St. Aubyn collection

The Sir John St. Aubyn collection at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery is an important 18th century collection, which includes a mineral collection and a herbarium (pressed plant collection). Both collections are extremely important because they demonstrate scientific understanding of minerals and plants 200 years ago.

About Sir John St Aubyn [PDF]

Mineral collection in detail

cuprite mineral specimen with labelThe exact origins of Sir John St. Aubyn’s mineral collection is unknown, but he must have had a substantial collection at least as early as 1794, when he met and employed Count Jacques Louis de Bournon (1751 to 1825), to organise and order his collection.

In 1799, Sir John made two major purchases: the minerals formally owned by Richard Greene (for £100), and the enormous collection of minerals assembled by Dr. Babington, who had previously bought the collection from the Earl of Bute. These acquisitions, along with St. Aubyn’s collection, were amalgamated and catalogued by Count de Bournon in 1815. 

St Aubyn mineral catalogues [PDF]

View the mineral collection online.

Transferral of the collection

When St. Aubyn died, his own estate was deeply in debt, and much of his property had been sold. The mineral dealer Isaiah Deck (1792 to 1853) was commissioned to help dispose of the mineral collection in 1834. A small collection was formed for Lady St. Aubyn and another for Mrs Parnell (his daughter). An extensive collection was then arranged for the Civil Military Library at Devonport and the remaining minerals were auctioned, many of which were bought by Deck himself.

The Devonport collection was later presented to the Mechanics Institute of Devonport in 1876 and subsequently transferred to the Devonport Museum in 1881. After the amalgamation of the Three Towns in 1915, an attempt was made to restore the collection to its original condition before transferring it to the main Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery in 1924.

Identifying St. Aubyn minerals

There is much interest in the ‘missing’ elements of the collection and the journey to their respective resting places. As part of the St. Aubyn Project, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery has located other specimens from Sir John’s mineral collection recording their current whereabouts. The museum has identified a number of older labels that are associated with the specimens.

St Aubyn mineral labels information [PDF]


  • Cooper, M P (2006), Robbing the Sparry Garniture – a 200-year history of British mineral dealers, Mineralogical Record, Inc. Tucson, Arizona
  • Wilson, WE (1994), The history of mineral collecting 1530 to 1799, The Mineralogical Record, 25(6)
  • Hunt, FW (1902), Libraries of Devonport, Devonport, UK
  • Church, AH (1876), IV. – some notes from an old catalogue of minerals, Mineralogical Magazine, 1(2); 48-49
  • Collins, JH (1880), remarks on some mineral collections in the West of England, The English Mechanic, 12 August

Micromount collection in detail

A small mineral specimen mounted in a small wooden cupAlong with all of Sir John’s minerals, there are approximately 300 micromount specimens. Most of these consist of a small wooden cup (3.5cm diameter) with a wax column in the middle with a specimen of gem gravel on the top. They are very unusual and extremely delicate. You can even see fingerprints in the wax from when they were made all those years ago. Sadly, the documentation alongside these specimens is limited, so we don’t know who made them. A gentleman called Mr. Collins visited Devonport Museum in 1880 and wrote:

“On a recent visit to Devonport I made a hasty examination of the contents of some of the drawers. The specimens all seem to have been originally labeled in the most careful manner, but the labels, as might be expected, require much renovation; the numerous mounted crystals are mostly fallen from their stands, and the whole collection has a most forlorn appearance, after so many years of neglect.”

Unfortunately, as Collins describes, the micromounts are in a bit of a sad state, and only 122 still have their original gems on the top. However, they are still remarkable. Who made those fingerprints over 200 years ago?

Only a few weeks into the St. Aubyn project we discovered that Count Jacques Louis de Bournon was making little models out of wood whilst working for St. Aubyn, because was interested in crystalline structures. Maybe de Bournon made these little micromounts? Unfortunately, still no one knows…

Herbarium collection in detail

Sheet of unfolded paper which on the left has handwritten notes and on the right contains a pressed cutting of a plant which has thin dark green leavesSt. Aubyn’s herbarium gives us a fascinating glimpse into the botanical world in the 18th century. It contains not only plants that have been collected locally, but also specimens which have been collected from early plant nurseries and important gardens.

The herbarium is unusual because the specimens are mounted on gatefold paper, as shown in the example of St. Aubyn’s herbarium sheets of the White Willow (Salix alba) below. Other specimens can be seen on our online database.


Other collectors, gardens and nurseries represented in the Sir John St. Aubyn collection can be accessed from the documents table below, or from our online database.

St Aubyn herbarium collectors [PDF]

Herbarium notes

The notes on the herbarium sheets are exceptionally detailed. Below are some examples of the transcriptions made from Sir John’s annotations:

Observations and medicinal uses of Salix alba (White Willow): ‘Horses, Cows, Sheep and Goats eat it. The Bark is of great efficacy in curing intermitting fevers. It must be gathered in summer when full of Sap and dried by a gentle heat. A Dram of it powdered every 4 hours between the fits is the dose.’

Culinary uses of Polygonum aviculare (Knot Grass): ‘The Seeds furnish a nutritious meal; it is made into thin cakes called Crumpits.’

Flowering times of Solanum lycopersicum (Tomato): ‘Flowers in June and August. Imported from South America in 1596.’

Common names of  Vaccinium oxycoccus (Cranberry): ‘Cranberry Whortle, Cranberries, Moss berries, Moor berries, Fen berries, Marsh Whorls, Marsh Whortle berries, Corn berries.’

General characteristics of Narcissus pseudonarcissus (Wild Daffodil): ‘Petals 6, equal. Nectary funnel formed, 1 leaved, Stamens within the Nectary.’

Associated with the specimens are many important collectors during the period who knew St. Aubyn through societies.

Improving access to the collection

Using a grant secured from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, we were able to research into the collection, including: translating catalogues, carrying out research and conservation work to decipher and update labels, and ensuring safe storage of the St. Aubyn collection. The collection was also digitised in order to create an online database.