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Poultry breeding notebooks, 1898-1911

Reference Code: GBR/0012/MS Add.10161/1/1

Scope and Contents

*This is an interim catalogue description. The series has been catalogued only to 1910 as part of the Bateson Digitisation Project on CUDL.

A set of laboratory notebooks recording Bateson and Punnett’s genetic experiments in poultry breeding. The notebooks are essentially a laboratory record, which follow a set pattern. The general format of the records is that each chick is given its own page. At the top of the page the parents are noted in an abbreviated form, e.g. D 48 x L-K indicates a cross between chicken D 48 and one of Lister-Kay’s birds.

Most of the records include the date eggs were laid and date hatched, followed by records of the visible characteristics scored (feather colour, comb shape, colour of legs and beak, other physical characteristics, e.g. straight or crooked toes, extra digits, abnormalities, health, etc.). Some pages include sketches of heads of birds, combs, or feet, etc. where there was some variation of interest. The sex of the bird is also recorded at a later date (it was difficult to sex day-old chicks) and any other observations made on the bird until its death or disposal. Sex is recorded as the astrological symbols for Venus and Mars. Peak hatching times were March-June in each year, but records of individual birds can run from the hatch date through to much later in the year. Later records from the 1920s on have hatch dates from December, which might indicate the use of incubators.

The numbers on the books correspond to years, so the notebook marked ‘98’ records work carried out in 1898. The first notebook (MS Add.10161/1/1/1) carries a list of the original birds used for breeding. These were the founding birds of many of the breeding lines which form the substance of the poultry notebooks. It is thought that Bateson acquired these birds from other breeders such as Boys-Smith (abbreviated in the notebook to B-S), Smith and Asbee, and Rev. C.T. Bromwich, and that these birds showed phenotypic variation, which was the subject of Bateson’s research. From these stocks there seem to be four breeding lines labelled A, B, C and D, with individual progeny from each line given a number e.g. D 48. The books at (MS Add.10161/1/1/1- MS Add.10161/1/1/4) contain notes on these breeding lines to 1899.

As the breeding programme progressed, the need to keep records of individual birds and their lineage means that the format of the records changes in the later books. Beginning in notebook (MS Add.10161/1/1/4), chicks are numbered W 1-999, often across three or four books, but after 999 a new series generally begins again at 1. The numbering sequence might be due to the way they labelled the birds (perhaps with metal leg rings) to identify them; the label numbers may have only run to 999.

The first W 1-999 series covers chickens hatched from June 1899 to May 1902 (across notebooks MS Add.10161/1/1/4- MS Add.10161/1/1/10); the next runs from May 1902 - June 1903 (notebooks MS Add.10161/1/1/10- MS Add.10161/1/1/16). Some years were particularly busy: for 1903, for example, there are five books covering birds which hatched between January and June 1903. There are no books numbered ‘05’ in this series, although some records for January to March 1905 are to be found at the end of notebook ‘04 II’ (MS Add.10161/1/1/18). There is one book for 1906, and two for 1907. From this one would infer that less time was being devoted to poultry and more to sweet peas; it may be however, that the book(s) for 1905 are missing.

1910 was a year where relatively few crosses were performed, and this coincides with Bateson moving from Cambridge to be director of the John Innes Institute in Merton in Surrey. It was also the year in which Bateson and Punnett founded the Journal of Genetics. Such activities would inevitably have affected the research programme.

From this point on, lists of matings carried out during each year are to be found either at the back or front of the notebooks. These are useful for indicating the purpose of the crosses. Each mating is given a number and this index number is repeated at the top of individual pages for each chick hatched from the mating, so all progeny from, for example, mating 6, will have a 6 at the top of the page. From 1924 onward the books carry the title ‘National Poultry Institute’ inside the cover. In the notebook for 1930, there is a first reference to breeding ducks in addition to chickens.

There is a note in the 1898 ledger of birds going to Trinity Farm, and there are also references to different numbered pens where the birds were kept. Trinity Farm is the current site of part of the University Farm, off Huntingdon Road, Cambridge.


  • 1898-1911

Conditions Governing Access

Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (


1 collection (24 volumes catalogued only of 77; paper) : paper

Language of Materials


Existence and Location of Copies

24 of these notebooks dated 1898-1910 have been digitised on the Cambridge Digital Library as part of the Bateson Digitisation Project, funded by the Wellcome Trust. Links are provided at item levels.

Related Materials

A parallel series of poultry notebooks labelled ‘DB’ for Dead Books, covering 1901-1912, is catalogued at MS Add.10161/1/2. There is also a series of Poultry Ledgers for 1904-1440 (MS Add.10161/1/3), and a series of books titled ‘Fowls’, spanning the years 1911-1916 (MS Add.10161/1/4).

Repository Details

Part of the Cambridge University Library Repository

Cambridge University Library
West Road
Cambridge CB3 9DR United Kingdom