Posts Tagged ‘South London Entomological and Natural History Society’

Bringing the famous Classey-Robinson exhibit back to life

Bringing the famous Classey-Robinson exhibit back to life

It’s October 28, 1950. Through the august portal of Burlington House, Piccadilly, home of the Royal Society, a crowd of people, mostly men, is passing.

These are the nation’s leading entomologists, experts in the Diptera (two-winged flies),Hymenoptera (wasps, bees and ants),Homoptera (cicadas, spittlebugs), Odonata(damsels and dragonflies), Phasmatodae (stick insects), Hemiptera (bugs) and a host of others. In the spotlight today are theNeuroptera (lacewings and antlions) and the Orthoptera (locusts), but probably in greatest abundance are the connoisseurs of the Coloeoptera (beetles) and especially the Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). Examples of all these orders and families will be on show inside the building.


The Exhibition described in the Society’s Proceedings of  1950-53

The occasion is the Annual Exhibition of the South London Entomological and Natural History Society. Last night, according to custom, the Society dined together in the Charing Cross Hotel, where out-of-towners will have put up for the night. One can imagine the late bar crowded with people discussing this or that aberration, and everyone is agog to see the green moths that E.W. Classey and H.S. Robinson have brought back from County Clare on the west coast of Ireland.

Exhibit 60, entered jointly by E.W. Classey and H.S. Robinson, was the highlight of the show. In a single specimen drawer were both the year’s new additions to the British list: Luceria virens, the Burren Green, the specimens taken by Eric Classey’s expedition; and Diarsia florida the Fenland Square-Spot, a bred series of the moth which had been identified for the first time that July in Yorkshire’s Askham Bog.

1950 firsts: Luceria virens and Diarsia florida, both new additions to the British List.
These are the actual specimens.

Also much talked about were the exhibit’s long series of the Heart and Dart, Agronista exclamationis and Brown-line Bright Eyes Hadena lepida, taken in a single night and there to illustrate the vast attractive power of Hugh Robinson’s new mercury vapour moth trap, which had been tested on the Burren expedition and the previous month to great excitement. The drawer thus showcased three major firsts for British entomology.

Agronista exclamationis with 1950 labels



Download a PDF facsimile of the entire book, complete with illustrations.


 The empty drawer as it was in 2011, 60 years later


Why is the drawer empty? One explanation is that Eric Classey, with characteristic generosity, had donated most of the expedition’s Burren Green specimens, including the pupa, to the Society. Other specimens had gone to friends and fellow collectors. However this doesn’t explain why every single specimen has vanished.

What if after the exhibition Classey simply returned the moths to their usual drawers in the collection? If this is what happened, the moths, or most of them, should still be there and it would be possible to reconstruct the exhibit using moths from the collection. I decided to try. Below, step by step, are the results.


This reconstruction is done photographically. The widths of the partitions reflect the sizes of the moths that were placed in them. This becomes important when considering the two central sections, which have no labels and helps confirm that these were once occupied, as suggested by the order given in the Society Proceedings by the Burren Greens and the Fenland Square-Spot, the two sensational discoveries of that year.



3. Agronista exclamations, the Heart-and-Dart

The first two series in the drawer were cexclamationis-reconstruction-200aught to demonstrate the value of H.S. Robinson’s new mercury vapour light trap. Their shared label says: ‘Each series [was] selected from a single night’s “catch” at a Mercury Vapour trap to show the wide variation occuring in one place and at one time – which is apparent when it is possible to select from very large numbers.’

The basic problem with moth-hunting had always been that the quarry flies at night, when nets are not much use. Some enthusiasts swore by ‘sugar’, smearing tree trunks and wooden doors with exotic mixtures based on molasses and possibly including rum, rotting fruit, raisins, beer and ingredients too vile to mention. C. fraxini was typically taken this way.

Moths throng to lamps, so another method was to place a Tilley lamp on a white sheet and wait for the moths to come and settle. Robinson’s mercury-vapour moth trap was a huge advance because its light went into the ultra violet range, attracting more insects, which then found themselves trapped inside a box, or casing, generally lined with egg boxes where they could settle. The large numbers caught unharmed in the trap could then be examined and collected or released.


 4. Hadena lepida, the Tawny Shears (or Brown-Line Bright Eye)

tawny_shearsSee A. exclamationis, above. Classey knew this species by its lovely old name, the Tawny Shears.

Like the Heart and Dart, this moth is fairly plentiful and displays quite a range of variation in the ground colour and intensity of wing markings, with paler specimens being commoner in the south-east and darker or duller ones in the north and west of the country.

What better species to demonstrate the power of the mercury-light trap? With hundreds of candidates fluttering into the trap it is much easier to pick specimens to illustrate a wide range of variation.

5. Catocala sponsa, the Dark Crimson Underwing

c.sponsa-300This beautiful moth is now extinct in the British Isles, except for a colony in the New Forest, where they are still grimly clinging on.

The situation sixty years ago was evidently not quite as desperate because Classey was able to rear, from eggs taken from a wild female near Ham Street, north Kent, a series of C. sponsawhich he pointedly remarks are different from the New Forest form.

However the event was unusual enough to justify including a series of fine moths in his exhibit.
This form of the Dark Crimson Underwing, represented in the exhibit and abundant in the collection, has now vanished.


6. Luceria virens,  the Burren Green, a new addition to the British List


burrengreen-600-300x282The empty exhibit drawer is nineteen down in the third (right hand) cabinet. I found Classey’s Burren Green specimen parked next-door in drawer nineteen of the central cabinet with some Wainscots in whose society it did not really belong.

The collection as a whole was organised in families reflecting the British list, to which of course Luceria virens was a newcomer, so when the exhibit was emptied it had no home to go to, and was simply placed in the nearest drawer.

Classey had originally exhibited a number of Burren Green specimens and the pupa which proved they were breeding in Ireland. These went to the Society, to expedition members and collector friends. The specimen that remains is the one that Classey chose to keep for himself.

The specimen is rather faded, but one can still see the faint green flush in its wings. The moth is known to fade. Dr Skat Hoffmeyer of Aarhus, Denmark, quoted by the great P.B.M. Allan, said, “L. virens is not a species which adorns one’s collection; it soon becomes greasy and fades deplorably.”

A collector whose name I can’t now remember recommended taking only newly-hatched moths while their wings were still drying as they are then at their most brilliant. More than a little mean, I thought. Let them at least flutter about a bit. Thank goodness we now have cameras with macro lenses.

7. Diarsia florida, the Fenland Square-Spot, a new addition to the British List

diarsia_floridaThe other great discovery of 1950 and like L. virens, a new addition to the British list. The consequence of this was that there was no ready printed label for this species and the handwritten label that eventually identified it was so faint that I nearly missed it in the drawer full of its cousins.

The series was bred from stock obtained from Askham Bog in Yorkshire by Classey’s friend the collector Dr Edward Cockayne, whose vast collection is now part of the Natural History Museum’s British National Collection of moths and butterflies.

Cockayne also showed these moths at the exhibition. Their inclusion in Classey’s exhibit one may surmise is partly homage to his friend, but it meant that he was exhibiting the year’s two sensational discoveries, side by side.

Classey’s decision to include D. florida in his exhibit may have been a late one, as this is the only species for which he did not type out a label. Possibly it appeared above the small handwritten scrap of paper which remains in the collection, stapled beneath the three remaining D. florida specimens.

Gerry Hagget, on Eric Classey’s tribute website made by his family, recalls Eric in pursuit of D. florida:

There are occasions in life when a catch-phrase is invented only to recur at future occasions. Eric went with Les Goodson to Askham Bog when Diarsia florida was first known. They had set up lamps with the Warden and it was not long before a quite different species appeared worthy of comment. “Oh no”, said the Warden “it can’t be that because it doesn’t occur here!” This it was thereafter whenever a location produced an unusual resident there was the repeated chorus along with knowing chuckles and Eric in the lead.


Hadena compta Schiff, the Varied Coronet


These are the moths mentioned in the Proceedings as having been bred from wild larvae obtained in Dover. They are identified by the long typewritten label.

The type is more modern than the robust old fashioned Underwood font of Classey’s typewriter and the label was conceivably typed by Dr. Edward Cockayne who appears to have sent the moths to Classey along with D. florida as a response to Classey’s gift to him of 30 eggs of the Burren Green, Luceria virens.

A series of H. compta bred from the Dover larvae appeared in Dr Cockayne’s exhibit and included one aberration defasciata Hannemann and an example of homeosis. Cockayne exhibited the moths to show their variation. Classey followed his own bred series with a wild specimen caught in Ireland, which appears slightly larger than the Kentish race.

9. Plusia festucae, the Gold Spot

These moths live in drawer 12 of the third cabinet along with a long series of the Burnished Brass and other insects whose wing spots look as if they have been laid on in pure gold leaf. Classey exhibited a pair of these moths, one of the normal type, the other with ‘united’ wingspots. 
L. exigua is an immigrant, crossing the Channel from the continent, and most abundant in the late summer, suggesting that the summer moths are the second brood of immigrants arriving earlier in the year. 1950 was not one of the its most abundant years.  The signficance of this little moth appears to be the date of its capture, February, in the depths of winter. It could not have survived long in the wild.

 11. Callimorpha dominula ab. junta, aberrant form of the Scarlet Tiger

The collection contains a whole drawer full of Callimorpha dominula which, as its scientific name suggests, appears in many different forms, all of them very beautiful.

In the drawer are many varying forms, including dark bimacula and the brilliant yellow ab.lutescens.


As the following article tells, I got into a muddle trying to find a specimen that could be described as ab. juncta, which I took to mean the colour bleeding from wing spots into the wing and connecting the spots. This should properly apply to the forewing, but the specimen I chose has striking spread of black in the hindwing. It’s not one of these.

These three show the normal (but for the Scarlet Tiger what is normal?) form, the dark bimacula and the magnificent yellowab. lutescens forms.


Classey’s moth had been hatched by Edward Cockayne from a larva from Itchen Abbas in Hampshire earlier in the year.

A lot of the insects in the drawer are from the collector H. Haynes, a Wiltshire man, whose death the Society recorded with regret in 1951. The Entomologist’s Record for 1943 reveals that he had bred a series of Panaxia(the old name for Callimorpha dominula, L.) from the Salisbury district showing specimens with enlarged and confluent markings in the forewings.

12. Hydraecia lucens, the Large Ear

Large-Ears-200Besides L. virens Classey exhibited a number of moths the expedition had taken in Co. Clare in August 1950. This fine pair of Large Ears, taken on August 19th, were among them. There is a column of four Large Ears in drawer 2:17 of the collection. The 1950 specimens are the central two. The two English specimens show distinctly darker coloration.

13. Cycnia mendica ab., the Muslin Ermine, aberrant form


MuslinErmine-200Classey caught this little white moth during a collecting trip to Lymington in June 1950. He refers to it simply as ‘an aberration’. There are twenty specimens in the collection, of which two females have odd dark markings on the leading edge of their forewing tips. Normal females have pure white wing-tips with no markings.

I have chosen the more exaggerated of the two variants to represent Classey’s C. mendica, ab.. This specimen also has broad dark markings splashed on the body where normal specimens have none.

14. Heliothis armigera, the Scarce Bordered Straw

Another moth taken by Clacurlywormsssey’s expedition in Co. Clare in August 1950. It is known by at least a dozen synonyms, and is nowadays generally called Helicoverpa armigera, being less politely referred to as The Cotton Bollworm.

Please notice that it has wonderfully curly antennae, the sort Dali would have envied, flamboyant as any desperado should be.

Armigera is a pest of just about every crop known to man. According to UK government risk assessors at DEFRA, ‘The most important crop hosts of which H. armigera is a major pest are tomato, cotton, pigeon pea, chickpea, sorghum and cowpea. Other hosts include dianthus, rosa, pelargonium, chrysanthemum, groundnut, okra, peas, field beans, soybeans, lucerne, Phaseolus spp., other Leguminosae, tobacco, potatoes, maize, flax, a number of fruits (Prunus, Citrus), forest trees and a range of vegetable crops.’ Is there anything it won’t eat? Its caterpillars have even been known to eat one another.

The moth’s home territory is southern Europe and North Africa. It can make thousand mile journeys to reach the south coast of Britain but rarely gets beyond. Possibly this gives a clue to its inclusion here. County Clare is 350 miles further on. Fair play to the little divill.

15. Hydrillula pallustris, the Marsh Moth

Eric Classey took H. pallustris in June 1950 at Woodwalton Fen. Why was it included? Well, the moth is scarce.

For most the capture of a single male in a season was considered ‘good going’ as pallustris is a moth of retiring habits and is very erratic in its appearance at the light. The female has been found in the wild state only on two or three occasions – Proceedings of the S. L. E. & N. H. S.

Classey’s specimen came from Woodwalton Fen, which the Society was actively trying to save from development. Three months after the 1950 exhibition, the Society’s President, Air Marshal Sir Robert Saundby, addressed the assembled membership. Five years after the end of the Second World War, Saundby was a famous figure. He had been a  World War I air ace, and during World War II he was No. 2 at RAF Bomber Command.  No one really thought of him as  a lepidopterist, but now he dropped a bomb on them:

When looking through the list of subscribers to the Wicken Fen Fund I was rather surprised to note that, apart from the two guineas subscribed by the Society as a corporate body, only twenty of our members had supported the Fund.
saundby_portrait-300Now I am quite well aware that there are a number of people who do not agree with the way in which these nature reserves are managed, but I think we should all agree that they ought to be kept in being. If Wicken or Woodwalton Fens were given up, they would, in a very few years, be lost to us for ever. They would undoubtedly be drained and brought under cultivation, in common with all the other former fen lands of the East Anglian levels.

Looking after these reserves costs money and it is not sufficient just to prevent the Fen from going derelict. Last year the Wicken Fen Fund raised a sum, after paying expenses, of £57 8s, which was handed to the National Trust. The amount raised by the Fund has been gradually falling, year by year, while the expenses of keeping the Fen going have, like most other things, risen sharply.

The annual cost of the upkeep of the Fen is now about £800 a year. It is true that, in 1948, the University of Cambridge, in order to save the Fen, accepted financial responsibility for £450 a year. But this does not mean that the financial problems of the upkeep of the Fen have been solved. In their rejjort for 1947-48 the Local Committee said:—” The Committee hopes that this grant, far from having the effect of discouraging subscribers will greatly increase their number, and hopes that subscribers will feel that, whereas in the past their contributions may have seemed little more than a drop in the bucket, the money they can give now will result in really tangible improvement of conditions in the Fen.”

These hopes have not been fulfilled. I am not suggesting that large subscriptions are needed, but if a substantial proportion of our members would be prepared to subscribe a few shillings a year, what a difference it would make. Here, I suggest, is a cause which should appeal to every naturalist, whatever his interests.

16. Mincuia lunaris Schiff, Lunar Double-Stripe, suffused wings


lunarisClassey bred these moths from wild larvae taken near Ham Street in north Kent. He describes them as ‘a suffused aberration’. Six of these bred moths are in the collection, in drawer 3:13, giving a choice of specimens for the reconstruction. I chose the bottom two as being easiest to Photoshop, but the top two are more colourful and they are shown here.

This is as far as I could get with reconstructing the exhibit with moths still in the collection.

Photoshop is a wonderful imago-processing tool. It breeds moths faster than you can blink, cutting out the egg, larvaL and pupal stages. Where there was a column of three, we now have twenty one. We can clone L. virens indefinitely. In short, it is easy to finish by filling the gaps and showing what the exhibit would have looked like on October 28th, 1950.


17. The exhibit as it appeared in October 1950

Only three exhibit species are no longer in the collection but I have put in pictures sourced elsewhere to complete the drawer. The three are the White-Lined SphinxCelerio lineata, a Brighton Wainscot, Oria musculosa and three specimens of the Deep Brown Dart Aporophyla lutulenta ab. sedi bred from pupae which Classey had found in Ireland. To this moth attaches the following interesting tale:





A indicates species that remain in the collection. Cabinet and drawer numbers are given, thus 2:4 is cabinet 2, drawer 4. A ø marks moths no longer in the collection.

√ Heart and DartAgrotis exclamationis (long series in 2:4)

√ Brown-line Bright EyeHadena lepida – not mentioned by the Society – 6 specimens in 2:11

√ Dark Crimson UnderwingCatocala sponsa (extinct except possibly in the New Forest, 17 specimens not of New Forest type in 3:14)

√ Fen Square-Spot Diarsia florida – series bred from Askham Bog, Yorks, 1950 (in Proceedings but no label in drawer – Classey had sent his friend Edward Cockayne 30 eggs of the Burren Green from Ireland, and Cockayne responded with a series of H. compta (next entry) and this Diarsia florida series. Like the Burren Green, D. floridawas a new addition to the British list that year. 3 specimens in 2:7 )

√ Varied CoronetHadena compta – Hatched from larva by Cockayne, the second series he sent Classey. (8 specimens plus 1 wild caught by Classey in Ireland in 2:11)

ø White-lined Sphinx Celerio lineata – (not in collection)

√ Small Mottled WillowLaphygma exigua – √ (11 specimens in 3:2)

√ The Gold Spot – Plusia festucae (19 specimens in 3:12)

√ ? Scarlet TigerPanaxia dominula ab. juncta – (conjoined spots, possible candidates in 1:18)

ø Deep Brown DartAporophyla lutulenta ab. sedi (not in collection)

√ Large EarHydraecia lucens – Taken during the Burren expedition August 1950 √ (4 specimens in 2:17)

√ Muslin MothCycnia mendica Ab. – Taken in Lymington, June 1950 (20 specimens in 1:15)

ø Brighton WainscotOria musculosa – 1 also taken at Lymington (not in collection)

√ Scarce Bordered StrawHeliothis armigera – taken Co. Clare, August 1950 √ (9 specimens in 3:11)
√ Marsh MothHydrillula palustris – taken in Woodwalton Fen, June 1950 (1 specimen in 3:2)

√ Lunar Double-StripeMinucia lunaris Ab. (suffused) – bred from wild larva, Ham Street, 1950 (6 specimens in 3:13)