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.
Rare birds recorded by Alfred Sheals
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rare Birds recorded by Alfred Sheals
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)."
Buzzards are becoming a common sight in our skies. However at the the end of the nineteenth century this species had been virtually exterminated in Ireland.
Alfred Sheals noted:
Common buzzard (Buteo vulgaris), - one from Glenarm Park, date not recorded; one from Markethill, County Armagh, February 1911, 1885; one, Holywood, County Down, December 9, 1911.
The museum does not have an Irish buzzard mounted by the Sheals firm.
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 corncrake was once a common summer visitor in Ireland. It is now classed as globally vulnerable due to changes in farming practices including early grass cutting to make silage and mechanised hay making. Rathlin Island is one of the few places in Northern Ireland where the distinctive rasping call of the corncrake can still be heard.
Numbers of lapwing and curlew have also declined drastically in recent years. Changes in agricultural practices and drainage of wetlands are the main threat to these species.
Lady Dunleath's aviary birds
Lady Dunleath had a large aviary in the grounds of her house in Ballywalter, County Down. When the aviary birds died, they were taken to Belfast to be mounted by the Sheals brothers.
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 and 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.