The Sheals Family
James Sheals was born in 1824. When he left school James followed his father into the carpentry trade. In 1856, when he was in his early thirties, he opened a taxidermy shop at 32 Corporation Street, Belfast.
Taxidermy was very popular in the late 1800s. Most large houses had trophy heads, cases of mounted birds and animal skin rugs. Almost every city in Britain had its own professional taxidermist. Belfast had three, James Nicholl, John Neil and the most famous of all James Sheals.
James lived close to the shop with his wife Arabella (nee Finlay) at 12 Shipbuoy Street. They had eleven children, six daughters and five sons. Alfred born in 1856 and his younger brother Thomas followed their father James, into the taxidermy trade. The family taxidermy firm was one of the best in Europe at that time. In 1880 James Sheals was listed in the Belfast Trades Directory as a Naturalist and Birdstuffer and as a taxidermist.
Monkey mounted by Sheals - BELUM.Lh945
The Sheals brothers
Many Victorian taxidermists lived well into old age despite working with poisonous preservatives. James Sheals was no exception. He died on the 3rd March 1897 aged 73 and is buried in the Shankill Burying Ground.
After the death of their father, Alfred and Thomas continued to trade under the name James Sheals – Naturalist and Taxidermist.The firm’s order books for 1897 to 1911 show the brothers mounted over three hundred specimens each year. Their reputation as talented taxidermists became well known beyond Ireland. By 1910 they were receiving orders from London, India, South Africa and the United States. The Cairo Museum in Egypt ordered a large collection of skins to be mounted by the two taxidermists.
Sheals taxidermy order book for 1904
Sheals taxidermy order book for 1907
The Sheals firm mounted their birds on simple stands made from wood, paper mache and plaster. Most stands are a mossy green colour. Others are dark grey and look like stones.
The firm made “grass” from painted wood shavings and real grass seed heads. This was used to decorate stands and cases.
The bottom of each stand is almost always signed with the word Sheals. When and where the specimen was found - what sex it is - and who it was being prepared for are also written on the base.
Specimen base showing additional information
Little Grebe -Tachybaptus ruficollis
Strangford Lough, County Down
28 September 1922
One of the most impressive mounts that the Sheals firm prepared was a tiger. An officer of the Irish Guards brought the tiger skin back from India in the early 1900s in the form of a rug. The finished specimen is a lasting tribute to the brothers’ skill and ingenuity.
Unlike many Victorian taxidermists, Alfred and Thomas rarely cased their work. If the customer wanted their specimen in a case they employed local cabinet maker to make one. Often a little leaf or stone was placed in a corner of the case with the Sheals name and the date the specimen was prepared.
This specimen is on display in Discover Nature on the third floor of the Ulster Museum.
Indian tiger -Panthera tigris tigris remounted in 1891 by Sheals
Alfred Sheals Model Maker
Alfred Sheals was not only a gifted taxidermist he was also a talented model maker.
Throughout his career he made beautiful hand painted models of elephants, polar bears. He even made an okapi, a newly discovered species first described in 1901. Despite being offered large sums of money, Alfred refused to sell his models.
On one occasion he was offered ten pounds for a polar bear model, more than a week’s wage. An Austrian visitor wanted the model to use as a template to mass produce a children’s toy. Alfred refused to sell the model but later gave it away to a friend.
Okapi model made by Alfred Sheals in 1914 - BELUM.Lh2014.5
Rare Birds in Ulster
Alfred Sheals was a regular contributor to the Nature Notes of the Northern Whig. In 1921 he was given a special prize for his article on Rare Birds in Ulster. This was published as a series of short notes on over fifty species.
Here are two of his species accounts.
"Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) – one shot at Londonderry, about 1870, but not set up; one shot at Mountstewart, County Down, 1891, which I mounted for the late Marquis of Londonderry, and which has recently been given by the present Marquis to the Belfast Municipal Museum.
Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus) – one from Glasslough, County Monaghan, date not recorded; male, Randalstown, County Antrim, July 13, 1912; immature male, Belmont, County Down, November 15, 1914; adult male, Dunmurry, County Antrim, June 28, 1920 (this specimen seemed to have been breeding here)."
Both these birds are still in the Ulster Museum Collections.
White-tailed Eagle - Haliaeetus albicilla
Mountstewart, County Down
30 January 1891 - BELUM.Lg7119
Honey Buzzard - Pernis apivorus
Dunmurry, County Antrim
28 June 1920 - BELUM.Lg5441
Over the last 100 years the status of many bird species has changed. A few species have increased. Many others are either extinct in Ireland or facing serious decline.
The first record of the Hobby in Ulster was at Ballywalter Park, County Down on 25th May 1922. The female bird was shot by Lady Dunleath's gamekeeper then sent to Sheals in Belfast to be mounted. It was given to the Museum in 1935. This agile little falcon feeds mainly on insects and small birds. It is still rarely found in Ireland.
The Peregrine was once widespread in Ireland. Sheals mounted over fifty Peregrine falcons. Ten of these are in the Museum's collections. The number of peregrine falcons has fallen over the last thirty years. Persecution by game keepers and pigeon breeders has resulted in the death of many birds. While the widespread use of insecticides has reduced breeding success.
Hobby - Falco subbuteo
Ballywalter Park, County Down
25 May 1922 - BELUM.Lg6100
Peregrine - Falco peregrinus
16 May 1922 - BELUM.Lg7210
Closing the “Old Shop”
On the 8th September 1919, the “Old Shop” as it had become affectionately known shut its doors for the last time. It was later to be demolished to make way for a new unemployment exchange.
Alfred and Thomas continued to mount birds for their established customers operating from their bedroom in Cliftonpark Avenue. Both suffered from respiratory bronchitis for much of their later years. Although a man of tremendous skill and high reputation, Alfred died almost penniless on the 24th April 1929. The funeral was attended by his brother Thomas, a neighbour, the minister and three close friends Herbert T Malcomson, Dr. Brice Smyth and Josias Cunningham. Thomas continued to mount birds for some years after the death of his eldest brother.
The family home was blitzed during the Second World War, the family grave razed into the ground during the redevelopment of the area in the 1950s. Only the mounted birds remain, lasting tributes to the skill of the three Belfast taxidermists.James, Alfred and Thomas Sheals were undoubtedly Ireland’s greatest exponents of the art of taxidermy. Their work ranks amongst the best of Victorian and Edwardian taxidermy in the British Isles.
Great White Egret - Ardea alba
mounted for Lady Dunleath in 1910 - BELUM.Lg6037