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North Devon in 100 Objects: 16. A Hair from an Elephant’s Tail

An elephant hair placed on top of an envelope. The envelope has a hand written not on it, but it's not possible to read it.

This elephant hair was posted to Henry Desborough of Pilton, probably around 1860.  It found its way into the collections of the North Devon Athenaeum, perhaps via the Literary and Scientific Institution, of which Henry was a member.

Museums in the 19th century became the home of all kinds of collections made by the vicars, doctors and retired middle classes of provincial towns. These included local geology and natural history, but also curios collected from around the world. Few people could afford the time or money to go and see elephants in the wild (and those that did were often shooting them), but many more would be able to gather at the Institution to see a hair from an elephant’s tail.  They might wonder, as Henry’s correspondent wrote on the envelope, “is it not small?”

We don’t know much about Henry Desborough, who seems to have retired to Pilton from Beckenham, Kent, after nearly 50 years as the Secretary of the Atlas Assurance Company.  His family had naval connections and he must have been well-off because he was living in Broadgate Villa, later to be the childhood home of the short story writer Saki.  His household included his second wife, six of his children and two other relations, as well as five servants.

We do know that Henry was one of the many people in the UK who benefited from compensation for the emancipation of slaves from a plantation in which he had invested.  This would be worth about £87,000 now.

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