UPDATED EXHIBITION DATE AND VENUE
James Brunt: Coastal Ecologies will now run from Saturday 6 July – Sunday 1 September 2024 at Scarborough Art Gallery

Great Auk Egg

Nestled in a cotton wool cocoon, contained in its own specially made mahogany and glass case, this egg represents a tragic story of human greed and disregard for nature that ultimately led to the extinction of an entire species. This precious object is the egg of a great auk.

There are believed to be only 70-odd left in the world: this one is the last of ten that, in the late 19th century, were held in Scarborough.

Nine were in the collection of Robert Champley, a member of a wealthy local family who had a very Victorian preoccupation with natural history.

Born in 1829, Champley became obsessed with the great auk, or garefowl, and amassed a collection of artefacts including the nine eggs during his travels around Europe.

He can hardly be blamed, though, for the auk’s demise – the last pair are believed to have died in 1844, when he was just 15. 

They were breeding on Eldey Island, off Iceland, when they were discovered by three Icelandic fishermen who, aware of their value to collectors, promptly strangled them and stamped on their egg. One of them, Sigurðr Íslefsson, was later to comment poignantly that as the last great auk died: “He made no cry.”

After his death in 1895, Champley’s collection passed to his daughter and was subsequently scattered worldwide. But fortunately for Scarborough, a tenth egg had been in the possession of a local military man, Lieutenant Alwin Shutt Bell. When he died in 1877, he left his egg to the Scarborough Philosophical Society, an early predecessor of Scarborough Museums and Galleries. 

It seems the Philosophical Society didn’t always treat precious objects with the care they deserved – in 1906, the Daily Telegraph reported that the egg was found lying broken on a chair. It was repaired and placed in greater security, and is still carefully looked after today as part of the Scarborough Collections.