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Saturday, 2 July 2011


The Verralls of Lewes in Sussex, cousins of mine by marriage, were prominent local auctioneers for five generations, selling everything from wine to houses to the highest bidder – and sometimes that bidder was themselves. By the fifth generation most of the auction house branch of the family had transferred their skills to the more specialised world of horse-racing, or as it’s called in England the Sport of Kings (of queens too, although Elizabeth II has just failed, at time of writing, to become the first monarch since 1909 to own an Epsom Derby winner with her horse Carlton House).

George Henry Verrall was the youngest of five brothers, the sons of John Verrall the fourth-generation auctioneer. Apart from George, John senior took the unusual step of naming all his sons John. Presumably they were known by their middle names! Second son John Marcus picked up the auctioneers’ hammer but the eldest, John Frederick, pursued a career as manager of Lewes Races, Clerk of Croydon Racecourse and a successful racing journalist.

The Grandstand, Lewes Racecourse, 1900

Third son John Claudius compiled an indispensable annual publication, A List of Horses in Training in England. John the fourth, John Hubert, was what the National Archives of Great Britain describe in their records as the black sheep of the family, a pigeon fancier. And then there was George.

George succeeded John Frederick (who died young in 1877) as Clerk of the Course at Lewes, where he was also a partner in Pratt & Co, a firm of turf accountants. George was also Clerk at the Gatwick and Lingfield courses, and he moved in 1878 to Newmarket, then as now the epicentre of British racing. Here he made his mark not only as a racing official but as a county councillor and (briefly) as Conservative MP for Newmarket.

Tabanus sulcifrons, the horse fly

His lasting legacy however arose from his lifelong enthusiasm for entomology. He joined the Entomological Society in 1866 at the age of 18, and in 1899-1900 served as its president. Entomology (not to be confused with etymology, the study of words) is the science of insects, and George’s particular passion was diptera – flies.

George seems to have spent most of his leisure hours in the observation of them, and his interest was almost certainly a factor in his move to Newmarket. In the triangle formed by the towns of Newmarket, Ely and Cambridge lies the irreplaceable natural habitat which is Wicken Fen. Wicken Fen, a wetland world, is an entomologist’s paradise, home to over 4000 species of insect alone. Charles Darwin collected specimens there in the 1820s, and George Verrall was one of many who recognised the area’s importance.

Sedge Cutting in Wicken Fen
(Robert Walker Macbeth RA)

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Cambridgeshire fenland was under threat. The traditional industries of sedge and peat cutting, which had served to preserve the habitat, were becoming obsolete. The process of draining the fens to put them to more productive use had already begun elsewhere. And then, in a remarkable wave of collective environmental conscience, Wicken Fen was gradually saved, by the separate acts of generosity and concern of many men.

On 1st May 1899, the National Trust bought two acres of Wicken Fen, a first act of rescue which created Britain’s first ever nature reserve. George Verrall was at the forefront of a band of entomologists who knew the value to the nation’s natural wealth of the place, and who began to buy up further parcels of fenland and donate them to the National Trust. Thanks to Verrall and his colleagues the National Trust’s holdings were expanded by more than 55 additions. Wicken Fen, now a UK National Nature Reserve, UK Site of Special Scientific Interest, European Special Area of Conservation and on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, extends in 2011 to over 1600 acres. Part of it is still called Verrall’s Fen.

Stratiomyidae and succeeding families
of the Diptera Brachycera of Great Britain (British flies, Vol 5)
Frontispiece (1909)

Besides saving Wicken Fen for the nation, George Henry Verrall made significant contributions to the sciences of entomology and botany. In his exploration of the fens he rediscovered many species of flora previously declared extinct. He published two books on different families of dipterae in collaboration with his nephew James Edward Collin. Between them the pair described over 550 species for the first time, and their collection of specimens (donated to Oxford University in 1967) is the most important in Britain, greater than that of the Natural History Museum in London. If you care about flies, the Verrall-Collin is your Bible of British Flies.

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