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An eccentric English mineral collector - Charles Ottley Groom Napier

Last Updated: 4th Feb 2020

By David Carter

Charles Ottley Groom Napier, also known as C.O.G Napier FGS FLS (14th May 1839 – 17th January 1894), was a natural historian, geologist, mineral collector, as well a writer on vegetarianism, ornithology and an early proponent of British Israelism. He was most well known for his eccentric claims of ancestry.

Charles Ottley Groom Napier

He was born 14th May 1839 in Merchiston, Tobago, the posthumous son of Charles Edward Groom (1815–1838), a very wealthy sugar planter, and his wife, Ann Napier (1815–1895). He later moved and grew up in Sussex, England, with his highly protective mother with who he lived until his death. He was a sickly child by all accounts with precocious interests in natural history, science, and antiquarianism: “My intellectual activity and vivid imagination was doubtless the cause of my delicacy. My mind was full of gigantic schemes, which were little influenced by my capacity for their execution”. Stemming from his early interests in natural history he subsequently obtained a degree in geology. Later he became a prominent member of the Geological Society of London and joined the Linnean Society as well as being a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society.

* The Geological Society of London, known commonly as the Geological Society, is a learned society based in the United Kingdom. It’s the oldest national geological society in the world and largest in Europe with more than 12.000 Fellows. It was formed on 13th October 1807 and received its Royal Charter on 23rd April 1825. Fellows are entitled to the post nominal FGS (Fellow of the Geological Society). The mission of the society is: ‘Making geologists acquainted with each other, stimulating their zeal, inducing them to adopt one nomenclature, facilitating the communication of new facts and ascertaining what is known in their science and what remains to be discovered’. Their motto is, Quicquid sub terra est (Whatever is Under the Earth).

* The Linnean Society of London is a learned society dedicated to the study and dissemination of information concerning natural history, evolution, and taxonomy. It was formed in 1788 and received its Royal Charter on 26th March 1802. Fellowship requires nomination by at least one fellow, and election by a minimum of two thirds of those electors voting. Fellows may employ the post nominal letters ‘FLS’. The Linnean Society possesses several important biological specimen, manuscript and literature collections and publishes academic journals and books on plant and animal biology. In 1854 Charles Darwin was elected a fellow; he is undoubtedly the most illustrious scientist ever to appear on the membership rolls of the society. A product of the 18th Century enlightenment, the Society is the oldest extant biological society in the world, and is historically important as the venue for the first public presentation of the theory of evolution on 1st July 1858. Their motto is, Naturae Discere Mores (To Learn the Ways of Nature).

* The Royal Statistical Society is one of the established statistical societies. It has three main goals. The RSS is a British learned society for statistics, a professional body for statisticians, and a charity which promotes statistics for the public good. The society was founded in 1834 as the Statistical Society of London which became the Royal Statistical Society by Royal Charter in 1887, and merged with the Institute of Statisticians in 1993. The merger enabled the society to take on the role of a professional body as well as that of a learned society. Fellowship of the Royal Statistical Society is open to anyone with an interest in statistics. It isn’t restricted to only those with high achievement within the discipline. This distinguishes it from other learned societies, where usually the fellow grade is the highest grade in that discipline. As of 2019 the society claims more than 10,000 members around the world The original seal had the motto, Aliis Exterendum (For Others to Thresh Out, i.e. Interpret), but this separation was found to be a hindrance and the motto was dropped in later logos.

As a prominent collector Groom Napier was voracious and he acquired huge collections of minerals, plants and fossils from around the world. Many of these were later sold to the Natural History Museum in London. Eventually the mineral portion of his collection was purchased by the German mineral dealer Friedrich Krantz, taken to Bonn, and dispersed. Napier bought the personal collection of fossils from James Tennant, who was an English mineralogist and mineralogist to Queen Victoria. This was later purchased by Robert Damon and sold to the Western Australian Museum in Perth where it remains today. A large part of his herbarium is currently preserved in Bolton Museum, Greater Manchester, England.

Groom Napier specimen & label
Groom Napier labelled specimen
Groom Napier labelled specimen
Groom Napier labelled specimen
Groom Napier labelled specimen

Some users here on Mindat may be familiar with, or even have in their possession, original Groom Napier mineral specimens, labelled or otherwise. I consider myself lucky enough to own one of his early labelled specimens, a Calcite twinned scalenohedron crystal from Somerset, England. Groom Napier specimens do occasionally appear on the market and the old labels on them are quite distinctive with their thin red lines/borders and cursive writing. The labels often include ‘Mus. M. & M.’ printed in red upon them, or the much rarer ‘Ex. Mus. P. Mantua & Montferrat.’ (also printed in red). More often than not too it would seem the locality given for specimens isn’t very accurate, or can be rather vague to say the least!

Groom Napier label
Groom Napier label
Groom Napier label
Groom Napier label

In a 2004 book called The Heretic in Darwin’s Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace, the author Ross A. Slotten writes about hypnotist William Fletcher Barrett presenting a learned paper in 1876 to around 1200 people, entitled ‘On Some Phenomena Associated with Abnormal Conditions of the Mind’ for the Anthropological Department of the British Association for Advancement of Science:
“Charles Ottley Groom-Napier, author of ‘The Book of Nature and the Book of Man’, next gave a long-winded account of his own spiritualist powers, including examples of his clairvoyant talents, which provoked grumbles from the audience. Some grew impatient with him and laughed at his descriptions of his experiences. “Give us facts!” someone shouted. Undeterred, Groom-Napier continued to give personal testimony until he was interrupted by more laughter, shouting, and ridicule and then finally told to shut up. Humiliated, he returned to his seat.”

In the 1870s, bizarrely and for seemingly unknown reasons, Groom Napier assumed a series of self-aggrandising and entirely imaginary titles. He began styling himself as the Prince of Mantua and Montferrat with subsidiary titles as prince of Ferrera, Nevers, Rethel, and Alençon; Baron de Tobago; and master of Lennox, Kilmahew, and Merchiston.

* Mantua is a city and municipality in Lombardy, Italy and capital of the province of the same name. Montferrat is part of the region of Piedmont in northern Italy. Ferrera is a municipality in the Viamala Region in the Grisons, Switzerland. Nevers is the prefecture of the Nièvre Department in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté Region in central France. Rethel is a commune in the Ardennes Department in northern France. Alençon is a commune in Normandy, France, capital of the Orne Department. Tobago is an island within the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, located 22 miles northeast of the mainland of Trinidad and southeast of Grenada, about 99 miles off the coast of northeast Venezuela. The Lennox is a region of Scotland centred on The Vale of Leven, including its great loch: Loch Lomond. Kilmahew Castle is a ruined castle located just north of Cardross, in the area of Argyll and Bute, Scotland. Merchiston is a residential estate in the southwest of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Groom Napier clearly had a plan in his mind and was maybe trying to advance his prestige or perhaps naively attempting to spread his comparatively diminutive influence far and wide! He grew obsessed with his genealogy and insisted that he was descended from various European royal families and that he could trace his lineage all the way back to the Biblical King David. He worked with the genealogist John O’Hart and claimed that he could trace his ancestry to various European royal bloodlines or nobles through his mother Ann Napier. Works from John Riddell (a 19th Century peerage lawyer) was published in 1879 attempting to link his mother to the Duchess of Mantua and Montferrat in Italy and the Scottish Clan Napier. These claims however were dismissed as fabrications by most genealogists and his academic reputation was tarred by scientists since his mineral collection was registered in the name of ‘Ex. Mus. P[rince] of Mantua & Monferrat’.

Groom Napier however never retracted his claims of ancestry and when he died of long-standing cardiac disease on 17th January 1894 his death was registered in London as that of ‘Charles de Bourbon d'Este Paleologues Gonzaga, prince of Mantua and Montferrat’. When his mother, Ann Napier, died a year later, having assumed the title of Dowager Duchess of Mantua, she was registered under tha name Ann de B D P Gonzaga. The Horniman Museum in Forest Hill, south London, bought a significant amount of Papua New Guinea material from the Mantua collection at an auction in October 1895.

Groom Napier read a paper entitled — "Where are the Lost Tribes of Israel" to the London Anthropological Society, in 1875. He believed that the British descended from the Ten Lost Tribes and was a personal friend of British Israelite Edward Hine.

In a 2014 book called The Evolutionist: The Strange tale of Alfred Russel Wallace, the author Avi Sirlin writes about a presentation at the British Association for Advancement of Science in Glasgow on 12th September 1876, where Groom Napier is mentioned:
“From the first row Sir William Crookes signalled for the floor. In that dolorous tone known to all, the discover of thallium and inventor of the radiometer reminded the audience he had produced his own thorough report on spiritual phenomena two years earlier. This elicited groans from the uncouth quarter. Undaunted, Crookes iterated that his own vigorous experiments validated the existence of spiritual phenomena. Thus he respectfully disagreed with Professor William Barrett’s excessive note of caution. The Association could do well to forge ahead and establish spiritualism as the newest branch of natural science. Charles Ottley Groom-Napier sprang to his feet. Little choice for Alfred Russel Wallace (President of the Association’s Biology Section), but to recognise the prominent geologist, fellow of the Royal Statistical Society and member of the Linnean Society - also the self-proclaimed Prince of Mantua and Montferrat and avowed descendant of King David. Groom-Napier launched into a long-winded and unintelligible history of his own investigation. Genuine unrest now gained foothold. Concluding, Groom-Napier appealed to Wallace directly, “Mr President, might I add that we British, as descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel, have a duty - “. The gentleman never got to finish for all the outcries. The audience’s displeasure only deepened when, out of fairness, Wallace granted the floor to Reverend Thompson. The Reverend predictably denounced spiritualist phenomena ...”

Groom Napier in fact did write prolifically himself on the natural sciences and, for much of his career he was a conventional, well respected author. He published a good many learned articles and books including:

The food, use, and beauty of British birds: An essay, accompanied by a catalogue, of all the British birds (1865)
Miscellanea anthropologica (1867)
Variations in the colour, form and size of the eggs of birds (1868)
The ocean world: being a descriptive history of the sea and its living inhabitants (1868)
The book of nature and the book of man (1870)
Vegetarianism in the Bible (1879)
Natural History Rambles: Lakes and Rivers (1879), the most likely printed book of his to be found these days.

Natural History Rambles: Lakes and Rivers (1879) book front page

Groom Napier even wrote a children’s book engraved with 46 illustrations entitled Tommy Try And What He Did In Science (1869) and I consider myself rather fortunate to own a 1st edition of this extremely rare book.

Tommy Try And What He Did In Science (1869) book

In January 1870, Groom Napier wrote to Charles Darwin, and the transcript of that letter is as follows:

20 Maryland Road | Paddington | W.
Janry 1870

To Charles Darwin Esqre, FRS
My dear Sir,
By desire of the late Lord Brougham I send you a copy of my new work The Book of Nature and the Book of Man, will you accept it in remembrance of his Lordship who had a very high opinion of the author of “Natural Selection” to which he was latterly a convert.
I regret much the delay in forwarding the book which is only just published. I should have liked to have sent it in the lifetime of Lord Brougham. Let it now be an olive leaf snatched from his tomb.
I remain yours most respectfully | C O Groom Napier

Henry Peter Brougham died in 1868 and it’s most doubtful whether Groom Napier personally knew Brougham or even whether Brougham wrote the preface to The Book of Nature and the Book of Man by Groom Napier. Also, there are no copies of The Book of Nature and the Book of Man to be found in the Darwin Libraries at either Cambridge University or Down House, Kent.

In one of his later volumes of work entitled; Works of H.R. and M.S.H. the Prince of Mantua and Montferrat, Prince of Ferrara, Nevers, Réthel, and Alençon. London: Dulau and Co, 1886, Groom Napier prefaced the book with sixty-four pages of fictitious rave reviews and testimonials provided by such illustrious individuals as Victor Hugo (“miraculous”), Michael Faraday (“a marvel”), Anthony Trollope (“too much for this wicked world”), Elizabeth Barret Browning, Charles Darwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Pope Pius IX, and Abraham Lincoln. All of these reviews were fraudulent, all of them invented by Napier. Conveniently for him, none of these people were available to dispute the attribution, since they were all recently deceased!!

Groom Napier also claimed that he was reviving a 'Mantua & Montferrat Medal Fund' which had been created by his ancestor Lodovico Gonzaga in the 14th century, to confer recognition on men eminent in arts, Letters and Science! As a result, he initiated the production of a series of gilded bronze ‘Prince of Mantua and Montferrat’s Prize Medals’. They were issued for him in 1879 and he bestowed them (by post) on various eminent men. The medals were all identical except for the name of the recipient: some including William Gladstone (British statesman, politician and Prime Minister), refused the honour! In 1879 Napier held a banquet for 7000 guests in a specially constructed pavilion at Greenwich, the walls of which were hung with 700 illuminated leaves of vellum illustrating his (purported) pedigree. It’s understood that the great and the good were to be presented with these medals (the reverse had a space for naming), but for some unknown reason this never came about and unnamed medal examples remain extremely rare.

Rare old Mantuan medal issued by Charles Ottley Groom Napier

To sum up, Groom Napier lived at a time within the Age of Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason or simply Enlightenment) when the intellectual and philosophical movement dominated the world of ideas in Europe. Science during the Enlightenment was dominated by scientific societies and academies, which had largely replaced universities as centres of scientific research and development. Societies and academies were also the backbone of the maturation of the scientific profession. Another important development was the popularisation of science among an increasingly literate population. A genre that greatly rose in importance was that of scientific literature. Natural history in particular became increasingly popular among the upper classes. Knowledge was based on experimentation, which had to be witnessed to provide proper empirical legitimacy. However, not just any witness was considered to be credible: ‘Oxford professors were accounted more reliable witnesses than Oxfordshire peasants’. Two factors were taken into account: a witness's knowledge in the area and a witness's ‘moral constitution’. In other words, only the civil society and people of high standing were legitimately considered worthy. Social status, ladder climbing and one-upmanship all played an important role in determining a person’s place within society. It was also probably fairly easy to find yourself ‘backing the wrong theory’ during a period when so much was new and often changing too! I suspect that Groom Napier was ultimately just doing what he thought was right in his own mind to personally advance and find his place in the increasingly competitive, often ruthless and unsparing, dog eat dog environment he found himself in. My own view is that Groom Napier was in actual fact probably a pretty clever man, albeit with some obvious issues, but also that he sometimes found himself out of his depth and perhaps made a few wrong choices along the way of life, as is quite often the case!

David - English mineral collector, and quite possibly eccentric too!

(Please note that the information above was researched and gleaned from various different sources. Some are non-attributable, but documented references have been acknowledged in a few cases where known.)

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Discuss this Article

17th Jan 2020 07:09 UTCDavid Carter

You don’t have to be crazy to collect minerals, but it helps ;-)

22nd Jan 2020 00:29 UTCCarl (Bob) Carnein

The quote from the Sirlin book illustrates how much we lose nowadays because of the timid minutes of meetings, where the main concern seems to be liability.

22nd Jan 2020 03:11 UTCDavid Carter

Indeed, as the saying goes, “Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right”. There’s certainly a lot to be said for polite honesty, openness and transparency without fear of petty backlash or repercussions. Nowadays, it seems to be a regular occurrence for someone to simply go ahead and object to something they’ve heard or seen and then pontificate about it, not because they’re necessarily correct, but more often because their feelings or sensitivities have been hurt a little!

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