Herbert Stevens (1877-1964): Collector, Benefactor and Enigma

Herbert Stevens (1877-1964):

F.Z.S., F.R.G.S.,M.S.P.F.(M.F.F.I.), M.B.O.C.

Collector, Benefactor and Enigma.

By Amberley Moore

February 2023

At the meeting of the British Ornithologists’ Club on November 12 1924, a new Member, Herbert Stevens, was introduced by the Chairman – “Mr Stevens has been collecting birds and mammals in Tonkin (Vietnam) for the British Museum under the Salman Godman Fund.  Unfortunately, through the capsizing of a river steamer, Mr Stevens lost all his notes and photographs, and he himself narrowly escaped being drowned…”.

Collector: Herbert Stevens was a tea planter, who had gone to India from Britain in 1901. He worked in the Lakhimpur district of Upper Assam, and in 1911 became Manager of the Gopaldra Tea Estate in Darjeeling until he retired in 1921 and returned to live in Britain.

During his working life he studied and collected the birds of Upper Assam and Sikkim. His detailed notes on 464 bird species of Upper Assam and 549 of Sikkim were published in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, (1914-1915); (1923-1925).

He avoided collecting in regions where the bird population was already well represented. In the introduction to his paper on the birds of Assam he expresses his concern at land being increasingly put under cultivation and calls for the safeguarding of the forest reserves.

After his retirement Stevens returned to Asia four times between 1923 and 1936, to Tonkin, to Western China and Tibet, to Sikkim and to Papua New Guinea.  All of his expeditions were strenuous; three of them lasted over a year and at times he was working at up to 15,000 feet in regions of perpetual snow. On his expedition to western China, 1,300 miles of the 1,600 mile journey were made on foot, in part across unmapped country.

His collection in Tonkin (1923-1924) was made for the British Museum (Natural History) and the other three were for museums in the United States. The expedition to Western China and Tibet (1928-1929), and that to Sikkim (1930-1931), were both for the Field Museum, Chicago.  Stevens final collection (1932-1933) in Papua New Guinea was for the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University. The collections were not only of birds but included animals, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, insects and flowering plants and shrubs.

Stevens later gave accounts of three of the expeditions at Club meetings. He told of how he was accompanied by his wife Amy on his 1923-1924 expedition to Tonkin. Despite the shipwreck, his collection did reach the British Museum, having been dispatched ahead.

In 1928 he was invited to join the year-long Kelly-Roosevelt expedition to Szechuan (Sichuan), Western China, with Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt and Suydam Cutting. This sometimes involved working at up to 15,000 feet, for much of the time alone in the Tachienlu (Kanding) region on the ‘Great North Bend’ of the Yangtse River and on the southern limits of the Tibetan Plateau. He later described the journey from Burma (Myanmar) along ancient trade routes to Shanghai in detail in his book Through Deep Defiles to Tibetan Uplands, The travels of a naturalist from the Irrawaddy to the Yangtse (Witherby 1934).

In the cold season of 1930-1931 Stevens returned to Sikkim, which he had visited during his working years. Suydam Cutting and he collected birds and invertebrates.  This was perhaps his most strenuous expedition. The party spent 23 weeks at altitudes from 3,500 feet to 12,000 feet. He gave an account of this journey at a meeting of the Club in October 1931.

His final expedition, in 1932-1933, was to Papua New Guinea. He joined a USA led expedition arriving in Salamaua on the north-east coast in January 1932 and flew inland to Wau, a seemingly incongruous site for field work (it was the centre of a gold mining area in 1932), where he spent a year making a collection of 207 bird species which included one new subspecies. He contributed a section to the published account of the expedition, Birds from the coastal range between the Markham and the Warla rivers, northeastern New Guinea (J.C. Greenway, Jr. Proc. New England  Zool. Cl.(1935).

His paper, Sketches of the Tatsienlu Peaks, was published in 1930 in the Geographical Journal.

His collections included seven new bird subspecies, stevensii, two of which are now lost in synonomy. Three new subspecies which he collected in Tonkin, were named amyae at Stevens request, after his wife, who had accompanied him. One of these names is now also lost.

Benefactor: Stevens died in 1964. In his will he bequeathed his collections of Indian birds’ eggs and nests to the British Museum (Natural History), and his collection of insects (except Lepidoptera) to the University of Manchester Museum.

His personal collection of over 4,100 Oriental and Palaearctic bird skins collected by him and others was bequeathed to the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It is presently held in the Great North Museum (the Hancock Museum) in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Bara Bridge).

He made a generous bequest to the British Ornithologists’ Club and left the remainder of his estate to a number of animal charities.

In accordance with his wishes, the bequest to the Club was used to set up a Trust Fund, the Herbert Stevens Investment Trust. The fund has enabled the Club to flourish as a publisher of checklists, Occasional Publications and biographies as well as financing the move of the Bulletin to an on-line open access  publication with a readership of thousands.

Enigma:  There is no clue to where or how Stevens acquired the knowledge and skills required to identify, collect and prepare zoological and floral specimens to the standard required for scientific collections. There are very few details about his personal life in any of his publications or in the accounts of the expeditions he gave at Club meetings.

Little is known of Stevens’ life or his education before he left for India at the age of 24. An indication of his interests lies in becoming a member of the Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne Natural History Society in 1901.  He joined the British Ornithologists’ Union in 1910 and became a member of the British Ornithologists’ Club in 1924.  Club records show he attended 24 meetings of the Club, and he spoke at three of them – on Tonkin, Western China and Tibet and on Sikkim, but there is no record of him attending a meeting after 1934.

It has been possible to find some other details regarding his background.  He was born in Yorkshire, at Greetland, near Halifax, in 1877.  His father, Richard Stevens, was a Wesleyan Minister and was required to move frequently from district to district.  The family lived in seven different towns over the north of England and the Isle of Man during Stevens’ childhood. The family were living in and around Newcastle-upon-Tyne from 1896 and in 1901 Stevens left for India.

After his retirement in 1921, Stevens and Amy returned to England and settled in Tring in Hertfordshire for the rest of their lives. They created a beautiful garden at their house; they were expert and enthusiastic gardeners.

In his Chairman’s Address of 1991, on the eve of the celebration of the Club’s Centenary, Ronald Peal, paid tribute to Herbert Stevens. He concluded his address by quoting Stuart Baker, … “In Sikkim, Stevens has done a great deal of excellent work, though still too much of it remains unrecorded and locked in his brain.”



I am grateful to Mrs Judy Geer and Ms Sarah Poskitt, and Mr John Young for help finding details of Herbert Stevens and his family.  I thank Dr Robert Prys-ones who identified birds collected by Stevens held in the British Museum (Natural History) Collection and Ms Sarah Seeley of the Great North Museum who searched the accessible archives for references to Herbert Stevens. I must also thank Ms Saskia Harris of RHS Harlow Carr who searched for the history of the white Hybrid-Tea rose “Mrs Herbert Stevens” which proved to be irrelevant.




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