Pioneering naturalist George Montagu (1753-1815)

George Montagu was the first person to collect and name British molluscs in a truly scientific manner. The shells were not just attractive curios. Montagu’s pioneering work revolutionised the study of molluscs. His collection of marine, land and freshwater shells it part of RAMM’s natural history collection. The Montagu collection is Britain’s most intact and taxonomically-important, early 19th-century collection of British shells (1800-1816). Today it is an essential resource for taxonomic research.

Montagu moved to Devon in 1798 when his army career ended in disgrace. The army discovered his affair with Eliza D’Orville and subjected him to a court-martial. So together they moved to Kingsbridge in Devon where Montagu devoted himself to natural history.

Montagu was ahead of his time. He had a very broad environmental focus and also knew the importance of examining live animals. He he was a true naturalist and not merely an assembler of trophies. Montagu was also the first to publish a fully comprehensive monograph on the molluscs of the British Isles (Testacea Britannica 1803, 1808). Eliza provided the illustrations.

Recognising the significance of the collection

Montagu’s collection receives frequent research requests. I have known it was important ever since my first day at RAMM 10 years ago. Yet these enquires filled me with dread. During the collection’s almost 150 year history at RAMM, the specimens had been curated, re-curated, borrowed by researchers around the world, reclassified and annotated. Although the box said ‘type’ there was often little evidence to support this and I didn’t have the taxonomic expertise to verify or deny the claim.

Two people stood in front of a computer. Graham Oliver is holing a large old book open at an illustration of shells. Two photographs of shells are displayed on the computer behind them. They correspond to the image in the book.When the John Ellerman Foundation funded the Mollusca Types in Great Britain project spearheaded by Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales and the Natural History Museum, London, all of this changed. Cardiff conchologist Dr Graham Oliver spent several weeks with me working on the collection.

On the first day I remember Graham saying ‘don’t worry, this won’t be as hard as you think it will be’. However, by morning coffee it was clear to him how much the collection had been ‘mucked about with’.

We began by making a list of all the 199 mollusc species Montagu described in the scientific literature that he considered were new to science. Then we matched as many of the accessions register entries to these names as we could and located corresponding specimens. We took image-stacked photographs of all the potential types. Finally, Graham verified their historic and current identifications and we located any archival documents regarding loans. There were 120 possible ‘type’ specimens.

I learnt many valuable techniques for researching historic collections. Graham’s willingness to share his skills, knowledge and expertise allowed RAMM to apply for the Designation award. RAMM could not have achieved this success without him.

Accessing the Montagu collection and learning more

a selection of sea shells in an attractive arrangement

The entirety of the Montagu collection is available via a research theme on RAMM’s Collections Explorer.

Montagu’s type specimens are also listed on the Mollusca Types in Great Britain project website.

Two open access (free) research papers describing the collection are also available:

Oliver PG, Morgenroth H, Salvador A (2017) Type specimens of Mollusca described by Col. George Montagu in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter and The Natural History Museum, London. Zoosystematics and Evolution 93(2): 363-412.

Oliver PG, Morgenroth H (2018) Additional Type and other Notable specimens of Mollusca from the Montagu Collection in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter. Zoosystematics and Evolution 94(2): 281-303.