Harry Higginson: Distributing Dodos in the 1860s

Written by Clare Brown, Curator of Natural Science, Leeds Museums and Galleries.

Curators are often asked to name their favourite object. I’ve got loads and swap between them all the time: the adult longhorn beetle that emerged from someone’s wooden sofa after a few years of chewing, our thylacine mount, the dude-y little rock hyrax with attitude, the Peruvian “mummy’s eyes” (read squid lenses), that gorgeous La Brea tar pits water beetle… My favourites at the moment are our dodo bones. Yes they’re dodo bones and so, obviously, are amazing but the story behind how Leeds came to have them is wonderful too.

It all started in 1838 in Thormanby near York where little Harry Higginson was born. He progressed through school in Leicester and an apprenticeship in Manchester to a railway construction job in Mauritius in 1862. Harry’s completely brilliant ‘Reminiscences of Life and Travel‘ is a great read. It’s packed full of amazing 19th century colonial derring-do from out-galloping the monsoon in a gorge to unbelievable childcare practices (burying them up to their necks in sand) to feeding a friend a dead – and extremely tough – donkey ‘as a lark’. It is in this book that Harry describes the moment when the dodo story gets more interesting:

Shortly before the completion of the railway I was walking along the embankment one morning, when I noticed some [locals] removing some peat soil from a small morass. They were separating and placing into heaps, a number of bones, of various sorts, among the debris. I stopped and examined them, as they appeared to belong to birds and reptiles, and we had always been on the lookout for bones of the then mythical Dodo. So I filled my pocket with the most promising ones for further examination.

And guess what? They were dodo bones and Higginson then kindly sent a box full to York, Liverpool and Leeds Museums. We all still have them.

This beautiful watercolour of a dodo dates back to the 17th Century. During this period, ‘dronte’ (as seen in the image) was the word used in Dutch, French and Italian for the dodo. © Image in public domain.

I love Harry for his generosity. At the same time a local school teacher, Mr. Clark, also discovered dodo bones. There is a discussion raging over who came across the bones first and how. It’s not entirely clear what happened but Clark set about sending boxes full to England for Owen at the Natural History Museum in London, and for general sale in the capital. Harry, on the other hand, didn’t appear to want to make a penny from them.

A Dodo pelvis (LEEDM.C.1866.26.29068.8) sent to the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society by Higginson in 1865. ©Leeds Museums and Galleries.

Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, that still exists today, had been so excited by the discovery of dodo bones that they bought a set from the 1865 sale. Little did they know that Harry would be sending them a free box the next year.

The bog where the bones were found is still yielding dodo remains 150 years later. A group in the Netherlands extracted a great deal of material not that long ago, and, tourists can even go and stay there!

Higginson left Mauritius not long after the discovery and ended up working as an engineer in New Zealand. The National Library of New Zealand holds a photo of Harry, taken in around 1876. He became quite senior and his work includes the Kawarau Suspension Bridge outside Queenstown, made famous by AJ Hackett’s bungy jumping. He died in 1900 and is commemorated in a gorgeous stained glass window that features a dodo, at the Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul. Thank you Harry.

The Higginson Memorial Window at Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul; featuring the dodo. ©Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul.

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