S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Turton, Lieut-Colo William Harry (conchology)

Born: 30 December 1856, Peshawar, Pakistan.
Died: 16 June 1938, Place not known.

William H. Turton, soldier, conchologist and author, was the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Turton of the Bengal Artillery. He was educated at Clifton College, Bristol, and the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, near London, where he was a Pollock medallist. He joined the Royal Engineers with the rank of lieutenant in August 1876, and was promoted to captain in August 1887 and to major in May 1895. During the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) he served with the British forces in South Africa, from October 1901 as commanding Royal Engineer of the Western District, Transvaal. He was engaged in constructing blockhouse lines along the railway from Kimberley north as far as Gaberones and was awarded both the Queen's medal (with 3 clasps) and the King's medal (with 2 clasps). In June 1902 he was created a companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and in October of that year was promoted to lieutenant-colonel. He retired from the military in October 1905.

Turton has been described as "somewhat eccentric" (Kilburn & Rippey, 1982, p. 19). He developed an interest in shells while stationed on the island St Helena and during a visit to South Africa in 1886 collected at Simon's Bay, St Johns, and Durban. His finds included several new species, including the bivalve Parvicardium turtoni, which was described and named by G.B. Sowerby* in 1894. At the conclusion of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902 Turton visited Port Alfred, where he collected along the beach only, within 16 km of the town, to determine how many species of molluscs he could find there. He continued collecting there during subsequent visits in 1904, 1905 and 1911. As he was the first person to concentrate on South African micro-molluscs, which he sorted out of shell grit, he found numerous new species. His first Port Alfred collection was described by Edgar A. Smith* of the British Museum (Natural History) in the Journal of Malacology (1904). Smith described 52 new species, of which most are still recognised. Three subsequent collections, including just over 200 new species (out of a total of 721 species), were described by Paul Bartsch* in a book-length Report on the Turton collection of South African marine molluscs..., published by the Smithsonian Institution as Bulletin No. 91 of the United States National Museum (1915, 305p). Several new species were named after the collector.

Turton visited Port Alfred on two further occassions, the last time in 1931. Altogether he spent 42 months there during his six visits. He was not satisfied with the number of new species recognised by professional conchologists among his finds and hence described his collections himself in The marine shells of Port Alfred, South Africa (London, 1932, 331p). In this book he described over 500 new species (of which about a third are still recognised) plus a number of varieties. Many of his new species turned out to be misidentifications and unnecessary new names, often based on beach-worn specimens, or his failure to take variability within species into account. The book has been widely criticised, but nonetheless became a useful guide to the smaller species if used with care. Turton's discovery of numerous recognised new species of South African molluscs was also an impressive achievement.

In addition to his work in conchology, Turton wrote The truth of Christianity (London, 1895), of which a 12th edition appeared in 1934; The Plantagenet ancestry (London, 1928); and a pamphlet on The early Lancashire Turtons, up to AD 1400 (Greenhaven, 1937).

List of sources:
Barnard, K.H. Personal names in South African conchology. Cape Town: Conchological Society of Southern Africa, 1965.

Bartsch, P. Report on the Turton collection of South African marine molluscs, with additional notes on other South African shells contained in the United States National Museum. Smithsonian Institution, United States National Museum, Bulletin 91, 1915.

Creagh, O'M and Humphris, E.M. The Distinguished Service Order, 1886-1923. London: J.B. Hayward, 1978.

Kilburn, R.N. A brief history of marine malacology in South Africa. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 1999, Vol. 54(1), pp. 31-41.

Kilburn, R. & Rippey, E. Sea shells of southern Africa. Johannesburg: Macmillan, 1982.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Who was who, Vol. 3, 2nd ed. London: Adam & Black, 1967.

Compiled by: C. Plug