John R. le B. Tomlin, 1864-1954

Author & date of last revision: Pryce Buckle on 11 November 2009

By A. E. Salisbury

Extracted from Journal of Conchology, Volume 24, pp.29–33
John Read le Brockton Tomlin
At 3 o’clock in the morning of Christmas Eve ended the long life of one of our oldest members, by the death at the age of ninety of John Read le Brockton Tomlin, who celebrated his last birthday anniversary on 15 August, when Mr. and Mrs. Tomlin’s domestic staff organized a tea party in celebration of the occasion, which gave him great delight.

Born in 1864 at Stokefield, Elston, Nottinghamshire, he was the eldest son of John Read Tomlin (b. 1816) and Sarah Elizabeth (b. 1837), daughter of the Rev. Samuel May Lund, vicar of Awsworth, Nottinghamshire, and Martha Lund (née Pettinger). Tomlin lost his father at the early age of seven, and well remembered the strong impression made upon his young mind when he attended the funeral and followed the cortège to the grave. The family did not remain long in Nottinghamshire after his father’s death in 1871, but moved almost immediately to Chester, his mother having a sister and brother-in-law, Hugh Falloon, vicar of Boughton, living there. Between seven and eleven years old he first had three successive governesses, and then in 1875 went to Arnold House School, Chester. In 1878 he won a scholarship (worth about £120) which took him to Winchester as a “collegiate ", one of fifteen of that year, whose names he always remembered, rolling them off to the writer only a month or two before his death. Whilst at Winchester he took an active part in the College Natural History Society and his first paper appeared in their magazine in 1882 (Winchester College Nat. Hist. Soc. 6th Report).

It is here interesting to recall that Tomlin’s nickname at school was "Lucky Dog", an apt sobriquet, for good luck accompanied him through his life in acquiring specimens by gift, purchase and exchange, as well as when collecting and indeed as regards other matters.

In 1883 he won a senior classical scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge. At Pembroke he met the writer’s future headmaster and his brother. At the University he read classics, to which he added Sanskrit, taking his B.A. degree in 1886, class 2, 1st Division classical tripos. The College offered a scholarship for a fourth year on the strength of his degree and he took a place at the top of the 2nd class, but from lack of funds did not proceed to his M.A. till much later.

Whilst at Cambridge he met the Rev. Professor Gwatkin and the Rev. A. H. Cooke (author of the “Molluscs” section of volume 3 of the Cambridge Natural History, Tutor of King’s College, and in charge of the collections at the Sedgwick Museum), and it was from these men that Tomlin acquired or augmented his love of natural history, especially Mollusca, and started to form his magnificent collection of shells. Whilst at Cambridge he was in great demand for many of the social functions. including dances, at which Mrs. Gwatkin was a leading light, and Tomlin tells that it was owing to these dances that he took up dancing lessons. Professor Gwatkin, who for many years had visited the Channel Islands, mainly for the purpose of studying the anatomy and especially the radulae of Mollusca, introduced Tomlin, while still at Cambridge, to his hosts in Guernsey. Tomlin made a practice of spending some time of most of the next fifty years with the same hosts, adding to his collections, in which he was energetically assisted, after his marriage, by Mrs. Tomlin.

On going down from Cambridge, Tomlin coached pupils in Liverpool for a time, being near his home, and there he met F. P. Marrat at one time of the Museum at Liverpool, who lived in Tunnel Road where Tomlin often visited him, and through whose association Tomlin was greatly helped in his review of Marrat’s Nassa of the Liverpool Museum collections. H. S. Gorman, an enthusiastic coleopterist, was another friend. He rented a whole house in which to keep his world-wide collection, and it was his friendship which led to Tomlin giving still further study to this group of insects, on which he became an acknowledged authority, forming one of the best (if not the best) collection in existence of British Beetles, only a very few species of which remain unrepresented among the 82,000 specimens which some years ago Tomlin presented to the National Museum of Wales at Cardiff.

Yet other friends at Liverpool were the members of the Archer family, the two brothers, Francis and Samuel, being both interested in Mollusca. Samuel, a Colonel Surgeon, was Deputy Surgeon-General to the forces stationed at Singapore, where he collected assiduously, sending barrels of specimens home to his brother, Tomlin coming in for samples of species as he might desire for his collection, and at the Archers’ death for a cabinet or two of shells.

Tomlin left Liverpool in 1890 to take up the appointment of senior assistant master at Llandaff Cathedral School, where he remained for nine years, during which time he made numerous friends in and around Cardiff and met other well known personalities who visited the notable Dean Vaughan of Llandaff, who was also Master of the Temple. At the Deanery Tomlin was persona grata, being regularly called upon to take a hand at one of the tables for a game of whist, besides at other times being a frequent visitor there. He of course met the Dean’s two brothers when they stayed at the Deanery, one of whom was the Rev. Canon E. T. Vaughan, the first rector of Harpenden, Hertfordshire, where the writer of these notes lived as a boy, the other being General Vaughan. Many are the yams told by Tomlin of the famous Dean and his “doves “as the young men who stayed at Llandaff and read for the ministry under the Dean’s guidance were known.

Llandaff being in fact a suburb of Cardiff, Tomlin’s inclinations took him frequently to the Museum there, where the staff and he became of mutual assistance to one another, Dr. W. E. Hoyle, an old friend from Manchester Museum, being at one time in charge there.

Leaving Llandaff in 1899, Tomlin accepted an appointment as senior assistant master at Stancliffe Hall School, Darley Dale, Matlock, where he remained until 1902. About this time several relations died, leaving Tomlin among the beneficiaries under their wills, and he felt he was now able to devote more time to his beloved natural history interests and to his collections, visiting out of the way localities alone or accompanied by other kindred spirits. Among his coleopterist friends was Sir Thomas Hudson Beare, author of “A Catalogue of known species of Coleoptera of the British Isles “, with which Tomlin helped to some considerable extent, visiting various places with Hudson Beare. One particular hunt was on the Island of Mull to search especially for a rarity which they found in due course. This acquaintance formed yet another link between the writer and Tomlin, Hudson Beare being the writer’s Professor of Engineering at University College, London, and afterwards Regius Professor at Edinburgh. Still another of Tomlin’s coleopterist friends was Dr. W. E. Sharpe, who used frequently to accompany us to lunch when at the British Museum.

Visits to Guernsey were continued with Professor Gwatkin, and then in 1901, during his summer vacation, he joined a conducted tour in the Mediterranean. At each port of call he set forth collecting assiduously and calling on and making friends with local conchologists, one of whom was the Marquess di Monterosato, with whom Tomlin afterwards frequently corresponded. It was on this tour that he met his future wife, whose father, Mr. Theodore Kensington, was a master at Winchester. Correspondence followed and in 1906 Mr. Kensington’s younger daughter, Eleanor Marjorie, and “Jack” Tomlin were married, a most happy culmination to a “shipmate” romance. The writer has been privileged to share their companionship on many occasions during a number of years, often accompanying both on collecting expeditions.

An annual visit of ours for some ten years or so was to Herefordshire, with a view to collecting and adding to records for the county for the “Catalogue of the Coleoptera of Herefordshire “, which was published in two parts by the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club a few years ago. One of the favourite objectives was Moccas deer park, where Sir Geoffrey Cornwall gave us permission to roam at will, provided we let the head keeper know when we were there, so that we might not get shot if they were wanting to thin out the deer ! Our hunt for Coleoptera was of course interspersed with search for snails, both in Herefordshire and on our way there and back. We usually travelled by car, so that we could stop wherever we wished and examine any likely ground. I well remember on our first visit to the county one morning in the early autumn at Weobley, Tomlin would not budge from the place although I tried to hurry him, as we had planned to go a somewhat long drive, until, as I found the reason to he, he had sent a telegram to his gracious lady conveying birthday greetings, and so it was that one learned the date of the festival. This thoughtfulness for others was by no means confined to his own, and I know of a number of instances when both Mr. and Mrs. Tomlin have held out a helping hand to others in a less fortunate situation, and have seen Tomlin’s blue eyes sparkle with pleasure when able to give someone a pleasant surprise. Deserving institutions came in for benefits, and among those dear to the heart of both was the National Lifeboat Institution,

After his marriage Mr. and Mrs. Tomlin went to reside at Reading, where I first met him. Frequently he and Mr. R. Winckworth would spend the night, after a meeting of the Malacological Society, at my house in Ealing, and after a meal often discussed subjects of mutual interest over a pint (or maybe more), sometimes into the early hours of the morning. About this time, too, Tomlin acquired the Molluscan collection of J. Cosmo Melvill. In 1916 he was asked by the authorities of the British Museum (Natural History) to assist in the department of Molluscs, which he did until well into 1948, when his doctor advised that he should take things more easily and should not make the long journey to town and back, the Tomlins having moved in the meantime to St. Leonards-on-Sea.

To celebrate the attainment of his 80th birthday a number of his friends assembled at the Piccadilly Hotel and gave a luncheon in his honour, at which function he was present, full of vigour and good health.

Not only did Tomlin add the very large Melvill collection to that of his own very extensive one, but be purchased several others, large and small, for instance the Bavay collection of Pectens, on which Bavay specialized. The great part of the collection of Col. Beddome, which passed through the hands of Messrs. Sowerby and Fulton, and which included a vast amount of Clausiliidae, a great deal of which Tomlin did not require, with his duplicates of other groups, he sold to me, and I must say that I came off best, the low price asked often making such a purchase in the nature of a gift.

J. T. Marshall passed on his collections and notes to Tomlin, and Marshall’s annotated copy of Jeffreys’ British Conchology was ultimately given by Tomlin (later also many other books) to the Molluscan library at the British Museum. Another very fine and most useful collection was that which passed into his hands from Dr. H. K. Jordan and which is very rich in series of specimens showing growth stages from the embryos upwards. Dr. Jordan, incidentally, was like Tomlin very interested in the National Museum of Wales, where I suppose Tomlin first became acquainted with him. Tomlin acquired numerous other local fauna! collections such as that of New Zealand marine Mollusca, which he obtained by purchase not so long ago. All these collections were given to the National Museum of Wales, including that of Coleoptera before mentioned. The Court of Governors sent a deputation to St. Leonards to thank Tomlin for his magnificent gifts, and to acquaint him with his election as a Life Governor of the Museum in recognition of his generosity.

For years Tomlin worked on the compilation of a card catalogue of molluscan generic and subgeneric names, with references and types wherever possible, which catalogue is now in the library of the Molluscan Department at the British Museum. It was from this catalogue that the names of molluscan genera and subgenera were extracted and published in Neave’s New Nomenclator.

Tomlin was a founder member of the Malacological Society of London, of which he was President from 1916 to 1919, and on attaining his 80th birthday was elected to Honorary Membership. In 1886 he became a life member of the Conchological Society, of which he was President from October 1920 to October 1921, and for a second term from December 1948 to December 1949. On his 80th birthday he was elected an Honorary member of this Society also, when he retired from over forty years service as Editor of the Journal of Conchology (see vol. 23, p. 1). Tomlin was a life member of the Belgian Société Royale Zoologique and of the Société Linnienne de Lyon. For some years he was a member of the Malacological Society of Japan. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, to the Proceedings of which he contributed several papers, and a member and recorder of the Société Guernesiase.

The funeral took place on 29 December at the Crematorium Chapel at Charing, Kent, where the ashes were scattered in the lovely garden of remembrance.

Mrs. Tomlin survives her late husband, and has the affectionate help of two devoted maids in her home at 23 Boscobel Road, St. Leonards, where they have lived for so many years, and where so many of like interests to Mr. Tomlin have enjoyed and benefited from the unrestricted use of his famous collections. This privilege and the many kindnesses of the late owner will be ever remembered.

The list of new names of Mollusca proposed by Tomlin which follows was prepared by Mr. H. O. Ricketts of the British Museum (Natural History), and in the Proceedings of the Malacological Society of London will he found a bibliography of Tomlin’s writings dealing with the Mollusca.