Compiled: March 2023


Kirby was active in spiritualist and theosophical circles in the 1880s, if not earlier, and knew several people who joined the GD in its first years. However, he didn’t join the Order himself until the mid-1890s. He was initiated at its Isis-Urania temple in London in July 1895, choosing the motto Genetheto phos. As an experienced occultist, but one who worked full-time, he completed the study necessary to make the next step in two years and was initiated into the GD’s inner, 2nd Order in June 1897. He had resigned from the Order by June 1902.


He came from a family of writers and naturalists:

William’s grandfather John Kirby kept a diary. Mary continued the diary after her father’s death. She and two of her sisters were writers and naturalists, usually working together. A sister possibly called Sarah, later Mrs Haddon, collaborated with Mary on the book they’re best known for now, but the longest partnership was that of Mary and Elizabeth. Mary Kirby married Rev Henry Gregg in 1860; Elizabeth lived with them at Melton Mowbray. Mary and Elizabeth ranged more widely in their subject-choices for books than William Forsell did: they published several novels; and works for naturalists on trees, birds and creatures of the forest and the sea. I list below some publications by the Kirby sisters which are a direct link to William Forsell Kirby’s work:

1850 A Flora of Leicestershire

Mary and S Kirby (?Sarah), later Haddon, as co-authors.

Printed in Leicester. This is the earliest known Flora of an English county published by women. Its publication was also an early example of crowd-funding.

1857 Plants of Land and Water

Mary as author, Elizabeth as a contributor.

London: Jarrold and Sons in their Observing Eye series.

1860 Caterpillars, Butterflies and Moths; an Account of their Habits

Mary as author, Elizabeth as contributor.

London: Jarrold and Sons in their Observing Eye series.

1874 Sketches of Insect Life

Mary as author, Elizabeth as contributor

London: Religious Tract Society.

Sources for the Kirby sisters:

Their wikipedia page


Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists and Horticulturalists

Editor Ray Desmond. Published London: Natural History Museum: p403 with some useful information on William Forsell too: 1844-1912. Assistant at the Royal Dublin Society from 1867 to 1879; and Assistant, Zoology Department, British Museum (later the British Museum of Natural History, now the Natural History Museum) from 1879 to his retirement in 1909. Elected Fellow of the Linnean Society 1890.

Three other GD members were elected members of the Linnean Society: Thomas Walker Coffin in 1883; Sydney Turner Klein in 1887; and ant enthusiast Clotilde von Wyss in 1914 and thus after Kirby had died.

There are biographies, none of which covers his involvement in the occult:

Fact and Fable: Life of W F Kirby by his descendant, Ursula Ruth Kirby Brett. There’s also an article by her: W F Kirby: the Start of a Career in Entomology. Archives of Natural History volume 23 number 2 1996 pp209-18. Published by the Society for the History of Natural History.

A couple in which Kirby is profiled in company with others:

The Aurelian Legacy: A History of British Butterflies and their Collectors. By Michael Salmon and contributors. Boston Mass: Brill 2000.

Biographies of Phasmatologists, number 4. By P E Bragg in Phasmid Studies volume 16 number 1 2007 pp5-10.

THE SYNONYMIC CATALOGUES on which Kirby’s reputation as an entomologist was based:

1870 A Synonymic Catalogue of Diurnal Lepidoptera

British Library catalogue has no publication details for this.

1871-77 A Synonymic Catalogue of Diurnal Lepidoptera

A series of supplements March 1871 to June 1877.

Again, BL has no publicaton details for these.

1890 A Synonymic Catalogue of Neuroptera Odonara, or Dragonflies. With an Appendix on Fossil Species

BL no publication details.

1892 A Synonymic Catalogue of Lepidoptera Heterocera. Moths. Volume 1: Sphinges and Bombyces

?London: ?Gurney and Jackson.

1904-1910 A Synonymic Catalogue of Orthoptera

3 volumes. London: British Museum (Natural History) Department of Zoology.

THE OTHER WORKS: on animals for the general reader; handbooks for naturalists; translations; poetry. I’ve also put in some more technical works that aren’t on the lists at his wikipedia page.


1858 A History of British Rhopalocera. Printed on one side only for labelling cabinets.

London: printed by H Wallis.

1862 A Manual of European Butterflies etc

London: Williams and Norgate. As author of the text; with illustrations by the American artist and designer Thomas Waterman Wood (1823-1903). Another edition was issued; undated but perhaps 1890s.

1870 Notes on the Butterflies Described by Linnaeus

As co-author with Carl Linnaeus (1707-78) ennobled in 1761 as von Linné. No publication details.

1873 Catalogue of the Described Diurnal Lepidoptera of Australia

Author: George Masters

Published: Sydney NSW.

Masters based his own work on what the title page called Kirby’s Catalogue of the Diurnal Lepidoptera of the World; which I take to mean Kirby’s Synonymic Catalogues of Diurnal Lepidoptera (see above in their own section).

1879 Catalogue of the Collection of Diurnal Lepidoptera formed by the late William Chapman Hewitson

London: John van Voorst. Chapman’s dates are given as 1806-78.

1882 European Butterflies and Moths

London: Cassell, Petter and Galpin.

Kirby as author though his text was based on Friedrich Berge’s Schmetterlingsbuch. It was one of Kirby’s most successful publications. In 1885 the firm now called Cassell Publishing Company issued it in 15 monthly parts. There were further editions in 1889, 1898, 1902 and 1903. In 1906-07 it was issued again with a revised title: The Butterflies and Moths of Europe. London: Cassell and Co.

The British Library has several editions of Berge’s original. The earliest seems to have been one published in Stuttgart in 1842. It also has an edition, apparently in English, published in 1863; an edition in German published in 1870; and the catalogue mentions one published in 1876.

?1883 A Young Collector’s Handbook of Beetles

London: W Swan, Sonnenschein and Co in their Young Collector series.

1885 Elementary Textbook of Entomology with illustrations

London: Sonnenschein and Co. Another edition issued 1892.

1885 British Butterflies, Moths and Beetles

London: W Swan, Sonnenschein and Co in their Young Collector series.

1887 Rhopalocera exotica, being illustrations of new, rare, or unfigured species of butterflies

London: Gurney and Jackson. Kirby as co-author with Henley Grose Smith. This was reissued 2008 London: Gurney and Jackson; Delhi: Pranava Books.


1889 Natural History of the Animal Kingdom for the Use of Young People

In three parts: Mammals; Birds; Reptiles.

Printed Esslingen published London: Christian Knowledge Society

Kirby as translator of the German original by Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert (1780-1860).

1889 The Butterflies and Moths of Africa

?London: Victoria Institute.

1890 The Young Collector’s Handbook of Butterflies

London: W Swan, Sonnenschein and Co in their Young Collector series. London and Frome: Butler and Tanner.

1894 A Hand-Book of the Order Lepidoptera

London: W H Allen. Further editions in 1896 and 1897.

1894-1912 New English Facsimile edition of Sammlung Exotischer Schmetterlinge by Jacob Huebner/Hübner
Brussels: V Verteneuil and L Desmet. Editor P Wytsman. Kirby as contributor of additional text.

1894 Climbing and Exploration in the Karakoram-Himalayas

Authors: William Martin Conway and Algernon George Arnold Durand. Kirby as one of four contributing authors.

London: T Fisher Unwin.

1894-97 Butterflies and Moths

London: W H Allen in Allen’s Naturalist’s Library series.

1896-97 A Handbook to the Order Lepidoptera

As co-author with Richard Bowdler Sharpe.

London: E Lloyd. This was expanded and reissued in several volumes almost at once:

1896 A Handbook to the Order Lepidoptera Part 1 Volume 2 Butterflies.

London: W H Allen

1897 A Handbook to the Order Lepidoptera Part 1 Volume 3 Butterflies (continued); Hesperiidae, Moths.

London: W H Allen.

1897 Butterflies and Moths

London: John F Shaw and Co Ltd.

1897 Natural History

As a co-author with R Lydekker and others.

New York: D Appleton and Co.

1897 Travels in West Africa: Congo Français, Corisco and Cameroons

London:Macmillan and Co Ltd

Author of main text: Mary Kingsley. Kirby as contributor to the appendices, beginning p178:

A List of the Orthoptera, Hymenoptera and Hemiptera Collected by Miss Kingsley on the River Ogowé, with Descriptions of Some New Genera and Species. Analysed by W F Kirby from specimens collected by Kingsley June 1895”.

1897 The Concise Knowledge of Natural History

Editor: A H Miles. Kirby as one of five contributors.

London: The Concise Knowledge Library.

1898 Insects Foes and Friends

London: S W Partridge and Co.

Main translator from the German original: Kirby’s son W Egmont Kirby. W F Kirby as author of the Preface.

1898 Marvels of Ant Life

London: S W Partridge and Co.

1901 The Living Animals of the World volume 2: Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians, Fish

London: Hutchinson and Co. Compiler/editor: Charles John Cornish. Kirby as a contributor.

1901 Familiar Butterflies and Moths

London: Cassell and Co.

1906 British Flowering Plants

No publisher’s details in the British Library catalogue.

1906 The Butterflies and Moths of Europe

London: Cassell and Co

1907 Mammals of the World

Kirby as author of the main text, with an introduction by his son W Egmont Kirby.

Lodon: Sidney Appleton’s Popular Natural History Books; number 2.

1910 a set of three:

Butterflies and Moths


Animals Wild and Tame

Kirby as arranger of the text.

All published London: A Treherne and Co. The Butterflies and Moths volume was issued again in 1913.

1913 Butterflies and Moths in Romance and Reality

London: Christian Knowledge Society. Issued again 1926 by The Sheldon Press.

?1914 Orthoptera (Acridiidae) in the series The Fauna of India and the Adjacent Countries

London: Taylor Francis. Calcutta: Zoological Survey of India.



1881 The Four Gospels Explained by their Writers

London: Trübner and Co. Kirby as translator from the French original edited by J B Roustaing; possibly with Anna Blackwell as co-translator.

I think the original was Jean Baptiste Roustaing’s Spiritisme chrétien, ou Révélation de la Révélation. Les Quatres Évangiles de Jean-Baptiste Roustaing…. Published Paris: Librairie Centrale 1866.

Kirby’s translation and Blackwell’s involvement in it was mentioned in Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research London: published for its proprietors, the Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke St Adelphi. Volume 3 January-December 1883 p444: in an article on the teachings of French spiritist Allan Kardec.

Anna Blackwell was a journalist based in Paris; like Kirby she was a future GD member. She translated several works by Kardec into English.

1883 Evolution and Natural Theology

London: Sonnenschein and Co.

Articles and just mentioning here that the magazines listed below can all be read at the website of the International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals: iapsop.com

Appearances in Light. First published in 1881, its publication details are:

Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research London: published for its proprietors, the Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke St Adelphi.

In volume 2 January-December 1882:

- issue of 11 November 1882 p522: his name is listed as endorsing a code of conduct for materialisation séances recently issued by the Central Association of Spiritualists (CAS). Other names on the list include two prominent spiritualists whom he will have known as acquaintances: Charles Carleton Massey; and Dr George Wyld.

In volume 3 January-December 1883

- issue of 13 January 1883 p24: on a list of people responding to a circular issued by the CAS, also about materialisation séances. Kirby’s name appeared in a list of those who thought materialisation séances should no longer be staged as public events; with Anna Blackwell and others.

- issue of 11 August 1883 p364: as Secretary of the independent theosophical group the London Lodge, Kirby wrote on the members’ behalf to complain about recent allegations made by Dr George Wyld, that they were all atheists. He accused Wyld of having abandoned the unwritten protocol in London Lodge that no member should use “unfriendly language” about other enquirers after Truth. Wyld’s reply was printed in the issue of 25 August 1883 p383.

Volume 4 January-December 1884

- issue of 5 January 1884 p12 another proclamation on the question of materialisation séances, by the newly-founded London Spiritualist Alliance (LSA) after the demise of the CAS. Once again, Kirby was in a list of those wanting no such séances to take place in public; again with Anna Blackwell amongst others.

- issue of 10 May 1884 p186 as Hon Sec of the Hermetic Society, which had held its first meeting on 9 May. The Hermetic Society was founded by Anna Bonus Kingsford and Edward Maitland.

Volume 5 January-December 1885

- issue 9 May 1885 pi in the small ads. Kirby’s name on a list of subscribers to the forthcoming biography of spiritualist medium W Eglinton: Twixt Two Worlds. Other subscribers included future GD member Rev T W Lemon; and Mrs Jeffreys, mother of future GD member Louisa Florence ffoulkes.

After keeping its independence for nearly 20 years the London Lodge finally affiliated to the Theosophical Society in around 1890. The TS’s Membership Registers show that Kirby was a subscribing member of the TS from 1891 to 1909. Some articles by him then appeared in the TS’s magazine Lucifer, whose full publication details are Lucifer: A Theosophical Magazine published London: Theosophical Publishing Society of 7 Duke Street Adelphi.

In volume 12 March-August 1893; editor Annie Besant

- issue of 15 May 1893 pp193-98: French Spiritism. The article had started life as a talk given by Kirby at the TS’s Chiswick Lodge on 30 January 1893. At the end of the article there was a disclaimer from the editor, that articles did not necessarily represent the official views of the TS.

The editor specifically disputed Kirby’s “statement as to the Devachan”. A long reply from Kirby to the criticisms was published in Lucifer’s volume 12 issue of 15 July 1893 pp514-15.

Volume 13 September 1893 to February 1894; editor Annie Besant

- issue of 15 September 1893 p67 in the notes and queries section: Kirby replied to an enquiry as to the exact location in the works of Schiller of the aphorism “Death can be no evil, as it is something universal’. In the issue of 15 October 1893 p154 the editors apologised for a typesetting mistake in Kirby’s letter.

Possibly not by Kirby as it is signed only “WK”: he is usually signed ‘W F Kirby’.

- issue of 15 December 1893 p336 in the notes and queries section, two requests for information: one on German references to literature in Sanskrit; asking what the earliest known references are to the use of the term ‘christos’ outside the New Testament.

Volume 15 September 1894 to February 1895

- issue of 15 December 1894 pp317-20: Some Aspects of Karma.

- issue of 15 December 1894 pp343-344 letter from W F Kirby about Lane’s Modern Egyptians 5th edition 1871 which mentions use of a mirror to do magic.

Volume 18 March-August 1896; editors Annie Besant and G R S Mead. Now London: Theosophical Publishing Society but also New York: 65 Fifth Avenue; and Benares [Varanasi]: Theosophical Publishing Society and Madras [Chennai]: offices of The Theosophist, Adyar.

- issue of 15 March 1896 pp45-52: Folk-Lore.

Volume 20 March-August 1897; editors Besant and Mead; publication as volume 18.

- issue of 15 May 1897: An Old Arab View of Death.

In 1897 Lucifer changed its title to Theosophical Review. Not all the issues are at iapsop.com.

Volume 22 March-August 1898; editors Besant and Mead. London: Theosophical Publishing Society.

- issue of July 1898 p422: The Hymn of the Birds to Seemurgh.

Volume 33 September 1903 to March 1904; editors and publishing details as volume 22.

- issue of February 1904 pp516-518 and as by “WFK”, a designation he doesn’t usually use: A Lesson for To-Day from the “Thousand and One Nights”.

POETRY often in translation

Some original work:

1867 Ed-Dimiryaht: an Oriental Romance, and Other Poems

Published London though printed in Düsseldorf. What might be a 2nd edition published London: Williams and Norgate 1869.

On the strength of Ed-Dimiryaht, Kirby has an entry in Mid-Victorian Poetry 1860-79: An Annotated Biobibliography by Catherine W Reilly. London and New York: Mansell 2000 p258.


1882 The New Arabian Nights

London: W Swan, Sonnenschein and Co.

Kirby had intended to translate all the tales. On discovering Richard Burton was doing the same, he opted to help Burton instead of pursuing his own translation. They worked together from 1885 to 1888 and became great friends.

Source for Kirby and Burton: Kirby Brett’s Fact and Fable (see above) p20.

1895 The Hero of Esthonia (sic) and Other Studies of the Romantic Literature of that Country

London: J C Nimmo. Volumes 1 and 2 which are mostly a translation of the Kalevipoeg. Kirby as translator, compiler and writer of the Preface. On p2 Kirby explains that he’d begun the translation supposing the original to be an Estonian version of the Finnish Kalevala.


On the Demonology and Witchcraft of the Thousand and One Nights

Occult Review volume 6 number 1 July 1907 pp5-13. Published London: William Rider and Son Ltd. Editor Ralph Shirley. All issues of Occult Review can now be read at iapsop.com.

1907 Kalevala: the Land of the Heroes

London: J M Dent and Co Ltd in their Everyman series. 2 volumes. Kirby as translator; and as a corresponding member of the Finnish Literary Society. New editions long after Kirby’s death: 1956 and 1977.

The first edition was reviewed in Theosophical Review volume 41 September 1907-March 1908. Editor G R S Mead. Published London: Theosophical Publishing Society; and in America. Issue of December 1907 p374 review by “MM”.

Kirby’s wikipedia page says that the teenage J R R Tolkien had a copy of it; in his translation, Kirby had tried to keep to the metre of the original poems.

Undated and may be a manuscript: Contributions to the Bibliography of the One Thousand and One Nights and their Imitations. In the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.


28 March 2023

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