An event such as Explore Your Archive Week (#ExploreArchives on Twitter) provides a great opportunity to challenge us to look at our collections in different ways. Today’s theme of transportation and automobiles (#AutoArchives) is a perfect example. As a natural history library and archive, we wouldn’t be an obviously rich source for material on this subject, but it is exactly for this reason that real gems can emerge.
When I approached our volunteers Effie and Judith, who work with our ornithology manuscript collections at the Natural History Museum at Tring, they knew exactly where to look!
Colonel Jack Vincent MBE (1904-1999) was born in London. As a pupil he worked on farms in Sussex, until 1924 when he emigrated to Natal, South Africa, where he continued to work in agriculture. As a keen ornithologist he started to build up a collection of bird skins to aid identification.
By 1929 he had completed a manuscript on Natal birds, which was never published. At the same time his employer sold the farm and it was at this point that he received an offer from Rear Admiral Hubert Lynes (1874-1942), asking to join him on an ornithological expedition in South, Central and West Africa.
Hubert Lynes was a Rear Admiral with a distinguished naval career of 32 years, before his retirement in 1919. As a member of the British Ornithologists’ Union he’d studied birds during his naval travels, to places such as the Mediterranean and China, and gave his nest collection to the then British Museum (Natural History), now the Natural History Museum. During this period he published numerous papers in the journal Ibis.
When he retired he was able to truly dedicate time to his passion, conducting over a dozen expeditions mainly to Africa during the 1920s. He formed large and valuable collections, not only of birds, but of mammals, plants, insects and minerals which he presented, for the most part to the British Museum (Natural History).
Their joint expedition took Vincent and Lynes from Central to West Africa and lasted from September 1930 to June 1931. Lynes (known to Vincent as Uncle Hubert), was specifically there to make a study of Cisticola warblers for a proposed Supplement to his Cisticola Review which had been published in 1930.
The Library holds the manuscript papers of both these gentlemen, but it is Jack Vincent’s that is of particular interest on this occasion. It contains a draft letter and article that he wrote to Chrysler Motors Ltd dated September 1931.
This document along with his photographs taken during the expedition, chart the story of the vehicles that they used to cross Africa, and in particular the brand new Chrysler ‘6’ Sedan they purchased during their journey.
He wrote to the company to record his thanks to them for the quality of their product:
“All I could say in praise of this literally amazing performance would be inadequate, but have endeavoured to express my appreciation, as far as is possible, in the accompanying detailed account of the trip and, for myself I persist in verbal praise of a Chrysler Car. You are at liberty to use either this letter or article as you wish, should they prove valuable for the purpose of advertisement.”
His article illustrates the very practical side of being a ‘gentleman’ naturalist in this period, and the literal ups and down of using motor power to travel across this part of the world. He notes that the only extra piece of equipment they purchased from the showroom, in addition to what would normally by expected in a tool kit, was a spare front spring, which he proudly states ‘to date however has never been used’.
Vincent describes the ‘road’ conditions they experienced during the journey and how the lorry travelling with them suffers greatly, including breaking a ‘heavy back spring and the spare had to be reinforced’. During November and a three week collection stay, the vehicles were parked under trees and were surrounded by a sea of mud during the rains and tropical thunder storms.
“Tyre chains from this time were of course in almost daily use and the engines suffering from considerable strain from the perpetual skidding on greasy slopes”.
The vehicles were subjected to constant huge ruts and holes hidden by mud and water. It was often the case that they have to deviate from their intended route in order to avoid particularly bad looking sections of ground ahead of them.
His account shows how determined they were to push on regardless:
“The rains were by this time approaching their heaviest and the routes westward to the Atlantic ostensibly closed to vehicular traffic for the duration of the rainy season. We had necessity to push on as our objective was the study of birds whose nesting took place in the rainy season only – so that we had to put our trust in the Chrysler once more…”
During the journey the vehicles were ferried across rivers and rescued from falling through basic local wooden bridges, clearly not designed to withstand the weight of a lorry.
After the expedition, the Chrysler returned to England with Vincent and a year after purchase it had travelled nearly 11,000 miles. In the letter he mentions that he is looking to sell it, as his next trip was to ‘an area too restricted for the use of a car’.
Vincent’s account and the photographs in his albums illustrate a bygone era of scientific travel. I particularly like the images of the two of them at camp with both their trusty companions, Chrysler and Dodge, the latter demonstrating its practical use as sleeping accommodation.
His account promotes the unsung hero of the expedition……the Chrysler 6 Sedan!
By Hellen Pethers, Research Services Librarian
With huge thanks to our volunteers Effie and Judith for highlighting this story.
Reference: H. Lynes & W.L. Sclater, Lynes-Vincent Tour in Central and West Africa in 1930-31. Ibis 1933: 694-729 and 1934: 1-51 with maps, plates and itinerary.
To learn more about the collections held by the Library and Archives, including the electronic resources we subscribe to (most of which can be accessed by external researchers using our reading room), and how to make an appointment to research in the public reading room, please visit our webpages.