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Everything is most beautifully ordered and arranged: Edward Jesse, naturalist, 1780-1868

3 March 2012

Edward Jesse, who died on 28th of March 1868, was descended from a branch of the Languedoc barons de Jessé Lévas, who emigrated to England after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. He was born in Hutton Cranswick in Yorkshire. Jesse became a government clerk, progressed to be secretary to Lord Dartmouth then a clerkship in the Office of Woods and Forests and deputy surveyor of the royal parks and palaces. He lived in Richmond Park, Bushey Park, Molesey in Surrey, then Hampton, where he was involved with the restoration of Hampton Court Palace. Jesse was fascinated by natural history, something that his various jobs clearly helped him to cultivate. He wrote a number of popular books on related topics

  • An Angler’s Rambles (1836)

Jesse was a sincere lover of animals. Always surrounded by pets, he could not believe that quadrupeds at least could be denied immortality. His lack of scientific training is reflected in his writings which though colourful are often anecdotal rather than systematic.(DNB)

In his Gleanings Jesse makes what Gudger (below) calls the first recorded mention of ‘sympathy’ among fishes, when he noted that catching a female pike, “nothing could drive the male away from the spot at which the female disappeared, whom he had followed to the very edge of the water.” (p.37)

Jesse’s father was a vicar, and in keeping with his age, Jesse saw in Nature “the ineffable wisdom of the Creator, in the order and harmony, the utility and beauty, which are apparent throughout the entire range of animal life.” God as a sort of park keeper perhaps. I wonder if he read Malthus, for we see him trying to reconcile the grimness of the natural world that so appalled Darwin, with his fervent belief in Divine Providence. I quote at length:

How much would our actual enjoyment and comforts in this world be diminished if any one of the various species of quadrupeds , birds, or insects, which we see about us, were suffered to increase in too great proportion! We can hardly form a calculation of the greatness of the evil either to ourselves or to other created beings. At present, however, everything is most beautifully ordered and arranged, and no one species predominates disadvantageously over another. Those which are most useful to man multiply multiply in a much greater proportion than others which are noxious. But even the latter have their appointed use, and in the hands of a superintending Deity are made instruments of good. To a contemplative mind it is often a fearful consideration to reflect on the various modes of existence, and the different bodies wherein it has pleased God to cause life to dwell: many of which are subjected to great sufferings, and especially from one part of the creation preying upon another. What, however, many have brought forward as an argument of the want of mercy and justice in the Almighty is, on the contrary, a proof of his goodness and benevolence..

The means which Nature takes to secure every race from becoming extinct, is to produce them in superabundance. The only way, therefore, of preventing them from over-running the earth, is to produce enemies who shall prey upon and keep them within due limits. These different races, unless they were killed by their enemies, would increase beyond the supply of their food, so that the ordinary course of death amongst them would be the most painful one that can be imagined, namely, starvation. The real effect, therefore, of what may appear a disorder and cruelty in Nature, is, in point of fact, mercy; as the individuals are taken off by a sudden death in the height of their vigour, instead of being subject to a lingering and protracted one, which a want of food must have occasioned.

‘How admirable are the works of God! how excellent the operations of his hands!’

Jesse had a great love of trees:

It is a great delight to me to visit the secluded parts of Windsor Great Park. Here there is that ‘prodigality of shade’ which I delight in, and which is formed by some of the most beautiful beech trees in England. […]

There are two magnificent old oaks near Cranbourne Lodge in Windsor Great Park, – one of them is just within the park paling, and about 300 yards from the Lodge

Below is a picture of this Cranbourne Lodge Oak from Gleanings. I wonder if it still stands?

Retiring in 1851 Jesse continued to publish, producing editions of Izaak Walton and Gilbert White. His books were published by John Murray who of course published Darwin. Darwin certainly read Jesse. In 1858 he wrote to his cousin Fox, “Thanks, also, for fact about Terriers— Jesse has a very parallel fact about his own Family of Terriers, which grinned & protruded feet when ca-ressed.— I shall try & quote your fact, but, as I before said, I am over facted.”

Two of Edward Jesse’s three children are of note – his son John Jesse was an historian, and a daughter Matilda Houstoun was an author.

G. T. Bettany, ‘Jesse, Edward (1780–1868)’, rev. Alexander Goldbloom, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2010 [, accessed 3 March 2012]

Stauffer, R. C. ed. 1975. Charles Darwin’s Natural Selection; being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

E. W. Gudger, Some Instances of Supposed Sympathy Among Fishes. The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Mar., 1929), pp. 266-271

One Comment
  1. sorry, unrelated to this blog – are you related to Harold Jalland Stiles the early 20th century surgeon? Born in Pinchbeck in the fens, moved to Edinburgh where he made his fame and fortune. my avatar image is carabus nitens – as you like natural history 🙂

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