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Cardiff
Naturalists' Society


Cymdeithas Naturiaethwr
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Robert Drane (1833-1914) Founder and 24th President


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Robert Drane is the person considered to be the founding father of the Cardiff Naturalists' Society, which was established according to many docuemnted sources in his shop at 16 Queen Street, Cardiff in 1867. A chemist by trade he had a wide range of interests, including natural history, porcelain and antiquities and was probably best known in the public eye as an antiquary.

Robert Drane was born on 21st August 1833 in Guestwick, near Reepham in Norfolk. His father was a congregational minister and Robert was one of his six children, two of which died in early childhood. In July 1849 he became an apprentice chemist with a Mr Francis in Woodbridge, Surrey but remained only for about 4-5 weeks. In September of the same year he became an apprentice to Mr Smith, a chemist in Magdalene Street, Norwich where he stayed to complete his four-year apprenticeship and joined the Pharmaceutical Society.

Robert Drane Talking to an unidentified member of the society

Robert Drane (left) Talking to Joshua Neale

On qualifying he became assistant at the Plough Court Pharmacy of Allan and Hambury's in London before, in 1858, moving to Cardiff. Here he set up his own pharmacy business at 11 Bute Street before moving to at 16 Queen Street in 1867. In the 1890s he opened a branch in Penarth but that was not as successful as his Cardiff shop. On his death, on 14th July 1914, his shop was given equally to his four assistants.

Drane had a strong interest in ceramics and was an acknowledged authority on porcelain, especially Old Worcester, of which he had an acknowledged collection. He worked with William Turner on a history of the ceramic factories of Swansea and Nantgarw which was published in 1897 under the title The Ceramics of Swansea and Nantgarw: A history of the factories with biographical notices of artists and others, notes on the merits of the porcelains, the marks thereon etc with An Appendix on the Mannerisms of the Artists by Robert Drane.

Robert Drane

Robert Drane

As well as amassing a collection of his own, Drane was also asked to purchase samples of pottery from the Swansea and Nantgarw potteries for the Cardiff Museum, which today are in the collections of the National Museum of Wales. From 1895-97 he presented several pieces of Welsh porcelain and pottery to the museum and, in 1899, lent his collection to the museum and compiling a catalogue to go with it.

In 1902 he advocated for the purchase of type-specimens of English pottery by the museum and in 1903 presented many pieces for this collection.

Amongst his other non-natural history hobbies were collecting old spoons, Old English drinking vessels, early English needlework some glassware, books, and antiquarian oddities, especially those that demonstrated the ‘development of religious myths’. In 1857 he published a small brochure on Castell Coch : A gossiping companion to the ruin and it’s neighbourhood’ for which his sister produced the plans and drawings.

Robert Drane

Robert Drane

Like his ceramic and antiquarian collecting his natural history interests were also varied. Between 1856 - 1860 he assisted in the preparation of what was to become a multi-volume work on micro-lepidoptera, the Natural History of the British Tineina (Clothes moths) by H. T. Stainton. In the Entomologist's Annual of 1858 he is listed as an entomologist living at 11 Bute Street, Cardiff.

Drane's taste for natural history appeared early and was probably developed by the training in botany which he received. Soon after settling in Cardiff he instituted a class for the study of field botany, which he conducted twice a week at 7.0 a.m. in the Sophia Gardens. He also made a collection of local birds, many of which he stuffed himself. These were presented to the museum and included specimens of the Rusty Grackle and Pallas' Great Grey Shrike, both of which were first records of these species in Britain. The shrike, now known to be a northern form of the Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor) was shot in 1881 near Bridgend and the Rusty Grackle (now known as the Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus), was shot at East Moors, Cardiff also in 1881. Both were sent to Drane who had them stuffed. Doubt has since been cast upon the authenticity of the Rusty Blackbird as being a naturally occurring vagrant modern thinking being that it might be an escaped cage bird. His ornithological interests led to him serving on the Society's Committee that produced the first Birds of Glamorgan publication in 1898/99.

Robert Drane plaque ready for siting

Robert Drane plaque ready for siting

Perhaps his most famous contribution to natural history was his recognition that the Skomer Vole (Myodes glareolus skomerensis) was a different race of the Bank Vole (Myodes glareolus) to that found on the mainland. This came after a visit to the island in 1898, during which he collected a number of specimens which, on his return to Cardiff, he sent to the Linnean Society in London and the British Museum of Natural History (now the Natural History Museum). In 1903 Barrett Hamilton of the British Museum of Natural History confirmed that the voles were indeed a different race. On 24th April 1905 he brought live voles back from Skomer so that he could study them in his house. The keeping of live animals for study included voles, field mice and tame hares, the latter having the free-run of his house above the shop. His study on the hares culminated in the publication of The Hare in Captivity in 1881.

Robert William Atkinson unveiling the Drane Plaque

Robert William Atkinson 22nd and 54th President unveiling the Drane Plaque (from Society Archives)

Robert Drane plaque unveiling

Robert William Atkinson 22nd and 54th President unveiling the Drane Plaque (from Society Archives)

Robert Drane plaque unveiling

Robert Drane plaque unveiling

Drane became President of the Cardiff Naturalists' Society for the 1896-97 year and a member of the Museum Committee soon after it was formed. He was well aware of the importance of making the institution a local museum and served as an Honorary Curator from 1867, always being consulted on purchases for the Antiquities section. With the creation of the National Museum of Wales in 1907 he was involved with the appointment of its first Director, William Evans Hoyle, and with the building plans. He died on 14th July 1914 and on 16th February 1927 the then President of the Cardiff Naturalists' Society, Robert William Atkinson , unveiled a plaque on the front of Drane's shop in Queen Street that read:

B. 1833 D.1914 Here lived Robert Drane, F.L.S.,naturalist, antiquary and connoisseur. This tablet was erected to his memory by the Cardiff Naturalists' Society, which was founded in these premises in the year 1867. Unfortunately the original plaque has been stolen by metal thieves. A replacement resin plaque was erected in its place by the members of the Society

Robert Drane original plaque in detail

Robert Drane original plaque in detail

All of this is the standard wisdom about Robert Drane, but some more research in the archives puts a slightly different light onto some of these facts and we apprecitate the deligence of Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer in doing that extra work to provide this additional information

Whatever the original facts about location and attendance at thos formative meetings, it is certain that Robert Drane was a leading light in the early society and was instrumental in its continued success and a great contributor to local museums and it is fitting that his likeness is on show in the main hall of the National Museum of Wales, Cathays Park Main building.

Bust of Robert Drane in marble created by Leonard Stanford Merrifield in 1910 and bequeathed by Drane in 1915

Bust of Robert Drane in marble created by Leonard Stanford Merrifield in 1910 and bequeathed by Drane in 1915

There is an extensive obituary of Robert Drane in volume XLVIII of the transactions which can be read via the National Library of Wales Scanned Journal Archive

The text of that article is reprinted here: -

ROBERT DRANE, F.L.S. BORN 1833. DIED 1914.

By the death of Mr. Drane there passed away a figure well known as field naturalist and antiquarian who rendered useful service both to the Society and to the community at large. He was one of three original members who founded the Society in 1867, was its first life member, and its President in 1907. For a long term of years he served on the Committee, taking an active interest in its affairs and giving valuable help by his counsel, more particularly in the subjects which he had made his own.

The son of a Congregational minister of literary tastes, Robert Drane was born at Guestwick in Norfolk. He was apprenticed to a provincial chemist at a time when a knowledge of botany and chemistry was deemed an important part of the training. To the last he remained one of the old school which has almost disappeared before the manufacturing druggist of the present day, and when he established himself in business in Cardiff he kept up the old practice-at. that time general among provincial chemists-of giving advice on minor ailments, a custom which made him well known to the general public.

Robert Drane's taste for natural history appeared early and was probably developed by the training in botany which he received. Soon after settling in Cardiff he instituted a class for the study of field botany, which he conducted twice a week at 7.0 a.m. in the Sophia Gardens. As a young man he had made a reputation as an entomologist, for his name is found in Stainton's Entomologist's Annual from 1856 to 186o, and he assisted that author with specimens in the preparation of his work on the Natural History of the British Tineina (Micro-Lepidoptera)." He took a keen interest in ornithology. He made a collection of the birds of the locality, many of which he stuffed himself and presented to the Museum. Two species recorded by him-Rusty Grackle (an American bird) and Pallas' Great Grey Shrike-appeared for the first time in the British list. His extensive local knowledge enabled him to render excellent service as a member of the Society's Committee in the preparation of the Birds of Glamorgan." His paper on the Eggs of the Common Guillemot and Razor Bill," illustrated by a valuable series of coloured plates, was a notable contribution to the Society's Transactions (Vol. XXXI.).

A paper which attracted some attention was The Hare in Captivity (Transactions, Vol. XXVII.), in which he discourses in his characteristic style on the habits of a pet hare which he had reared. But his most important contribution to natural history was his discovery of the Skomer Vole, Evotomys skomerensis. Drane was undoubtedly the first to draw attention to this small mammal as a new species. On a visit to Skomer, a small island off the Pembrokeshire coast, in 1897, he found the vole and recognised that it showed certain differences from the ordinary bank vole, and he recorded this observation in the Transactions, Vol. XXXI. A further visit was paid to the island in the following year, and having secured living and dead specimens, he showed them at a meeting of the Biological Section, and also sent them to the Linnean Society and the British Museum. In a second paper (Transactions, Vol. XXXIII.) dealing with the subject, he wrote, An authority at the British Museum, South Kensington, says that these Skomer voles are a local variety' of the bank vole. Well, I am not convinced," and he went on to enumerate his reasons. Soon afterwards, in 1900, a monograph by Miller on the continental distribution of these small mammals threw fresh light upon the subject and prepared the ground for a paper in 1903 by the late Capt. Barrett-Hamilton, which definitely settled the specific character of Drane's vole under the name of Evotomys skomerensis. It is abundantly clear that much of the credit for this notable addition to the British list is due to Mr. Drane's accurate observation

It is, however, as an antiquary that Mr. Drane was best known to the general public. His bent of mind ran largely in that direction. On settling down in South Wales he set himself to study the examples of Norman defensive architecture in the neighbourhood. In 1857 he published a small quarto brochure on Castell Coch-a gossiping guide to the ruins, as he called it-which is quite a literary curiosity. The view and plans of the castle are from drawings by his sister, Miss Drane. Dressed in the costume of James I. period, he acted as guide to the ruins on the occasion of a field meeting of the Society at Caerphilly Castle. Much interested in articles which formed the personal belongings of ladies and gentlemen of the period of James I. he brought together a large series of them. Old silver and other spoons, old English drinking vessels, early English needlework were among his hobbies. But it was to the department of ceramics that he devoted most of his attention. He helped in the production of Turner's Ceramics of Swansea and Nantgarw (published in 1897) and he wrote for that work the appendix on the Mannerisms of the Artists." This contains some conclusions which there is reason to think he abandoned later. He was an undoubted authority on Worcester china, and he possessed one of the three typical collections in the country. Fifteen years ago he lent a selection of this porcelain to the Museum and compiled an interesting catalogue to it. This attracted a large number of visitors and con- noisseurs, who referred to it in the highest terms. He had the gift of arranging all his collections in such a way as to give them a high educational value. Those who were privileged to see them at the Cardiff Exhibition and at the Society's conver- sazioni, illustrated by his explanatory notes, were impressed by the thorough grasp he had of his subject.

He rendered important service on the Museum Committee almost from its inception. He early realised the importance of making the institution a local museum and not merely a receptacle for curiosities of interest, and he ever kept this aspect before his fellow-members. As one of the Honorary Curators he was always consulted in the purchases for the Antiquities Section. He was at his best in stating his reasons for recommending any article. He often wandered from the point, but his digressions were always most interesting and enlivened by witty sallies. In 1895-7 he presented several pieces of Welsh porcelain and pottery, most of which he had in his possession for years. From 1903 onwards he gave many pieces for the collection of old English pottery and added some articles to the Byegones Section. His advice was constantly in request by people interested in ceramics, and not a few of the leading authorities in the country were amongst his visitors at Cardiff.

To the end his mind retained its youthful keenness and enthusiasm. His knowledge covered a wide field, and he always approached the many things he studied from the comparative and evolutional point of view. His conversation was therefore always interesting, whilst his quaint and discursive mannerisms gave it additional piquancy. Although his life was a some- what lonely one, it was happily filled in by many interests. In the field he would forget his years, and would walk and climb like a young man. He was at home at the meetings of the Biological Section, of which he was a valued member. Always sure of a sympathetic audience, and having wide powers of observation, he never failed to contribute materially to the discussions and to enhance the usefulness of the proceedings.

D. R. PATERSON.



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