Sylvanus Charles Thorp Hanley (1819 - 1899) - a nineteenth-century dilettante of the shell world

By Adrian Norris and S. Peter Dance.

Extracted from Journal of Conchology, Volume 37, pp. 363–369

Background and Private Life

Sylvanus Charles Thorn Hanley was born in Holywell Street, Oxford on the 7th January 1819, the son of William Hanley. He was admitted to Wadham College, Oxford in 1837, as a commoner, where he obtained his B.A. degree in 1841. In an obituary notice Edgar Smith (1900) tells us that Hanley subsequently became a student at law of the Inner Temple, but after inheriting ample means from his father, he had no occasion to complete his studies. Smith also tells us that Hanley was twice mated and had two sons. Unfortunately this obituary notice, the only one we have seen, leaves many other questions unanswered.

Enquiries made at Wadham College, Oxford, confirmed that he did gain a B.A., but the College authorities have no further information. The records of the Inner Temple reveal no evidence that Hanley had ever been connected with that institution, although some of the records were destroyed in a fire during the 1939–45 War. It is curious that nobody seems to have left any reminiscences concerning him. There are few surviving letters and no portrait is known to us, even though he seems to have had an early interest in photography.

The home addresses of the Hanley family, given as 7, Hanley Road, Hornsea Rise, Middlesex and 27, Hanley Road, Hornsea Rise, and Hornsea Road, in the parish of Islington, London, call for some explanation. The survey map for the Islington parish dated 1805 & 1806 shows a small group of 3 houses on the corner of Hanley Road and Hornsea Rise an extension of Hornsea Road. The plan for the parish of St Mary Islington dated 1853 shows the area labelled as the ‘National Freehold Land Society’s Estate’. On the same map a back lane has appeared behind the houses fronting onto Hanley Road labelled ‘Sylvanus Place’. A short distance down Hornsea Road one of the original cottages shown on the earlier map is now a public house called the ‘Hanley Arms’. Although the 1805/6 map indicated that the road was known as Hanley Road, the Rate Book of the period does not use that name, the area being known as the East Side. The Rate Book for Lamp, Highway & Chapel, Midsummer & Michaelmas, 1830, the first one in which the Hanley name appears in pencil under ‘East Side’, contains a ‘Wm.Hanley, Esq’, which proves he took over the property. The same book notes ‘Wm.Hanley’ as owning a house, Land Stables, Etc. at Newington Green. The Minute books of the Vestry of the Parish of St. Mary, Islington shows a William Lucas Hanley of Newington Green as attending the Vestry Meetings for 23rd June and 9th December 1831. In 1839 William Lucas Hanley was nominated as a trustee for the parish. Pigot’s Commercial directory for London, 1832–4, lists Wm.Lucas Hanley as an Attorney at 1, Furnival’s Inn. Robsons Commercial directory for 1843, lists Wm. Lucas Hanley, solicitor, 11, Angel Court, Throgmorton Street. The 1852 directory for Islington, published in 1852, shows William Hanley, Esq. as residing at 1, Park Terrace, Highbury. The 1855 directory also lists Mrs Hanley as residing at 28, Newington Green. In 1866 W. Hanley is listed as residing at 4, Victoria Road, Hornsea Rise.

The first reference to Sylvanus Hanley as a resident of 27, Hanley Road is for 1870. To complicate matters further it should be noted that the house numbers for Hanley Road were completely changed sometime between 1886 and 1888. The family did live in the area of Hanley Road from 1830 onwards but the name Hanley Road dates back at least to 1805. ‘Sylvanus Place’, however, dates from sometime just prior to 1853, after Sylvanus Hanley’s family moved to this address.

Fig. 1. Hanley's Last Will and Testament Dated May 18 1899


Hanley died in Penzance on the 5th April 1899, aged 80, and was buried there on the 10th April the same year. His last Will and Testament, dated the 29th day of October, 1896, (fig. 1) leaves various properties, including The Hollies in Penzance and ‘all my freehold houses and hereditaments situated in Hanley Road and Hornsey Road in the County of London’ to his wife Eliza and two sons, Charles Ernest and Augustus Sylvanus. Smith (1900) says that only one of his Sons survived him, the younger, so the elder son must have died some time between 1896 and 1900. A search through the Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths of England and Wales, however, has revealed no record of his death, and throws no light on where or when he died.

One reason for searching through the Register was to try to unravel the series of names used by Hanley’s two ‘reputed Sons’ in an attempt to resolve the probable authorship of British marine conchology, said to be by ‘Charles Thorpe’. According to his will (a curiously worded document) he had two reputed sons. One of them, Charles Ernest Hanley, was ‘formerly called and known and distinguished by the name of Charles Ernest Ward and for some time as Ernest Hanley and Ernest Thorp’. The other son, Augustus Sylvanus Hanley was ‘formerly called and known and distinguished by the name of Augustus Sylvanus Ward and for some time as Augustus Hanley and Augustus Thorp’. This phraseology raises intriguing questions. Possibly Hanley married a widow, Eliza Ward, who had previously had two Sons. This suggestion, however, does not take into account the given names of ‘his’ two sons, Charles and Sylvanus. A combination of names of this type, which would normally include parts of the father’s name, would seem to indicate a father-son relationship, rather than a stepfather-son relationship. British marine conchology, published in 1844, contains a ‘Systematic Index’ with descriptions of new species, by Sylvanus Charles Thorp Hanley, a clear indication of Hanley’s connection with the book. Except for the extra ‘e’ in Thorpe the two middle names of Hanley correspond to those of the author. In our opinion there is sufficient evidence here for including this title in the subjoined List of Hanley’s Publications.

Hanley’s Publications and Library

Fig. 2. Plate VII from Hanley’s "Photographic Conchology" of 1863.
From copy in Tomlin Library, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff

Hanley’s first publication, entitled The young conchologist’s book of species, was published in 1840 when he was just 21 years of age. In it he validly described Haliotis sanguinea and two other taxa. This was followed a year later by a sumptuously illustrated new edifion of William Swainson’s Exotic conchology. There followed a long series of publications in scientific journals, most of them describing new taxa. He is best remembered for the handsome four-volume History of British Mollusca and their shells, published between 1848 and 1853. Written in collaboration with the illustrious Edward Forbes (1814-54), it so fully occupied his time that it hindered publication of his long-awaited book about the shells of Linnaeus, Ipsa Linnaei conchylia. Seeing the early part of The conchological miscellany through the press also helped ensure that his study of the Linnaean shells, begun a dozen or more years earlier, did not appear in print until 1855. A year later there appeared his handsome edition of William Wood’s Index testaceologicus. Between 1846 and 1863 he contributed three monographs to the Thesaurus conchyliorum when it was under the editorship of G. B. Sowerby (II). The Photographic conchology, an early experiment in the use of photography to illustrate a natural history book, appeared in 1863 (fig. 2). This was followed, in 1876, by the massive Conchologia Indica, illustrating the non-marine molluscan shells of the Indian peninsula, his co-author this time being William Theobald (1829-1908). His least-known publication, Caliphs and sultans, is a rare book having nothing to do with molluscs. An English edition of some of the lesser-known Tales from the Arabian Nights, it was published in 1868. His last publication, a short article on shipworms, appeared in 1885. By Victorian standards this was not an impressive lifetime’s output but it certainly shows that Hanley was very industrious as a young man.

His own library of books about molluscs and their shells was comprehensive and included many rare titles. Books he once owned often have characteristic pencilled annotations by him scattered throughout. Occasionally he would cut out figures of shells from the plates accompanying a book and paste them close to their relevant descriptions, a practice likely to infuriate any subsequent owner of such a book. One of us (SPD) has seen - and has owned - several books formerly in Hanley’s library with the name ‘Bridger, Penzance’ on tickets pasted inside the covers. These labels indicate that the library was acquired initially by a Penzance bookseller of that name soon after Hanley’s death. Much later it seems that the library, or a large part of it anyway, was acquired by a bookseller operating out of the Farringdon Road in London who sold it to the eminent malacologist E. R. Sykes (1867–1954). Messrs Wheldon & Wesley, the natural history booksellers, bought the Sykes library after the 1939–45 War and in 1948 they issued a catalogue listing many of Hanley’s books. An account of this transaction, with a verbatim copy of fifty of the choicer entries in the catalogue is given by Dance (1986).

Hanley’s Shell Collection

Hanley built up a very large collection of shells, mainly tropical marine species, but it included a large number of North American fresh-water species many of which were described by American naturalists such as Isaac Lea (1792-1886) with whom he corresponded. Ultimately the collection contained a great deal of scientifically valuable material, including hundreds of types and figured specimens, many of them described as new to science by himself and contemporary naturalists.

The shell collection, consisting of thousands of specimens and housed in some thirteen cabinets, was left to his wife after his death. She, however, passed the collection into the care of a nephew. About this time the British Museum (Natural History) purchased many types from it. A dealer by the name of H. Harvey then acquired the collection from Hanley’s nephew. In 1908 E. A. Smith examined it whilst it was still in the dealer’s hands and again acquired a quantity of material for the British Museum. It was also during this time that some specimens are supposed to have found their way across the Atlantic and into some American museums. Fortunately, however, very little was dispersed in this manner. A further series of specimens was removed by the British Museum in 1921.

After this period, nothing more was heard about the collection or its whereabouts until August 1932 when it was presented to Huddersfield Museum by Mr. J. C. North of Dryclough House, Crosland Moor, Huddersfield. A small brass plate was then attached to each cabinet, bearing the legend ‘The Sylvanus Charles Thorp Hanley and H. Harvey Collection’, suggesting that the dealer included his name with the collection when it was sold. We have been unable to ascertain whether North bought the collection directly from a dealer but we do know that it was bought through an auction house at some point and that it had been stored for a time in the depository of T. R. Roberts Ltd. By profession North was an engineer who helped construct Aden harbour so it is likely that the collection was stored whilst North was working there. He died in 1952, his wife committing suicide shortly afterwards.

The collection was transferred to Leeds in 1957, into the care of Mr. John Annitage, the then Keeper of Zoology. It was stated at the time by people at the Huddersfield Museum that the collection was of little use as none of the shells had any data. Armitage contacted Mr I. C. J. Galbraith, of the British Museum (Natural History) in 1958 and asked for his advice about the collection. Shortly afterwards one of us (SPD), then on the staff of that museum, was sent to Leeds to examine the collection and make a report about it and its condition. He was also instructed to separate, for removal to the British Museum, all the type and figured material he could identify. As the existence of Hanley’s catalogue of the collection was unknown then and relevant literature was unavailable in Leeds he was unable to identify a significant amount of type and figured material. The 203 separate lots he isolated were transferred subsequently to the British Museum (Natural History). It was then generally assumed that the Hanley collection contained little more of scientific importance and this resulted in the loss of much valuable information and the probable destruction of some type and figured material.

Fig. 4. Fusconaia flava (Rafinesque, 1820).Hanley MSS
Catalogue Vol.2. page 240, No. 175 as Unio trigonis
Lea, 1831. Figured Reeve Conch. Icon. Pl.
Ligumia opalinus (Anthony, 1866)
Fig. 3.Ligumia opalinus (Anthony, 1866). Michigan,North America.
Forwarded to Hanley by Anthony, syntype Unio opalinus Anthony, 1866

In 1976 one of us (AN) and Mr F. R. Woodward started working through the large Unionid collection amassed by Hanley and it soon became clear that this part of the collection still contained numerous types and figured shells (figs. 3 & 4). At this stage the location of Hanley’s original catalogue was unknown and its absence proved to be a major handicap. More frustrating, however, was the shortage of available literature in Leeds. For most of the first two years all publications by Hanley and his associates had to be borrowed or photocopied. Then there was the problem of analysing the coded information accompanying the shells. Hanley had marked many of his specimens or their labels in ink, the markings being in the form of letters or numbers, or both. The letter ‘F’ was soon recognised as meaning figured, but only a few specimens had indications of where they had been figured. Deciphering the letter ‘P’ was more difficult, but Hanley had produced his Photographic conchology in 1863, a book largely devoted to Unionids, and this proved to be the source of ‘P’. A copy of this rare publication was located in the National Museum of Wales at Cardiff and, fortunately, the Leeds City Museum was allowed to borrow it. As a result it has been possible to recognise some of the specimens illustrated therein. This still leaves a small number of specimens, marked ‘P’, for which no illustration, published or otherwise, has been found. Also the numbers on some separate valves, particularly of the Unionids, have not been deciphered.

Pages from Hanley’s original catalogue
Fig. 5. Two pages from Hanley’s original manuscript catalogue.

Several years after we began this project one of the natural historians attending a meeting in York produced two manuscript volumes and asked if they were of any use or interest, as they appeared to contain information about a large shell collection. The volumes were the missing catalogue of Hanley’s shells (fig.5)! This fortuitous discovery helped to resolve many questions. To date almost three hundred possible types or figured specimens have been recognised in the Hanley Collection, currently housed in the Leeds City Museum, and there may be others unrecognised still. It will be several years yet before we can be sure that the scientific value of this collection has been assessed fully but it is reassuring to know that the time spent studying it has not been wasted.


Assessment of Hanley as a Systematist

Part of letter from Hanley to J. H. Ponsonby
Fig. 6.Part of an undated letter from Hanley to J.H. Ponsonby

A man of private means, Hanley could pursue the study of molluscs and their shells leisurely, could afford to buy publications on the subject, could travel when necessary, and could enjoy the luxury of doing very little or nothing if he so wished. He did all of these things. His collection is worldwide in its scope but he does not seem to have travelled widely himself to collect shells. Hanley, it would seem, was a dilettante who may not have strayed far from home, although an undated letter to J. H. Ponsonby (1848-1916), now in the archives of the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland (at Leeds), shows that he dredged as far afield as Algiers (see fig. 3). We know next to nothing about his private life but we may be sure that he did not overtax himself. Latterly he seems to have been dogged by ill health. For some reason he took a special interest in bivalves. Most of his new taxa are bivalves and one of his books is entitled An illustrated and descriptive catalogue of recent bivalve shells. So he may be considered a specialist. His descriptions of bivalves are adequate compared with the work of his contemporaries and the same may be said of the illustrations accompanying some of them. Many of the new bivalve taxa he proposed still stand which suggests, but does not prove, that he was a good systematist. He worked in a traditional manner, offering no new insights into their relationships, content merely to have his name associated with an ever-lengthening series of so-called new species. In this respect he was no better and no worse than many other students of molluscan systematics during the middle years of the nineteenth century. That he was respected by his contemporaries is indicated by the large number of species – we list most of them – that bear his name.

Undoubtedly his best work was a major study of the British molluscan fauna, undertaken with Edward Forbes (1815-1854) This work culminated in the publication of their monumental History of British Mollusca and their shells. It is tempting to say that the high quality of this four-volume treatise must be due to Forbes, by far the better scientist of the two, but this would be unfair on Hanley. There is evidence throughout the work that Hanley contributed more than his fair share. Much of the text shows an acquaintance with the relevant literature that may have been expected of one whose library was so extensive. Crucially Hanley may have been closer to the collectors whose collections provided so much of the locality information in the book. Also he had time on his side, Forbes being a busy man working in various fields besides malacology. We know Forbes collected in British waters and elsewhere but less is known about Hanley’s collecting activities. A close examination of their book shows that Hanley collected at many points around the English coast, especially in the south and around the Channel Islands.* It is worth repeating that he sometimes used a dredge, an implement we customarily associate with the collecting activities of Forbes. Hanley may have contributed more, possibly much more, to this splendid book than did Forbes, but that is mere speculation.

* It was while he was collecting around the island of Jersey that he found Rissoa (now Alvania) lactea (Michaud), a species rare in British waters. J.T. Marshall who seems to have known him personally, says that the species was first discovered there by the late Sylvanus Hanley, who used to relate an amusing episode in connection with it. ‘Just as he pounced on his first specimen he was startled by gunfire and could not realise for the moment whether it was to celebrate his discovery or to punish his excessive jubilation, but on looking up he was horrified to find that all the guns of the fort were (as he supposed) pointing at him; so they were, but it was only a coincidence that he happened to be in the line of blank fire, consequently he escaped with his life, and with his Rissoa’ (Marshall, 1916).

Another commendable, if lesser, piece of work was his edition of William Wood’s well-known Index testaceologicus. Popular because of its almost 500 hand-coloured illustrations and its portability, the Index had been out of print for many years and Hanley was the man chosen to edit a revised, enlarged version in a larger format. The result was visually appealing and, judging from the comparatively large number of copies that were in circulation until the middle of the twentieth century, must have sold well. Such a book could only have been edited by someone with an encyclopaedic knowledge of molluscan shells and their classification. Hanley had that kind of knowledge. Apart from incorrectly denying authorship of some taxa in the book to Wood, who validly proposed scientific names for some species illustrated in an 1828 Supplement to it (Dance, 1972), his work on the Index Testaceologicus was sound.

Unfortunately he did not confine his activities to the study of shells and the writing of books about them. He meddled with shell collections made by others, thereby diminishing their scientific value. Also he had a cavalier attitude to the passage of time, one of the privileges of a dilettante. In the early 1840s, when still a young man, he undertook to study and reorganise the collection of shells made by Linnaeus. The collection had been housed for many years in the rooms of The Linnean Society of London and its condition had deteriorated badly. He finished his researches in 1850 but, because he spent so much time on his work with Forbes and other studies, it was not until 1855 that he published a book about his findings, the Ipsa Linnaei conchylia. A year later it was discovered that the shells had been seriously disarranged during the previous five years and Hanley offered to put them in order. Apparently he had not attempted to put them in order when working on them and he now proceeded to mount representatives of the Linnnaean species on wooden tablets, not necessarily utilising the same specimens mentioned in his Ipsa. Some 23 years and an admonishment from the Lmnnean Society later, he had still not finished the work. He never did finish it and, as a later study shows, it were better had he not started it (Dance, 1967).

The Linnnaean collection was not the only one he misused. Through his association with the Conchologia Indica, published in 1876, he came to be involved with the extensive shell collection amassed by William Benson (1803-70). This collection was not only rich in species from the Indian peninsula but Benson attached great importance to precise localities, accompanying his specimens with labels giving detailed locality information. Somehow Hanley acquired Benson’s collection and manuscripts, replaced the original labels with ones of his own which merely read ‘India’, and as if that were not enough he lost Benson’s precious manuscripts! Hanley also upset his co-author, William Theobald, who was stationed in India and so was in a poor position to influence the content and progress of the book. Theobald did not wish to be associated with the errors resulting from Hanley’s ignorance of Indian geography and more or less divorced himself from the book (Naggs, 1997).

It seems that Hanley was much more careful in the treatment of his own collection. As we have seen, he used different ciphers to indicate certain kinds of information; and though his labels lacked precise locality information, at least his specimens were all labelled. It is ironic that his collection has been subjected to some of the curatorial mayhem that he inflicted on the collections of others. In other respects his working methods may have been exemplary; and apart from some notable lapses he worked hard. After studying type specimens of shells belonging to the family Tellinidae, many of them belonging to species described by Hanley, A. E. Salisbury wrote: ‘During my studies of the collection at the British Museum I found it impossible to say in certain instances which was the type of some of Hanley’s species, where more than one shell occurs on the "type" tablet. Hanley appears to have been very casual in the way of giving measurements, and frequently these seem to be a combination, or average, taken from the type lot’ (Salisbury, 1934). Conversely, as we have seen, Hanley was so meticulous about marking types and figured specimens in his own collection that it has been possible to locate many of them with relative ease.

Edgar Smith, who knew Hanley personally, said of him: ‘By the death of Sylvanus Hanley conchological science has lost one of its most careful and excellent students. As far as the writer of these remarks can judge, no conchologist with whom he has been personally acquainted has devoted more care to his work than Mr Hanley. Thoroughness being his motto’ (Smith, 1900). Was the obituarist being truthful – or merely polite? Perhaps we should leave judgement to a higher authority.


We take this opportunity to thank all those who have given us help and advice with research into the history of Hanley and his shell collection. In particular we wish to thank Mr Fred R. Woodward without whom this project may not have got off the ground. We are indebted to staff members at various institutions, especially the following: Islington Central Library and Archives; the Royal Museum (part of the National Museums of Scotland), Edinburgh; the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff; the Manchester Museum. Finally, we wish especially to thank members of the staff of the Mollusca Section at the Natural History Museum, London, past and present, for all their help and patience when dealing with the many queries directed to them over the years.


      DANCE S.P. 1967 Report on the Linnaean shell collection Proceedings of the Linnaean Society London 178: 1–24, 10 pls.
      DANCE S.P. 1972 On William Wood’s General Conchology and Index Testaceologicus Basteria 36: 157–62.
      MARSHALL J.T. 1916 Additions to "British Conchology" Part VII (continued). Journal of Conchology 15: 44–47.
      NAGGS F. 1997 William Benson and the early study of land snails in British India and Ceylon Archives of Natural History 24: 37–88, text figs.
      REYNELL A. 1918 On the dates of issue of the parts of Forbes and Hanley’s History of British Mollusca. Proceedings of the Malacological Society of London. 13: 25–26.
      SALISBURY A.E. 1934 On the nomenclature of Tellinidae, with descriptions of new species and some remarks on distribution Proceedings of the Malacological Society of London 21: 74–91, 6 pls.
      SMITH E.A. 1900 Sylvanus Hanley Journal of Conchology 9: 269–70.
      SMITH E.A. 1915 Note on Tellina splendida of Anton. Journal of Conchology 14: 339–340.