Joseph Collins: Warringtonian, Wire Rope Maker and Entomologist

Collections Assistant Hannah White explores the history of Joseph Collins who started his life in Victorian Warrington but ended it amongst the dreaming spires of Oxford… 

Today I want to introduce you to Mr Joseph Collins. I had decided to see whether there were any past museum staff members who had interesting stories to tell. On checking the 1911 census, an entry for Mr Joseph Collins, ‘Museum Assistant-Zoology’ popped up. Wow, that’s interesting I thought, I had never come across his name before. I wondered what else we could find out about him. Unfortunately, Joseph does not appear to have worked at Warrington Museum, as far as I can tell, but instead at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History, courtesy of Ethan Doyle White (Wikipedia Creative Commons License)

Who was Joseph Collins?

Joseph Joynson Collins was born on 31st October 1865 in Warrington. As a teenager, Joseph lived with his 36 year old widowed father Ezra and worked as a Wire Rope Spinner (aged 15 years). We know from the 1881 census that the family resided at 22 Lilford Street, Bewsey, which is today the area at the back of the large Tesco supermarket off Winwick Road.

1881 Census for England and Wales

When Joseph was 25 years old, he was still living with his father at 22 Lilford Street and worked as a Wire Worker. However, ten years later in 1901 now aged 35 years, Joseph is married to Florence Louisa Austin. They have four children and are living at 70 Catherine Street, Bewsey, again this is the area at the back of Tesco supermarket.

At the start of the 20th century, quite a lot changed for Joseph and his family. Firstly, by 1911 they now had seven children. The family no longer lived in Warrington, but now resided in Oxford where Joseph, aged 45 years was working as a ‘Museum Assistant (Zoology)’ at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The family were living at 74 Islip Road, Summertown, Oxford.

1911 Census for England and Wales

74 Islip Road in Summertown, Oxford today (black door) (Google Maps)

The Oxford University Museum Annual Reports record a Mr J Collins of Warrington accepting the position of ‘assistant’ at the Museum on 7th February 1905 (p20). It seems that Collins worked in the Museum’s Hope Department, which is where the entomology collections were held. The collections include specimens collected by James Charles Dale. The Dale Collection is one of the most important collections at the museum. It includes the Bath White butterfly pinned by Dale in 1702 and the oldest pinned insect in the world. During his time in the entomology department, Joseph would have worked under the leadership of Edward Poulton (Hope Professor of Zoology from 1893 to 1933).

Oxford University Museum of Natural History in around 1890 when Joseph Collins would have been employed there (©Oxford University Museum of Natural History)

Edward Bagnall Poutlon (©Oxford University Museum of Natural History)

Joseph Collins was, it seems, a fabulous label writer and worked mainly with the British insects at the museum, even donating several of his own specimens to the Department. He worked on various collections at the museum including specimens donated by W Holland (4,000 Carabidae or ground beetles).

Specimens donated by Holland (Joseph Collins worked on labelling this collection) (©Oxford University Museum of Natural History)

Bath White Butterfly (Dale Collection)

Collins’ letter of appointment to the role of Museum Assistant reads “to be in the Department & begin work at 7.30 each week-day, having had breakfast before arrival, or taking it during & without interrupting his work.  An hour’s interval for lunch or dinner…Work resumed in the afternoon…& continued till 5.30 except on Saturdays when there is no work in the afternoon. Nett result 9 hrs per day for 5 days; 6 hrs on Saturday: Total 51 hours per week”.

It is recorded that Commander J.J. Walker and William Holland already employed at the museum, began to influence Collins in the study of Coleoptera (beetles). The photograph below shows members of the Entomological Society of London (1904) including some of the people who guided Joseph Collins.

Members of the Entomological Society of London in 1904, Joseph Collins is third from the left in the back row (Source: The Entomologist Vo.37)

What we still do not know is how Joseph came to make the leap from Wire Rope Worker to Museum Entomologist? He clearly had an interest in entomology when living in Warrington and was a member of the Lancashire and Cheshire Entomology Society, to whom he donated several of his own specimens.

Letter written by Joseph Collins to the President of the Lancashire and Cheshire Entomology Society (©Oxford University Museum of Natural History)

During the First World War, Mr Collins worked at Eagle Foundry, Oxford on munitions.  In 1931, the Museum Reports detail that Mr Joseph Collins has reached retirement age but on the application of the Professor, his services were retained for another year with the opportunity of further application. When his fellow colleague Mr Hamm retired, Joseph became Senior Assistant.

Joseph Collins’ main beetle collection is at the Horniman Museum. It comprises of 15,500 specimens collected from England, Scotland, and Wales and a few from Ireland. Some of his labelled specimens include the names Walker, Holland, Joy, Tottenham and Donisthorpe, many of whom we know as entomologists who worked with Collins. The specimens date from the late 1890s to the mid-1940s. It is known that there are also some of his collections at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Manchester Museum and Castle Museum, Norwich.

On 1st November 1936, Mr Collins retired from the post of Senior Assistant at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The 1939 register shows Joseph and his wife still living at 74 Islip Road.

1939 Register showing Joseph as a retired Museum Assistant

 

Letter written by Joseph Collins (possibly post retirement) detailing a donation of specimens he is making to the museum (©Oxford University Museum of Natural History)

He died on 3rd April 1942 and was buried in Oxford.

Our sincere thanks to staff at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for providing many of the scanned documents and photographs in this blog.