Stories from the North East Nature Archive: The Collections of Julia Boyd

North East Nature Archive volunteer, Maureen Flisher looks at the fascinating life of traveller and collector, Julia Boyd (1846-1892)

Julia Boyd was born in Upper Urpeth near Chester- Le Street in 1846. The only surviving daughter of Edward Fenwick Boyd and his wife Ann, Julia took on the role of caring for her father when her mother passed away. Bereft at the loss of her father her obituary in the Durham County Advertiser in April 1892, records “that a course of foreign travel had been prescribed as the best sedative for nerves somewhat unstrung after her father’s death”. She set sail for Melbourne Australia in 1890. Even in Victorian times, physicians held a strong belief that nature had the power to cure.     

An avid collector of books, silver and art, Julia’s travels allowed her to expand her collection. Details of her collecting activities from the Colonies and South Sea Islands are documented in The Natural History Society’s Transactions (1891-92). On her death, Julia left various ethnological and ornithological items from her collection to the Natural History Society. Her collection (now stored at the Discovery Museum) includes New Zealand birds, a Cannibal Fork and a basket for brains from Fiji and Quartz from the Pink and White Terraces in New Zealand which were destroyed in a volcanic eruption in 1886.

I was fascinated to find in the North East Nature Archives several original letters from 1892 written to the Hancock Museum by Julia’s brother Hugh Fenwick Boyd and her Ladies Maid Hannah Pape, her travelling companion. What was even more surprising was a discovery I made when I opened “A History of the Birds of New Zealand” published in 1888 and donated as part of Julia’s bequest. Hoping to find an inscription or dedication to Julia I found pasted into the book a Victorian mourning letter and envelope from the author Lord Walter Lawry Buller thanking Julia for her letter of condolence following the death of his wife. It is extremely poignant, particularly given that less than three weeks later Julia was to succumb herself due to complications following surgery to remove a tumour. Julia was buried in New Zealand.

I went on to discover that Julia’s Aunt Juliana was married to Admiral  Benedictus Marwood Kelly, whose friend and fellow officer was  Commander Stokes of the H.M.S. Beagle. Commander Stokes went on to name an Inlet and Harbour in Chile after Admiral Kelly. Tragically Commander Stokes took his own life in 1828 and Lieutenant Robert Fitz-Roy was subsequently appointed.  Wanting someone of a similar mind to accompany him on HMS Beagle, he selected Charles Darwin.  

Charles Darwin and Albany Hancock later corresponded over their shared passion for the natural world. The North East Nature Archive includes several letters between these eminent biologists as well as several Charles Darwin’s publications including a 1st edition of The Origin of the Species.  

Julia Boyd died in New Zealand in 1892. In recent years her life and death have been featured in the Bewick Society’s Newsletter “The Cherryburn Times”. See here and here.

Julia’s book Bewick’s Gleanings, the letters from Hugh Boyd and Hannah Pape together with Buller’s Book of New Zealand Birds Volumes 1 and 2 are held in the North East Nature Archive. The archive also holds correspondence between Albany Hancock and Charles Darwin together with several books by Charles Darwin.

Maureen Flisher
Archive Volunteer

Maureen is a retired Civil Servant, currently volunteering in the NHSN’s North East Nature Archive transcribing the Curators’ handwritten monthly diaries from the 1900s into Word for research purposes.