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Voorst, John Vanlocked

  • Gill Parsons

Voorst, John Van (1804–1898), natural history publisher, was born on 15 February 1804 at Highbury, Middlesex, the son of John and Elizabeth Van Voorst; the family was of Dutch descent but had been settled in England for several generations. Apprenticed to Richard Nicholls of Wakefield from 1820 to 1826 before joining the old publishing house of Longman, Green, Orme, Hurst & Co., Van Voorst commenced publishing at 3 (afterwards 1) Paternoster Row, London, in 1833. His list of titles began with illustrated reprints, the earliest notable being Gray's Elegy in a Country Church-Yard and Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield, before moving on to the specialized sphere of natural history works. Among his illustrators were John Constable, William Mulready, Richard Westall, and Edwin Landseer, all of the Royal Academy, together with Copley Fielding, George Cattermole, W. Dickes, John Thompson, Sam Williams, Stothard, and DeWint.

Van Voorst was not afraid to take risks in the cause of science. With his intense interest and knowledge of scientific practice he published many zoological and botanical treatises in English which have become classical works. An acquaintance of T. H. Huxley and friend of Richard Thomas Lowe, his name became synonymous with good quality printing combined with fine illustrations. He printed works of natural history ranging from the well known, such as Yarrell's British Fishes and Gosse's Naturalist's Rambles, to less pretentious popular works such as the treatises Earthworm and Housefly and the Honey Bee, by Samuelson and Hicks. He published at least one work by each of the foremost nineteenth-century naturalists except Darwin, the quality of his publications attracting the likes of Thomas Bell, Philip Henry Gosse, George Johnston, Edward Forbes, Frederick Apthorp Paley, Edward Newman, Charles Spence Bate, John Obediah Westwood, Richard Owen, and David Thomas Ansted, among many others. A list of works dated 1871 comprised 224 current titles of books or learned journals of which 63 per cent were on the subject of natural history.

An astute businessman, Van Voorst successfully used Dickens's ploy of issuing works in regular parts or classified and sold in sets, as in the sixty-two volumes of The Natural History of the British Islands; in later years he innovatively experimented with the use of photographs mounted on the page, as in Courtauld's Ferns of the British Isles. He was appointed bookseller to the Zoological Society in 1837 and published The Ibis from 1865. Elected a fellow of the Linnean Society on 15 March 1853, he was also a founding fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society, which was established on 20 December 1839, later holding the rank of senior fellow for many years.

Van Voorst's main attributes were that of pioneer publisher, a benefactor of biological and related literature, and in associating and establishing artistic execution with science. The realization that beautiful illustration by eminent artists and engravers enhanced learned books of good quality, sold at a reasonable price, kept Van Voorst at the top of his profession for sixty years. Retiring from business in December 1886 without son or heir, he passed on his business to his assistants Messrs Gurney and Jackson. An active retirement enabled Van Voorst still to maintain his interest in the next generation of naturalists until his death at Utrecht House, Clapham Park, London, on 24 July 1898 at the grand age of ninety-four.


  • Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London (1898–9), 61–2
  • transactions of the society, Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society (1899), 122
  • The Athenaeum (30 July 1898), 159, 161–2
  • R. B. Williams, ‘John Van Voorst: patron publisher of Victorian natural history’, Private Library, 4th ser., 6 (1988), 5–12
  • Nature, 58 (1898), 299
  • The Times (27 July 1898), 10b
  • parish register (baptism), 15 March 1804, Islington, St Mary


  • Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, letters to Leonard Blomefield
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir J. G. Wilkinson
  • NHM, letters; corresp. with Sir Richard Owen and William Clift

Wealth at Death

£165,645 3s. 6d.: probate, 19 Sept 1898, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

F. Boase, , 6 vols. (privately printed, Truro, 1892–1921); repr. (1965)