- Categories: 19th Century
Eleanor Ormerod (11 May 1828 – 19 July 1901), leading entomologist, who often tested insects out on her own body, dangerously so, to see what effects they might have.
She received silver and gold medals from the University of Moscow, a silver medal from the Société nationale d’acclimatation de France, was the first woman to be admitted a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society and to be awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Edinburgh; she was also the inspiration for Gaskells heroine in Wives and Daughters and inspired Virginia Woolf to write a story about her.
Have you heard of her?
A Victorian Gentlewoman with a Passion for Entomology
Eleanor Anne Ormerod who lived for the final 14 years of her life on Holywell Hill
By Sue Mann
Hatfield Road cemetery in St Albans is the final resting place of Eleanor Anne Ormerod, little known today but in her lifetime a celebrated economic entomologist.
Eleanor Ormerod (11 May 1828 – 19 July 1901)
Whilst most young Victorian ladies might have blanched at the very idea of working out the most effective way of despatching a swarm of turnip flies, Eleanor found such challenges fascinating.
As a small child she recalled being perched on a chair and given to watch, to keep her quiet at home, a tumbler of water with about half a dozen great water grubs in it.
“One of them had been much injured and his companions proceeded quite to demolish him. I was exceedingly interested, and when the family came home, gave them the results of my observations, which were entirely disbelieved. Arguing was not permitted, so I said nothing but I had made my first step in entomology.”
The youngest of ten children, born in 1828 to wealthy land-owning parents, she developed a deep understanding of just about everything that buzzed and crawled on the family’s 800 acre estate, persuading her father’s workforce to bring her any unusual insects they found in return for one of “Miss Ormerod’s shillings”.
However, it wasn’t until her 30s, after her mother died and in the final years of her father’s life, that she was able to begin sharing with a wider audience her increasing knowledge of insects beneficial and baneful to agriculturalists and horticulturalists. Until then her endeavours had been neither approved of nor taken seriously by her family, with the exception of her sister Georgiana.
Following the death of her father in 1873 and with the benefit of a handsome inheritance, the sisters moved first to Torquay to be near relatives and then to Isleworth where Eleanor could pursue her studies at nearby Kew Gardens.
They were friends with the influential director of Kew Sir Joseph Hooker – said to be Charles Darwin’s closest friend – and his second wife Hyacinth who wrote that Eleanor “… often came in the morning before public hours to the gardens to pursue her researches. She was extremely fond of animals and birds and could imitate their calls so perfectly that she could collect creatures around her.”
Eleanor and Georgiana subsequently moved to St Albans – to Torrington House, Holywell Hill – in 1887. Her friends included Lord and Lady Grimthorpe, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Festing, and the Dean, Walter John Lawrance. She was also acquainted with Sir Henry Gilbert, director of the chemical laboratory at Rothamsted in Harpenden.
As an author, lecturer and, for a period, Britain’s de facto government entomologist, Eleanor played a pivotal role in establishing economic entomology as a science of national value and importance. Hertfordshire Natural History Society has placed a plaque in her honour at Torrington House.
Eleanor was the first woman to be admitted a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society, and the first to be awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Edinburgh.
Her youthful enthusiasm for the natural world is said to have been the inspiration for the heroine in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel ‘Wives and Daughters’, although the book was first serialised in 1864 when Eleanor was 36 and still little known outside her rather reclusive family. Some years after her death, Virginia Woolf was inspired to write a short story entitled Miss Ormerod, published in an American magazine, The Dial.
She gave liberally to St Albans’ charities and other public projects in the Abbey parish in which she lived, as well as in St Michael’s, where she attended church.
Eleanor is buried with her sister, who predeceased her.
From The St Albans Architectural and Archaeological Society website – more links and photos at their page here