An Annotated Copy of Butterflies of Australia by Waterhouse and Lyell (1914)

Published in 1914, Butterflies of Australia by Gustavus Athol Waterhouse and George Lyell was the first comprehensive work on Australian butterflies to appear in Western scientific literature. It is a thick and rather chunky volume, with descriptions of 332 butterfly species, and was the product of many years of research. The copy held in Museums Victoria’s Rare Book Collection is even thicker than a standard issue, as it is bound with lined pages interleaved throughout. It is an author’s copy, owned and annotated by George Lyell.

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Title page of annotated author’s copy of Butterflies of Australia (1914.) Contributed in BHL by Museums Victoria.

Lyell and Waterhouse worked on the book separated by some distance; Lyell’s location in Gisborne, Victoria was 862km (536 miles) away from Waterhouse’s residence in Sydney. They corresponded regularly via mail, and the Museums Victoria Archives now houses some 400 of Lyell’s letters from Waterhouse, which came to the museum with Lyell’s extensive donation of butterflies and moths in 1932. In 2019 a McCoy Seed Fund project enabled further exploration of the archival material to see what it could reveal about the scientists’ collaboration and Lyell’s collection. It also shed some light on the annotated copy in our collection.

The archival material reveals that their publisher, Angus & Robertson, prepared the handsome interleaved copy for Lyell and gave it to Waterhouse to pass on. In a letter dated 28 August 1914 Waterhouse writes “I have the interleaved copy for you, but it is much too bulky & too nicely done to trust to the post” (OLDERSYSTEM~03030, Museums Victoria Archives). Instead Waterhouse entrusted the volume to friend E. H. Proctor to give to Lyell’s brother in Melbourne.

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Letter to George Lyell from his co-author and friend G. A. Waterhouse. Photo Credit: Hayley Webster / Source: Museums Victoria.

Their correspondence also demonstrates how carefully they considered every aspect of the publication. For instance, a letter to Lyell on 20 March 1914 states “I like very much the black headings as they seem to show the divisions at a glance & generally speaking I like the size of the type” (OLDERSYSTEM~03030, Museums Victoria Archives), showing that the typography was carefully considered for readability. Waterhouse was pleased with the plates, writing on 4 Feb 1914 “Dear Lyell, Coloured plate no. 1 is glorious, magnificent drawings, just showed it to [Allan Riverstone] McCulloch who was delighted with it” (OLDERSYSTEM~03030, Museums Victoria Archives).

The illustrations are a combination of original drawings and photographic reproductions: original coloured plates by H. W. Simmonds, drawings of larvae and pupae by Miss J. Kong Sing, and the remaining are from photographs by Henry King. Butterflies of Australia includes 43 plates, and a total of 888 illustrations; its considerable scope and detail was considered very helpful by scientists and collectors when the book was published.

As Museums Victoria Archivist Nik McGrath recounts, Waterhouse destroyed his letters after entering the relevant scientific data onto index cards. While this might seem like a curiously destructive working method, it is not unheard of; researchers working with Charles Darwin’s correspondence have noted that he crossed out personal matters in his letters so he would not be distracted if he needed to return to them for scientific purposes [1]. In this case, in spite of the loss of Lyell’s letters, we retain a lot of the archival material relating to the book including a manuscript, index cards from Waterhouse, notebooks, proofs, black and white photographs of specimens used by illustrators for the book, specimen lists, and newspaper clippings of book reviews.

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Along with many others, these photographs of butterflies were used to develop the illustrations for Butterflies of Australia. Photo Credit: Hayley Webster / Source: Museums Victoria.

In addition to looking at the archival material, an examination of the book itself is also revealing. Annotations are dated throughout the 1910s and 1920s and most appear to record sightings. In the introduction to the work, Waterhouse and Lyell note of the geographical focus of their study: “We are hoping this work will serve to indicate the need and point to that direction, and so induce collectors to aid us: we are carefully tabulating every verified record reaching us, and will much appreciate dated specimens for examination and return, especially those from points distant from localities given in our list.”

Lyell is systematic in his approach to annotations, including roughly the same information and formatting for each entry. The marginalia primarily consists of locations added to specimen descriptions, often dated, and sometimes includes a number, gender, and occasionally an elevation.

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The initials GAW frequently appear throughout, and refer to Lyell’s co-author Gustavus Athol Waterhouse. Here Lyell notes that the species is “very plentiful at 5000ft diminishing to 4500 none lower, only few at 6000ft”. Annotated copy of Butterflies of Australia. Contributed in BHL by Museums Victoria.

There are also often initials entered next to the information, which relate to the person collecting the data, as you can see in the example above.

The annotations use a similar approach from the beginning to end of the text; Lyell underlines the printed text in pen, circling the relevant figure numbers, and then notes the date, locations and other data on the interleaved pages.

This is a typical example of how Lyell annotated his copy of Butterflies of Australia, underlining the relevant information and then adding details to the opposite interleaved page. Contributed in BHL by Museums Victoria.

Though the method of data entry is reasonably consistent, there are noticeable changes in ink, indicating that Lyell completed the annotations across a period of time. It would appear that Lyell was copying across data from other sources such as his own field notes and correspondence from other scientists as he received it.

Lyell’s marginalia mainly seems to record observational data, but occasionally includes a reference to secondary reference material. One reference appears to have been copied in its entirety—this is Norman Tyndale’s description of Lycaeninae adaluma from the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia in 1922. Tyndale’s description references Waterhouse and Lyell’s work, and suggests a placement of the new species within their system. The placement suggested corresponds to where Lyell has copied in the description.

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The annotation replicates Tyndale’s description of Lycaeninae adaluma and includes a sketch of the species. Annotated copy of Butterflies of Australia. Contributed in BHL by Museums Victoria.

What exactly was Lyell doing with his annotations? It appears he was using the book to record ongoing research by himself and a group of naturalists across the east coast of Australia. H. J. Jackson notes in Romantic Readers that the practice of interleaving in books by scientists originated in earlier educational practices [2]. I have certainly come across other similar examples in the Museums Victoria Library. It is notable that Lyell’s annotations drop off after the early 1930s. He suffered an illness in 1931 that led to his decision to deposit his collection with the National Museum of Victoria. The rest of his life was dedicated to preparing his collection for transfer to the museum, and this seems to correlate to a decline in annotating.


  1. Gregorio, Mario A. & Gill, N. (1990) Charles Darwin’s Marginalia Vol. 1, New York, Garland, p. xiv.
  2. Jackson, H. J, (2005) Romantic Readers: the Evidence of Marginalia, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, p. 84.


Administration – George A. Lyell – Internal Correspondence 1891-1947- Waterhouse, G. A – Museums Victoria Archives, National Museum of Victoria OLDERSYSTEM~03030

Gregorio, Mario A. & Gill, N. (1990) Charles Darwin’s Marginalia Vol. 1, New York, Garland.

Jackson, H. J. (2005) Romantic Readers: the Evidence of Marginalia, New Haven & London, Yale University Press.

McGrath, Nik (2019) Kindred Spirits, Museums Victoria Blog, Retrieved from

McGrath, Nik (2019), Butterflies of the night, University of Melbourne Blog, Retrieved from

Photo of a person with red hair showing off a book in a storage room.
Written by

Hayley Webster is the manager of the library at Museums Victoria, where she oversees a rare book collection specialising in Natural History. She has worked on the BHL project since 2012, selecting material for digitisation.