John Hunt is a largely forgotten figure in the history of British ornithology and yet British Ornithology, his three-volume work published in Norwich between 1815 and 1822, is one of the earliest and most ambitious attempts to describe and illustrate the wild bird species of the nation.
The only substantial study of his life, by an ornithologist, Captain Sir Hugh Steuart Gladstone, appeared in the journal British Birds in 1917 and has never been reprinted. While Gladstone gathered a good deal of biographical detail that might otherwise have been lost, his subject's ancestry remained obscure. In the course of his research Gladstone found that Hunt's place of birth, family background and even his age were not known with any certainty, even by his direct descendants.
When Hunt died in America in 1842 some newspaper obituaries gave his age as 65, others 67, making his birth year sometime between 1774 and 1777. Although his grandson, Arthur Robert Grand, thought he was possibly born in Wymondham, the weight of evidence, including a statement by one of Hunt's contemporaries, John Stacey, supported the theory that he was 'a Native of Norwich'. An anonymous pencilled note in a copy of British Ornithology once owned by Russell James Colman reads: 'John Hunt, born in the parish of St Augustine's, Norwich'. Unfortunately no one named John Hunt appears in St Augustine's baptismal register from the relevant period. The neighbouring parish of St Clement's does, however, record that a John, child of John and Rebecca Hunt, was christened there on 2 November 1777, the year Hunt's grandson believed was correct. A trawl though Norwich parish records reveals that his parents were married in St Stephen's on 24 August 1766. Their first child, Rebecca, was baptised in St Stephen's on 16 August 1767. An earlier John, who perhaps died in infancy, was also baptised there, on 3 February 1771. Six years later came the St Clement's John and, finally, Samuel John, baptised in St Augustine's on 23 December 1781.
Writing after Hunt's death, a contemporary - fellow bird collector Joseph Clarke of Saffron Walden - recalled meeting him in the home of Dr Griffin, a surgeon and secretary to Norwich Museum: 'I recollect the man Hunt perfectly well .... I understood he was a weaver; he was below the middle height, thin, pale, consumptive looking.' Hunt's biographer, Hugh Gladstone, betraying perhaps a touch of snobbery, dismissed the suggestion that he was a weaver as 'not worthy of any serious attention'. Yet research among Norwich records does indeed suggest he came from a weaving family. The baptismal records noted above show that the Hunt family moved from St Stephen's in the mercantile centre of Norwich to the textile manufacturing north of the city sometime between 1771 and 1777. The will of one John Hunt, 'a weaver of St Augustine's', proved in Norwich Consistory Court in 1807, may be his father's. It is not improbable then that John Hunt junior may have served an apprenticeship in weaving in St Augustine's parish under his father. But weaving was not destined to be his metier.
In 1801, seemingly out of nowhere, John Hunt, aged only 24, appears in the Norwich Poll Book (a register of those entitled to vote) as a stationer and bookseller and a Freeman of Norwich. How had the son of a humble weaver, himself possibly a weaver in his youth, risen so high and so fast? The answer is probably that in addition to his intelligence, skill and industry, he had the good fortune to marry well. Elizabeth was quite a catch. A cousin of Sir John Harrison Yallop (1762-1835), a wealthy merchant who was mayor of Norwich in 1815 and 1831, she brought with her a dowry of £3,000, a considerable sum in those days and more than enough to set her husband up in business. They were married in St Peter Mancroft (the bride's and Sir John Yallop's parish church) on 12 December 1799. The register records John Hunt as being of the parish of St Augustine's, which corroborates his connection with this parish noted in the Russell James Colman copy of British Ornithology.
After marriage the couple set up home, which was also Hunt's business premises, at 12 Redwell Street in the parish of St Michael at Plea, an area of the city associated with printing. In the 1802 Norwich Poll Book, John Hunt, bookseller, is still listed here, and in those days before secret ballots we can see that he supported the Whig candidate. Thirty years later he was still a staunch supporter of the Whigs, at a time when revolution abroad and the clamour for parliamentary reform at home often turned the rivalry between Whigs and Tories into violent clashes, particularly at election time, and in one such riot, shortly before emigrating to America, Hunt was himself attacked and injured.
According to the Hunt family Bible, seen by Gladstone in 1917, John and Elizabeth's first child, John, was born on 11 March 1801 and baptised with their second child, Samuel Valentine (born on St Valentine's day, 14 February 1803), in St Michael at Plea on 8 January 1804. A third child, Charlotte, was born on 5 September 1804 and Eliza (Alfred Grand's mother) on 1 December 1806. There is no record of their having been christened. Around 1809 Hunt moved with his growing family to Beccles, where he opened a seminary for young ladies. It was a profession he would return to in America. It was probably here in Suffolk that the next three children were born, George on 18 June 1809, Mary Anne on 3 April 1811 and Alfred on 6 August 1813. Shortly after this an outbreak of ringworm forced the closure of the school and he came back to Norwich sometime before 1815.
On returning to Norwich the Hunt family settled in a house with a large garden near the junction of Rose Lane and St Faiths Lane in what is now Prince of Wales Road, close to the new Foundry Bridge, opened in 1811. The garden had willow trees and probably bordered the River Wensum. It is difficult now to imagine the rural vista that Hunt would have enjoyed, decades before Thorpe Railway Station was built just across the river. In his garden he sometimes saw 'Little Woodpeckers' (presumably the fairly uncommon, sparrow-sized Lesser Spotted Woodpecker), which crossed the river from Thorpe Woods to drum in his willows in the spring.
It was here that he embarked on his magnum opus, British Ornithology, an attempt to record in word and picture 250 of the native, vagrant and foreign-established British wild bird species. He didn't quite succeed, though he managed to describe about 220 species and produce 180 hand-coloured plates, as well as at least eight uncoloured plates and four anatomical plates almost single-handedly in under seven years, no mean feat. In an age before cameras and field glasses he worked mainly from dead specimens brought to him by other collectors or purchased from local wildfowlers and sportsmen. In common with many naturalists of that era he seems to have had no ethical dilemma in encouraging the shooting and trapping of birds, some of which he admitted were very rare. The countrymen who supplied his specimens also no doubt provided him with many of the curious local names for birds that he recorded, such as Arsefoot (Little Grebe), Coal and Candle Light (Pintail Duck), Coddy Moddy (Common Gull), Gillihawter (Barn Owl), Market Jew Crow (Chough), Puttock (Magpie), White Whiskey John (Shrike), and Yappingale or Yaffle (Green Woodpecker).
One of the chief claims for the importance of his published work in the annals of British ornithology is that it was the first to record a number of birds rare to these shores, including the Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina), the Arctic Warbler (Phylloscopus borealis) and the Caspian Tern (Sterna caspia). Though Hunt had in fact mistakenly identified some of them as their commoner native cousins, his meticulously detailed paintings allowed later ornithologists to correctly identify them. In some instances he seems to have resorted to plagiarism. His illustrations of the White-tailed Eagle, for example, have clearly been copied from Thomas Bewick's History of British Birds (published 1797-1804) and then reversed. Perhaps specimens were unavailable. The pressure of producing such a vast undertaking on time and to cost no doubt sometimes led him to cut corners.
The first volume of British Ornithology was published in Norwich 1815, by which date he had moved house again, this time to Red Lion Street. It may have been here that John and Elizabeth's eighth and final child, Julia Eliza, was born on 28 October 1815. The publication of British Ornithology was a complex, expensive and risky business venture, as well as a scientific and artistic tour de force. All of the plates were engraved on copper by Hunt himself, and then hand-coloured, some by him and some by his second son, Samuel Valentine Hunt (1803-1895), based on his notes on plumage and his preserved, stuffed specimens. By the mid-1820s the third volume had been printed but the project had stalled through lack of subscriptions, leaving him severely out-of-pocket. In 1826 he corresponded with Sheppard and Whitear, compilers of the 'Catalogue of the Norfolk & Suffolk Birds'. Continuing this work, in 1829 he contributed a list of 230 birds to Stacey's General History of the County of Norfolk, ending with an advertisement for his shop in St Stephen's, Norwich (the parish where his parents had married in 1766), where he had 'a large collection of British birds for sale, some of which are exceedingly rare', meaning stuffed rather than live birds. In the same year he was listed as a mace bearer to the mayor of Norwich, a ceremonial job which he may have taken in order to supplement his dwindling income from his bird business. Meanwhile, he continued to move around the city. In the 1830 Poll Book he is registered as an engraver in Bridewell Alley, St Andrew's, Norwich. By 1832 he had moved again, to the top of Orford Hill in the parish of St John Timberhill, where a close friend John Skippon also lived. Two years later, seeing no prospect of being able to make a living in England, he decided to emigrate to America, no small undertaking for a man of slender means, then in his late fifties and not in the best of health.
His ship set sail on 1 August 1834. Accompanying him were his wife Elizabeth, and three of their eight children, second son Samuel Valentine, aged 31, and his two youngest daughters, Mary Ann, 23, and Julia Eliza, 18. His youngest son, Alfred, then aged 21, joined them later. Two months after arriving Hunt wrote a long letter to Skippon, detailing their arduous voyage and the sights and sounds of New York that assaulted them on their arrival. This was published in Norwich in 1835. They had left England full of hopes and fears. The sailors were full of dire predications of a bad crossing because there were two missionaries on board, a bad omen, reflecting the mariners' superstition that men of religion were unlucky passengers. All went well until the first day of September when a severe gale blew up. During the storm three of the crew were almost washed over board. By the time the storm had blown itself out the ship had been carried 500 miles to the south of their course.
Further misfortune befell them when they arrived in New York three weeks late. Their ship was quarantined as cholera had been found on several vessels that had arrived just before them. When they were finally allowed to disembark several days later it was late in the evening and they were forced to take lodgings in a house where there was a noisy Ranters' temperance prayer meeting going on. Such displays of noisy evangelicalism were not to Hunt's taste. He wrote, 'We could get neither beer or spirits, which would have been a treat, we had, however, good coffee instead'. The next day he ventured out to buy provisions. Manhattan seemed immense and densely populated: 'the number of coaches and omnibuses make it appear constantly in a bustle'. Food was plentiful, though by no means cheap. He noted that beer, which was extremely strong, was just as dear as in Norwich at 3d per pint. He was amused by the number of grey squirrels on sale for meat, but as they were cheap and he needed 'some tippets for the females', he bought a few, which he found tasted 'superior to rabbit, though smaller'.
He wrote to Skippon: 'At the spring I expect a situation at some distance from this place, where I hope, with my old woman, to be comfortable'. By 1837 he had set up as a schoolmaster in Huntington, Long Island, and seemed to be doing reasonably well. The school, according to a letter he wrote at this time, had 70 pupils, the largest number of scholars ever known in that town. Twenty of the boys were as large as himself and he 'fagged' himself too much endeavouring to teach them, putting his already delicate state of heath under considerable strain. In June 1840 he wrote to his third son, George, in Norwich, 'I am not quite the colour of the Indians but a few shades lighter and have lost since I left Norwich about 50 lbs of good flesh'. In need of funds, he asked his son to sell 'the Birds and Copperplates I left behind ... I do not regret that I have not to work for the Great Paupers and Pampered Priests.' The 'Birds and Copperplates' he referred to were his beloved collection of stuffed birds and the engraving plates of British Ornithology. The book had not been a success. He had sold very few copies, probably not enough to recoup his expenses. The 'Great Paupers and Pampered Priests' were the penny-pinching worthies of Norfolk who had either failed to honour their promises to subscribe to his book or owed him money for the parts they had received. Today British Ornithology is one of the rarest ornithological books in the world: there are fewer than a dozen complete copies in existence. Perhaps this explains why Hunt is so little known. Whether he took an interest in the native birdlife of Long Island isn't recorded. Two years after writing this letter he was dead.
It was the appropriately titled Brooklyn Daily Eagle that first announced his death in Huntington, Long Island on 14 June 1842. When the first volume of British Ornithology was published in Norwich in 1815 it was the first ornithological work of any significance to have been produced in Norfolk for 200 years - since Sir Thomas Browne's 'Account of Birds found in Norfolk'. By the time he left England in 1834, Hunt's style of bird illustration had been outmoded by the work of the great American naturalist, John James Audubon, who painted in a more naturalistic style, often from life, rather than from artificially posed, stuffed specimens. The final volume of Audubon's massive Birds of America was published in Britain in 1838.
In a sense Hunt had become extinct. The last plate he ever engraved, which he didn't find the time or inclination to colour and publish, was of the Great Auk, a large, Penguin-like, flightless bird, the last recorded individual of which was shot in Iceland in 1844, having outlived its illustrator by just two years.
Stuart John McLaren