MISS ELEANOR'S SHILLING.
For a stout, middle-aged spinster, Eleanor Ormerod had an unseemly interest in insects. In Victorian times, well-bred women didn't mess with moths and maggots, weevils and wasps. Yet by the end of the century, Miss Ormerod's passion for pests had made her one of the most popular women in Britain.
In the Welsh country town of Chepstow in 1852, the day's most exciting event was the arrival of the stagecoach at The George Hotel. People hung around to watch the ostlers change horses and see the coach race off again. On 12 March there was more than the usual excitement. As people gathered outside The George, a disconcertingly large insect landed at their feet. The creature was so strange that when it took off again some of the crowd took off after it. Down the steep hill it flew, heading towards the river. For half a mile, the hunting party sprinted after it—and just as it reached the bottom of the hill, they caught it.
The arrival of the locust was timely. Across the river at Sedbury Park, Eleanor Ormerod was growing restless. Eleanor, the youngest of the 10 Ormerod children, was 24 years old, still unmarried and living with her parents. Like most upper-class Victorian girls, Eleanor was well educated, at least in those subjects thought suitable for ladies. But with no prospective husband on the horizon, she was beginning to tire of the piano and paintbrush and quiet afternoons with a book. When the family doctor arrived on the doorstep with the newly captured creature, Eleanor was delighted. No one had any idea what the insect was, so Eleanor sent it to an expert for identification. It was, he wrote back, a rosy-winged locust. Better still, the species had never been seen so far west before. Eleanor was hooked. She rushed out, bought a book on insects and began to study entomology.
For the next 16 years, Eleanor pursued her quarry on the quiet, keenly aware that her family did not approve. Then one day in 1868, as Eleanor flicked through a copy of The Gardeners' Chronicle, she spotted the announcement that changed her life.
The Royal Horticultural Society was asking readers of the Chronicle to send in observations of insects in their gardens. Which, it asked, were friends and which were enemies? "Without delay I availed myself of the opportunity, in pleasant anticipation of this entomological cooperation giving a use to what had been previously somewhat desultory observation," Eleanor wrote years later.
Sedbury Park was a large estate with fields, orchards and woods. Collecting specimens was easy when you could rope in your own farm labourers. And if they were busy there were plenty of children happy to help in return for one of Miss Eleanor's shillings. Not content with watching the behaviour of "unfriendly" insects, she began to experiment with ways to get rid of them. A few coils of hay rope around a tree trunk would stop codling caterpillars from climbing up into the branches. In other cases, the most effective strategy was to "send a boy up the tree to nip out the nests". Eleanor's methods were cheap, simple and almost always worked.
In 1873, Eleanor's father died. At the age of 45, she could finally follow her career openly. She began to publish the results of her research—under her own name and at her own expense. Her regular "Notes on injurious insects" were a big hit. She sent copies to anyone who asked, usually without charge. Her report on the warble fly was so popular she had to have 170,000 copies printed. Warble fly grubs burrow deep into the skin of cattle. Eleanor's cure—"a dab of cart grease and sulphur applied to the infested area of the hide"—is said to have saved half the cows in the country. In 1881, after a plague of turnip fly cost British farmers half a million pounds, Eleanor was suddenly in demand. Ignoring the fact that she was a woman, a self-taught scientist and now old enough to be a grandmother, the worthies of the Royal Agricultural Society gave her the job of Consulting Entomologist (unpaid). She was, to all intents and purposes, the country's chief entomologist.
Farmers, scientists and government officials from all over the world asked her advice. No request went unanswered. When a watercress grower wrote telling how he had lost his crop to caddis fly larvae, Eleanor quickly identified the problem. "Formerly there were numbers of trout in the water, but lately the landlord's wife had a fancy to encourage herons . . . The herons cleared off the insect-loving trout, so the vegetable eating insects got ahead and the watercress grower could not pay his rent . . . I suggested that as the herons were encouraged by the lady, perhaps she, if applied to, might to some degree make good the damages." As her reputation spread around the world, even the most expert of experts came to her for help. In 1889, the US Department of Agriculture's chief entomologist wrote in desperation. The country's stores of flour were under attack from the Mediterranean caterpillar. What should he do? Scald them with steam, was Eleanor's simple answer.
Towards the end of the century, hate mail began to appear in her postbag. She was regularly reviled in the pages of The Animal's Friend. What had she done to sully her saintly reputation? Eleanor's sin was to call for the total eradication of the house sparrow. To Eleanor, house sparrows were avian rats—grain thieves that stole food from the mouths of farmers' families. Not only did the birds have an insatiable appetite for seeds, she argued, they drove off birds such as swallows and house martins, which otherwise devoured huge quantities of insect pests. In a letter to The Times in January 1885, she had called for their extermination. In 1896, Eleanor stepped up her campaign with a pamphlet explaining why it was in the national interest to kill sparrows. She called for the revival of the "sparrow clubs" that had once been a feature of every parish. Sparrow clubs offered rewards for dead birds and eggs and a prize for whoever destroyed the most birds in a year. "I quite reckon on being violently attacked," she wrote to a friend. And she was.
But, needless to say, the sort of woman who was determined enough to break out of the narrow life most of her contemporaries were stuck with was hardly going to bow to the opinion of some overly sentimental ladies and vicars. In the countryside, a flock of sparrows was as big a problem as a plague of locusts. And, as the "farmers' friend", Miss Eleanor was happy to take them on.
This article was written by Stephanie Pain and published in the New Scientist (Vol 172 Issue 2316) on the 10th November 2001.