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Sydney Parkinson - Researching him


Frontispiece to the published journal of Sydney Parkinson1


I have been researching Sydney Parkinson for many years, but details of his early life remain elusive. 


I am a writer, artist, historian, and naturalist, and I began to research the life and work of Sydney Parkinson in 2004.  I am the collections manager for a small natural history collection at Randolph College, Lynchburg, Virginia, and I owe my job to Sydney Parkinson; the time I spent working among the specimens he illustrated at the Natural History Museum in London, the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, and others, made me passionate about preserving these artifacts of scientific inquiry as fragments of the living, evolving world. 


Early in 2018 I began a blog about my fascination with Parkinson.2  In August, I discov­ered the Captain Cook Society via Twitter, which led to an exchange of emails with Ian Boreham.  He pointed me to the online family tree of the Parkinson family,3 and the transcription of Parkinson’s will that had earlier appeared in Cook’s Log.4  I had also transcribed this will, and published it in my blog. 


Some of the descendents of Stanfield Parkinson (Sydney’s elder brother) were unknown to me; it is good to have those.  I do not have any reason to think that Silvanus Parkinson and Sydney Parkin­son are the same person as shown on the tree; I suspect Silvanus and Cornelia Parkinson both died early in childhood.  Those would likely be found in Quaker records rather than those of St. Cuthbert’s, unless they died elsewhere (see below).


Various people, including me, have had little luck finding records of Parkinson in Edinburgh.  It is worth noting that at the time of the death of Joel Parkinson (Sydney’s father) in 1749, the land adjacent to the Quaker burial ground on Pleasants Street was already a brewery—it was later known as Bell’s.  I was told in 2006 that there are still vats in the basement of the building, which was con­verted to a fitness centre for the University.  The extant meetinghouse structure appears to postdate Parkinson and was boarded up when I visited. 


I suspect the reason for lack of records may be that the family may not have remained in Edinburgh many years after Joel’s death.  I have a strong suspicion there may be something in Quaker or public records for the county of Durham, as Joel and Elizabeth emigrated from Darlington, and it would make sense for the family to return there eventually.  The Backhouse and Robson families both have Quaker ties there too; the Backhouse family were woolen drapers (to which Stanfield says Sydney was apprenticed), and many were also well connected in natural history circles, especially botany.  Some of Parkinson’s Endeavour collec­tions ended up in the hands of those families, and a Backhouse in the late 18th or early 19th century annotated some of the Endeavour specimens now in the US National Herbarium. 


Emily Smith



1. Parkinson, Sydney.  Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas in HMS Endeavour.  Caliban Books.  1984.  This book is a facsimile production of the 1784 edition. 

2.https://parkinsonsendeavour.wordpress.com https://parkinsonsendeavour.wordpress.com

3.https://www.captaincooksociety.com/Portals/ccs/Files/FamilyTrees/Family%20Tree%20of%20Parkinson%2C%20Sydney.pdf https://www.captaincooksociety.com/Portals/ccs/Files/FamilyTrees/Family%20Tree%20of%20Parkinson%2C%20Sydney.pdf

4. Cook’s Log, page 32, vol. 35, no. 4 (2012). 

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 52, volume 42, number 1 (2019).

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