‘Why do entomologists need a weekly newspaper?’ asked the very first number of the Entomologist’s Weekly Intelligencer in April 1856. This periodical was the work of one man, Henry Tibbats Stainton (1822-91), who ran the Intelligencer at his own expense and acted as the sole editor. The bulk of each issue was devoted to short notices written by correspondents, detailing the insects they had captured and giving exact information regarding the species, appearance, the date, weather conditions, and collecting methods used. In this way, it operated in much the same way as a private correspondence network, though on a much larger scale, with a readership of around 600 at its peak. Insect populations are inherently transitory, varying from week to week – and even day to day – depending on climatic conditions and a host of other factors. Rapid communication between collectors is therefore of paramount importance, and the Intelligencer aimed to provide a means by which entomologists could keep abreast of each other’s activity. Stainton hoped that the quick exchange of information among collectors would allow each individual to work with increased efficiency, completing more work in a single season than had hitherto been possible in two or three.
Insect collecting was widespread hobby among nineteenth-century society. The readers of the Intelligencer were diverse in terms of class, if not in gender. Stainton himself remarked that no women wrote to the periodical, despite the many women who actively participated in entomology during this period. Costing just a single penny per issue, correspondents to the Intelligencer ranged from working-class collectors, such as the Sheffield razor grinder, James Batty, to gentleman naturalists such as Charles Darwin and John Lubbock. Darwin made use of the periodical on a number of occasions, first enquiring about the pollination of British orchids by certain moth species, but also playfully writing a letter on behalf of his children. This note read: ‘we three very young collectors have lately taken, in the parish of Down, six miles from Bromley, Kent, the following beetles’, and was signed in the names of Francis, Leonard, and Horace Darwin. Francis would later fondly recall this incident in an edited collection of his father’s correspondence.
Each issue of the Intelligencer consisted of eight pages, and could easily have fitted into a pocket and been taken into the field on a collecting trip. The periodical rarely contained illustrations, as these would have driven up the cost of production, but occasionally woodcuts were included to aid insect identification. For example, the issue for 2nd May 1857 contains an image of Gastropacha ilicifolia – the small lappet moth – which ‘at rest looks amazingly like a dead leaf’. This species is now considered to be extinct in Britain, but at the time of the Intelligencer‘s publication, it could be found by attentive entomologists on ‘Cannoch Chase and the Northern Moors’. The adults emerge during late April and early May, hence why Stainton chose to publish the illustration at this time, thereby training his readers to be observant. He notes that the ‘varied fringes’ of the wings ‘ought to catch the eye of the keen collector: dead and withered leaves are not often marked with such regularity’. The periodical was therefore closely tied to the practices of natural history, with the form and content shaped by such seasonal variations.
The Intelligencer also facilitated the exchange of specimens, as collectors could place adverts listing the insects they had collected in abundance, and were therefore willing to swap for others. Such a system was open to abuse, and this led to acrimonious debates among readers who felt they had been defrauded of their hard-won specimens. This controversy, along with the strain of single-handedly producing an issue a week, may have been among the reasons Stainton chose to discontinue the Intelligencer after only five years. Despite its short lifespan, Stainton’s periodical left a considerable void in the periodical market, and there were various attempts to replace it. For example, Thomas Blackburn, a teenager who had first begun to correspond with Stainton through the Intelligencer, began his own (almost identical) periodical entitled the Weekly Entomologist (1861-63).
The Entomologist’s Weekly Intelligencer exemplifies how a periodical could bring into being a community of naturalists, despite the many differences between the various readers and correspondents. Those who contributed to the periodical embodied the whole spectrum of nineteenth-century natural history, including those who pursued butterflies for sport and aesthetic pleasure, and those such as Stainton who considered themselves to be rigorous men of science. The practical aspects of collecting specimens were the common thread that bound these individuals together.