – “Early 20th century. He became ill in his 60s so he decided that he had to do something about this massive collection. Luckily he lived for another 20 years because he needed all that time to re-label, and re-assemble his massive collection and donate it to the Melbourne Museum. Simon can talk about the scientific importance of the collection, in terms of understanding biodiversity today, understanding what it is that we’ve lost in terms of the different kinds of butterflies and moths.”

Hunt – “A step back from that though, it obviously then gets donated, documented and becomes part of a museum or research project. But prior to that, where is he keeping it all. With collectors, with researchers, I’m always fascinated by how they are actually putting that body of work together when it’s not in a museum.”

McGrath – “So he worked in Cherry & Sons, so he actually worked in a manufacturing firm, and he actually built his cabinets and drawers, which we still actually have in the Museum, in the collection store where Simon works, these beautiful beautiful drawers. So in the letters there’s descriptions where he used every available space in his house, and even towards the end of his life, and sadly when he passed away, there were drawings sitting around waiting to come back to the Museum. So any available floor space… His children were his butterflies and moths, he didn’t actually have children, so these were his babies. I think he spent every waking moment, besides he was working full time at Cherry & Sons, but every waking moment outside of work he spent on his collection.”

Hunt – “What was he trying to discover? Was it that he just loved and wanted to build a collection? Was there something he was trying to get to the bottom of?”

Richelle Hunt in ABC Radio Melbourne Studio, 19 November 2019 / Photographer: Nik McGrath

McGrath – “I think he was addicted to collecting. When he was unwell, in his letters, he talked to Waterhouse, who he was very close to, who lived in Sydney, and he was also a fellow collector, he spoke about the weather, or if the weather was bad I can’t go out in the field to collect, or if the weather wasn’t right, the moth or the butterfly wasn’t on the wing because it was storming, they discussed the weather more because of their collecting, and their addiction to collecting. Being in bed and being unwell would have been upsetting to him, and later in life, wanting to be out in the field, walking and finding his moths and butterflies… Something else that’s interesting is that he was also an orchid collector. So he was a fastidious man, he loved being in the field and being outside and picking these little items that you wouldn’t notice if you were going on a walk in the field, but he was a man that would notice these things.”

Hunt – “So how has the work of George Lyell helped you in your work, Simon, as Entomologist at Melbourne Museum?”

Hinkley – “It’s really important because what the Museum’s collection is, it’s a historical and contemporary collection, it’s a species list in space and time. The important thing here is the label data, without that it’s just a moth or a butterfly. It’s interesting, to pick up on something Nik was saying. Often when you’re looking at these labels, it will say ‘collected on 25 December 1924’… So these people were out on Christmas day when the rest of us are gorging on food and presents. They’re out going it’s a nice sunny day, let’s get some moths. They were really dedicated. I like, what they’ve done with that collection, as Deirdre was saying starting in the early 20th century, you have a species list from a place and a time…. Gisborne…. You can go back now and do a survey, we can say these 25 species of moths that were there a hundred years ago are now gone. That’s the value of a historical collection. You know what was there and what’s been added, what’s flown in that wasn’t there, due to possible climate change or accidental introduction, or what was the indigenous fauna that is not there due to whatever reasons.”

Hunt – “You always wonder when someone is collecting, creating a collection of this scale if they are thinking generations down the track, and I’m not just collecting them because they’re beautiful. One day this body of work will help people, like the three of you here, conduct your research. Do you think that goes through their mind?”

Coleman – “I’m not sure. I think the aesthetic of the butterfly and the moth is really important, and you see that in the letters. I’m a literary scholar, and so I’ve mainly been looking at the letters. They are themselves ephemeral, like moths and butterflies. Luckily there is this rich archive at Melbourne Museum. It is just wonderful as a scholar to get in there to read and understand the interactions between the mainly male coterie…”

Hunt – “Wow, you deep dived in the manuscripts. Good on him for documenting. What a good man, not only was he collecting all these things we can look at down the track, the documentation and the manuscripts involved… It was very rare for a woman to be working in this field, but there was one woman, and her story is incredible. Her name is Miss J Kong Sing, tell us about her.”

McGrath – “I was really intrigued when I found her name in the “Butterflies of Australia” manuscript which you can actually find on the Biodiversity Heritage Library. So, if you’re interested, look for “Butterflies of Australia”, it was published in 1914, George Lyell co-authored with his friend, Waterhouse, he was just called Waterhouse by Lyell. When I was looking at the manuscript I saw Miss J Kong Sing on one of the illustrations, and then I found this whole story, I did a bit of a dive in Trove. I’m not sure if listeners are interested in Trove, but you might be aware, check out Trove, it’s a great place to find newspaper clippings and lots of information. So I actually did a dive.”

Hunt – “You went down a rabbit hole…”

McGrath – “I went down a rabbit hole, definitely, I found out that Miss J Kong Sing was a miniature artist, she did these amazing portraits. She lived in Sydney, she was Chinese descent, she actually ended up going back to Europe, she lived in Spain for ten years, then lived in London for ten years. She did these amazing portraits of important personalities. But one thing she did was these beautiful illustrations that were in this beautiful publication, which I encourage you to check out. A lot of men, of course, are involved in the publication but one important woman. I don’t know her first name, I only know J, I don’t know her first name. I’ve been doing a lot of digging, but I want to find out a bit more about her, her story, and also I’d love to find out what she looks like. If I could find a photograph of her, or an image of her, that would be amazing.”

Hunt – “I love it when we throw a mission out there to listeners, you’ll never know what might come back. Simon Hinkley is with you, Entomologist from Melbourne Museum, Nik McGrath is an archivist at Museums Victoria, and Professor Deirdre Coleman, Robert Wallace Chair of English, School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Together they have put together a research project about George Lyell Collection (Moths are beautiful too). I just want to go through… I have text after text of images of some really beautiful moths and sightings. ‘Richelle and guests, this was on my flywire just the other morning, it’s an Emperor Gum I think, we see them occasionally’… And this is a beautiful earthy stone coloured moth. It says ‘Richelle, Simon and guests, here are some more moths from last night in the Yarra Ranges. I saw an Emperor Gum Moth, huge, flying around the street just last night. I haven’t seen one in Victoria for more than ten years. I blame European wasps, they are pure evil.’ Can’t love everything, I guess, can you?!”

Hinkley – “I have to agree with that one!”

Hunt – “Yeah… “how could you not love the Bogong moth, Rich?’ says Chris in Newborough, and he sent a gorgeous little picture. I’m not sure how he managed to get so close, must have a very good camera, to that particular species. How many species, roughly, would we have here in Melbourne and Victoria?”

Dorsal view of female Agrotis infusa, Bogong moth / Photographer: Lucinda Gibson / Source: Museums Victoria

Hinkley – “I think nationwide we’re looking at about ten thousand described species of moths.”

Hunt – “Yowsers!”

Hinkley – “And we’re looking at butterflies in the hundreds. Certainly diversity is far and away skewed to the moths’ side. But because they’re predominantly nocturnal, we generally see the butterflies because we’re out during the day. We’re probably looking at in excess of twenty thousand moths once everything is described and published. A diversity factor of ten times at least between butterflies to moths. Just to make it confusing there are moths that fly during the day. There are a whole lot of cross-over things that make it a little difficult. They’re really really beautiful.”

Hunt – “Why are they so drawn to light? They’ll gather around a light outside your house. Why is that?”

Hinkley – “It’s probably got something to do with the moon as a tracking or navigational thing. That’s why one of the best things searching for moths is to go outside and look at your porch light. Or see when you’re washing the dishes the things that are flapping against the kitchen window. So, they are drawn because the lights we have at ground level are generally brighter than the moon, so they get sucked into coming in to see us. That’s not really what they want to do, bang themselves against the window.”

Hunt – “They’re not really happy to see us.”

Hinkley – “No, but one thing I really did like in this project, and one of the great things about having an archive, is that I don’t really dive into that sort of thing, I’m looking after the physical collection. Nik and Deirdre are going back looking at all the correspondence. For example, one of the things I didn’t know was that George Lyell had an orchid collection. So that was good for me to know. I think when Nik went to the Botanic Gardens some of the people there were like, ‘was he into insects?!’ Some of the people at both institutions were unaware of that other level of info. It was great for Nik to go through and find this information that I was unaware of. It’s been a really interesting project.”

Hunt – “How much has the art of collecting changed over the decades?”

Hinkley – “Good question, we were actually discussing that when walking over from the Museum and whether or not you could have people like this again. Deirdre was researching Dodd, and that was how he made his money. He collected and sold insect specimens. That was his full time job.”

Hunt – “They wouldn’t be able to do that now.”

Hinkley – “Exactly, so now there are a lot of species listed on the CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] list which prohibits the trade in endangered species. In the old days there is nothing wrong with you saying ‘hey, Washington I have ten Emperor Gum Moths, I’ll have fifteen of your Monarchs and swap away. Now if a species is listed as threatened, you’re not legally allowed to trade it. You can’t go into a National Park and collect. All native flora and fauna in national parks and reserves is protected. So that’s why there is a lot of people now doing … citizen science is often image based. People taking images like you’re receiving, whacking them up on websites going ‘what’s this?’ We go, ‘that’s a so and so’. It’s a really good way for people to get engaged without old fashioned killing methods, and grabbing moths and all sorts of things.”

Hunt – “I love hearing the stories of when Simon receives a package, and he opens up the envelope and there is alive or not so happy creature of some sort. How many moths do you get sent to you in the mail?”

Hinkley – “I get a lot of clothes moths sent in, which is a nice easy one because I can just say ‘that’s a clothes moth and not a great thing’. Generally the good stuff is images that is taken out in the forest and is hard to collect. A clothes moth is right there in your carpet going crazy so people pick it up and send it in. So the stuff that is outside is more interesting. I tend to get only images. The boring stuff is generally what comes through the post.”

Hunt – “I just love it! What a crazy job! You know when you have a work experience or intern come to you work, I would be saying, ‘could you just open this mail for me please?’”

Hinkley – “I have had a boss in the past who did scream because we had a large moth sent in. It had emerged but its wings were all crumpled. It hadn’t extended. So she opened it, and all she saw was a large dark moving thing. So she thought it was a large spider. So she squawked. We don’t encourage live stuff being sent through the mail, by the way. Occasionally people don’t get the message.”

Hunt – “I just can’t believe that you could get spiders sent in the mail. Sounds like my idea of a life of punishment, really. How is this particular research project and collection available to the general public, if schools, enthusiasts, individuals want to learn more about this?”

Coleman – “Well Nik’s been doing a great job of blogging throughout the year.”

McGrath – “Please find our blog, we’re planning to do some more blogs, as well, and you can have a look at the history of the project and how it’s developed over the last year, but also what we’re planning to do in the future. So we’re planning to do some more publications on this as well. Do a search under our names on the Museums Victoria and University of Melbourne, and the George Lyell Collection. We also suggest you have a look on the website, on the Museums Victoria Collections website, a number of the collection items from George Lyell’s Collection are digitised, a lot of the type specimens been digitised. Is that correct Simon?”

Hinkley – “When we talk about type specimens, that’s basically if a new species is going to be described, the scientific author has to nominate a particular specimen as the type specimen. Any future researcher has to refer to the type specimen, so they are scientifically really important. So the Museum has a large number of types from the George Lyell Collection. We have been trying to digitise as many of them as we can.”

McGrath – “It’s in the hundreds.”

Hunt – “Wow, that’s amazing. I love it when many hands together make these great collections that we can all benefit from. Deirdre, just finally, in the work that you do at Melbourne University in the School of Culture and Communication, did you ever think you would be deep diving on moths?”

Coleman – “Not at all. I’m a literary scholar but in the last ten years I’ve been working on natural history, focusing on letters and communities of collectors. As Nik said, collecting is an addiction, it’s an obsession. I’ve become a bit obsessive too about these extraordinary entomologists.”

Hunt – “These characters that come out of it. The literary side of it. Their backstory, their obsession, their passion, and their documentation.”

Coleman – “They’re very obsessive and fastidious and perfectionists; they are really unique individuals. Sometimes they form very close bonds but they are also a very competitive group. I love the insights we get from the letters. How a community of entomologists works … There are the chaps out there in the field and then the more sedentary museum professionals, slightly looking down their noses on those field collectors. But Frederick Parkhurst Dodd, who Simon mentioned, was someone who made a living out of dealing insects. He had a large family, he had been a bank teller with a secure job, gave it up to be in the bush collecting. He had a very profitable career”.

Hunt – “And a nicer lifestyle than working in a bank.”

Coleman – “Exactly, he was just dying away in the bank, I think, he needed to get out into the bush. He was selling very large exotic butterflies and moths to Rothschild Tring outside London. He was an international as well as national dealer.”

Hunt – “Have films been made about this?”

Coleman – “There should be films about entomologists. They are very fascinating.”

Hunt – “We came up with the idea here.”

McGrath – “We could be your researchers.”

Coleman – “We’ll be in it!”

Hunt – “Guest cameos. More royalties. However we can see it. Congratulations, I could talk about this all day. Do we have a favourite moth or butterfly if you had to pick one?”

Coleman – “The Dugeonea, I think, which Dodd found in Townsville. George Lyell said towards the end of his life, after the donation was complete, that Dugeonea was the favourite of all his collection, which comprised tens of thousands of moths and butterflies.”

Hunt – “What does it look like?”

Coleman – “It’s just an exquisite creature. It’s on our blog.”

Dorsal view of female Dugeonea actinias / Photographers: Nish Nizar and Heath Warwick / Source: George Lyell Collection, Museums Victoria

McGrath – “It’s on our blog, we’ve have a photo. It looks like rain drops, it could be on a garment, it’s just the most gorgeous thing. Brown motley, silver, gorgeous circles. It’s really worth looking at our blog. This is interesting, because you just found out it still exists, or possibly exists.”

Hinkley – “I thought it had been, or I should have known being the entomology side of things, that it had not been seen since Dodd collected it in 1902, and I was having a look on the Atlas of Living Australia which takes records from a whole range of people, and it was cited again in 2010. So for more than a hundred year’s Dodd’s collection from one site up in northern Queensland was the single record of this species. Happily someone has found it again. So whether or not just that nobody was looking for it, or it is just that rare, or a bit of both. But it is lovely to know that what was his favourite is still flying around.”

Hunt – “Just quickly, what is your favourite?”

FP Dodd with case containing his largest specimen of the moth Coscinocera Hercules, 1930s / Photographer: unknown / Source: State Library of Queensland

McGrath – “It’s really hard to pick a favourite, but I think some of the larger specimens really are bizarre and freaky. So moths that get to the size of your hand. It never occured to me that they would get that big, and I can’t imagine seeing them flying around my face. They are some of my favourites, I think.”

Hunt – “Simon?”

Hinkley – “I wasn’t expecting the question, yeah there’s ten thousand to pick from. I really like, possibly the not politically correctly called Old Lady Moth. The one you get in your house with two eye spots, it’s quite large. I remember as a kid that was the one that came inside quite a bit. I was always quite impressed because it was quite large and I didn’t know what it was.”

Dasypodia selenophora, Southern Old Lady Moth, Neds Corner Bush Blitz Survey, Neds Corner Homestead, Victoria, 2011 / Photographer: Mark Norman / Source: Museums Victoria

Hunt – “It must mean that they are awesome and rockin because Old Ladies have it going on. It has been wonderful having you all here. Simon Hinkley, Entomologist, Melbourne Museum; Nik McGrath, Archivist, Museums Victoria; Professor Deirdre Coleman, School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Thank you so much for introducing us to the George Lyell Collection (Moths are beautiful too). We have been talking butterflies, how could we not play Dolly Parton, ‘Love is Like a Butterfly’.

The George Lyell Collection: Australian Entomology Past and Present McCoy Seed Funding Project is led by Professor Deirdre Coleman, School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Nik McGrath, Archivist, Museums Victoria, is the coordinator at Museums Victoria, with colleague Simon Hinkley, Collection Manager, Entomology and Arachnology.

Written by Nik McGrath, Archivist, Museums Victoria.

If you’re interested in learning more about the project, see our previous blogs at:



Moths are beautiful too

Mark Nikolic talking to visitors at Nocturnal, Melbourne Museum, 4 October 2019 / Photographer: Ruth Straker

Nocturnal is a night when Melbourne Museum opens its doors after hours for visitors 18 years and older to enjoy live music, drinks and chats with Museum staff who bring out items from the collection for a special ‘show and tell’. Leading up to the night I thought my main objective would be to present moths in a way that might change preconceived negative views of visitors. I also hoped to share some stories from letters in the Museums Victoria Archives that may surprise and touch the feelings of visitors. I wanted to break down stereotypes about archives. Some may view archives as dull, but in fact archives are full of intrigue and rich content not only of interest to researchers, but to individuals from all walks of life.

Portrait of George Lyell from the Museums Victoria Archives under the magnifying lamp, Nocturnal, Melbourne Museum, 4 October 2019 / Photographer: Nik McGrath; Portrait of George Lyell, Nada Studio, Sydney, c.1895 / Source: OLDERSYSTEM~03408, Museums Victoria Archives

The George Lyell Collection at Melbourne Museum includes his Lepidoptera Collection which totals 51,216 specimens representing 6,177 species, and containing some 534 types; almost 12,000 butterflies and 40,000 moths. Lyell’s correspondence, notebooks and draft manuscript of The Butterflies of Australia are held in the Archives. The published annotated Butterflies of Australia (1914) is in the Rare Book Collection.

Hayley Webster and Simon Hinkley at Nocturnal, Melbourne Museum, 4 October 2019 / Photographer: Ruth Straker

On 4 October 2019, a multidisciplinary team of Museum workers, Nik McGrath (Archivist), Simon Hinkley (Collection Manager in Entomology and Public Information Officer), Hayley Webster (Library Manager), and Mark Nikolic (Legacy Registration Officer, Sciences), and a guest speaker from University of Melbourne, Professor Deirdre Coleman (School of Culture and Communication) teamed up to present items from the George Lyell Collection to Nocturnal audiences. About 800 tickets were sold before the night. I haven’t seen the full numbers but it felt like there were over 1000 engaged visitors in our location of SciPod (near Dinosaur Walk and Bugs Alive!) asking some really interesting questions. These were not exclusively on the collections we had brought out for display, but on a variety of subjects.

L-R Simon Hinkley with Richard Morden, Ruth Straker and her camera, and Prof Coleman examining specimens at Nocturnal, Melbourne Museum, 4 October 2019 / Photographer: Nik McGrath

I managed to capture the above moment when my friend Richard Morden was showing Simon Hinkley an image on his phone of a spider with its guts hanging out, on the point of asking a question. I have a feeling Richard was asking Simon to ID the spider. After I captured this moment visitors arrived at my table so I went over to talk to them and missed the rest of this exchange. Nocturnal is not only about discussing what is on the table, but about other aspects of museum work, and what it’s like to work in a museum. I had some fascinating conversations with visitors about human remains in the collections. One visitor mentioned that they had seen human remains on display in a museum overseas and this kicked off a discussion around repatriation of human remains, and the important work current museum staff do in this area with Indigenous communities.

Nik McGrath with visitor at Nocturnal, Melbourne Museum, 4 October 2019 / Photographer: Ruth Straker

In the image above Ruth captured a moment when I was talking to a visitor about a letter in the Museums Victoria Archives that I discovered when transcribing the letters of GA Waterhouse to George Lyell. I said to the visitor: ‘Do you want to hear a sad story?’ The visitor was from Ireland, and had a particularly strong accent. She replied, perhaps a little warily, that she did want to hear the story. I went on to say, ‘this piece of paper might not look like much.’ I then held up a piece of paper protected in its Mylar sleeve to show the visitor. ‘This is a letter GA Waterhouse wrote to his friend and colleague George Lyell on 12 July 1943. They corresponded between 1891 and 1947. Can you see the writing looks almost childlike?’ The visitor replied ‘yes’.

I then went on to say I’ll read the letter to you: “”You will be disappointed to learn that three weeks ago I had a slight stroke. I have been out of bed for 3 days now in a wheel chair. I am writing this with my left hand sitting in the sun on our balcony. I am hoping to get the use of my right hand soon. So far I can move everything more or less normally on the right arm down to the wrist. The right leg is almost normal. Today I walked a few steps with the nurse […] I think I have made a good start with writing with my left hand. It is barely 14 days since I made the first attempt […]” (OS~03031 Museums Victoria Archives).

I explained to the visitor that being in a wheel chair and being unable to go out into the field to collect or to observe butterflies and moths, something both Waterhouse and Lyell lived for, would have been absolute agony for both. Since they were such close friends, knowing that the other was suffering was probably too much to bear. Lyell and Waterhouse had been friends for 52 years when this letter was sent. They spent most Easters together. Lyell, who lived in Gisborne, would travel to Sydney to stay with Waterhouse and his family. They were close friends and colleagues, not only sharing a passion for moths and butterflies, but sharing that time with their families and friends. I went on to tell the visitor that Waterhouse passed away in 1950 and Lyell in 1951, although Waterhouse was 11 years Lyell junior. I feel, in a romantic way, not at all based on science, that their close personal bond meant that they couldn’t go on long without each other.

“Butterflies of Australia” (1914) proofs from the Museums Victoria Archives, Nocturnal, Melbourne Museum, 4 October 2019 / Photographer: Nik McGrath

Another thing I enjoyed pointing out to visitors during the evening were the proofs of Butterflies of Australia (1914) held in the Museums Victoria Archives. In the photograph above in the middle top is a photograph of butterflies taken by Mr Henry King, Sydney which was used as a reference for the illustration on the top left. I would say to visitors ‘Can you tell these two apart? Which is the photograph and which is the illustration? How fine is the work of the illustrator?’ Each visitor nodded in agreement. I went on to explain that the illustrations were by Mr AR McCulloch, colour plates painted by Mr HW Simmonds; and drawings of larvae and pupae by Miss J Kong Sing. I also explained that standing next to me was Hayley Webster who was exhibiting the annotated author’s copy of Butterflies of Australia (1914) from the Library’s Rare Book Collection. The final illustrations in this volume can be compared to the proofs held in the Archives. The annotated copy belonged to George Lyell, with pieces of writing paper interleaved in the volume and bound, so that Lyell could write notes and corrections in the years following the book’s publication. Lyell and Waterhouse corresponded about corrections they had identified, such as an incorrectly identified gender or the discovery of a certain species at another locality.

Hayley Webster shows a visitor a colour plate in “Butterflies of Australia” (1914) which matches up with a colour proof held in the Archives, Nocturnal, Melbourne Museum, 4 October 2019 / Photographer: Nik McGrath

Another story from the night surrounded the drawings of larvae and pupae by the mysterious Miss J Kong Sing from Sydney. I had some very excited conversations about the importance of telling the stories of women in the Archives, especially as stories about men dominate the historical record. I noted the skill of Miss J Kong Sing (an illustration with her signature is available for viewing on the Biodiversity Heritage Library). I told visitors ‘I don’t even know her first name’ and explained how I needed to do some more research on Miss Kong Sing. Following Nocturnal, I went down the Trove rabbit hole, and found several references to Miss J Kong Sing in newspapers. Miss Kong Sing specialised in miniatures, and had studied at the National Gallery of Victoria before moving to Sydney where she exhibited her work at the annual Royal Society of Art exhibition, reported in the newspapers in 1903 and 1905. Not long after her illustrative work for the Butterflies of Australia in 1914, Miss Kong Sing moved to Europe where she spent 10 years in Spain and about 10 years in London. In London she studied at the Westminster School of Art. Miss Kong Sing made many notable miniature portraits of London personalities. On the outbreak of war in 1939, she returned to Sydney. This is all I’ve discovered so far, but my next step will be to find a photograph of Miss Kong Sing and discover her first name.

L-R Richard Morden, Lily McDonnell and Sally Mather at Nocturnal, Melbourne, 4 October 2019 / Photographer: Nik McGrath

Thank you to all of the visitors to Nocturnal. I asked a number of visitors why they were there, and I was pleasantly surprised that many of them had come to see ‘museum things’ first, and live music second. Many visitors expressed excitement about being in the Museum at night, and seeing the exhibits, especially the dinosaurs, lit up so dramatically. One visitor told me it was her fourth Nocturnal, and she was addicted! Hope to see you at a future Nocturnal, and if you see me, please do come and have a chat. I’ll leave you with one final anecdote. I asked visitors if they were scared of moths. Some answered ‘yes’. I then asked them to come up close to one of Lyell’s specimen drawers to see a moth up close and to see the beauty of the markings on their wings. It was amazing to see how surprised people were to see the beauty and variety of moths. Hopefully some visitors walked away with a new appreciation for moths. Some of Lyell’s incredible collection can be viewed on Museums Victoria’s Collection website. What do you think, are moths beautiful?

L-R Richard Morden, Sally Mather and David Lorensene at Nocturnal, Melbourne Museum, 4 October 2019 / Photographer: Nik McGrath

The George Lyell Collection: Australian Entomology Past and Present McCoy Seed Funding Project is led by Professor Deirdre Coleman, School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Nik McGrath, Archivist, Museums Victoria, is the coordinator at Museums Victoria, with colleague Simon Hinkley, Collection Manager, Entomology and Arachnology.

Written by Nik McGrath, archivist, Museums Victoria.

If you’re interested in learning more about the project, see our previous blogs at:

Kindred spirits

Portrait of Dr G.A. Waterhouse arranging specimens in his collection at the Australian Museum, 2 February 1931 / Photographer: G Clutton / Source: Australian Museum

George Lyell (1866-1951) and Gustavus Athol (G.A.) Waterhouse (1877-1950) were close friends and colleagues. A passion for moths and butterflies, a fastidious work ethic, and similar sensibilities connected the men from the start, evident in their letters in the Museums Victoria Archives. Between 1891 and 1947 they wrote to each other sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, sometimes less regularly, but always keeping in touch. Museums Victoria Archives hold Lyell’s inwards correspondence, including 413 letters received from Waterhouse. Lyell also kept copies of his outward correspondence from 1928 to 1930, a period during which he sent 43 letters to Waterhouse. The two men passed away within a year of each other.

We are fortunate that Lyell lived in Gisborne, Victoria, and Waterhouse lived in Sydney, New South Wales, meaning that much of their relationship, including their collaboration on The Butterflies of Australia (Sydney, 1914), is documented. Lyell’s letters to Waterhouse often remarked on the weather, not for small talk but to note the suitability of the weather for field excursions and collecting.  For instance, in a letter dated 18 May 1928, Lyell exclaims: “Have had a little snow and the last week has been bitterly cold – so no likelihood of anything more on the wing except an odd Noctuid” (Oldersystem~03034, Museums Victoria Archives). Both men were well-established as collectors before they started corresponding. Waterhouse began his butterfly collection in 1893, and Lyell a few years earlier in 1888.

Sadly Waterhouse destroyed much of Lyell’s correspondence. In a letter dated 15 September 1928 we read: “I have destroyed some thousands of letters after of course entering the important notes on my cards.” This means that the story of the relationship between the two men is mostly told in the voice of Waterhouse. On a more positive note, the information Waterhouse received from Lyell, and which was used in the writing of The Butterflies of Australia was documented on index cards. These are held in the Museums Victoria Archives (Oldersystem~03037, Museums Victoria Archives).

Index Cards for Butterflies of Australia (1914) / Photographer: Nik McGrath / Source: Oldersystem~03037, Museums Victoria Archives

Lyell and Waterhouse visited each other whenever they could. When Waterhouse was in Melbourne for business, he would try to make a special trip to Gisborne, often staying over for a weekend. Waterhouse wrote to Lyell on 15 September 1926 from Grosvenor Hotel, Adelaide: “arriving Melbourne 10am Wednesday 22 September… catch the 12:45 train for Gisborne … If weather good I would suggest we drive to Macedon on Thursday, as my wife wants to see the flowers &c if possible. We want to get back to Melbourne on Saturday evening. Sunday we can more or less rest, I have to see Kershaw again…” (OLDERSYSTEM~03031, Museums Victoria Archives). Kershaw is James Andrew Kershaw, curator at that time at the National Museum of Victoria’s zoological collection. The warmth of their relationship can be seen in Lyell’s note to Waterhouse on 17 January 1928, hoping that he would visit Gisborne following his trip to Hobart: “I want to have a yarn with you and should be very disappointed if you did not manage to come up” (Oldersystem~03034, Museums Victoria Archives).

Lyell often went to Sydney at Easter to stay with Waterhouse and his family. Waterhouse wrote to Lyell on 21 February 1903: “I have received your letter and am very glad to hear that you are coming over at Easter but am sorry that Easter is so late this year but you will probably get some few moths” (OLDERSYSTEM~03030, Museums Victoria Archives). Spending Easter together was a tradition for the friends: “What about Easter? Are you coming over? We expect you to stay with us. Going this year to the Biological Survey Cottage in the National Park from Thursday pm to Monday pm or perhaps early Tuesday morning”, wrote Waterhouse on 23 March 1925 (OLDERSYSTEM~03031, Museums Victoria Archives). In a letter dated 21 March 1928, Lyell wrote to Waterhouse: “It was only this afternoon that we definitely decided I should make my usual Easter trip to Sydney” (Oldersystem~03034, Museums Victoria Archives).

Portrait of George Lyell, Nada Studio, Sydney, c.1895, taken around the time of when Lyell and Waterhouse’s friendship began / Source: OLDERSYSTEM~03408, Museums Victoria Archives

Early in their correspondence, the two men addressed each other quite formally. In a letter Waterhouse wrote to Lyell on 19 January 1897, we read: “In speaking to Mr. Rainbow today he mentioned you were anxious to exchange butterflies, so I therefore take the liberty of writing to you to see if you are willing to do so” (OLDERSYSTEM~03030, Museums Victoria Archives). Rainbow was the Entomologist at the Australian Museum from 1895 until his death in 1919. Since Waterhouse was a regular visitor to the Australian Museum from his school days, and well respected in entomological circles, he took up the position of honorary entomologist when Rainbow died. Later he became a long-standing trustee of the Museum, from 1926 until 1947. Both Lyell and Waterhouse had extensive networks with fellow collectors and entomologists both within Australia and overseas.

Black and white photographs of butterflies, “Butterflies of Australia” proofs, c. 1914 / Photograph: Nik McGrath / Source: Museums Victoria Archives

In 1914 Butterflies of Australia was published, a book co-authored by Waterhouse and Lyell. It was the achievement of a quarter century of collecting, and at least two years of solid work assembling the text and the plates. Waterhouse was the contact with the publishers, but he consulted Lyell on every point, right down to the format for specimen captions. In a letter to Lyell dated 4 September 1913 Waterhouse wrote: “Your letter of 2 just to hand. I am sorry you have so much to do. I am not wanting to rush you, but I want to get the larger groups finally settled whilst I am on them. I can see oceans of work ahead for myself in getting the neurations structural points drawn & so if I can get all the larger groups finished as soon as possible & leave you to go ahead slowly with the plate localities & dates (therefore I would like your opinion as to what method we will use for plate names) i.e. 550 ♂ Troides priamus pronomous Gray / T. priamus pronomous Gray / 550 ♂ Troidea pronomous Gray” (OLDERSYSTEM~03030, Museums Victoria Archives).

At the time of drafting the book’s manuscript, Waterhouse did not know how to use a typewriter, so he would send sections to Lyell to type up. “It will be better I think if you have time to get the paper typed, for it is much easier to see how it goes when in type & probably it will require one further typing”, wrote Waterhouse on 9 February 1914 (OLDERSYSTEM~03030, Museums Victoria Archives). Years later Waterhouse learned to use a typewriter, sending typed letters to Lyell in order to build up his skills. He made many errors, endearing to behold, especially from someone as fastidious as Waterhouse. Lyell often typed his letters on Cherry & Sons business letterhead, the company he worked for and later managed from 1890 onwards. Lyell’s ready access and experience in using a typewriter was an asset when writing their book.

Although Waterhouse could not use a typewriter in the early days of their collaboration, he did learn to drive, eager as he was to collect butterflies in localities difficult to reach by train. In a letter dated 23 October 1913, he writes: “A good deal of my time at Woodford was spent in learning to drive the motor car. Today I went 30 miles, part of the time with the Constable at Katoomba for the test, which I have passed so I am now licensed to drive in NS Wales. This will be very useful as they propose having a second smaller car at Woodford & I will be able to reach spots without fatigue & not be dependent on trains” (OLDERSYSTEM~03030, Museums Victoria Archives).

Waterhouse and Lyell worked tirelessly on the book throughout 1913. In the same year Waterhouse’s twin sons were born, momentarily delaying their work. Waterhouse wrote to Lyell on 1 December 1913: “You know that we have always wished to have a son, though until the beginning of this year that blessing seemed to me to be impossible. However we are proud in the fact that we possess two such blessings for on Saturday evening we had born to us two fine little fellows, whom I hope are destined to play no mean part in the world. Owing to very careful attention during the last two months at least, my wife was in such perfect physical condition that everything went speedily & well & even though she is naturally somewhat excited at the possession of two boys she is well & contented. This to a certain extent will explain why I have not been able to work at the book as consistently as possible. However all the MSS is ready with the exception of Lycaenidae and Introduction &c. I looked a fair amount of MSS material out yesterday & will try & post it to you tomorrow…” (OLDERSYSTEM~03030, Museums Victoria Archives).

Butterflies of Australia colour plate proof, 1914 / Photographer: Nik McGrath / Source: Museums Victoria Archives

“I had a good offer the other day about our coloured plates an entomological artist was here with nothing to do for a bit & was willing to do them, so I am rather glad that the rarities will not be at the mercy of the process man. I have just seen the first plate & it is a real beauty”, wrote Waterhouse to Lyell on 3 February 1914 (OLDERSYSTEM~03030, Museums Victoria Archives). Waterhouse was very much pleased with the colour plates. A day later, on 4 February 1914, he added: “Coloured plate no. 1 is glorious, magnificent drawings, just showed it to McCulloch who was delighted with it. A few minor alterations have been made” (OLDERSYSTEM~03030, Museums Victoria Archives).

Although Waterhouse and Lyell had to overcome distance between them in order to write the book, they produced a text that was well received amongst entomologists. Lyell was concerned about collaborating at a distance, but Waterhouse reassured him on 28 March 1914: “Of course we are a little at a disadvantage being so far apart, but I think we have managed to get together a very good looking specimen of printing. A & R [Angus and Robertson] are very pleased with it, and everyone thinks it excellent, only suggesting alterations according to their own pet fancies” (OLDERSYSTEM~03030, Museums Victoria Archives).

Following the publication, Angus and Robertson sent royalty cheques to Waterhouse, and Waterhouse would then send on Lyell’s share: “A & R account for book came along the other day. I enclose cheque for your share. I have sent along receipt. You can let me have the account when I come over”, wrote Waterhouse on 12 August 1926 (OLDERSYSTEM~03031, Museums Victoria Archives). In a letter dated 21 March 1928, Lyell wrote to Waterhouse: “Thanks for the cheque for £3 10s ex Angus & Robertson” (Oldersystem~03034, Museums Victoria Archives).

Lyell’s handwritten annotations in Butterflies of Australia / Photographer: Nik McGrath / Source: Museums Victoria Library, Rare Book Collection

Waterhouse and Lyell were forever making notes of corrections in their letters. Lyell recorded these annotations in a bound publication of the book held in the Rare Book Collection at Museums Victoria Library. This copy, which contains pages for notes, records errata as follows: “Found a mistake in the butterfly book. The female figure of chrysotricha No 776 (I think) is really donnysa. I noticed it when I put your specimen in the cabinet the other day. At that time we did not know donnysa from WA and this sex is hard to tell. I also found one in my lot of chrysotricha – you should look through yours” – wrote Waterhouse on 22 December 1930 (OLDERSYSTEM~03031, Museums Victoria Archives).

Although the two men had mutually agreed that the survivor would receive “the specimens used as illustrations in ‘The Butterflies of Australia’, together with one hundred selected specimens”, Waterhouse changed his mind. Instead, he wanted everything associated with the collaboration to go to the Australian Museum. He explained his reasoning to Lyell: “There will always be an entomologist there; at present they have Musgrave, and two assistants. Also as a Trustee, during my lifetime I will be able to help form the Entomological policy of the Museum”. On 25 May 1928 Waterhouse wrote to Lyell: “I am suggesting that we deposit the originals, negatives & blocks of the butterfly plates at the Australian Museum. Anderson has agreed to store them there & of course make them available to us at any time we want. I spoke to George Robertson about it & he was agreeable, so it only wants your consent – then I will write to A&R & get their permission in writing” (OLDERSYSTEM~03031, Museums Victoria Archives). In a letter dated 5 June 1928, Lyell protested: “There was really no need to seek my permission as to depositing originals, negatives and blocks of the Butterfly plates with the Australian Museum” (Oldersystem~03034, Museums Victoria Archives). Although Waterhouse wanted to deposit all material relating to the book with the Australian Museum, the Archives team at the Australian Museum confirm that Lyell kept hold of the manuscript, proofs, and index cards. These were eventually donated to the National Museum of Victoria following Lyell’s death.

On 24 August 1929 Waterhouse wrote again to Lyell, informing him of his intention to leave even more of his collections and research materials with the Australian Museum, the institution which he regarded as best placed for the donation. Of the State Museums, the Australian Museum was in his eyes “the largest and best endowed”, and he had decided that it was “of the first importance for science that the whole of the specimens used in “The Butterflies of Australia” should be in one place”. “I have tentatively approached the Australian Museum with the offer of my butterfly collection, together with what books I possess that are not in their library, and any necessary gear, provided they supply me with a room in which I can work at the collection from time to time and would require a free hand for the disposal of my present and future duplicates. . . .  I cannot of course give my portion of the types to the Australian Museum without your permission. I have consulted Nicholson and Goldfinch as to the best Museum. I think you had already agreed that the illustrations, negatives etc. should be given to the Australian Museum for safe custody and use by any Lepidopterist requiring to use them. Let me know as soon as possible your views on the matter” (OLDERSYSTEM~03031, Museums Victoria Archives). Lyell evidently agreed, as on 30 August 1929, Waterhouse wrote: “I am very glad of your permission to hand over anything I now have that was used in “The Butterflies of Australia” to the Australian Museum. When the matter becomes more definite, I will let you know the details. My idea was something as follows: to give them my whole collection and necessary gear, and any books that are in my possession and are not already in the Museum Library, keeping only at home the big Turner Cabinet as a show cabinet, and the necessary collecting breeding and setting gear. In return, they would provide me with a room to work in, two extra cabinets, and shelves and necessary equipment”.

It was magnanimous of Lyell to agree to this donation, but Waterhouse was well aware that Cherry & Sons was not doing well in the years leading up to what we now know as the Great Depression of the 1930s. In a letter of April 23rd 1928, Lyell confesses to the anxious time ahead of him as he and others involved in the running of the company decided whether or not “it will still carry on as of old”. Throughout the following months, with the company in debt, Lyell reported that he had been caught up in “stormy shareholders meetings”, from which there emerged “a promising scheme of reconstruction”. Employees were shed and the company went into receivership until the losses were covered, all of which meant that Lyell could not charge to the business his Easter visits to Sydney. With his friend’s financial problems uppermost in his mind, Waterhouse wrote to Lyell suggesting that the Australian Museum would buy his share of the Butterflies of Australia specimens. He advised Lyell to make the suggestion himself, reassuring him at the same time that such an overture “would not in the slightest affect your standing, for the Museum bought the Hargraves collection of shells and afterwards elected him a Trustee of the Museum. Carter has also sold part of his collection to the National Museum, Melbourne, and Froggatt his to Canberra”. In other words, there was nothing un-gentlemanly or demeaning about selling one’s research collections. The chief objective was, he reiterated, to serve science: “The great point I want to emphasise is that the whole of the specimens in connection with “The Butterflies of Australia” should be in one Institution, so that they would at any future time be available to scientific workers. (OLDERSYSTEM~03031, Museums Victoria Archives).

If you live in Melbourne and find this story intriguing, come along to Nocturnal at Melbourne Museum on Friday 4 October between 7 and 9pm to meet Prof Deirdre Coleman (University of Melbourne), Simon Hinkley (Entomologist), Hayley Webster (Manager Library), Mark Nikolic (Legacy Registration Officer, Sciences Collections) and Nik McGrath (Archivist) and to see items from the George Lyell Collection, including moths, butterflies, letters, photographs, and Butterflies of Australia from Museums Victoria State Collection, Museums Victoria Archives and Museums Victoria Library Rare Book Collection.

The George Lyell Collection: Australian Entomology Past and Present McCoy Seed Funding Project is led by Professor Deirdre Coleman, School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Nik McGrath, Archivist, Museums Victoria, is the coordinator at Museums Victoria, with colleague Simon Hinkley, Collection Manager, Entomology and Arachnology.

Written by Nik McGrath, archivist, Museums Victoria, and Professor Deirdre Coleman, University of Melbourne.

If you’re interested in learning more about the project, see our previous blogs at:

Light sheets

Mirabilis (female) from the George Lyell Collection at Melbourne Museum / Photographer: Nik McGrath / Source: Museums Victoria

Moths become an obsession to those who truly know them. You might hear people, who haven’t got the moth obsession, say ‘I love butterflies, I hate moths!’ Sadly, they’re missing out. Not because butterflies are not beautiful, but because moths are beautiful too. When it comes to the state of Victoria, there are more species of moths than there are butterflies – did you know that?

Peter Marriott and his slide illustrating equipment used for the Otways bioscan, 15 August 2019. Source: Museums Victoria

Someone who has the moth bug, pardon the pun, is Peter Marriott. On 15th August, Peter gave an enjoyable talk about moth bioscans in the Otways for National Science Week at Melbourne Museum. Peter has surveyed moths in Victoria for decades, and is an honorary associate working with the moth collection at Melbourne Museum. Along with other collaborators (co-authors and photographers) Peter produces a series of publications called “Moths of Victoria”. This is a great reference work for moth lovers and entomologists in Victoria. The high quality photographs which appear in these publications are also available on a CD. This CD assists collection managers and curators to identify Victorian moths.

Peter Marriott’s slide illustrating Geos attracted to burnt woodland / Source: Museums Victoria

Together with a team of scientists Peter works through the night on bioscans. For instance, observations made about the behaviour of moth species before and after fires help us better understand how different moths are attracted to or repelled from burned areas. These observations, made in the field, assist conservation efforts.

Peter Marriott’s slide of George Lyell later in life and the cabinets he made for the moth and butterfly collection he donated to Museums Victoria / Source: Museums Victoria

Peter’s lecture explored the differences between our modern methods and how George Lyell collected in the early 1900s. Lyell used a lamp, stick and umbrella. He used the stick to hit branches in the dark, and an open umbrella to catch the moths. Peter explained that modern collecting is usually done with large white sheets, heavy-duty lights, camping chairs and cameras. Using bioscans, Peter and his colleagues prefer to photograph and document moths rather than collect them as physical specimens. Physical specimens are collected if a new species is discovered. The type specimen is described and then stored in a museum collection.

I’ve learnt a lot about moths over the past 8 months working with the George Lyell Collection, but Peter has made me realise how much more I have to learn. Moths are infinitely complex and curious creatures, and I’m enjoying getting to know them.

The George Lyell Collection: Australian Entomology Past and Present McCoy Seed Funding Project is led by Professor Deirdre Coleman, School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Nik McGrath, Archivist, Museums Victoria, is the coordinator at Museums Victoria, with colleague Simon Hinkley, Collection Manager, Entomology and Arachnology.

Written by Nik McGrath, archivist, Museums Victoria.

If you’re interested in learning more about the project, see our previous blogs at:

If you have any feedback or comments to make about the project, please contact Nik McGrath at

Trading Nature

FP Dodd with butterfly net in his garden at Kuranda / Photographer: unknown / Source: Queensland Museum

Professor Deirdre Coleman, Chief Investigator on a McCoy seed grant between the Melbourne Museum and the University of Melbourne, was funded by the Australian Research Council to present her research on George Lyell at ‘Trading Nature’, a conference in York, UK. The conference, held in June, was on the role of agents, dealers and commercial enterprises in (mainly) 19th century natural history. It was sponsored by the Society for the History of Natural History, a UK body established in 1936 by a small group of librarians, bibliographers, and naturalists associated with the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. True to the origins of this Society, one of the best things about the York conference was its gathering together of a diverse group of researchers, enthusiasts and specialists: librarians, scientists, curators, archivists, PhD students, and academics from across a wide spectrum of disciplines.

Our Australian panel opened the conference, with Professor Simon Ville, an economic historian from the University of Wollongong who raised some of the big questions presented by the trade in natural history items in the 19th century. Using some highly informative slides he pointed out that, unlike other global commodity items such as wool, natural history specimens presented unique logistical challenges, being highly heterogenous in nature and unstable across long-haul and irregular shipping routes. Determining the price of (often) poorly understood specimens amongst a diverse set of buyers, sellers and collectors from all over the world presented yet more challenges. In slides he used maps to plot the global network of agents used by individuals (Macleay) and institutions (Australian Museum). He also detailed the wide range of transaction choice, from purchase, barter, exchange and donation, as well as the type of control exercised by practical naturalists in the field who could collect in bulk and thus maintain competitive prices.

Gerard Krefft with the newly discovered Manta Ray, Manta alfredi, 1869 / Photographer: Henry Barnes / Source: Australian Museum 

Vanessa Finney, Manager of Archives, Rare Books and Library Collections at the Australian Museum, Sydney, spoke next on how the markets for natural history developed and matured, as natural history morphed into natural science during the 19th century. In examining the professionalisation of natural history between 1860-1890, her focus was on the two Curators who built the Australian Museum’s collections, Gerard Krefft and Edward Ramsay. With riveting data from the archive, she showed how the purchase of books kept pace with the inflow of specimen. The net result of this was that the Museum had less need to send specimens to imperial centres with their scientific experts, superior libraries and vast collections for full analysis and verification. Photography also played a major role in the retention of material in Australia, as photos could be sent as surrogates for the actual fossils or specimens. Vanessa spoke more generally on the entanglement of natural history with colonial and social prestige and nation-building.

FP Dodd with case 65 of the Queensland Museum Collection containing Coscinocera Hercules, 1930s / Photographer: unknown / Source: Queensland State Library

Professor Deirdre Coleman spoke last, on the correspondence she transcribed in the Museums Victoria Archives between Frederick Parkhurst Dodd, a pioneering insect breeder, collector and dealer and George Lyell, an amateur lepidopterist who shared Dodd’s passion for moths as well as his minute and obsessive attention to all aspects of his entomological craft, from capture in the field to perfect preservation and pinning in the workshop. In the end Lyell donated his extensive insect collection (50,000 specimens) to the National Museum of Victoria (as it was then called), a donation which required him over many years to amalgamate his own insects with the National Museum’s much smaller holdings. Both men, although important in their time, are now forgotten. And yet Dodd not only sold thousands of lepidoptera specimens to some of the world’s wealthiest collectors, he also brought far north Queensland’s tropical entomology to the attention of south-east Australia. In her slides Deirdre showed examples of the large Aenetus mirabilis which Dodd sold for high prices; she also showed him in his garden in Kuranda on the Atherton tableland in far north Queensland. But the most tweeted slide from her PowerPoint was the remarkable insect case in which Dodd arranged lepidoptera of various slides and colours to pick out the following lines in praise of Mother Nature from a popular poem by Longfellow:

And whenever the way seemed long
Or his heart began to fail
SHE would sing a more wonderful song
Or tell a more marvelous tale.FP Dodd created this verse from Longfellow in tiny moths, c.1918 / Source: Queensland Museum

Written by Professor Deirdre Coleman, lead researcher on the McCoy Seed Fund Project ‘George Lyell Collection: Australian Entomology Past and Present’. Nik McGrath, Archivist, Museums Victoria, is the coordinator at Museums Victoria, with colleague Simon Hinkley, Collection Manager, Entomology and Arachnology. Dr Alex Hankinson, a PhD in natural history in the Romantic Period, is now working with Prof Coleman at the University of Melbourne and is a new addition to our project team.


The sting of the final letter

Portrait of George Lyell, Nada Studio, Sydney, c. 1895 / Source: Museums Victoria Archives, OLDERSYSTEM~03408

Professor Coleman and I have transcribed many of George Lyell’s letters to get a sense of him as a person, collector, scientist and donor. Recently I completed transcribing the George Lyell Collection (1932 – 1952) file (AB 579) in the Museums Victoria Archives. Although I knew I was getting close to the end of the file, and hence closer to transcribing the final documents noting Lyell’s passing on 19 May 1951, this did not soften the sting I felt. The archive can be a very intimate place and I felt close to Lyell after studying his many years of correspondence with the National Museum of Victoria.

Lyell’s correspondence was honest, sometimes painfully so. He demanded perfection in his dealings with the Museum. He was dedicated, relentless, hardworking and passionate about his work transferring, rearranging, rehousing, relabelling and documenting the donation of his Lepidoptera Collection to the Museum. Between 1932 and 1946 Lyell incorporated his large collection into the Museum’s much smaller collection. He built cabinets and drawers, and arranged transportation of these items by train between Gisborne and Melbourne. He spent years of his life dedicated to the task, which often involved re-setting and re-labelling individual specimens. Evenings and weekends, every spare moment free from his paid employment as partner in the manufacturing firm Cherry & Sons, were devoted to this task.

Portrait of Daniel Mahony, Director of the National Museum, c.1944 / Photographer: unknown / Source: Museums Victoria

In 1932 Lyell contacted Daniel Mahony, Director of the National Museum of Victoria, after the removal of his prostate gland had left him bed-ridden. He was 65 years old, and the seriousness of this health scare prompted him to speed up the transfer of his Australian Lepidoptera collection to the Museum. Since his collection was the largest of its kind he was well aware of the importance of the work ahead of him, as well as its magnitude. Happily Lyell went on to live for another 19 years, during which time he worked for the National Museum as an Honorary Associate. Here is Lyell’s letter to Daniel Mahony from File: Collections – George Lyell Collection – 23 July 1932 to 15 January 1952 [ARCHIVE-BOX~579].



D Mahony, Esq

Director National Museum

Dear Sir,

In reply to yours of yesterday. I appreciate the honour and am pleased to fall in with your suggestion.

You have probably heard that last October I had to undergo an operation for bladder trouble (removal of the prostate gland). Though successful in a degree, full recovery is not yet + the Dr will not allow me on my feet – so I am writing this in bed.

This illness forced on my attention the necessity of taking steps for the early transfer of my collection (5100 species 45000 specimens) of Australian Lepidoptera – to your museum. There are quite a number of points in regard to this to be discussed and I had intended to bring them before you [the] first time I came to Melbourne, but when I can come down is still not certain. If at all possible I would suggest that you and Mr J Clark should motor up (32 miles on Bendigo Road) and talk the matter over with me. That would enable you both to look over the collection and to talk at leisure of its transfer to Melbourne.

Any day will suit me, but I am being treated from Dr Groves’ private hospital in Kyneton to which I have had to make five or six visits. So to make sure I am home it would be well to telephone Gisborne #7 (Cherry & Sons). If you are unable to raise them the Gisborne Postmaster will take a message & bring it along to me & ring you up with the reply later in the day.

Hoping to see you soon,

Very truly yours,

George Lyell [signed]

[PS] When coming up you might bring a Museum label to see how it [compares] in size and suitability with mine. I have visions of continuing the 2 collections and ending up [with] the finest collection of Australian Lepidoptera in existence.

Or if time permits a letter will be promptly [sent] and an appointment arranged.’

[Handwritten on top of Lyell’s letter-]

‘Mr Clark [met] Mr Lyell at Gisborne on 3.3.32 and discussed the transfer to the Museum of his collection. He is going into hospital on 6.3.32 and will begin the transfer as soon as he is able to get about once more. DM 4.3.32’

Transcribing Lyell’s letters, I celebrated his triumphs with him along the way. In a letter from Lyell to Mahony on 16 April 1941 [AB 579], after nine years of painstaking work, he wrote that he had finished with transferring the moth collection to the Museum. This numbered about 30 thousand specimens. The next stage was to transfer his butterfly collection to the Museum, about 10 thousand specimens.

In August 1944 Richard Pescott was appointed Director of the Museum. In the same month Pescott wrote to Lyell, asking him when he planned to transfer the butterflies to the Museum. There had been two and a half years of silence. The file contains no letters from Lyell to the Museum, or vice-versa, which struck me as odd. One explanation for the lack of correspondence during this period may have been the final stages of World War II, an effort in which both Lyell and the National Museum were involved.

Entomologist John Clark resigned from the Museum in 1944 when Pescott was appointed. As can be seen in the letter transcribed above, Clark had been in contact with Lyell about the transfer of his collection, and it was Clark who travelled to Gisborne in 1932. Clark left the Museum because his request for his position to be reclassified was denied. Daniel Mahony also left the Museum, retiring on 31 July 1944. Sadly he died a short time later on 27 September 1944 at the age of 68. In the years that followed, it was Pescott who worked with Lyell to complete the transfer of the butterfly collection. He showed Lyell every kindness and attended to his every need. In 1946 Lyell completed the transfer of the butterfly collection, but his work as a collector would only end with his death. Pescott and Lyell continued to correspond, along with Entomologist Alexander Noble Burns, who took over Clark’s position. Burns was Entomologist at the National Museum of Victoria from 1944 to 1959, then Assistant Director of the Museum from 1959 to 1964.

Burns and Lyell enjoyed a good relationship. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Clark and Lyell. It was hard to get along with Clark. His manner was difficult, and his personal life was desperately sad.

On 10 May 1951, Miss J. C. Benson of Gisborne wrote to Pescott saying ‘He [Lyell] has certainly surprised us the way he has improved. How long it will last is hard to say.’ My heart skipped a beat at the next letter in the file. It was from Mr Malone, Pescott’s Secretary, sending sympathy from the Museum to Miss Pescott.

Handwritten sympathy letter addressed to Miss J. C. Benson upon George Lyell’s passing dated 21 May 1951 and Miss Benson’s reply dated 17 June 1951 / Source: George Lyell Collection File, AB 579, Museums Victoria Archives

‘Miss JC Benson,

c/- G Lyell Pty Ltd



Deepest sympathy to you all in the loss you have sustained.

From Director and staff of the National Museum of Victoria.

Sent for 3436

On May 21, 1951

M Malone


Wreath ordered from Mr Love, Bacchus Marsh. Cost up to £1/1/0/

MM [signed]


RTM [signed]

Lyell Collection received on May 30, 1951

MM [signed]’

‘Mrs Benson and daughters

Sincerely thank you for your kind sympathy in their sad bereavement.

To Director and staff

National Museum’

‘Mrs Benson and daughters

Sincerely thank you for your kind sympathy in their sad bereavement’



Lyell’s wife Fanny had passed away before him, so presumably Miss Benson was Lyell’s carer or perhaps his companion in those final years.

Lyell’s passing, aged 84, was commemorated with obituaries in the Weekly Times (Melbourne) “Noted Naturalist, Dies”; The Sun (Sydney) “Australian butterfly and moth expert George Lyell died”; The Mercury (Hobart) “Prominent Naturalist Dies”. The Herald (Melbourne) published an extended obituary on 19 May 1951:

Death of Noted Naturalist – One of Australia’s best known naturalists, Mr George Lyell, died at his home in Gisborne early today, aged 84. His lifetime collection of Australian butterflies and moths, numbering over 52,000 specimens, was presented to Melbourne’s National Museum in 1946. Although the museum has been exhibiting fresh cases in the main hall every fortnight for the past four years, it has not yet been through the whole collection. Mr Lyell named several hundred new species of moths and butterflies in his life time. With the late Mr GA Waterhouse, of Sydney, he published, in 1914, the standard work on Australia’s butterflies.

Portrait of Richard T.M. Pescott, Director of the National Museum, c.1944 / Photographer: unknown / Source: Museums Victoria

In the Report of the National Museum of Victoria 1951 (DOC/17/633 p.9), Pescott wrote a heartfelt tribute to Lyell:

It is with regret that I have to record the death of George Lyell, Esq. at Gisborne on May 19, 1951. George Lyell, who was an Honorary Worker of the Museum for 19 years, commenced scientific butterfly collecting when a lad of 22 years of age, and in the 63 years that followed he amassed one of the finest collections of Australian Lepidoptera ever put together. In 1932, he offered his very large collection as a gift to the State of Victoria, and commenced the tremendous task of transferring this collection to the National Museum and at the same time amalgamating it with the Museum collection. At the time of his death, the Lyell Collection contained 11,721 butterflies and 39,495 moths, a total of 51,216 specimens representative of 6,177 species and including 534 types. The Lyell Collection of Australian Lepidoptera will for ever remain a monument to the industry, patience and ability of one of Australia’s notable sons.

The George Lyell Archive at Museums Victoria Archives includes the portrait of Lyell as a young man (see portrait at top of blog), as well as his correspondence files, letter books and index book (1891–1951); Butterflies of Australia manuscript (co-authored with G. A. Waterhouse), index cards, plates, notes and book reviews; Lepidoptera collection notebooks and specimen lists. Lyell corresponded with collectors and scientists from around Australia and overseas, such as H. L. White, G. A. Waterhouse, A. J. Turner, F. P. Dodd and A. Mason. The Museums Victoria Library includes two monographs Butterflies of Australia (one annotated) in the Rare Book Collection. The State Collection includes Lyell’s Lepidoptera Collection.

The George Lyell Collection: Australian Entomology Past and Present McCoy Seed Funding Project is led by Professor Deirdre Coleman, School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Nik McGrath, Archivist, Museums Victoria, is the coordinator at Museums Victoria, with colleague Simon Hinkley, Collection Manager, Entomology and Arachnology. I would like to introduce Alex Hankinson, a PhD in natural history in the Romantic Period, who has just joined the project team and will be moving from Sydney to Melbourne at the end of May.

Written by Nik McGrath, archivist, Museums Victoria.

If you’re interested in learning more about the project, see our previous blogs at:

If you have any feedback or comments to make about the project, please contact Nik McGrath at



Pressed orchids

Pressed orchid, Caladenia pallida Lindl., commonly known as the rosy spider orchid, arrived in George Lyell’s collection on 26 November 1941 from St Helen’s, Tasmania, National Herbarium of Victoria, Melbourne / Photographer: Nik McGrath

Unlike their Asian counterparts, Australian orchids like the rosy spider orchid, pictured above, are beautifully understated. Delicate and beautiful, they are not flashy like the orchids available at your local nursery. The rosy spider orchid is endemic to Tasmania, and it is now part of the pressed orchid collection at the National Herbarium of Victoria. George Lyell, to whom it belonged, never visited Tasmania, as far as we know. He visited southern Queensland and South Australia, once each, and made a couple of trips around Sydney. But for the most part he collected locally, around Gisborne, his adopted hometown in rural Victoria, the source for many of his moths, butterflies, and orchids. We’re not sure who sent this specimen from Tasmania but we do know that a Miss A. M. Tagg sent Lyell some rare hepialids in 1941. The Tagg family owned the well-known tourist attraction, The Homestead Tea Gardens at Ridgeway, 7 kilometres from Hobart. Famous for their beautiful gardens, Miss Alice (Mem) Tagg also ran the local post office, so sending specimens interstate was no problem. St Helen’s is a long way from Hobart, so possibly someone had sent it to her, knowing that she was interested in all aspects of the natural world.

Was George Lyell attracted to spider orchids because of their insect-like appearance? No doubt. But there is an even more intimate connection between insects and orchids, as Edith Coleman, his contemporary and fellow member of the Victorian Field Naturalists’ Club, confirmed in the late 1920s. For a long time there had been puzzlement (and some suspicions!) over the relationship between wasps and orchids, but it was Coleman who confirmed that male wasps pollinated orchids by copulating with them. Naturalists had for a long time wondered why male wasps embraced the orchid’s labellum (little lip) so enthusiastically, despite the fact that the orchid offered the insect no nectar or edible material. Coleman had no doubts about what was going on, especially as the male wasp darted backwards instead of head first into the flower’s stigma, its body taking ‘an inward falcate curve’ where it ‘quivered for a moment, and then became motionless’ (Victorian Naturalist, vol. 44, May 1927, p.20). Minute observations like this over many days convinced Coleman and her daughter Dorothy that the orchids lured male wasps to copulate with them, using their lusciously deceptive smell. This phenomenon is known as pseudocopulation. Some orchids, such as the hammer orchid, even added a very close physical resemblance to the female wasp, mimicking its precise dimensions and shape. Lyell was a subscriber and contributor to The Victorian Naturalist and he almost certainly read Coleman’s remarkable account of her observations. We now know that the orchids’ delicious ‘perfume’ is composed of the mimicked pheromones of female wasps. For more on Edith Coleman, see Danielle Clode’s The Wasp and the Orchid (Picador, 2018).

Lyell moved to Gisborne in 1890 when he was 24 years old, after being offered a job at the timber merchants firm, Cherry & Sons. He liked to go on long walks in pursuit of insect and orchid specimens, sometimes at a distance from Gisborne, where he lived until his death in 1951. When he had to have surgery to remove his prostate gland in 1932, he decided it was time to begin arranging for his moth and butterfly collection to be donated to the National Museum of Victoria. Fortunately the surgery went well and six months later he could boast in a letter to Daniel Mahony, Director of the National Museum: “My health seems to be almost normal now – I had a three mile walk in the snow storm on Sunday afternoon and feel none the worse for it” (Museums Victoria Archives, ARCHIVE-BOX~579).

The delicacy of many of Australia’s orchids makes them hard to spot in the bush, akin to the challenge of spotting moths and butterflies. Lyell no doubt enjoyed the challenge of finding these beautiful plants, and he prepared them for preservation and documentation as meticulously as he prepared his insect specimens. In the Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on Lyell, the entomologist Arturs Neboiss noted that he had an orchid collection but it was Nik McGrath, Museums Victoria archivist and a Chief Investigator on the McCoy Seed Fund Project, ‘George Lyell Collection: Australian entomology past and present’, who made the exciting discovery that Lyell had donated this orchid collection to the National Herbarium of Victoria [ARCHIVE-BOX~579; 23 July 1932 to 15 January 1952]. Simon Hinkley, Entomologist on the project, immediately contacted the Herbarium, and just as he was unaware of Lyell’s orchids across town, the Herbarium’s collection managers were unaware of Lyell’s insects up north at the Melbourne Museum. One of the tasks of this project will be to update biographical information in the Collection Management Systems of both institutions so that this link between Lyell’s two collections is not lost to future researchers.

National Herbarium of Victoria collection store, 29 March 2019 / Photographer: Nik McGrath

Moss expert Pina Milne, Manager of Collections and a passionate advocate for access to them, has worked at the Herbarium for 20 years. She arranged for Professor Deirdre Coleman and Nik McGrath to access samples of Lyell’s orchid collection. She also took the time to acquaint us with many wonderful digital sites: the Australasian Virtual Herbarium, Atlas of Living Australia, JSTOR Plants (Global Plants), VicFlora (Flora of Victoria), and HortFlora (Horticultural Flora of South-eastern Australia). For digitised publications there is also the Biodiversity Heritage Library, but we knew about that one! For an insight into the work Pina, her staff and volunteers do, see the short documentary on YouTube called Hidden Secrets of the Herbarium (2014). Here you can see the detailed work that is needed to press, dry, mount and label specimens, add their information to the database, then send the data to the Australasian Virtual Herbarium. Finally the specimens are digitised and added to the Global Plants Initiative. “We continue to add stories to the records we have and every individual sheet has something to tell us”, Pina notes at the end of the documentary. Lyell’s story will now be shared too, hopefully reaching audiences far and wide.

Professor Deirdre Coleman and Pina Milne with Lyell’s pressed orchid collection, National Herbarium of Victoria, 29 March 2019 / Photographer: Nik McGrath

Lyell collected the majority of his orchids in Victoria, but he also collected orchids from Western Australia, Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania. For a map pinpointing his collection localities, see the Australasian Virtual Herbarium website; and to view the records of these specimens, visit the following website. His collection of over 200 specimens is arranged throughout the family Orchidaceae, by genus and species. Like Lyell’s moths and butterflies, his orchids are not stored together in a separate cabinet but arranged by species amongst specimens collected and donated by many different sources.

After George Lyell passed away on 19 May 1951 in Gisborne, the executors of his estate sent a letter to the Trustees of the National Museum (Museums Victoria Archives, ARCHIVE-BOX~579; 28 May 1951) regarding his will and the two destinations of his collections: the National Museum of Victoria and the National Herbarium of Victoria. Mr Hitchcock, the Museum’s ornithologist, and Mr Hobbs from the Union Trustee Company of Australia Limited were sent to Gisborne to compile an inventory and draw up a valuation of the collections. The inventory (Museums Victoria Archives, ARCHIVE-BOX~579) listed Lyell’s library, index books, specimens (Lyell’s moth and butterfly collection had already been transferred to the Museum), entomological collecting equipment and the following: Orchids – Three large boxes containing pressed specimens of native orchids. One smaller box of same.Some loose material.Three lead weights used for pressing.

Richard (RTM) Pescott, the Museum’s Director, sent a letter to the Chief Trust Officer on 27 June 1951 providing an evaluation of the library and entomological equipment, but did not include an evaluation of the orchid collection: “This figure does not include any valuation of the collection of orchids, which could only be carried out by the officer of the National Herbarium at the Botanic Gardens” (Museums Victoria Archives, ARCHIVE-BOX~579). Pescott later received a letter from the Trust Officer (Museums Victoria Archives, ARCHIVE-BOX~579; 22 August 1951) advising that Mr Jessep, Director and Government Botanist at the National Herbarium, would evaluate the five boxes of Australian orchids. (Museums Victoria Archives, ARCHIVE-BOX~579).

It is interesting to note that Richard Pescott was a botanist and nephew of an eminent orchid authority, Edward E. Pescott. Edward Pescott’s Orchids of Victoria was published in 1928 after appearing in numerous Parts in the Victorian Naturalist. In fact, Part 9, an article of 11 pages, appeared immediately before Edith Coleman’s daring observations on pseudocopulation.

National Herbarium of Victoria Art Deco building, 29 March 2019 / Photographer: Nik McGrath

The National Herbarium of Victoria has an interesting history. Its origins in 1853 can be seen in the correspondence between the Government Botanist Ferdinand von Mueller and Frederick McCoy, the National Museum of Victoria’s first Director, as Nik McGrath has outlined in Our first Director’s vision for a University Botanical Garden. The Herbarium’s original building was on the site of the Shrine of Remembrance but it was demolished to make way for the Shrine in 1934. The front of the present building is Art Deco in design, and a 1989 extension at the back houses the collection. The Victorian Government will give $5 million in funding to redevelop the Herbarium, beginning with a feasibility study in early 2020 (see Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change media release, January 2019).

National Herbarium of Victoria 1989 building, 29 March 2019 / Photographer: Nik McGrath

Written by Nik McGrath and Prof Deirdre Coleman, McCoy Seed Funding Project ‘George Lyell Collection: Australian entomology past and present’. For previous blogs about the collector George Lyell, see Butterflies of the night and Like moths to a flame. Please contact Nik McGrath, archivist, Museums Victoria if you have any feedback, questions or comments about our project.


Like moths to a flame

Nish Nizar checking that the specimen is in focus / Photographer: Nik McGrath / Source: Museums Victoria

If you read Butterflies of the night in January, you will be familiar with the moths in the photograph below. These are Dudgeonea actinias specimens from Townsville, Queensland, bred by Frederick Parkhurst Dodd in 1902 and posted to George Lyell in Gisborne, Victoria shortly afterwards. They are amongst some of the most beautiful moths in the Lyell Collection at Museums Victoria. As part of the research for the McCoy Seed Fund project, ‘George Lyell Collection: Australian entomology past and present’, one male and one female specimen have been selected for digitisation. The male specimens (on the left in the photograph below) are smaller than the females (on the right).

Dugeonea actinias specimens / Photographer: Nik McGrath / Source: Museums Victoria

Entomologist Simon Hinkley had the painstaking task of removing the specimen from its home, the small box pictured above, and placing it on tracing paper at the base of the camera rig. In the photograph below you will note that on both sides the specimen has several lights directed at it, from above as well as from directly beside it. These multiple light sources, adjustable depending on the size of the specimen, ensure that the specimen is fully lit, with no shadows cast.

Entomologist Simon Hinkley preparing specimen for digitisation, March 2019 / Photographer: Nik McGrath / Source: Museums Victoria

In Simon’s steady hands, the specimen is carefully pinned to the tracing paper. The main lights in the room were then turned off, after which there were fourteen consecutive flashes as the specimen was photographed from the dorsal (upper side). Each photograph is tiered from the top of the pin to the lowest point on the specimen, to be compiled as one layered image.

Simon Hinkley carefully placing specimen in position / Photographer: Nik McGrath / Source: Museums Victoria

Nish Nizar zooming in on specimen / Photographer: Nik McGrath / Source: Museums Victoria

As Nish Nizar, a colleague in the Sciences Department, zoomed in on the specimen, Simon Hinkley noted that verdigris was clearly visible around the pin (see photograph above). The Institute of Conservation (Icon) has produced an online leaflet “Care and conservation of zoological specimens” which states: “Copper and brass pins used in entomology collections can break down and react with the fats inside an insect’s body. This can lead to the growth of blue-green, hair-like verdigris crystals on the pin. These can grow through the specimen, eventually breaking it apart”. Whereas today’s specimens are pinned with stainless steel, copper and brass pins were used in the past. Simon advised that the verdigris generated by these older pins is a concern in the Entomology Collections. The rate of verdigris growth over time is currently being monitored by conservators at Museums Victoria.

Dodd and Lyell were great admirers of each other’s skill in preparing and pinning specimens so that they looked as perfect as possible. In their correspondence from 1897 to 1904, they exchanged information and tips about all aspects of their craft, including how to avoid the insects becoming ‘greasy’. With large moths it was important to open the abdomen and scrape out the fat within, stuffing the interiors with cotton wool or tissue paper instead before mounting and drying them. Entomologist Dr Geoff Monteith, formerly insect curator at the Queensland Museum and author of The Butterfly Man of Kuranda, Frederick Parkhurst Dodd (1991), informed Professor Deirdre Coleman, University of Melbourne and lead on the McCoy Seed Fund Project, that Dodd’s show collection of insects in Queensland were free of “greasy” complications. No doubt the challenge of preventing an insect’s fats from reacting with the older copper and brass pins was greater in smaller moths which could not be eviscerated so thoroughly.

Other risks to the collection include pests, theft, natural disaster, dissociation (labels separated from specimens), mould (higher risk in collections without temperature and relative humidity control), issues with climate control (fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity), and Napthalene crystals on specimens (when the temperature increases, Napthalene evaporates and then forms crystals when the temperature drops back).

Nish Nizar and Heath Warwick, Assistant Image Management Officer, Sciences, are working here on the final photograph (compiled of 14 layered photographs in one image). They are ensuring that the background is a clean white so that nothing detracts from viewing the specimen in detailed focus, magnified beyond the ability of the naked eye. Once post-production is complete on the layered photographs of the female and male specimens, we will share these images with you in a future blog.

Nish Nizar and Heath Warwick, March 2019 / Photographer: Nik McGrath / Source: Museums Victoria

If you have any questions or comments about the project, please contact Nik McGrath, Archivist, at Museums Victoria on



Butterflies of the night

Australian species of moths Dudgeonea actinias, Townsville, Queensland in the Entomology Collection, Melbourne Museum / Source: Museums Victoria / Photographer: Nik McGrath

Simon Hinkley told me something beautiful today. The French call moths papillons de nuit which translates butterflies of the night. The French are wonderfully insightful. In many circles butterflies are considered the rock stars of the insect world whereas moths are often given a bad rap. Moths have a reputation of eating clothes and scaring people at night. But moths are every bit as beautiful as butterflies, so it’s time that we think of them as the French do.

Prof Deirdre Coleman with Museums Victoria librarian Gemma Steele admiring monograph from the Museums Victoria Library,“The butterflies of Australia” by G.A. Waterhouse and George Lyell, July 2018 / Source: Museums Victoria / Photographer: Nik McGrath

At the start of this year, Professor Deirdre Coleman (University of Melbourne), Museums Victoria archivist Nik McGrath, and entomologists Simon Hinkley and Peter Lillywhite began a McCoy Seed Fund project ‘George Lyell Collection: Australian entomology past and present’. The George Lyell Collection at Museums Victoria includes almost 12,000 butterflies and 40,000 moths. Museums Victoria Archives is the repository of Lyell’s correspondence, notebooks and draft manuscript of The Butterflies of Australia. The published monograph is in the Museums Victoria Library collection and the rare book collection at the University of Melbourne.

Entomologist Simon Hinkley working in the Entomology Collection Store, Melbourne Museum, January 2019 / Source: Museums Victoria / Photographer: Nik McGrath

The aim of this interdisciplinary project is to examine the George Lyell Collection scientifically and culturally, and to share our discoveries with the wider community. If we can change some people’s minds about moths in the process, as the French say, tant mieux.