Posted in Exhibition, History, Literature, Museum

Frank Oates – Victorian Explorer of The Natural World

Top Row (L-R) - W. E. Oates, Mr Gray, Mr Buckley. Bottom Row (L-R), Thomas Bell (W.E. Oates's servant), Frank Oates with his favourite pointer, Rail.
Taken on the African expedition, 1873-5. Top Row (L-R) W. E. Oates (William, Frank’s brother), Mr Gray, Mr Buckley. Bottom Row (L-R), Thomas Bell (William’s servant), Frank Oates with his favourite pointer, Rail. On display as part of The Oates Collection, Gilbert White’s House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire.

Francis [Frank] Oates (1840-1875) was born on the 6th April, 1840 at Meanwoodside, near Leeds, Yorkshire. His nephew was Antarctic explorer Captain Lawrence Oates (1880-1912).  Gilbert White’s House and Garden Museum in Selborne, Hampshire, contains a unique range of exhibits known as The Oates Collection. The Collection reflects both Lawrence and Frank’s interest in the natural world as well as background information on their respective overseas expeditions.

In 1954, the former home of naturalist Revd. Gilbert White (1720-1793), was bought by public subscription, augmented by a large donation from Robert Washington Oates (1874-1958) a cousin of Lawrence. The property opened as The Oates Memorial Library and Museum and The Gilbert White Museum in 1955. At the time, the Library was reported to amount to forty thousand books.  Recently, I had the pleasure of being shown around The Oates Collection by the Museum’s General Manager, Miriam Tong.

Frank Oates
Frank Oates (1840-1875). The image is by Mr Francis Holl from a photograph by Gowland of York.

Frank Oates Gallery details the explorer’s fateful expedition to Africa, begun in 1873, together with displays of various artefacts and specimens he collected during his trek from Durban, through Natal, Transvaal and finally to Matabeleland and the Victoria Falls. He was the first European to see the Victoria Falls in full flood since Dr David Livingstone (1813-1873) had reach the same location on the 17th November, 1855. Prior to this expedition, in 1871, Frank visited the Americas. On display in the Gallery is a stunning array of birds that he collected throughout Central America.

Frank Oates was the quintessential Victorian explorer. He had ambition, an enquiring mind, a desire for overseas adventure, a keen interest in ethnography and most importantly a fascination for the natural world. The latter he inherited from his father who was himself a keen, amateur, naturalist. Frank was the second of three sons born to Edward and Susan Oates. Frank’s brother, William, joined the early stages of the African expedition (1873-5). His other brother, Charles George, facilitated the publication of  Matabele Land and The Victoria Falls: A Naturalist’s Wanderings in the Interior of Africa (1881). Book cover for 1881 publication

Charles acted as the book’s editor and the contents were compiled from Frank’s letters and journals written in Africa between March, 1873 and January, 1875. A second, enlarged, edition of the book was published in 1889 with appendices on the natural history collections by a range of experts. It is important to point-out here, that Frank did not intend his writings to be published. They were, as Charles highlights in the first edition’s Preface, ‘suggestive guides to memory.’

In 1860, Frank entered Christ Church College, Oxford, to read Natural Sciences. He enjoyed many of the usual athletic pursuits on offer to a young Oxbridge undergraduate including: swimming; cricket; rowing; shooting; fencing and his favourite, riding. Although due to poor health, he was only able to participate in these activities intermittently. He was also an accomplished artist, a talent that served him well on expeditions, when he as able to make detailed and accurate observations of the wildlife in his sketchbooks.

Klipspringer (
Klipspringer (Oreotragus Saltatrix), a type of antelope that Frank saw on his African expedition. The image is based upon one from Frank’s own sketchbook.

However, Frank’s academic career was cut short, when in the spring of his first year at Oxford he suffered a serious chest infection. His ill-health prevented him from returning to Oxford for the summer term. By the autumn, he was still not fully recovered and decided to spend time in Italy where the climate was dry and warm. Unfortunately, his chest ailments returned during the Easter vacation. While convalescing at the family home in Yorkshire, he wrote of his frustrations at being confined to his childhood bedroom once again, in a letter dated the 23rd April, 1862:

I see the tree-tops tipped with green, and hear the thrush’s voice, telling me of old times, and asking me why I keep house, and I’ve no doubt spring is here. So, I want to be out again, and to greet her as an old friend.

(Matabele Land and The Victoria Falls: A Naturalist’s Wanderings in the Interior of South Africa, (1881), Oates, C.G., (Ed.), published by C. Kegan Paul & Co, p. xxii)

Eventually, he recovered sufficiently to return to Oxford on May 9th, 1862. In time, good health was to elude him once more and he had no choice but to leave university. Frank did matriculate from Christ Church College on 9th February, 1861 but when he eventually left in 1864 he did so without a degree.  Frank had a tendency to overwork himself which had also not helped with his recovery.

Following his time at Oxford, Frank spent a number of years as an invalid, the chest infection having left him with a reduced lung capacity. He occupied his time studying and reading about natural sciences as well as partaking in a number of nature rambles throughout the British Isles including Wales, the Lake District and Ireland. He continued to document his observations of nature on each occasion. He also reflected on his predicament and the restrictions it placed upon him not being able to travel overseas. In one letter he wrote during this period, he warns his brother of the consequences of overworking:

Let me advise you earnestly not to try to do too many things. I killed the goose with a vengeance, and got no golden egg. I was expecting in a few weeks [when taken ill] a degree with honours, and a good start in life, and had to leave Oxford without even an ordinary degree, which I knew more than enough to have taken the Easter before, if it would have satisfied me.

(Ibid. pp. xxvi and xxvii)

Eventually, his health did improve sufficiently for him to embark upon his first, major, overseas expedition to Central and North America, which he did for one year, between 1871 and 1872.  The trip was initiated partly on health grounds, friends advised him that a dry, warm climate would help him recover. During this expedition, he collected many bird and insect specimens, particularly in Guatemala. On display at the museum there is a stunning range of birds collection by Frank from throughout Central America. A number of these specimens represent birds that are now extinct.

From a very young age, Frank had been an admirer of the art and writing of John James Audubon (1785-1851). Audubon was a French-American ornithologist, naturalist and painter whose illustrations of American birds in their natural habitat, were published as The Birds of America (1827-1839). Charles wrote of his brother’s fascination with Audubon’s work: ‘The plates of Audubon’s Birds, when access could be had to them, were turned by him with feelings little short of reverence.’ (Ibid. p. xiii) To view The Birds of America online, CLICK HERE. For more information about the National Audubon Society. CLICK HERE.

Central American bird specimens collected by Frank Oates in 1871-2. By kind permission of The Oates Collection, Gilbert White's House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire.
Central American bird specimens collected by Frank Oates in 1871-2, now on display in The Frank Oates Gallery. By kind permission of Gilbert White’s House and Garden, The Oates Collection, Selborne, Hampshire.

Whilst travelling through the mountains of California Frank spent a number of weeks sleeping rough under canvas, an experience that would have served well as preparation for his future adventures in Africa (1873-5). Following his return to England in 1872, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Frank now concentrated his efforts on organising his most challenging expedition yet, to Africa.

Victoria Falls from a water-colour drawing by Frank Oates.
Victoria Falls (Western Extremity) from a water-colour drawing by Frank Oates. After seeing the Falls, he wrote in his journal: ‘After breakfast I visited the Falls – a day never to be forgotten.’ (New Year’s Day, 1875).

On 5th March, 1873, Frank and his brother William sailed from Southampton, Hampshire to Natal, South Africa. William returned to England at the end of 1873. The plan for the African expedition was to reach the Zambesi River from Natal and continue on to the unexplored country to the north of that river.  Frank wanted to collected as many animal and plant specimens as was possible, to bring back to England for further study. However, quite a number of these specimens were destroyed, in Frank’s lifetime, at Shoshong, by an unroofing, during a gale, of the hut where they were stored. Other specimens were also lost following  Frank’s death on 5th February, 1875. According to Charles, some spirit jars of reptiles and beetles were afterwards left behind when the collections were conveyed to England.

From the a display in The Frank Oates Gallery, Gilbert White's House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire.
From a display in The Frank Oates Gallery, Gilbert White’s House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire. Illustration by R. Mintern.

Frank also collected various ethnographical objects during the course of his travels.  One particular curio that is mentioned quite a bit in his journals, is the ostrich egg. He commented that the eggs themselves were delicious fried with a little meal or made into a pudding with maizena and particularly popular in the region of Seruli. The empty shells were used to carry water. Whole, the eggs were used as currency in local trade and could be exchanged for a cheap knife, mirror, or handkerchief.

From a display at The Frank Oates Gallery, Gilbert White's House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire.
From a display at The Frank Oates Gallery, Gilbert White’s House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire. Illustration by R. Mintern.

Frank was also successful in finding a number of species of flora and fauna that were new to science. His journals contained details of the precise location where the specimens had been collected. This enabled future generations of naturalists to compare historical with modern records, allowing for a greater understanding of ecological changes that took place in South Eastern Africa. The specimens Frank collected that were found to be new to science were given the specific classification oatesii. Examples of which include: a snake, Dryiophis oatesii and a heather, Erica oatesii. This heather can be seen growing in the gardens at the museum during the summer months.

Dryiophis oatesii. From a display in The Frank Oates Gallery, GIlbert White's House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire. Illustration by R. Mintern.
Dryiophis oatesii. From a display in The Frank Oates Gallery, Gilbert White’s House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire. Illustration by R. Mintern.

On 16th May, 1873, Frank left Pietermaritzburg and spent a period of time in Matabele, a country to the north of the Limpopo River. On 25th September, 1873, at the home of missionary Mr Thomson, Nr Gubuleweyo, Frank wrote:

I cannot give you a detailed account of my stay of nine days at the King’s Town. It is really to a stranger a most curious place. The king, Lobengula, lives in royal state. He is absolute monarch, and feared and obeyed far and wide. The people inhabiting the country we have passed through in coming here are altogether of an inferior race. At Bamangwato there is a king, but he is thought nothing of. I called on ‘Bengula, accompanied by Fairbairn, the day I arrived here, and found him the picture of a savage king, just as one might have imagined, and coming quite up to the standard. The day I first saw him he was nearly naked, and lying on a skin inside his hut, to enter which you have to crawl in on your hands and knees through a little aperture in the front; in fact it is like a beehive entrance. He took me by the hand, and placed meat before me, and asked a few questions about my journey. I told him I should come again next day. Of course I had to make him a present, and I knew he would expect it next day, after which I should ask his leave and assistance to go through his country to the Victoria Falls if possible. I gave him a gun and ammunition, which pleased him very much, and he has done everything he could for me.

It appeared that I was still in time to reach the Falls by going on foot, after leaving my waggon at the place marked on the map as Inyati. The king said it was possible to get to the Falls in ten days, and I suppose at my rate of travelling it ought to be done in a fortnight or three weeks at most, and the king says I have still two months of favourable weather, but so anxious is he that no white man should come to grief in his country, that he has been urging on me all possible haste from the moment the subject was first mentioned.  He has given me two excellent men as guides; these two, having the king’s authority, will carry all before them.

I left Gubuleweyo last Night, and came on as far as here, the house of Mr Thomson the missionary, for my first trek. Mr Thomson has kindly interested himself in me, and done all he could to assist me. He has a nice wife and children, and this morning I have had the luxury of a civilized breakfast, including tablecloth, bread and butter and eggs, and milk to one’s coffee – things that I don’t often see now. I am now availing myself of one of his rooms to write to you in.

(Ibid. pp.63-64)

On February 24th, 1874, Frank wrote to his brother, William, from Tati:

It is quite a pleasure to get a letter from you, I mean the one you left for me here. I shall get no more now for five or six weeks, when I expect to be in Mungwato. I am sorry that wretched old croaker, Palmer, put you in a funk about me. He says it would be a good thing for people travelling to have ‘portable coffins’. I am thankful to say my health is excellent. I did not, as doubtless you know by this time, get to the Zambesi. I believe the king was the at the bottom of it (not of the Zambesi; but excuse grammar). I took my waggon fifty miles on the way, as far as Inyati, and then put all out for fifteen carriers to take. It was a fortnight’s walk through ‘the fly’ to the Falls. After waiting nearly a week, it transpired that no boys were forthcoming as promised. Partly, I think, they were afraid of fever, and partly of the natives, with whom they are at war; partly also they wanted to get in time to cultivate their gardens. However, I believe I could have got them myself easily, had I not trusted to the man given me by the king.

(Ibid. p.141)

Before Frank finally reached the Victoria Falls on 31st December, 1874, he suffered three aborted attempts due to both difficult weather conditions and hostilities amongst the local people towards the expedition. After seeing the Falls, he wrote in his journal: ‘After breakfast I visited the Falls – a day never to be forgotten.’ (New Year’s Day, 1875). This proved to be one of the last journal entries Frank ever wrote. During his journey back from the Victoria Falls he contracted a fever, possibly malaria. After being ill for twelve days, he died near Makalaka Kraal, eighty miles north of the Tati River, on February 5th, 1875. He was buried the next morning. Dr A. Bradshaw, who happened to be in a neighbourhood, attended Frank in his final hours and made all the arrangements for his interment as well the safe return of his belongings and important specimen collections to England.

Frank had two dogs that travelled with him in Africa, ‘Rock‘ and ‘Rail’,  the latter being his favourite. It is here that I end with a touching tale of an animal’s devotion to its master. After taking care of the burial arrangements for Frank and beginning the return journey back from Makalaka Kraal, Dr Bradshaw and the rest of the team noticed that Rail had gone missing. Several of the team members retraced their steps and searched in vain for the pointer. In due course, they found themselves back at Frank’s grave where there, laying by his master’s head-stone, was Rail, a sole mourner. Both Rail and Rock eventually returned to England with Dr Bradshaw. However, five year’s after his master’s death, Rail died on 5th February, 1880 and three week’s later his companion, Rock, also passed away.

He had deeply endeared himself to a wide circle of private friends by his genial, manly character, and, had he lived, would have added largely to those fields of distant inquiry and research for which his ardent love of travel and adventure peculiarly fitted him.

(Extract from a obituary for Frank Oates, Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Saturday 29th May, 1875)

  • Gilbert White’s House & Garden and The Oates Collection is located at The Wakes, High Street, Selborne, Hampshire. For details of opening times and admission charges for 2013, CLICK HERE.
Rail, Frank's favourite dog, guarding his master's grave. Display in The Frank Oates Gallery, Gilbert White's House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire.
Rail, Frank’s favourite dog, guarding his master’s grave. Display in The Frank Oates Gallery, Gilbert White’s House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire.