Professor Sir Edward POULTON, frs (1856–1943)

Evolutionary biologist

Ronald POULTON (later Poulton Palmer) (1889–1915)

Rugby football hero

Wykeham House, 56 Banbury Road, Oxford

Edward Poulton
Sir Edward Bagnall Poulton
Photograph by James Lafayette

Edward Bagnall Poulton was born at Reading, the son of William Poulton, architect, and his wife Georgina. He gained a scholarship to Jesus College and was the first scientist to become President of the Oxford Union. Graduating with a First, he lectured at Jesus and Keble and became known as a fervent supporter of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and an admirer of the work of Alfred Russel Wallace with whom he corresponded much. He was appointed Hope Professor of Zoology (Entomology) in 1893, succeeding John Obadiah Westwood, an anti-Darwinian. Poulton specialised in the study of the colours, markings, and mimicry of insects. In his book The Colours of Animals (1890), he coined new terms such as ‘aposematic’ for ‘warning off predators’ and ‘epigamic’ for ‘sexually attractive’. His careful fieldwork and experiments advanced a newer ecological approach to the study of evolution. He corresponded with many naturalists at home and abroad and amassed large collections of butterflies to aid his researches.

Poulton was a foremost proponent of the theory of natural selection at a time when it was still controversial and his eminence as a leading scientist was widely recognised. He was Vice-President of the Royal Society, and Darwin medallist in 1914, President of the Linnaean Society, and President of the Entomological Society of London. He received honorary degrees from Reading, Durham, Dublin, and Princeton and was honoured by many foreign learned societies. He was knighted in 1935. In 1881 he had married Emily Palmer, the Huntley and Palmer heiress. Wits remarked that he had married the biscuit and got the tin.

Wykeham House

He acquired the grand and ornate Wykeham House, 56 Banbury Road (above) in 1881 and made very significant additions to it, including the tower on the left and imposing porch. He died there in 1943, surviving all but one of his five children.

Ronnie Poulton

Ronald Poulton was Sir Edward’s second son and is regarded as one of the greatest rugby players of all time. Born at Wykeham House, he was educated at the Oxford Preparatory School (now the Dragon School), Rugby School, and Balliol College where he read Engineering. On the rugby field he was a charismatic figure with glamorous good looks, noted for his high-stepping style of running and unpredictable swerve. He played seventeen times for England, captaining the team in an unbeaten Five Nations series in 1914. He had won three blues playing for Oxford and the 1909 match against Cambridge is known as ‘Poulton’s match’ for his five tries, still a record in a varsity match. He played club rugby for Harlequins and Liverpool. Off the field he was a life-enhancing personality renowned for his warmth, integrity, liberal values, and social conscience. After Oxford he went to work for the family firm and on receiving a substantial legacy from his uncle in 1913 adopted the surname Palmer in his honour.

Poulton cross


He was commissioned as 2nd lieutenant in a territorial battalion of the Royal Berkshires and volunteered for service abroad on the outbreak of war. He arrived in Flanders in March 1915 and was killed by sniper fire in Ploegsteert Wood in early May.

The original wooden cross from Flanders (right) was transferred to Holywell Cemetery where Sir Edward and other family members are buried.


  • Dictionary of National Biography article on Sir Edward by G. D. H. Carpenter and article on Ronald Poulton by Huw Richards;
  • Poulton and England, the life and times of an Edwardian rugby hero by James Corsan (2009).

The plaque was unveiled at Wykeham House on 11 June 2016. The speakers were Charles Godfray, cbe, frs, Hope Professor of Zoology, and the Hon. Peter Jay, great-grandson of Sir Edward Poulton. Among those attending were the Lord Mayor of Oxford, Poulton descendants, zoologists, representatives from the Dragon, Rugby, Balliol, Oxford University RFC, and OU Careers Service which now occupies Wykeham House.


Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board

Evolutionary biologist
Hope Professor of Zoology


Rugby football hero

This was the family home

© Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board


Email: oxfordshireblueplaques@gmail.com