MP of the Month: Nicholas Aylward Vigors (1785-1840), soldier, scientist and politician

Like many of our MPs, Nicholas Vigors had a varied career, as a soldier, landowner, politician and eminent zoologist. Although best known as a founder and secretary of the Zoological Society of London, Vigors also enjoyed a lively career as a Radical MP who participated in several tight contests for the Irish county and borough of Carlow.


The House of Commons, 1833, by Sir George Hayter. Vigors is among the MPs included. Image credit: NPG

Vigors was born in 1785 at Old Leighlin, county Carlow, a descendant of a Devonshire clergyman who had settled in Ireland in the early seventeenth century. He was the eldest surviving son of an army officer and deputy governor of Carlow. He became a student at Trinity College, Oxford, in 1803, and was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1806. He left Oxford without taking a degree in 1809, but demonstrated his mastery of classical and literary studies by publishing An Enquiry into the Nature and Extent of Poetic Licence (1810).

Vigors next served as an ensign in the Grenadier Guards during the Peninsula campaign and was seriously wounded in the action at Barrosa in March 1811. After retiring from the army he resumed his studies at Oxford and graduated in 1817 at the age of 32. Awarded his MA the following year, he devoted himself to the study of birds and insects and was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1819. Critical of the society’s emphasis on botany, he formed his own extensive collection of specimens and helped to establish the less socially restrictive Zoological Club in 1822. As secretary and later chairman, he demonstrated his talent as an administrator and pioneer of new methodologies – a leading ‘quinarian’, he argued for a geometric ordering of species in sets of five. He wrote some forty scientific papers, mostly on ornithological subjects, and in 1825 published an important study of the natural affinities between families of birds. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in February 1826, and that April became the first secretary of the Zoological Society of London. A year later he was appointed principal editor of the Zoological Journal, and in July 1832 he was created an honorary DCL by Oxford University.

Quinarian system

The quinarian system of zoological classification

Vigors was the mentor of the ornithologist John Gould (1804-81) and wrote the text for his A Century of Birds Hitherto Unfigured from the Himalayan Mountains (1830-2). He also oversaw the publication of The Gardens and Menagerie of the Zoological Society Delineated (1830-1). In May 1833 he founded what became the Royal Entomological Society. He donated his collections of preserved fauna and birds to the Zoological Society, and with the assistance of collaborators such as Sir Stamford Raffles, the renowned founder of Singapore, he supplied its zoological gardens at Regent’s Park with many exotic specimens from abroad. As the driving force behind the organisation, he employed a bureaucratic and domineering style of management and frequently clashed with the aristocrats who dominated the board of the society’s zoo.

Vigors had succeeded to his family estate in County Carlow in 1828, and despite having lived principally in London for almost twenty years he served on the county’s grand jury. He began his parliamentary career when he was returned for Carlow borough at the 1832 general election as a Reformer. Despite clashing with the Irish agitator Daniel O’Connell, who Vigors believed had adopted a dictatorial attitude towards his fellow Irish Liberals, he backed O’Connell’s motion in favour of the repeal of the Union in April 1834. He was defeated at Carlow borough in the 1835 general election, but six months later was elected for County Carlow in a double by-election, only to be unseated on petition a few months later. Vigors was subsequently embroiled in a political controversy when it emerged that he had arranged for his fellow candidate Alexander Raphael to make a £2,000 payment to Daniel O’Connell in return for O’Connell’s support for Raphael’s candidature. These revelations did not, however, prevent Vigors being successful at another County Carlow by-election in February 1837. Despite two further attempts to unseat him, he remained in the Commons until his death. He rarely spoke in debate, but was an assiduous attender who voted almost invariably with the Radicals, and was regarded as a diligent and efficient member of parliamentary committees.

Vigors's Carlow petition - Wellcome Collection

Catching a Tartar by H.B. (John Doyle), 1836. This cartoon, with Daniel O’Connell as the central figure, refers to the 1835 Carlow election petition. Image credit: Wellcome Collection

Vigors had resigned as secretary of the Zoological Society upon taking his seat in Parliament in 1833, and he stood down as editor of the Zoological Journal in 1835. He remained concerned about the lack of scientifically trained gentlemen among the aristocratic trustees of learned societies, and in March 1836 advised a parliamentary inquiry into the management of the British Museum that specialists should be included on the board of trustees, and called for the natural history department to be taken out of the museum. That year he assisted Sir William Jardine and Prideaux John Selby with their Illustrations of Ornithology (1836-43), and he later wrote the section describing the birds of the American north-west for The Zoology of Captain Beechey’s Voyage (1839).

Toucan_by_Nicholas_Aylward_Vigors_1831 - Wikipedia

A toucan, by N. A. Vigors, 1831

Vigors was unmarried and died at his house in Chester Terrace, Regent’s Park, London, on 26 October 1840. He was buried in the nave of St. Laserian’s Cathedral, Old Leighlin, county Carlow, and was survived by an only son, Ferdinand, who was said to have inherited much of his father’s talent.

Further reading:

  • A. Desmond, ‘Vigors, Nicholas Aylward’, Oxf. DNB, lvi.
  • P. Long, ‘Vigors, Nicholas Aylward’, Dictionary of Irish Biography, ix. 667-8.
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2 Responses to MP of the Month: Nicholas Aylward Vigors (1785-1840), soldier, scientist and politician

  1. Pingback: Carlow man ZOOms to success | Irish waterways history

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