The father of ornithology – born in Stratford, died in Plaistow

A little owl sitting on the branch of a dead tree, drawn by George Edwards in 1755 Pic

A little owl sitting on the branch of a dead tree, drawn by George Edwards in 1755 Picture: Wellcome Library, London - Credit: Archant

In the week the 600th British bird is officially recognised, naturalist, illustrator and son of the borough George Edwards is remembered.

A line engraving of George Edwards by JS Miller, 1754 Picture: Wellc

A line engraving of George Edwards by JS Miller, 1754 Picture: Wellcome Library, London - Credit: Archant

Birds, bugs, monkeys, mongooses, owls, zebras – you name it, George Edwards very likely drew it.

The great man – naturalist, illustrator, contemporary of Carl Linnaeus – is known to history as the “father of ornithology”, and began and ended his long life in Newham.

Born in Stratford in 1694, he was apprenticed to a bussinessman in Fenchurch Street until, according to the New Annual Register, on the “expiration of his servitude” he rejected work to read and travel “for the purpose of improving his taste and enlarging his mind”.

But this was no mere idler’s gap year – his trips to Norway, Holland, France and further afield consisted of long walks in the wild and comprehensive studies of wildlife.

A mongoose next to a basket of fruit, by George Edwards (1754) Picture: W

A mongoose next to a basket of fruit, by George Edwards (1754) Picture: Wellcome Library, London - Credit: Archant

“He was self-taught,” Keith Moore, librarian at the Royal Society, says. “He wasn’t from an aristrocratic background, so his way into science was to draw and then sell his illustrations of animals.”

But he was much more than an illustrator – not only did he write about animals, he was also funny.

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“He would visit taverns and coffee shops in search of sailors willing to sell him curiosities from abroad,” Keith says. “And he wrote amusingly about taking a pet macaque to Bartholomew Fair.

Another of his “charming” episodes, Keith says, was naming a bird after the Marquise de Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XV of France – but only after a ship carrying rare birds for her was captured by the Royal Navy and its contents sold to Edwards.

A female zebra in an enclosure, drawn by George Edwards in 1751 Picture: Well

A female zebra in an enclosure, drawn by George Edwards in 1751 Picture: Wellcome Library, London - Credit: Archant

He went on to be greatly esteemed as a naturalist – becoming a member of the Royal Society and, in 1750, being awarded the extremely prestigious Copley Medal.

With volumes like A Natural History of Uncommon Birds, he rose to the peak of his fame, allowing him to retire to a small house in Plaistow with his sisters in 1769.

But even in his dotage he couldn’t resist his love of nature.

“His engraving and hand-coloured sketches show species we know and see today in his birthplace of Stratford,” Tim Webb, of the RSPB, says.

A black macaque with fruit, drawn by George Edwards in 1756 Picture: Wellcome Librar

A black macaque with fruit, drawn by George Edwards in 1756 Picture: Wellcome Library, London - Credit: Archant

“A revival of interest in his work would be timely,” he adds. “We owe him a great deal and it is a pity his name is not as well known as Stephenson, Wren or Brunel.”

It is timely, too, Tim says, that this week the 600th British bird – the Yelkouan Shearwater – was officially recognised.

“His meticulously catalogued legacy is one understood by legions of bird spotters,” he says. “They may not know his name, but respect and share his passion.”

In 1773, Edwards died in Plaistow after a stoical fight with cancer.

A drawing of a jerboa in the desert, composed by Stratford-born George Edwards in 1752

A drawing of a jerboa in the desert, composed by Stratford-born George Edwards in 1752 Picture: Wellcome Library, London - Credit: Archant

He was buried in West Ham Parish Church, loyal to his home until the end, and his legacy now lives on as the RSPB, Tim says, “aims to emulate” his lifelong engagement with nature by offering free education sessions to Newham schools.

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