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Society for the History of Natural History


Mark Catesby: A New Memorial Window in London, UK

Mark Catesby: A New Memorial Window in London, UK

by E. Charles Nelson, VMM FLS, Senior Research Director, The Catesby Centre, The University of South Carolina; Associate Editor, Archives of Natural History of Society for the History of Natural History

Mark Catesby (1683-1749), famous for his magnificent publication The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1729-1747) is 337 years old today (24 March 2021). In his day, this was New Year’s Eve. He was baptized on 30 March in the parish church of St Nicholas in the hamlet of Castle Hedingham which lies close to the Essex/Sussex border. Mark was probably also born in Castle Hedingham, his mother’s home.

Certainly, when Catesby was chatting to the visiting Swedish-Finnish naturalist Pehr Kalm on 23 May 1748, Kalm departed with the clear understanding that Catesby was an Essex man. They had spent the afternoon discussing whether punch was a harmful or beneficial beverage, bed bugs, and how to preserve fishes and birds for scientific study as well as, evidently, where Catesby gained his interest in natural history: “curieust, at en stor del af de lärdaste män uti natural-historien varit hemma från Essex, så mr. Ray, Dale, Mortimer fadren och sonen, Catesby [it is curious that many men most learned in natural history originated from Essex, including Mr Ray, Dale, Mortimer, father and son, Catesby]”. Dr Samuel Dale of Braintree was the Revd John Ray’s executor and Catesby’s friend too, while Dr Cromwell Mortimer was Secretary of the Royal Society of London at that time and another of Catesby’s close associates.

That conversation took place in Mark Catesby’s home in London. We don’t know exactly where this was except that it was “behind” the parish church of St Luke on Old Street – the de-consecrated church is now well known to the classical music fraternity as the base for the London Symphony Orchestra’s community and education programme, and as a concert venue called “LSO St Luke’s”.

Mark probably moved into the area, situated on the northern outskirts of the City of London, soon after he returned from the Bahama Islands in 1726. At first he was a parishoner of St Giles’ Cripplegate, and several of his children were baptized there, before that parish was split in two and the northern section (centred around Old Street) became St Luke’s (the parishes are now reunited).

Marking Catesby’s links with both parishes, a memorial window designed and executed by Caroline Swash FMGP and Laura Perry and generously supported by donations from descendants of Mark’s sister, Elizabeth Catesby (Mrs Elizabeth Cocke, 1680–1755), and the Mark Catesby Centre at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, was installed last November in St Giles’.

The designs for the panels in the window are derived from Catesby’s publication The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1729-1747), printed by Geoffrey Smith of Prince’s Street, Spitalfields. Composed of hand-coloured etched plates, it is a  visual record of the plants, mammals, lizards, snakes, insects, corals, fish and birds that Catesby found on his travels.
Images include the: leopard or Catesby’s lily (Lilium catesbaei), Eastern screech-owl (Megascops asio), ivory-billed  woodpecker (Campephilus  principalis), bald  cypress(Taxodium  distichum) and the American  green tree frog (Dryophytes  cinerea).

Mark Catesby has been an absorbing subject for me, occupying more time than I ever envisaged after one fateful day when, out in the garden digging, I took an unexpected phone call from David Elliott, then Executive Director of the Catesby Commemorative Trust in Charleston, South Carolina. I had not heard of Catesby – he wasn’t Irish to start with! – and as I was aiming to get the potatoes planted, I said I would think about his proposition and get back to him. That was April 2013, eight years and a handsome book ago! And, Catesby continues to enthrall and surprise almost every day.

Editor’s Notes:

The curious Mr Catesby, a “truly ingenious” naturalist explores new worlds, edited by E.Charles Nelson and David Elliott, was published in 2014You can read more about it here.

For more information on Mark Catesby, see the following articles published in Archives of Natural History:

  1. Catesby’s North American images in The Gentleman’s Magazine 1751–1755 by E. Charles Nelson (April 2020)
  2. The dates of the parts of Mark Catesby’s The natural history of Carolina … (London, 1731–1743 [1729–1747]) by Leslie K. Overstreet (October 2014)
  3. The Catesby brothers and the early eighteenth-century natural history of Gibraltar by E. Charles Nelson (October 2013)
  4. The North American birds of Mark Catesby and Eleazar Albin by W. L. McAtee (January 1957)


Archives of Natural History Book Reviews – Open Access