George Montagu’s Molluscs – a Designated collection

This collections story outlines some of Montagu’s personal history and interests, his collection at RAMM and recent research. Expand the sections below to learn more about Montagu and his molluscs.

Colonel George Montagu (1753-1815) was a British naturalist who established the foundation of modern scientific study. British shells formed some of his most important research and part of his collection is in RAMM’s care. It is the most intact and taxonomically important collection of British shells of the early 19th century (1800-1816) anywhere in the UK.

In January 2020 Arts Council England awarded this collection Designated status. This mark of distinction recognises the collection’s international significance to the scientific community.

A miniature painting of a man in military uniform. Inscription reads, 'Col. George Montagu FLS. Born 1753 Died 1815. Bequeathed to the Society By the late H Dorville 3 Dec 1874
A miniature of George Montagu and a note that reads ‘Col. George Montagu FLS Born 1753 Died 1815. Bequeathed to the Linnean Society By the late H Dorville 3 Dec 1874. Image used with permission of the Linnean Society of London.

Montagu was born in Wiltshire 1753. Like many third sons of country families he enlisted in the army at 17 and a few years later he married Anne Courtenay gaining an estate in the process. He served in North America gaining the rank of Captain and later while serving with the Wiltshire regiment rising to Lieutenant-Colonel. Despite how he is commonly referred, to he never actually made it to the rank of Colonel.

Unhappily for his wife and children, but very fortunately for natural history, Montagu had an affair with Eliza D’Orville. They met around 1795 and had a child, Henry, and ultimately moved to Kingsbridge in 1798. The affair caused a scandal within the family, among his society friends and within the militia where commissions were often offered to prominent families and Montagu’s affair disturbed their social code. Montagu received a court martial Plymouth in October 1799. He could now dedicate his life to his passion for natural history which until this time had been a side interest.

Montagu died in 1815 from tetanus after stepping on a rusty nail. He was buried at Kingsbridge Parish Church. The British Museum bought Montagu’s collection of birds and shells. A secondary collection of shells remained in the family. Later this came to RAMM.

George Montagu was a pioneer of British Zoology writing on birds, shells, marine invertebrates and fish. Montagu’s interests were broad – he chose to study the geographical area rather than a particular group of animals and so came to understand ecosystems as a whole. He understood the value of studying molluscs while alive so their soft parts could be drawn too. And importantly he followed the Linnaean system of naming nature – the binomial scientific name. With considerable patience he resolved longstanding questions in the identification of birds and fish where sexual dimorphism had once been mistaken as separate species.

His importance to natural history is demonstrated in the species that bear the name Montagu in his honour – Montagu’s blenny, Montagu’s sea snail (actually a kind of fish), Montagu’s ray, Montagu’s harrier. Montagu was also the first to formally describe hundreds of species for western science – the bottlenose dolphin still bears the scientific name Montagu gave it. He is best known for his passion for ornithology (birds).

He was the first person to approach the description of British shells in a scientific style – prior to this shells were treated as attractive collectibles rather than representing science. Montagu was a new breed of naturalist and not a collector. Montagu’s approach to conchology still underpins modern taxonomy. From 1803-1816 Montagu described some 198 British mollusc species new to science. His major illustrated treatise “Testacea Britannica” was the seminal work of the early nineteenth century.

Photograph of the title page of Montagu's Ornithological Dictionary.  It includes a line drawing of a bird of prey

‘Montagu’s environmental focus and his stress on examining live animals showed him to be a true naturalist, not merely an assembler of trophies.’

Harrison and Smith, 2008

This, combined with his desire to have drawings made of live specimens, earned him the accolade of ‘being one of the British naturalists responsible for establishing the foundation of modern scientific study’

Cleevely, 1978

One of Montagu’s most important works was ‘Testacea Britannica: a Natural history of British shells, marine, land, and fresh-water, including the most minute: systematically arranged and embellished with figures’.

He was the first to publish a fully comprehensive monograph on the molluscs of the British Isles (Testacea Britannica 1803, 1808). This was supplemented by papers in 1804, 1813 and 1816. His pioneering approach to mollusc nomenclature (naming) and description (considering the live animal as well as the shell) revolutionised the molluscan taxonomy of the British Isles at that time.

Montagu included 470 species in Testacea Britannica, around 300 of which are represented in his collection at RAMM.

Montagu’s mistress, Eliza D’Orville illustrated the volume. He doesn’t name her, but her initials are present in the corners of the plates.

‘Should the following sheets be deemed to possess any small share of merit, the public are indebted to the labours of a friend, who not only undertook the engraving, but in part also the colouring of the figures; executed from the objects themselves, they are a faithful representation, unadorned with the gaudy, high-coloured tints, which too often mislead.

But for this assistance, so necessary in the smaller species, this work might never have seen the light; and it is only to be regretted, that it was found too large an undertaking for the hand that gave it existence, to figure all the shells that could have been wishes.

As this friend of science, however, may not undeservedly feel the shafts of the critical artist, it may be right to disarm them, by observing that, the feminine hand of the engraver was self taught, and claims no other merit in the execution, than what results from a desire to further science by a correct representation of the original drawings, taken by the same hand.’

George Montagu, Testacea Britannica.

The pages of RAMM’s copy are uncut and the plates are not tinted. Richard Perrott Nicholls, who owned this book, was a taxidermist in Montagu’s home town of Kingsbridge in Devon. Like Montagu, he was also an excellent ornithologist.

It is likely that Montagu gave this book to his taxidermist Nicholas Luscombe who passed it on to his son Nicholas Luscombe Junior. In turn, he passed his skills to H Nicholls who set up a taxidermy business at the age of 16. The business (and presumably this copy of Testacea Britannica) passed to his brother Richard in 1865. The book came to RAMM in 1878.

The year he died, Montagu gave copies of his Ornithological Dictionary and Testacea Britannica to the science collection at the new Devon and Exeter Institution. The copy of Testacea Britannica in their care is hand coloured.

Versions of Testacea Britannica and the supplement are free to view on Biodiversity Heritage Library.

While very few of Montagu’s vertebrate and soft-bodied invertebrate specimens have survived, some of his shell collection still exists in museum collections.

Natural History Museum , London

Montagu’s first major work was on British birds (1802) and some of his collection has survived in the NHM.

Montagu’s widow sold a shell collection from her husband’s estate to the then British Museum (Natural History Museum) in 1816. The museum was aware of the incredible importance of the collection because the curator, WE Leach, agreed the sum of £1,100 (~£80,000 today). However, during reorganisation in the 1820s the collection was largely lost. In 1863 Jeffreys wrote “Nearly the whole of his priceless collection of British shells….has been lost to science.” To date only 26 specimens have been isolated in the NHM.

Shells at RAMM

As a result for this loss, the collection of 676 specimens at RAMM takes on new significance. Montagu left this remarkable collection of shells to his son, Henry D’Orville, who subsequently gave it to RAMM in November 1874.

Shell collections belonging to Montagu’s contemporaries have been largely lost or predominantly relate to foreign material. Thus his collection is the only coherent representation of British conchology in the early 19th century and evidence the emergence of taxonomy in Britain as the discipline we know today.

Colour photograph of 3 small shells glued to a blue, octagonal piece of card with a handwritten label attached in George Montagu's hand giving the species name. They are inside a black and white, glass-lidded box.
Colour photograph of 3 small shells glued to a blue, octagonal piece of card with a typed label attached giving the species name. They are inside a black and white, glass-lidded box.

The collection consists of dried marine, freshwater and terrestrial molluscan shells. All are reputedly British although some exotic shells are included. Many still have their original labels (either typed or in Montagu’s hand) and octagonal mounting card. This provides enduring evidence that they once belonged to Montagu himself and were available to him when describing new species. Most retain evidence of previous curation and display which helps unravel their history before and after entering the museum.

Some of RAMM’s labels have over the years gone missing. However, provided the specimen still has its RAMM number it’s still possible to uncover Montagu’s original identification. RAMM’s mollusc register records Montagu’s name and the number of specimens originally present when the collection arrived at the museum (available as a pdf and excel file in the resources section below.

Montagu’s entire collection is available on Collections Explorer. It is also possible to return results for type and possible type specimens only. Alternatively you can view Montagu’s type specimens at RAMM and NHM on the Mollusc Types in Great Britain website.

Scanning electron microscope image of Montagu's Truncatella subcylindrica. Scale bar indicates the shell is approximately 4mm long

“The Montagu collection in RAMM is the most significant collection of British mollusca from the pre Victorian era. It is essential to the nomenclature and taxonomy of British molluscs and has a wider international significance. It is imperative that this collection be maintained and fully accessible to the malacological community at large.”

Dr Graham Oliver, former Keeper of Biodiversity & Systematic Biology at Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum of Wales)

Since its donation in 1874 RAMM has facilitated research access to the Montagu Collection. RAMM’s archive records research requests as far back as 1879 when conchologist JG Jeffreys (1879) reviewed the collection. Historically, material has been loaned nationally and internationally but safe return of material was not always achieved. To date papers citing the collection have been published from 16 different countries with enquiries from a further six.

Thanks to involvement with the Mollusca Types of Great Britain project in 2017 all of Montagu’s type material has been photographed using image stacking techniques or scanning electron microscopy. These images are available to researchers for examination and publication, without charge, greatly reducing the risk of damage or loss of these irreplaceable specimens.

For information images, on how to cite specimens and papers already published please see ‘Resources’ section below.

During his lifetime, Montagu described 199 mollusc species in scientific literature that he considered were new to science. 120 of these are represented in the RAMM collection and can be considered as having type status. They directly correspond to his descriptions of new species in Testacea Britannica and other publications. The ‘type’ or ‘type specimen’ is the first specimen bearing the new scientific name and the true example of the species. Since they are considered permanent reference specimens, types are the most important specimens in a museum; they anchor their species.

Collage of photographs of a snail shell. One shows the shells mounted on a piece of blue card. One is a colour close up photograph of a single shell. The other four are black and white scanning  electron microscope images

What is a type specimen?

Imagine you are wandering along the beach, pick up an unusual shell and bring it to a shell expert asking them what it is. Between you, you can’t find anything in scientific journals or books that look like it so it must be a new species.

Then the expert writes about the new shell they have in front of them. They describe what it looks like, how big it is, and why they think it doesn’t look like anything else. They take photos of it like the ones here. Once they have decided which known shells it is most like (and likely related to) give it a name and publish the description in a scientific journal.

The shell (or group of shells) they used when describing the new species are the type specimens – they are the ones that bear the new scientific name. Ideally they should then lodge these specimens in a public museum collection so that researchers can refer to the specimens should they want to.

When taxonomists wish to revise names they MUST refer back to this original material. Zoological names of species are prioritised by their date of
introduction, meaning many of the names introduced by Montagu are still in use today. As a result the collection is a unique and essential international research resource for its subject.

Montagu’s descriptions like others of the early 18th century are frequently inconclusive and the illustrations are small and lack detail. Consequently, the type specimens are essential to taxonomic research.

The types are fully documented in the following two open access research papers authored by experts from National Museum Wales, the Natural History Museum and RAMM’s Collections Officer:

  • 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. 

Although the collection is primarily British, it contains 33 species that we now know are not native to the British Isles. Montagu was partly governed by social politeness as he was reluctant to contradict his friends when they gave him specimens reputably from British locations. It is evident in his writings that he has reservations but includes such doubtful shells regardless.

There is also the possibility that some of these shells were maliciously recorded from British shores by Montagu’s collaborators (e.g. Captain Laskey). The investigation of such behaviour gives insight to the driving motives of some collectors.

While most of these shells were recorded as dead, some were collected alive. Sot is also possible that many of these exotic shells came from the ballast of wrecked sailing ships. Wooden shipping of the 18th century was a very different environment to shipping today. The ships built up a much larger volume of fouling organisms enabling non-at­tached species such as snails to remain protected. These shells in Montagu’s collection may be some of the earliest records of alien and invasive species arriving in the British Isles. A Caribbean connection is very frequent for the exotic species described by Montagu and the link between trade and alien species can be recognised in the collection.

For a full discussion see Oliver & Morgenroth 2018.

JG Jeffreys borrowed 316 lots soon after the collection came to RAMM. He never returned them. This group includes a 35 of Montagu’s new species (type specimens). Register entries, a short paper by Jeffreys (1879) and a letter by JR leB Tomlin in 1935 support this suspicion. It is plausible that they remain in Jeffreys’ collection which the Smithsonian in the USA purchased. Unfortunately, all original labels in the Jeffreys collection were transposed and then discarded. This makes recognition of the provenance impossible without examination of each shell.

colour photograph of RAMM's hand-written mollusc register. there are two columns of names - one are those given by Montagu, the other Jeffreys
RAMM’s mollusc register shows the missing specimens all have two columns – one for the name Montagu gave them, the other the name given to them by Jeffreys

Montagu’s entire collection is available on Collections Explorer. It is also possible to return results for type and possible type specimens only.

Alternatively you can view Montagu’s type specimens at RAMM and NHM on the Mollusc Types in Great Britain website.

Please contact us if you require high resolution images of the type specimens. They are provided under a CC BY-NC-SA license. RAMM also welcomes visits to view the specimens at RAMM. RAMM will only lend specimens in exceptional circumstances.

When the collection arrived at RAMM the curator noted each lot in the accessions register. This is available as a pdf of images of each page or an excel file of transcriptions. High resolution images of each page are available on request.

Citing a specimen at RAMM

Please contact us if you cite one of the Montagu specimens at RAMM in a publication so we can update our records.

When citing a specimen please prefix the accession number with the museum’s MDA code – eg. EXEMS: Moll4253. Please use Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter as the official name of the institution. This can be abbreviated to RAMM after the first instance.

Published Papers

Open access papers about the collection:

  • 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. 

General papers about the collection:

  • Brind, R (1979). The Montagu Collection of Mollusca at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter. Biology Curators Group Newsletter 2(4): 135–137.
  • Dean JD (1936). Conchological Cabinets of the Last Century. J. Conch, Vol 20, No 7, 1936.
  • Jeffreys JG (1879). Notes on Colonel Montagu’s Collection of British Shells. J. conch. Vol2 1879 p1-4.

Biographical information:

  • Cleevely RJ (1978). Some background to the life and publications of Colonel George Montagu (1753–1815).  Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, Volume 8 Issue 4, Page 445-480, ISSN 0037-9778
  • Cleevely R J (1995). Some “Malacological Pioneers” and their links with the transition of shell-collecting to conchology during the first half of the nineteenth century. Archives of Natural History, Volume 22 Issue 3, Page 385-418, ISSN 0260-9541 
  • Dance, S P (editor). Letters on ornithology 1804–1815 between George Montagu and Robert Anstice . G. C. Book Publishers, Wigtown: 2003. Pp 250. ISBN 1-872350-68-2 (hardback)
  • Pratt, T (2016). George Montagu of Kingsbridge and Lackham: Georgian Soldier, Naturalist and Libertine. The Devon Historian, 85, (2016), 51-63

Taxonomic papers:

Bernasconi MP & Robba E (1984). The Pliocene Turridae from Western Liguria. I. Clavinae, Turrinae, Turriculinae, Crassispirinae, Borsoniinae, Clathurellinae. Bolletino del Museo Regionale di Scinze Naturali-Torino 2(1): 257–358.

Della Bella G & Scarponi D (2007). Molluschi marini del Plio-Pleistocene dell’Emilia- Romagna e della Toscana. Vol. 2 – Conidae 1. Regione Emilia-Romagna, Museo Geologico G. Capellini, Bologna, 93. Plio-Pleistocene marine molluscs of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany. Vol. 2 – Conidae 1

Reid DG (1996). Systematics and Evolution of Littorina. Ray Society Monographs 164: 463.