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Scope of the collections

These web pages will be developed further to include the content of the special collections and biographical information about their many benefactors. For now, details of the library's founders and their collections are given, as well as some other special collections.

The Balfour & Newton Libraries' Special Collections comprise approximately 8,750 volumes which date from the fifteenth to the mid-twentieth century, as well as over 60,000 offprints and over 570 theses, manuscripts, photographs and several paintings.

Books dating from the fifteenth to mid-twentieth centuries

Short catalogue records for the books in these collections can be retrieved via iDiscover, the online catalogue for the libraries in the University of Cambridge.

In short, the collections are primarily made of gifts with some more recent purchases added as appropriate. These include the bequests from the two main library founders, Francis Maitland Balfour and Alfred Newton and the following collections:

  • The MacAndrew Collection (1873). Conchology. 300 volumes.
  • The Strickland Collection (1875 & 1881). Ornithology. 422 volumes.
  • The Oates Collection (1897-1940). Ornithology.
  • The Buckley Collection (1903). (transferred to University Library, 1975). Chiefly fauna of Africa. 260 volumes and other items including papers and maps.
  • The Webb Smith Collection (1902). 500 original water colours of African and Indian birds and scenes which were presented by Mrs. Atkinson of Clare College.
  • The Norman Collection (1912). Natural history. Over 1200 volumes.
  • The Hogg Collection (1924). Spiders etc.
  • The Watson Collection (1960). Malacology. Over 1000 offprints and 50 books.
  • The Papers of Sir Vincent Wigglesworth (transferred to Churchill College Archives Centre, 1992). Entomology.
  • The Roger Lubbock Collection  (1980's?). Fish. 30 volumes, mainly on open access.
  • Eltringham African Collection (2006). African ecology, wildlife conservation and management. Over 135 books and other items, around 50 theses.


There are over 60,000 scientific offprints dating from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


There is a collection of over 570 theses, mainly written by postgraduate students from the Department of Zoology. 


There is a collection of portraits (paintings, photographs, busts, likenesses, group photographs, carte de visites, etc.) of prominent scientists. Please note that this is a work in progress, and as such cannot be guaranteed to be accurate. Please direct any queries about these portraits to the in the first instance.

Manuscripts and archives

The Balfour & Newton Libraries owns a substantial collection of manuscripts and archives. The bulk of the collection is made up of the Alfred Newton Papers, which includes all of Professor Alfred Newton's correspondence as well as photographs, prints, printed papers and pamphlets. There is also some teaching and research material that belonged to or relates to other former members of the Department of Zoology. This entire collection was transferred to the Department of Manuscripts & University Archives at Cambridge University Library in 1989.

Please see here for more information on this collection, from where you will be able to download a PDF catalogue of the collection. Please note that at the end of that document there is a brief list of material that has not yet been catalogued; it may be that we have more details of this material than is described in the catalogue so please contact the  if you have any queries. Otherwise you will need to contact the Department of Manuscripts & University Archives at Cambridge University Library directly to make an appointment to consult the material there.


The Balfour & Newton Libraries' Special Collections are listed in these two bibliographies:

  • Bloomfield, B.C. (ed.) (1997) A Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections in the United Kingdom & the Republic of Ireland, 2nd edition.
  • Bridson, G.D.R., Phillips, V.C. & Harvey, A.P. (1980) Natural History Manuscript Resources in the British Isles, Mansell, London.

Current display

December 2019

These images were photographed from a book in our special collections:

The Animal Kingdom, arranged according to its organization, serving as a foundation for the natural history of animals, and an introduction to comparative anatomy, by Baron Cuvier. Translated from the latest French edition, with additional notes, and illustrated by nearly 500 additional notes. Volume II: Reptiles-Fishes. London: G. Henderson; 1834.

Zoology Library class mark: HBC (3)

The images are: Plate 15. Colour plate depicting two species of iguana and three species of gecko.  Plate 19. Colour plate of Ophryessa superciliosa (Diving lizard) and Lyriocephalus margaritaceus (Hump nosed lizard) accompanied by line drawings of some of their features.

Georges, Baron Cuvier (1769-1832):

Cuvier was a French naturalist and zoologist. He was instrumental in establishing the fields of comparative anatomy and palaeontology through his work comparing living animals with fossils.

Through his researches, Cuvier established extinction as a fact. His first paper described how Indian and African elephants were different species and, as the mammoth was neither of these species, it must be extinct. In his Essay on the Theory of the Earth, published in 1813, he proposed that now-extinct species were wiped out by periodic episodes of catastrophic flooding.

Le Règne Animal (The Animal Kingdom), first published in 1817, is Cuvier’s most famous work. It describes the natural structure of the whole animal kingdom based on comparative anatomy. Cuvier divided the animals into four branches: vertebrates; molluscs; articulates and zoophytes.

Cuvier disagreed with the theories of evolution presented by Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Their opposing views led to a public debate at the French Academy of Sciences in 1830. Cuvier believed that the structure of his four branches of animals was determined by their functional needs. Geoffroy believed there was one basic unified form which was modified over time across all animal forms.


Georges Cuvier

Le Règne Animal

Cuvier-Geoffroy debate

Photos courtesy of Rachel Aucott.


Previous displays

April 2018

This image was photographed from a book in our special collections:

The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, under the command of Captain Fitzroy, during the years 1832 to 1836. Edited and superintended by Charles Darwin, naturalist to the expedition. Part III. Birds, by John Gould. London: Smith, Elder & Co.; 1841.

Balfour Library shelf mark: qKZ.8 (7)

The image is: Plate 36: Geospiza magnirostris [Large ground finch]

Darwin’s finches

Charles Darwin visited the Galápagos Islands with Captain Robert FitzRoy for two weeks in 1835, during their famous voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle. Darwin only collected nine species of finch (out of fourteen) during his visit, had difficulties properly distinguishing the different species, and also forgot to label them separately according to the island where he collected them. He did not therefore recognize the potential importance of the finches for the theory he developed later. However, it did occur to him later on that some specimens were specific to their islands.

In 1837, John Gould studied Darwin’s collection of finches, and suggested that the finches are a completely new group of birds restricted to the Galápagos Islands and that all species belong to the same group. Darwin began to realise that species may evolve from ancestral forms into new species.

John Gould was an English ornithologist and taxonomist who produced large sized colour plates. He also wrote many scientific papers describing new species. The Balfour Library’s rare books collection contains many of his works.

Long-term morphological data on Darwin’s finch beak sizes…provide one of the most convincing evidences for ‘evolution in action’.

The Large ground finch has the largest beak size of all the finches. Each species has evolved a distinctive beak type and feeds on food not eaten by the other species.

Geospizinae are a sub-family of the family Fringillidae, which belongs to the order Passeriformes. Here Gould describes these Geospizinae as belonging to the family Coccothraustes, but today they are specifically described as hawfinches, and are a sub-family of Fringillidae, as are the Geospizinae.


The concise Oxford dictionary of zoology, edited by Michael Allaby. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1992. Balfour Library shelf mark: Dict Sci (19)

Darwin’s finches, by Michaela Hau and Martin Wikelski. Encyclopedia of Life Sciences (Online), 2001.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Aucott.


The rare book on display from our collection is:

Richard Thomas Lowe. A history of the fishes of Madeira, with original figures from nature of all the species by C. E. C. Norton and M. Young. London: John van Voorst; 1843-[60].

Balfour Library class mark: q VZ.6 (2)

The book is open at: Plate XVI, Scorpaena scrofa (red scorpionfish), from the Scorpaenidae family. The red scorpionfish is found in the Mediterranean Sea and on rare occasions in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean around the British Isles. They can grow up to 50cm in length but are usually around 30cm. This fish lives in marine and brackish environments with rocky, sandy or muddy bottoms in depths of up to 500m. In Lowe’s description he states that: “The colour of the whole fish varies from a full vermilion or cherry-red, to a more or less deep scarlet; pale pure rosy towards the throat, breast and belly... ”. Despite its fearsome appearance and venomous spines it is a traditional ingredient of bouillabaisse and Japanese cuisine.

The book was issued in five parts and the 5th part describes plates XVIII-XXVII which were never published. However there is a letter dated 1876 from the publisher to the librarian of the University Library which was sent with copies of some of the unissued plates. There is also a note, probably from Alfred Newton, which details his acquisition of plates XXI-XXVII from the publisher in 1889. All of the unpublished plates were bound into the volume along with the aforementioned letter and note.

Richard Thomas Lowe (1802-1874) graduated from Christ's College, Cambridge in 1825, and in the same year took holy orders. At university he acquired a fondness for natural history and a lifelong friend was the entomologist Thomas Vernon Wollaston (1882-1878).

In 1827 Lowe visited Madeira partly to improve his health. His botanical field trips and collecting of specimens began almost immediately. In 1832 he took up the post as chaplain of Madeira. In 1843 he returned to England to organize the publication of his work A History of the Fishes of Madeira (1843).

In January 1844 Lowe and his wife travelled to Madeira. In the winter of 1847 Wollaston visited the island, and accompanied Lowe on one of his explorations of its flora and fauna. While Lowe worked on describing new species, Wollaston concentrated on examining species variation and distribution, and published his Insecta Maderensia in 1854, of which the Balfour Library also has a copy. Lowe made many other trips to Madeira throughout his lifetime.

On 10 April 1874 Lowe and his wife sailed from Liverpool for Madeira on the steamship Liberia. However, the ship sank with all hands.


Scorpaena scrofa

Yolanda Foote, ‘Lowe, Richard Thomas (1802-1874)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

February 2017

The rare book on display from our collection is: A history of the spiders of Great Britain and Ireland, by John Blackwall. London: Published for the Ray Society by Robert Hardwicke, 1861-64.

Balfour Library shelf mark: qHR (2)

The book is open at: Plate 4. Thomisus (Crab Spiders). This plate is a lithograph produced by Tuffen and William West and depicts 18 different species of Thomisus. The plate illustrates some of the variety of colours of this genus and many are also shown with drawings of their palpal organs.

John Blackwall (1790-1881) was born in Manchester. He worked in partnership with his father as a linen merchant whilst developing a keen interest in natural history. His first papers were on ornithology and various other subjects but he was most famous for his work in the emerging study of arachnology. He was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1827 where he published his first researches on spiders in the Society’s Transactions. In 1833 he gave up his profession and moved to North Wales to concentrate exclusively on his hobby. Blackwall published his collected papers in 1834 as Researches in zoology (a 2nd edition was published in 1873).

Using only a small lens he described over 300 species of spider, 67 of which were new to science. This research formed his best known publication A history of the spiders of Great Britain and Ireland, a 2-volume work published by the Ray Society in 1861-4 and regarded as a classic text in arachnology. Over twenty of the plates were created by Octavius Pickard-Cambridge, a fellow arachnologist, and Robert Templeton, an Irish naturalist. The majority of the plates, including the one on display, were produced by brothers Tuffen and William West.

Tuffen West (1824-1891) was a microscopic artist who, working in partnership with his brother William, produced a vast number of lithographic plates depicting a wide range of subjects. Some of their illustrations can be found in A synopsis of the British Diatomaceæ (1853-56) by William Smith, The microscope: its history, construction and applications (1854) by Jabez Hogg and Common objects of the microscope (1861) by J.G. Wood. Two years after the publication of Blackwall’s volumes the West brothers also created the plates for E.F. Staveley’s book British spiders (1866).

Crab spiders, like their crustacean namesake, can move sideways as well as forwards and backwards. There are almost 150 species described but the best known are flower crab spiders. Many are brightly coloured to match the colour of the flower they are waiting on to ambush their prey. Some species can even change colour over a period of days to match the flower colour. Crab spiders can be found in most areas of the world and in any habitat where they can exploit their colouring for the most effective camouflage. None of the species spins a web for snaring purposes. When an insect approaches the spider opens wide the first two pairs of legs and only when the victim is within grasp do the legs fold around completely. Once captured, it is bitten and quickly dies from the poison. The female species are larger, being 4-10mm in length compared with the male who is 2-7mm.


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ‘John Blackwall’

Wikipedia ‘John Blackwall’

 Paisley, P.B. (2016) ‘More Tuffen you possibly didn’t notice’, Micscape 239 (February)

 Wikipedia ‘Thomisus’

Roberts, M.J. (1996) Collins field guide. Spiders of Britain and Northern Europe. London: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.



Current exhibitions



Past exhibitions

Catesby : Watercolours from the Royal Collection, 6th July - 12th October 2013

The Balfour Library is pleased to have loaned a book from its special collections for exhibition at Gainsborough's House, the museum and birthplace of 18th century landscape and portrait artist Thomas Gainsborough, in Sudbury, Suffolk.

It has loaned its 1st edition copy of volume 1 of Mark Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas, 1731. Shelfmark: Folio (275).

The exhibition 'Catesby: Watercolours from the Royal Collection' celebrates the life and works of East Anglian naturalist and artist Mark Catesby, who spent his childhood in Sudbury and travelled to North America to produce the first detailed study of the flora and fauna of the 'New World'.

The watercolours from the Royal Collection are original studies for the plates in the book, and the volume will be on display alongside them, so you can compare a watercolour with its final plate.

Please see the Gainsborough’s House website for more information:

Please see the related blog post here:

Darwin: Beetles, Finches, Barnacles, March 2008 - June 2013

The Balfour & Newton Libraries lent some of their books to the University Museum of Zoology Cambridge for their exhibition Darwin: Beetles, Finches, Barnacles from 24 March 2008 onwards.

Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts, 16th June - 4th October 2009

The Balfour & Newton Libraries loaned one of their books to the Fitzwilliam Museum for their exhibition Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts. The book is Gerald H. Thayer's Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, 1909. The exhibition was held first at the Yale Center for British Art from 12th February 2009 until 3rd May 2009. Visit the exhibition website at for more information on this ground-breaking exhibition that explores the impact of Darwin's theories on late nineteenth century artists.

A stencilled piece of card illustrating dried leaves covers plate xi of Thayer's work and reveals the shape of the copperhead snake when you lift it up. The overall effect demonstrates the camouflage properties of the snake. An image of this is featured on page 114, Fig. 117, in the exhibition catalogue Endless forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts, edited by Diana Donald and Jane Munro. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT: in association with Yale University Press; 2009. Balfour Library shelf mark: qFY (8).


Images of items from our Special Collections have been reproduced and acknowledged in several publications:

François Le Vaillant and the birds of Africa, by L.C. Rookmaaker ... [et al.] ; translator, F.M. Webb. Johannesburg : Brenthurst Press; 2004. Balfour Library shelf mark: qKZ .6 (49).

Christopher Webb-Smith: an artist at the Cape of Good Hope, 1837-1839, by A. Gordon-Brown. Cape Town: H. Timmins; 1965. Balfour Library shelf mark: qKZ.6 (47).

Endless forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts, edited by Diana Donald and Jane Munro. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT: in association with Yale University Press; 2009. Balfour Library shelf mark: qFY (8). See

From Merchants to Emperors: British Artists in India, 1757-1930, by Pratapaditya Pal and Vidya Dehejia. Cornell University Press; 1987.

The Great Auk, by Errol Fuller. 1999.

A history of ornithology, by Peter Bircham. London : Collins; 2007. Balfour Library shelf mark: K (226). See

John Gould in Australia: letters and drawings, by Ann Datta. Melbourne University Press; 1997. See

Life and works: Charles Michell, by G. Richings. Fernwood Press (Pty) Limited, South Africa; 2006. See

Making Visible Embryos virtual exhibition created by staff from the University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science, at

Splendid plumage: Indian birds by British artists, by Jagmohan Mahajan; with descriptions of birds by Bikram Grewal. Hong Kong: Local Colour Limited; 1965. Balfour Library shelf mark: qKZ.54 (1).

Willughby's angel: the pintailed sandgrouse (Pterocles alchata), by Isabelle Charmantier and T. R. Birkhead. J. Ornithol. (2008) 149: 469-472. Three of our rare books feature in this article: Gessner's Historiae animalium liber III qui est de avium natura (1555), Charleton's Gualteri charletoni exercitationes de differentiis & nominibus animalium (1677), and Aldrovandi's Ornithologiae, tomus tertius (1603). Members of the University of Cambridge can download the article from

The wisdom of birds: an illustrated history of ornithology, by Tim R. Birkhead. London: Bloomsbury; 2008. ISBN 9780747592563. Hardback. £25. Balfour Library shelfmark: K (227). This book features many photographs taken of bird illustrations from books in our Special Collections. It was The Guardian's 'Book of the week' on Saturday October 18th 2008. You can read their review at and see for more details.

Use of the collections

See our Admissions page for details of admissions requirements and the Library Rules and Opening hours pages for guidance on the use of the library and its special collections.

Balfour Library Conservation Project: Cleaning the collections

A wonderful team of five NADFAS (National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies) Heritage Volunteers has cleaned our rare books. They started in July 2011 and completed the project in September 2013.

Clair Castle, Librarian at the time, wrote an article all about the project and the progress made so far for the NADFAS Review Volunteers Supplement which was published on 25th May 2012. Read the article online in the NADFAS Review e-zine Volunteering Supplement Summer 2012 (pp. 16-17).

Clair has also blogged about the project on the Balfour Library News Blog at