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Professor Sir William Abbott Herdman

Title: Professor Sir

Epithet: Founder of the Marine Biological Station, Port Erin (1868-1924)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

William Herdman was the eldest son of Robert Herdman FSA and was educated at the Edinburgh Academy and Edinburgh University. After his graduation in 1879 he became assistant to Sir Wyville Thompson, working on the immense collection of marine biological specimens brought back to Edinburgh by the survey ship Challenger.

Two years later he was appointed as the first Derby Professor of Natural History at Liverpool University, a position he was to occupy until 1919. In 1885 he initiated and chaired the Liverpool Marine Biology Committee whose purpose was to study marine life in the vicinity of Liverpool. The rather polluted tidal waters of the Mersey estuary were far from ideal for this purpose, and the committee assessed a number of possible locations for a research laboratory. For five years, commencing in 1887, a disused semaphore station on Puffin Island, North Wales, served as the organisation's base, but it was recognised that the biologically richer waters around the Isle of Man offered greater potential. Accordingly, members of the committee visited the Island early in 1892 to examine three possible locations for a purpose-built laboratory: at Castletown, Port St Mary and Port Erin. Port Erin was unanimously declared to be the most suitable.

The timing of their visit could not have been better, since Mr Clague, builder and proprietor of the Belle Vue Hotel overlooking the harbour, was then developing his land along the foreshore. He readily agreed to build the laboratory, which he would rent to the committee on favourable terms. Furthermore, he was able to offer accommodation 'at an economically arranged tariff' for staff and students, at his hotel.

The committee gave its approval, and the stone building, designed by Professor Herdman, was erected in a mere six weeks. The opening ceremony took place with great jubilation on 4th July 1892. Flags and bunting were much in evidence as a party from Liverpool arrived at Port Erin railway station where they were greeted by Lieutenant-Governor Spencer Walpole and his guests. Once they were assembled at the new building, the Castletown Brass Band struck up the national anthem. It was entirely appropriate that the Lieutenant Governor should have performed the opening ceremony, since he was himself a noted marine biologist. Afterwards, the party ascended the zigzag path to the hotel where 'a sumptuous luncheon was served in generous and first-class style by Mr. Clague, the courteous proprietor.' During the numerous toasts and speeches which followed, Professor Herdman paid tribute to the Island's own Professor Edward Forbes, whose pioneering work had done so much to advance the study of marine biology. Appropriately, Herdman was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in that year.

So successful was the station to be that a year later it was necessary to erect a second building, which also incorporated a public aquarium. Even with this additional space the station was still extremely cramped, and in 1901 Tynwald granted £2000 to replace it with a very much larger one, at the foot of Kione ny Garree on the south side of the bay, which opened in 1903. The old laboratory was converted to form the Chapel of St Columba, a role it performed for 20 years until the erection of the Catholic church at the Four Roads, when the building, which still stands, became the local mortuary. In 1920 the station was taken over entirely by Liverpool University, which later became the first in Britain to offer honours degree courses in marine biology.

Honours were showered upon William Herdrnan. In 1920 he was awarded a CBE, and two years later, a knighthood. He received honorary degrees from Harvard, Durham, Sydney and Edinburgh. At different times he served as president of both the Linnaean Society and the British Association. For two years (1901-2) he was sent by the British government to report on the pearl-oyster fisheries in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). This resulted in a five-volume monograph which was published by the Royal Society between 1903 and 1906. It has been estimated that before his death in 1924 he had published over 300 scientific papers. His daughter Catherine also carried out research at the Port Erin station.

The Marine Biological Station created by William Herdman (renamed the Port Erin Marine Laboratory and used by Liverpool University) remained for well over a century an extremely active research establishment, producing valuable data on fish stocks which helped to regulate international fishing quotas. Its research vessels and its laboratory constantly studied such matters as the delicate balance of the food-chain and the movements of commercial fish species, and it also monitored the effects of pollution in the Irish Sea.

The laboratory, however, was not Professor Herdman's only legacy to Port Erin. During World War I his son George, then a second lieutenant with the King's Own Liverpool Regiment, was killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme. As a memorial, Professor Herdman resolved to create a public library 'for the free use (subject to regulations) by sailors, fishermen, boatmen and other working men of Port Erin'. To this end he purchased a group of three shops on the seafront for £575 and had them converted into a single unit, with a billiard room on the ground floor and a reading room above. He also endowed this, the George Herdman Library, with railway shares to the value of £1780, the income from which was intended to pay the wages of a caretaker, and for upkeep and repairs to the building.

In 1944 the Herdman Library was merged with the Isle of Man Education Authority's Rural Library scheme, thus maintaining the service and making it available to all the townspeople. However the building, situated inconveniently on the harbour-front, gradually fell into disrepair. The billiard room closed in 1987, and shortly afterwards the library was relocated in a new, more central, building. It is appropriate that this should still be referred to as the Herdman Library, although few of its users may be aware of the achievements of the man responsible for its creation.

Biography written by Harry Fancy.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.211-3.)

Culture Vannin


Nationality: Scottish

Gender: Male

Date of birth: 8 September 1868

Date of death: 21 July 1924

Name Variant: Professor William Abbott Herdman


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