William Stewart Mitchell D’Urban was a distinguished naturalist, writer and RAMM’s first curator. During his life he was a prolific collector of natural history specimens and ethnographic and archaeological artefacts. Many of these are now in RAMM’s collection.
Naturalist, writer and curator
D’Urban was brought up in South Africa and Canada. During these early years he suffered from diphtheria. A botched local cure left him with a severe hearing impairment for the rest of his life. This disability meant that he could not follow a military career like his father and grandfather. Undeterred, he became a keen naturalist, no doubt inspired by the exotic fauna and flora of the Cape that he had experienced as a young child.
In 1860 he returned to South Africa. He spent a year in and around King William’s Town while his father commanded troops in the area. This gave him the chance to collect rare plants and butterflies. In 1862 Roland Trimen, curator at the South African Museum, named a genus of butterfly D’Urbania. Trimen writes, ‘I have dedicated this curious and interesting genus to my friend W. S. M. D’Urban. It is, without question, the most valuable result of his […] researches.’
William D’Urban’s broad interests and passion for collecting meant he was an excellent choice for RAMM’s first curator in 1865. His priority was to organise and add to the collection and make the museum ready for opening in 1868. Afterwards he continued to work on the displays and catalogue the early accessions.
In 1884 William D’Urban left the museum and moved to California for a while. He could not shake off the collecting bug and continued to amass natural history specimens, ethnography and archaeological artefacts that later came to RAMM.
In 1892 D’Urban’s intimate knowledge of Devon’s birds and complex geography culminated in a book with fellow ornithologist Murray Mathew. They traced and verified the earliest records for every species present. D’Urban had an invaluable understanding of Devon’s migrant birds from his time overseas.
Family and personal life
D’Urban was born in Ireland on 29 July 1836. While a small child, he lived with his paternal grandparents, Sir Benjamin and Lady D’Urban in South Africa. Port Natal was renamed Durban in Sir Benjamin’s honour.
In 1863, William D’Urban married Gertrude Porter. They had three children, two boys (William and Henry) and one daughter (Rose Mary). In 1884 he moved to California due to Henry’s poor health. Sadly, both sons died young but Rose lived on to the age of 80. Gertrude died in 1919. By the time of the 1901 Census D’Urban was living at Newport House in Topsham where he remained until his death in 1934.
It appears that his time at RAMM was D’Urban’s only permanent employment. This suggests that he had private means. Although D’Urban did not own enslaved people, several of his relatives did. D’Urban’s mother, Mary Stewart, inherited a plantation in Grenada. A compensation payment after abolition allowed his parents to build Newport House. His wife also inherited money from her grandfather’s plantations in the West Indies. This inherited wealth helped D’Urban establish a privileged place in local society and enabled him to travel to pursue his interests. For more information please see Peter Wingfield-Digby’s research (PDF).