Founders of the British Ornithologists’ Club: 2. Henry Seebohm (1832–1895)

Henry Seebohm was a distinguished writer, traveller, collector, ethnographer, and theorist and was instrumental in the founding and management of many of the learned societies of the day.

Early Life

He was born into a Quaker family in Bradford, Yorkshire, on 12th July 1832, the oldest child of a wool merchant, and was educated in the Quaker community in York. After working as a grocery assistant, he soon embarked on a life in business, initially in a steel works in Sheffield, and eventually joined a leading firm of steel manufacturers in Rotherham, where he amassed a sufficient fortune to devote the rest of his life to his main interest – birds.

He spent much of his leisure time in the 1860s developing his interest in birds and their nests in the UK, and although he published little during this time, he appears to have kept copious notebooks, though few survive.

Travelling Days

Much of his ornithology took the form of extensive travels – reports of which were published in the ornithological literature and his later travelogues – and provided the basis for ideas that later featured in his books on taxonomy and distribution.

Among these were prodigious collecting trips to Turkey, Greece, Norway, Transylvania, and Heligoland. But most notable were his extended expeditions to Pechora (in western Russia, bordering the Barents Sea) in spring 1875, and then further east to the Yenisei River (Siberia) in 1877, described in his books Siberia in Europe (1880) and Siberia in Asia (1882). He also travelled to France (1881), Brunswick and Pomerania (now in Germany and Poland, respectively, 1882), the Danube (1883), and the USA (1884).

Many of his expeditions were protracted and arduous. While his main focus was on collecting skins and eggs, and noting the distributions and physical variations of species, he also delighted in observing living birds and took a particular interest in the ethnography of the local people he encountered. Of course, a great many birds were shot and eggs collected – as the expedition bag lists attest. While such collecting methods may be contentious in these days of the camera, mist-netting, and ringing, ornithology could not then have advanced as it did without such museum skin collections and their accompanying records – material which still provides vital information today.

Museum Life

As his travelling days waned in 1890, Seebohm helped curate and catalogue the collections at the British Museum (Natural History) Bird Room and became secure in his work and reputation there, straddling the era of transition from collecting for purely taxonomic studies to the birth of new ideas on evolution, taxonomy, and the study of the living bird. He turned his mind to classification and distribution, and ultimately to the emerging ideas on evolution. He was among the first ornithologists to take up evolutionary theory and went on to champion the subspecies concept – which he saw as evidence of evolution in action – and the need for trinomials (not universally popular at the time)

Elliott Coues had visited London from the US in 1884 in an attempt to raise interest in subspecies and trinomial nomenclature, but the British ornithological establishment, with the notable exception of Seebohm, closed ranks on the subspecies idea. Seebohm had not long returned from Pechora and the Yenisei, where he had seen geographical variation in Palearctic birds at first-hand. He reckoned that ‘as a punishment for their delinquencies’, the older ornithologists ‘should be exiled to Siberia for a summer to learn to harmonise their system of nomenclature with nature’ When Ernst Hartert arrived in England from Germany in 1891 to become bird curator at the Rothschild’s Tring Museum, he and Seebohm were unanimous in their wish to classify birds using trinomials, so following the theory of evolution. Later, Harry Witherby became one of the first established British ornithologists to take the idea on board and it later became fundamental to Ernst Mayr’s 1940’s biological species concept.

Ornithology was moving on as Seebohm’s life drew to a close, and his interests reflected this in changing from egg collections and shot specimens to studies of the living bird and bird behaviour,  including writing of his growing interest in bird conservation.

Seebohm and the British Ornithologists’ Club

Seebohm had issued his History of British Birds while a member of the British Ornithologists’ Union (BOU), around the same time as the first BOU list of British Birds (1883). He was heavily critical of the BOU list, fell out with them, and left, but was readmitted in 1892 having regained their trust, and later served on the BOU council.  He was chosen by Phillip Lutley Sclater to join the group leading to the foundation of the British Ornithologists’ Club (BOC) in October 1892 and was duly elected to its committee at the inaugural meeting.

He enthusiastically attended most of the BOC dinners until his death in 1895, exhibiting specimens of new species prior to their description in The Ibis or the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club, and occasionally stood in as the Club’s chairman when Sclater was absent.

His other society involvements included the Honorary Secretaryship of the Royal Geographical Society, President of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Preservation Society, Honorary President of the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union, member of the Linnean Society council, and council member and later Vice President of the Zoological Society of London.

Health Issues and Death

In May 1891, Seebohm missed the International Ornithological Congress in Budapest due to deteriorating health. He developed influenza in early 1895 and tried to convalesce in Biarritz and then Eastbourne, attending fewer BOC meetings. His last appearance there – presenting specimens and in poor health – was on 31st October 1895.

He died in London on 26th November 1895, leaving a widow, Maria, and no children.

Seebohm in the Words of Others.

Although a controversial figure both today and during his life, many obituaries paid respect to his eminent position and achievements. He was described as ‘nervous, sympathetic, frank, generous, sincere’ in an anonymous obituary in the Proceedings of the Linnean Society. T. H. Huxley (‘Darwin’s bulldog’) acknowledged Seebohm’s skills as ‘a born lecturer’.

However, Alfred Newton was not always so complimentary, although he was grudgingly impressed by Seebohm’s Siberian specimens. While praising Seebohm’s achievements in early correspondence, he noted his ‘rough ways’. Newton came into direct conflict with Seebohm, thinking him not always sufficiently rigorous. He later tried to erase Seebohm’s ideas on bird classification in his magnum opus, the Dictionary of Birds (1896), although more recent appraisals suggest that Seebohm, rather than Newton, was in fact the innovator. While Newton and Seebohm shared a passion for birds and collecting, the two men could hardly have been more different. Newton, the independently wealthy, university educated Professor of Zoology at Cambridge, contrasting with Seebohm, the blunt-speaking Yorkshireman, with no university education who had first made his living in industry in what was then the grubbiest city in England.


I am indebted to the following:

Tim Birkhead (2021). Review of Henry Seebohm’s Ornithology. British Birds vol. 114, issue 1, pp 55–⁠56

Alan G Knox. Order or Chaos. Taxonomy and the British List over the last 100 years. British Birds 100 • October 2007 • 609–623

And, most notably: Tim Milsom (2020). Henry Seebohm’s Ornithology: His collecting, field observations, publications and evolutionary theories. 357 pp. 16 colour plates, numerous black-and-white images, and figures. Privately published by the author.

Author Information 

Andrew Richford

Posted in Blog, Founder Biographies.