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Mr Henry Seebohm
Dates: 1832 - 1895
Biographical Account:

Henry Seebohm was one of the world's great Victorian ornithologists and explorers.  He was born into a middle class family in Bradford in 1832.  Seebohm's interest in travel and natural history was evident from a young age.  He wrote an account of a tour around the Lake District shortly after leaving Bootham School in York, in which he describes in some detail the wildlife he spotted on his travels, interestingly using the scientific names rather than the more usual English ones.  However, not all of his time could be devoted to his hobby and the census from 1861 reports that he had become a cashier for steel and file manufacturer, Daniel Doncaster and Sons in Sheffield.  In 1865, he founded his own company, Seebohm & Dieckstahl Ltd and by 1871 was employing 60 hands.  The money he made from his business enabled Seebohm to spend more time on his ornithological hobby.  He frequently walked around the local beauty spots, such as the Rivelin and Derwent Valleys, usually with old friends such as Charles Doncaster (a local steel merchant and, like Henry, a Quaker).  He also toured further afield, travelling to the Farne Islands on the east coast.  By the 1870s, Seebohm had extended his travels to mainland Europe, including parts of Norway, Greece and Spain.  However, Seebohm's real breakthrough occurred in 1875 when he took the courageous decision to travel to Siberia.  At this time, Siberia was very difficult to get to and was still quite unexplored.  He travelled with Captain Wiggins and a local interpreter, on a sledge pulled by dogs, horses and eventually reindeer.  He travelled down the River Pechora, recording what bird life he saw as he went.  Two years later, in 1877, he went one step further and travelled down the even more remote Yenisei River, today one of the most polluted rivers in the Russia, if not the world.  The records Seebohm made of his travels through Siberia are hugely important, not just from an ornithological point of view, but also as he made observations about the people he met as well.  Aside from the list of bird species he made, he also discovered where birds such as Bewick's Swan, Grey Plover and Little Stint, which can be seen in Britain during the winter, went during the spring.

By the late 1870s, Seebohm was considered one of Britain's greatest ornithologists.  His two trips to Siberia were published as books called "Siberia in Europe" (1880) and "Siberia in Asia" (1882).  Around this time, he met Charles Edward Dixon, another significant Sheffield naturalist and they travelled around Britain together, writing "A History of British Birds" together.  Whilst travelling to St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides, Dixon and Seebohm discovered a new type of wren, Troglodytes troglodytes hirtensis, called the St Kilda Wren.  Seebohm described this as a new sub-species in 1884, being one of the first naturalists in Europe to use the American 'tri-nomial' system of naming sub-species.

Like all Victorian naturalists, Seebohm relied on a gun as his ornithological identification tool, as binoculars and field guides weren't available.  Birds that were shot were then skinned and preserved.  As a result, Seebohm amassed a huge collection of birds and although he didn't know it at the time, the genetic and morphological information contained within the collection is invaluable to scientists today.  Seebohm also collected bird’s eggs, a hobby that has since been outlawed because of the damage it does to bird populations.  However, eggs too are useful to science, as they contain all kinds of information about the environment at the time (such as pollution levels, evidence of poisoning etc.) that would otherwise be unrecorded.  Seebohm was quite free and easy with his bird collection, often swapping specimens with friends and other ornithologists such as Heinrich Gatke, Richard Bowlder Sharpe and Charles Edward Dixon.  In the final two years of his life, Seebohm donated much of his collections to the British Museum of Natural History and also catalogued their egg collections for them.  Fortunately, Seebohm had maintained a good relationship with curators at the newly opened Sheffield Public Museum throughout the 1870s and '80s and he donated a sizable amount of his collection to Sheffield, many of which collected on his travels throughout Europe.  Today, the Seebohm collections are one of the most significant in Britain and certainly a jewel in the crown of Sheffield Museums.

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