Some 18th. Century Conchologists

By Warren R. Dawson, F.R.S.E., F.S.A.

Extracted from Journal of Conchology, Volume 23, pp. 44–47

Amongst the announcements of deaths in the Gentleman’s Magazine (l785, 2, 573), the following quaint paragraph appears:–

2 July i785. – Mr. Jacob Neilson, aged near 80, at Vauxhall Gardens, as he was preparing his kettle drum, on which he had been for 50 years esteemed a first-rate performer. He was a curious comparative observer of nature in conchology and the fossil world, of which he has left a very good collection. He retained his memory and cheerfulness to the last, insomuch that in almost any conversation he would introduce a quotation of several pages, and repeat it verbatim. He was of Scotch extraction; but his father and mother and himself having been for near a century inhabitants of London, it is not known that he has left any relation.

Our information respecting this singular personage might have been limited to the few statements in the foregoing paragraph, but fortunately Emanuel Mendes da Costa, who knew him personally, sent to John Nichols a fuller account which was published in the latter’s Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century (9, 812). This account, which is of sufficient interest to quote in full, mentions several other persons whose names are connected with conchology. Before referring to these, however, it will be convenient first to insert da Costa’s communication. It will he observed that the obituary notice gives the christian name as Jacob, whereas da Costa calls him John; the latter, coming from a personal friend, is more likely to be correct.

I was acquainted with Mr. John Neilson before the beginning of 1751, and got to his acquaintance by way of Mr. Arthur Pond, the Painter, and famous collector of shells. Mr. Neilson then lived with Mr. Pond at his house, beginning of Queen-street, Lincoln’s-inn-fields ; and at that very time was of the band of the Vauxhall musick: he lived with and at Mr. Pond’s till he (Pond) died, in 1738. He was the instigator and manager of all Pond’s collections, for Pond was only a virtuoso, but Neilson a scientific man and indeed all Pond’s science, and collections of shells, fossils, etc., were entirely owing to Neilson’s assiduity and knowledge. However, at Pond’s death, it was found that, after such a strict intimacy and friendship with Neilson, he had not even mentioned him in his will, nor desired his aid and care in disposing of his curious collections; but made demands on him, though, indeed, the elegance of them was all due to Neilson’s skill and knowledge. This was supposed to be caused by a jealousy Pond had of Neilson, on account of Mrs. Knapton, who was Pond’s housekeeper; and perhaps too well founded, for she afterwards lived with Neilson. However, this was a cruel behaviour to Neilson. To return: All Pond's collections were sold at Langford’s soon after his death, and, as reported, yielded about 1,000 1. Numbers of curious fossils, as Sheppey fish, vertebra, and other parts, lobsters, crabs, etc., of clay-stone, most elegantly and scientifically cleaned of the clay-stone, etc., by Neilson, were sold in it, and fetched good high prices. I bought a lobster and some other fossils in claystone for Dr. Edward Wright, who bequeathed them, with his MSS. Library, etc., for the Edinburgh College (museum), where, I presume they are now. Mr. Neilson died July 4, 1785, at Vauxhall. He dropped down in an apoplectic fit, and expired immediately. He was a performer on the kettle-drum at that place, and he belonged to the band at Vauxhall fifty years. He was said to be upwards of 80. I knew him well; he was a small, lively, and jocose man; healthy, wore his age very well; I did not think him so old as was said, but upon recollection he must have been about that age. He was very scientific and curious, but especially fond of chemical works, and would repeat the poetical parts of many of them by heart. Ashmole’s "Theatrum Chemicum" was his delight. He was also curious in all Natural History, and he cleansed his shells, etc., with great neatness but his most surprising works were cleaning and freeing all extraneous fossils from their loads, or masses of clay-stone, lime-stone, or other stoney matters, in which they were embedded, in a most surprising and excellent natural and scientific manner, by mere assiduity and patience, without using labour or any artifice insomuch that any fossils cleaned by him are elegant and natural, beyond expression. He had been taken in former wars with Spain prisoner and was kept prisoner of war at Vera Cruz, Havanna, etc., before I knew him. He was a Highlander born, but where and when is unknown for his relations, not any one yet (November 1785), have claimed kindred, so his effects remain unclaimed. He had a good collection of shells and fossils, many of which, especially the latter, are cleaned in perfection, as above said by him, and are very elegant and valuable. Mr. Boydell administered to his effects in 1786 ; and his Goods, Books, and Collections of Natural History, were sold by public auction, by Hutchins, in King Street, Covent Garden (catalogued by George Humphrey), Aug. 16, 1786, and the two following days, and yielded well; Mr. Hunter, by Mr. Bell, purchasing many capital lots, and Mr. Isaac Swainson many of the Sheppey crabs. – E. M. DA COSTA.


With regard to the various persons mentioned in the foregoing note, I will deal first with the writer of it. Emanuel Mendes da Costa, a member of a well-known Jewish family settled in Portugal, was the son of Moses da Costa, F.R.S., a relation of whom (perhaps his father) is said to have been a physician in the suite of Queen Katharine when she came to England from Portugal to be the wife of Charles II. Emanuel, who was an able man, was himself elected F.R.S. in 1747, when he received the powerful backing of Martin ffolkes, the president, the Duke of Montagu, Peter Collinson and others. He was, like most of the scientists of his time, a polymath; his interests covered a wide field including archaeologv, geology, mineralogy and particularly conchology and palaeontology. He corresponded with all the leading literary and scientific men of his age, including Sir Hans Sloane and William Stukeley. A considerable part of his correspondence has been published by John Nichols in his Lit. Anecdotes and Lit. Illustrations, especially in volume 4 of the latter work. Early in 1763 the position of Clerk to the Royal Society became vacant and da Costa, again with very influential support, was appointed to the post. On becoming a salaried official of the society, da Costa had to resign his fellowship. The duties of the Clerk in those days comprised functions that are now distributed between the Assistant Secretary, the Librarian and others, and in addition the society then had a museum, the care of which was in da Costa’s hands. The rest of his story is a melancholy one: after several years it was found that he had largely neglected his duties and when in December 1767 it was found that he had also embezzled a considerable sum of the society’s funds he was dismissed from his office. His library and collections were seized and sold and he was sentenced to five years imprisonment. After his release he eked out a precarious existence and died in poverty in 1791. He left an only child, a daughter.

After his downfall da Costa continued to publish some important works which entitle him to recognition in the annals of conchology. The chief of these were Elements of Conchology, or an Introduction to the Knowledge of Shells (1776) and Historia Naturalis Testaceorum Britanniae (1780). In earlier years he had published his Natural History of Fossils (1757) and other works.¹


The next name to mention is that of Neilson’s associate, Arthur Pond. Pond was born in 1705 and acquired some celebrity as a portrait painter, etcher and engraver. He dabbled in science and was elected F.R.S. in 1752 and F.S.A. the same year. Being in easy circumstances he was a great buyer of "rarities and curiosities", especially shells and fossils. He amassed a large and valuable collection, the care of which was, as we have seen, in the hands of Neilson, who was virtually a resident curator. Pond died 9 September 1758, and in the following year his collections were sold.²

Edward Wright, M.D., F.R.S., for whom some of Pond’s specimens were purchased, was a physician of Edinburgh. He was much interested in natural history and amassed considerable collections of which shells formed a large portion, and these he bequeathed to Edinburgh University.³ The old University Museum collections were transferred to the Royal Scottish Museum about 1857, so that if all or any of Wright’s specimens were still extant at that date they are now presumably incorporated in the national collection of Scotland.

The "Mr. Boydell" who administered Nielson’s estate is the well-known engrayer and print seller, John Boydell (1719—1804).


"Mr. Hunter" may be either Dr. William Hunter (1718—1783) or his equally distinguished brother, John Hunter (1728—1793), both of whom had large private museums. The collections of the former are now in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow, and those of the latter passed to the Royal College of Surgeons, London. It is more probable that Neilson’s specimens were bought by the former than the latter, whose collections were mainly anatomical and osteological.†


Isaac Swainson was born at Hawkshead, Lancashire, in 1746. He became M.D. in 1785 and practised as a physician in London, residing in Frith Street, Soho. He afterwards removed to Twickenham, where he established a botanic garden, for he was interested in all branches of natural history. His large collection of botanical plates is in the herbarium of the British Museum. Isaac, who was a cousin of the well-known zoologist William Swainson (1789—1855), died at Twickenham, 7 March 1812.

Neilson’s sale-catalogue was drawn up by George Humphrey, whose name is well known in the annals of conchology. He was a dealer in shells and "curiosities" ; in 1768 his business was carried on at 48 Long Acre and later at Leicester Street, Leicester Square. In 1823 he retired from business when his remaining stock was sold, of which a printed catalogue was issued, and he resided for the rest of his life in Chelsea. He drew up the sale-catalogues of several important collections, including those of Dr. John Fothergill (1781), whose conchological collections were bought by Dr. William Hunter; the Duchess of Portland (1786); Charles Alexandre de Calonne (1797).‡

¹The principal sources of information as to da Costa’s career are the many mentions of him in Nichol’s Lit. Anecd. and Lit. Illustr. (for which see the indices to those works) and Sir Henry Lyons, The Royal Society 1660–1940 (1944, 169); see also J. Conchol. 22, 138.
²D.N.B. 46, 76; Nichols, Lit. Anecd. 5, 253; 9, 603, 812.
³Nichol's Lit. Illustr.4, 456, 457, 466, 468, 475.
†Most of them were lost by enemy action in 1940
‡Nichols, Lit. Anecd. 9, 813, 816; Lit. Illustr. 4, 773; J. Conchol. 20, 332; 22, 138.
There are two letters from G. H. in the Swainson Correspondence at the Linnean Society. On the Calonne collection see J. Conchyl. 14, 42.