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Saturday, 20 April 2013


Everybody needs a hobby. Frederic Merrifield was my great aunt’s grandfather and a successful barrister on the south coast of England; but life isn’t just about work. Frederic’s hobby was butterflies and moths, and living on the edge of the Sussex Downs he could not have been better placed – next to one of the richest Lepidoptera habitats in Britain.

Pieris napi, the Green-veined White butterfly

Like many enthusiastic amateur gentlemen of the nineteenth century, Frederic took his hobby seriously. It was an age of scientific enquiry, spurred by the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 which effectively launched the theory of evolutionary biology. So Frederic applied himself to the methodical study of moths and butterflies. By the end of the century the Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London had included several papers by him, and he served as the society’s president in 1905-1906.

Vanessa atalanta, the Red Admiral butterfly

Merrifield’s special interest was the effect of changes of temperature on the various stages of the Lepidoptera lifestyle, particularly the colours and markings of the insects. Amongst his papers were Systematic temperature experiments on some Lepidoptera in all their stages, Conspicuous Effects on the markings and colouring of Lepidoptera caused by exposure of the pupœ to different temperature conditions, and The effects of temperature in the pupal stage on the colouring of Pieris napi, Vanessa atalanta, Chrysophanus philœas, and Ephyra punctaria.

Chrysophanus philœas, the Small Copper butterfly

I’m not qualified to comment on the science, but Frederic Merrifield cannot have imagined how relevant his investigations would be 120 years after he wrote about them. Small temperature changes have dramatic effects on species – even I know how they affect the proportion of the genders in reptile births, for example. As the world heats up, I wonder how many biologists are revisiting Frederic’s studies, looking for clues to the effects of global warming.

Ephyra punctaria, the Maiden’s Blush moth

Frederic's daughter Margaret De Gaudrion Merrifield married Arthur Verrall, whose cousin George Henry Verrall also served as president of the Entymological Society, in 1899-1900. It's a small world, and not just for moths.


  1. Hi,

    You may find this question strange, but did Frederic Merrifield that you talk about have an interest in séances and spiritualism?

    The reason I ask is because there is a report from a man named Frederic Merrifield who claimed to have witnessed the medium Daniel Dunglas Home in fraud, in 1855, he later wrote about it. This Merrifield was also a lawyer.

    The same person do you think?

  2. I hadn't heard the story about the fraud, but it seems likely - his daughter was the celebrated medium Margaret Merrifield, and his granddaughter the equally famous Helen Verrall, my great aunt. Blogs about both of them elsewhere on this site! If the case was conducted by the Society for Psychical Research, that would make sense - their aim was to expose fraud and establish the truth about genuine paranormal events. Helen was later the secretary of the society, and her husband my great uncle WH Salter its president.


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