A love story in 6,000 moths

A love story in 6,000 moths

Twenty five years ago, I bought a stunning sixty-drawer collection of British moths to prevent it being broken up. I knew nothing about the collection and had no time to examine it. I felt very strongly that selling it off one specimen at a time was an act of vandalism that would extinguish its scientific value, and render the deaths of 6,000 lovely creatures meaningless.

WRITER: INDRA SINHA, PHOTOGRAPHY: ROBERT DOWLING

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The collection contained long exquisite series of insects, few of which I recognised. I did not have leisure to catalogue them and it must have been some months before I reached down to the foot of one of the cabinets and pulled open a drawer empty except for a scattering of old labels naming the moths that had once inhabited it, and a note that said: “Joint Exhibit by E.W. Classey & H. S. Robinson”.

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A sticker pasted on its glass lid bore the initials S. L. E. & N. H. S. and identified the drawer as Exhibit 60 and the date as 1950. None of this meant anything to me. I slid the drawer shut.

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My fascination with moths had begun as a child in the jungles of India’s Western Ghats mountains. To my bedroom window every night giant Saturniid moths came tapping: the moon-moth Actias selene whose pale wings and long swooping tails were luminous in moonlight; huge moths like Loepa katinka and Antheraea mylitta with wings like patterned silk robes. I would let them in and tempt them with sugary drops on the tip of my finger.

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In the early eighties my wife and I moved to Sussex and through our open summer windows the moths flew in squadrons. Sitting on curtains, or fluttering at bulbs, they seemed drab, but when we looked closely their forewings were all spangles and zigzags and stripes. What appeared grey or brown was really a pattern of subtle hues, and the hidden hind wings were often brilliantly coloured. Our visitors stared back at us with solemn, dark eyes. They wore their wings like furred capes, hunched round the shoulders; their feathery antennae quivered with intelligence. The collector’s passion burned in me but I didn’t want to kill moths, so I started hunting for a Robinson mercury vapour light trap and a suitable camera, and whilst on this quest I came across the collection.

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My bedtime reading of those days was books like P. B. M. Allan’s A Moth-Hunter’s Gossip, about the men who night after night went out sugaring, setting light traps, carefully hatching eggs and sleeving larvae.

I combed second-hand bookshops for old entomology journals, today horrifyingly expensive, but twenty years ago nobody seemed to want them. I found them riveting. They offered good timeless advice about breeding and rearing, and accurate descriptions of the moths of the vanished pre-industrial landscape. In The Naturalist’s Library, Vol.4: British Moths, 1836, Sir William Jardine spoke of the Blue Underwing:

C. Fraxini is the largest moth found in this country the expansion of the wings sometimes reaching four inches The thorax and upper wings are light grey on the surface the latter variegated with transverse undulating lines of brown The under wings are brownish black with a broad curved band of light blue across the middle The fringe of all the wings is pure white deeply indented and preceded by a row of dusky triangular marks having the point turned outwards which is most distinct in the hinder wings The under side of the body and legs are white the tarsi of the anterior pair spotted with brown above The caterpillar lives on the ash poplar oak elm birch &c. It is ash coloured, more or less yellowish and sprinkled with minute black dots. The head is greenish with two frontal black crescents the eighth segment having a dorsal protuberance, a bluish black colour and marked with a few yellow spots. On the ninth segment there is an oblique black line extending to the hinder stigmata, the latter are all surrounded with a black ring It spins a very loose cocoon among a few leaves and changes into a reddish brown chrysalis powdered with pale blue and having two small blue tubercles on each side of the fourth and fifth segments It is a rare insect in this country and indigenous specimens in good condition may still be regarded as a valuable addition to a cabinet.

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The Clifden Nonpareil remains one of Britain’s rarest moths. Most entomologists consider themselves blessed to encounter one in a lifetime. My collection had four. This should have told me something about the person who had filled its drawers, but it didn’t.

As I pored over the entomology journals I would often come across a name that seemed familiar, although I couldn’t say why. It now seems strange that it took so long before I connected the name in the journals with the empty drawer in my collection of moths.

At last I reopened the drawer. A bit of delving in my moth library revealed that S. L. E. & N. H. S. must be the South London Entomological & Natural History Society which later became the British Entomological Society. Its annual meeting of 1950 had been held, as was customary, at the Royal Society in Piccadilly. The name of E.W. Classey had rung bells with me because he had published some of the entomological books I was reading. Robinson, incredibly, was still obscure. Something was staring me in the face and I still didn’t get it.

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I began reading about Eric Classey. He was born in 1916 and from childhood was unable to resist anything that crawled or fluttered. At school he was ‘Bugs’. Aged 18, he was hired by the Natural History Museum. He went on to run a famous butterfly dealership, founded the Entomologist’s Gazette and without any publishing experience became a world-class publisher of books on entomology. The more I read about him, the more I was impressed.

Eric Classey had known all the great entomologists of his day, and introduced them to the people who would be their successors. He was a generous mentor to young lepidopterists, lending them equipment and books, giving away expensive volumes to people who couldn’t afford them but who in his opinion deserved them. He was an entomologist’s entomologist. His field expeditions were legendary and the most famous of all was his trip to Ireland to search for the moth that became known as the Burren Green. In an old copy of the Entomologist’s Gazette I read Classey’s own account of the expedition.
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In August 1949 Captain W.S. Wright, a botanist, found a small green moth not far from Yeat’s tower near Gort in Co. Galway. It was a species unfamiliar to him so he brought it to Eric Classey for identification. Classey recognised the moth as Luceria virens (today Calamia tridens), a noctuid, unremarkable except for the Gaelic green of its wings when newly-hatched. There was, however, a mystery: the patriotic little creature was draped in the wrong flag. L. virens had never before been recorded in the British Isles. Its nearest known colonies were in France and Denmark, hundreds of miles away.

Classey had a hunch that the moth was breeding in Ireland. Just ten miles from Gort were the surreal limestone landscapes of the Burren of Clare. Botanists had noted that the influence of the Gulf Stream on the riven rock masses created a unique microclimate where alpine plants and Mediterranean plants grew side by side. It was altogether a strange and unexplored place. Could green moths be breeding in the Burren?

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In August 1950, Classey and his friends the brothers H.S. and P.B. Robinson piled their gear, including two exceedingly heavy prototypes of Robinson’s newly-invented mercury-light moth trap, into an old modified Bentley and headed for the Dublin ferry.

The weather when they arrived at the Burren was filthy, gales and rain, with fresh tumult brewing out beyond the Aran Islands. Nevertheless the friends set about their business, each night setting the light traps, by day entertaining the locals who turned out en masse to watch ‘the foine gentlemen chasin floies’. Several L. virens were taken the wing, but it was the discovery of a pupa (and thirty eggs which Classey sent to his collector friend Dr Edward Cockayne) that established that the green moth was indeed breeding in Ireland. Classey named it the Burren Green. Its addition to the British list was a triumph.

Classey went on to become President of the British Entomological and Amateur Entomologists’ Societies, and a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society. In 1983 he was elected to the Entomological Club, the world’s oldest and most exclusive entomological society, which only ever has eight members. Honours were heaped upon him, but it was the Burren Green for which he would be remembered for the rest of his life, and sixty-eight years later in his obituaries.

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Reading the story of the Burren Green filled me with fear, because at last the penny had dropped. Classey and Robinson were the names in the collection I had bought all those years earlier. I was fairly sure that labels in the empty drawer referred to specimens taken in County Clare. I checked and they were caught in August 1950. It could only have been during the famous Burren Green expedition.

On what date had the S. L. E. & N. H. S. exhibition been held? I unearched the Society’s Proceedings for 1951-3 and there, sure enough, was an account of the 1950 exhibition. The date was October 28th, two months after Classey and the Robinsons returned from the Burren.

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What followed was like the unfolding of a detective story. I started examining the collection’s 411 species of moths and checking the specimens against the labels in the empty drawer and immediately began to find moths from the empty exhibit drawer.
There was the long series of A. exclamationis taken in Robinson’s moth trap to prove its value as a collecting tool.
There was the Gold Spot with fused spots on its forewing.

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There was Catocala sponsa, the series of Crimson Underwings now extinct but for a few survivors in the New Forest. Classey had bred them from a wild female taken near his home in north Kent and noted their difference from the New Forest type.

In a drawer of wildly varying Scarlet Tigers I struggled to identify Callimorpha dominula ab. juncta’s bled-together wing marks but found a series of the handsome yellow form above a hand-written label ab. lutescens. I was puzzled as I thought lutescens was the yellow form of the Jersey Tiger, not realising in my ignorance that it is commonly used for yellow variants. Identification was made more difficult by the fact that many scientific and common names had changed since Classey’s day. Callimorpha for example is now Panaxia. The moth has many beautiful forms, hence the old name.

The description of the exhibit in the Society’s Proceedings matches the labels in the empty drawer, with the species listed from left to right and, in the final section, from top to bottom. The varying width of the partitions reflects the sizes of the moths they housed. Thus two columns of Agrotis exclamationis and one of Hadena lepida were followed by one of the larger Catocala sponsa. The next two partitions have no labels but if we follow the description in the Proceedings the Burren Greens must have come next, fresh from Co. Clare, followed by the bred series of Diarsia florida. These two species were additions to the British list in 1950, and deserved centre stage.

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Where was the Burren Green?

Surely Classey would have saved at least one choice specimen for his own collection. I searched again and at last, in the nineteenth drawer of the central cabinet with a few old Wainscots for company I found a small faded moth in whose forewings a faint flush of green was still visible. Beneath it a label read Luceria virens L. AN ADDITION TO THE BRITISH LIST. The moth’s data label confirmed it had been taken in the Burren, Co. Clare, on 18th August, 1950. I had found Classey’s Burren Green.

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In the cabinets I eventually found twelve of the exhibit’s sixteen species and probably about three quarters of the specimens.

I knew that Eric Classey have given most of his immense collection to the Natural History Museum where, with the collections of his friends Miriam Rothschild and Edward Cockayne, it forms the core of the British national collection of butterflies and moths.

What then were my three cabinets? Undoubtedly they were Classey’s. He had bred or caught many of the moths in the drawers, set them and mounted them, row on row, with the meticulous care for which he was noted. We can virtually trace each specimen from places and dates in the entomological records.

On September 10th, 1950, Eric Classey and four other members of the S. L. E. & N. H. S. went beating for larvae near Ash Vale in Surrey. (This means hitting branches with sticks to shake caterpillars into a sheet, the idea being to rear them to the moth stage.) Of the first twenty-six species listed in Classey’s report of that day’s work, twenty-four appear in the cabinets, mostly in adjacent drawers.

The cabinets I found and rescued all those years ago must have been Eric Classey’s working collection, housing his ongoing work of the period as well as things precious to him: the Burren Green he chose from among those taken on the August 1950 trip to Clare; the exhibit drawer from the October 1950 exhibition and most of the moths that had been in it.

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Classey must have taken dozens of drawers like this to exhibitions, and if he chose to preserve just this one, perhaps it was to remember one of the most famous exhibits in British entomological history, celebrating as it did three major firsts: the two additions to the British list, and the long series of moths proving the power of Robinson’s new light trap, which duly caused huge excitement. More than twenty years later, in 1974, the Times recalled its launch:

H.S. Robinson momentarily blinded a room full of entomologists from a chair no less august than that of the president of the Royal Society when he publicly demonstrated the hyper-attractive powers of the mercury vapour light trap, sometimes reckoned the collector’s H-bomb.

The exhibit is the collection in miniature. It demonstrates Classey’s interests: not simply amassing specimens in great numbers, but making new scientific discoveries, encouraging better methods of collecting, and specialising in rarities, things out of the ordinary.

Classey was himself a rarity, a passionate eccentric figure, to whom moth-hunting was not just science but adventure, round whom stories collected and became legends. Behind the facade of a world-renowned scientist beat the heart of a boy. Well into his eighties Classey, driving along a country lane, was apt to do an emergency stop and frantically reverse because he had glimpsed something fluttering in a hedge.

For Eric Classey’s friends, family and fellow moth-enthusiasts, these drawers hold not just moths but stories and memories. Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Holly Seddon, Eric’s granddaughter, who came to see the collection. Talking to her, I realised that what I have presented as a detective story is really a love story: the story of Eric Classey’s lifelong love of things that flutter and go whirr in the night.

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