The Birdwatchers of Victorian Nottinghamshire

In the Victorian era there were hardly any birdwatchers in Nottinghamshire. Most ordinary people seem to have been too busy just living their lives to have a hobby such as watching birds. Among the richer individuals such as the landed gentry and the nobility, their particular interest was not watching but shooting birds:

another shoot

Even so, the very fact that they enjoyed shooting birds would actually have led them to develop some identification skills, however rudimentary, if only to avoid shooting a species which was out of season, or the same species over and over again:

shooting

At this time, there was great interest in having a large collection of stuffed birds or animals. Here again, identification skills would have been important:

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The earliest actual birdwatcher in Nottinghamshire seems to have been a man called William Felkin junior who lived in Nottingham from at least 1845-1870. Like his father, he was a lace manufacturer, but he became a Fellow of the Zoological Society and possessed a collection of stuffed birds of some 313 species. In 1866 he wrote the first ever book about birds in the county, entitled “The Ornithology of Nottinghamshire”. It was incorporated in Allen’s “Hand-book to Nottingham” published in the same year. This, I believe, is William Felkin senior. Hopefully. he looked a lot like his son:

felkin senior zzzzzzz

A contemporary of Felkin was William Foottit of Newark-on-Trent (fl 1840-1860). He was the local Coroner and ordinary people from miles around would bring unusual birds to him. Foottit was a frequent contributor to “The Zoologist” magazine:

Untitled

In 1869, clearly an outdoorsman of some competence, William Sterland of Ollerton wrote the marvellously entertaining “Birds of Sherwood Forest”:

sterland book

This book contained many anecdotes, and a number of records of rare birds. Sterland was the relatively uneducated son of a “grocer/ ironmonger/ tallow chandler/ dealer in sundries”, and, when the great man deigned to review it, his book was slated by Edward Newman, owner of “The Zoologist” magazine :

220px-EdwardNewman

This was possibly because Sterland was a frequent contributor  to “The Field” magazine, a fierce rival of “The Zoologist”:

p_1-the-field-top-banner

It is more likely, though, that this was a slightly more complex issue. Newman had himself left school at sixteen to go into his father’s business.  Now he mixed with some of the most prominent scientists and zoologists in the land. I suspect that if Newman’s well healed and well connected upper class friends found out that William Sterland still worked in his Dad’s village grocer’s shop, they might well have been strongly reminded of the humble origins of Newman himself.

Unabashed, though, in 1879, William Sterland produced “The Descriptive List of the Birds of Nottinghamshire”. Needless to say, Edward Newman still had quite a few buckets of bile left to throw, but all the local newspapers in the Nottingham area really liked the book.

Sterland’s collaborator in this venture was a young man called Joseph Whitaker, now universally acknowledged as “The Father of Nottinghamshire Ornithology”.  Whitaker (1850-1932), the son of a farmer, was born at Ramsdale House, nowadays a golf centre and wedding venue to the north of Nottingham. Look for the orange arrow:

ramsdale map

Recently this beautiful building received a great deal of publicity as the erstwhile residence of the most infamous dentist in the history of the National Health Service:

ramsdale zzzzz

In later life Whitaker moved to Rainworth Lodge, a large country house with a lake, slightly further north in the county. Look for the orange arrow:

rain ladge

Here, he was known to one and all as the man to contact about birds in Nottinghamshire, whether it be a member of the nobility or a simple farm labourer who had found an unusual bird dead in the road as he walked to work:

rainworth zzzzzzz

Whitaker would travel around Nottinghamshire by horse and trap to see various interesting species of birds, or to talk to people who had seen, and/or shot, unusual birds on their estate.

Whitaker wrote a number of books about nature, including “Scribblings of a Hedgerow Naturalist” and “Jottings of a Naturalist: Scraps of Nature and Sport on Land and Sea”. His finest title was most assuredly “Nimrod, Ramrod, Fishing-Rod and Nature Tales”. I believe that the young lady on the front cover of the book is the maid, rather than Whitaker himself:

nimrod

Whitaker was a frequent contributor to “The Zoologist” and in later years to the newly fledged “British Birds” magazine:

british birds

Before the rise of the pager, the mobile phone and the Internet, this publication was the only way to announce the presence of rare birds.

Whitaker also corresponded with his social betters, the Lords and Ladies whose many estates were the origin of the expression “The Dukeries” to describe north Nottinghamshire. There is a large collection of Whitaker‘s letters in the local collection at Mansfield Library. As well as the nobility, Whitaker also exchanged letters with many of the great ornithologists of the Victorian era, the men who wrote textbooks on birds, either in Britain, or in Europe as a whole. Joseph Whitaker’s greatest triumph, though, was a book entitled “The Birds of Nottinghamshire”,  which he had printed privately in 1907. It contains information about every single species of bird which the author knew to have occurred in the county. In Mansfield Library, we still have Whitaker’s own copy of this book, to which he has had a professional bookbinder add extra pages. In this way, the great man could cut out interesting stories from newspapers or magazines and then just paste them in.  Alternatively, he could simply handwrite in any interesting items of bird news which he had gleaned. Unfortunately, I have been able to trace only four photos of Joseph Whitaker, none of them as a young man. In all of them, he has a reassuringly large walrus moustache:

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Whitaker’s greatest claim to fame was the Egyptian Nightjar which was shot in 1883 in Thieves Wood near Mansfield by a gamekeeper called Albert Spinks. At the time this poor lost individual (the bird, not the gamekeeper) was the first known sighting in England, and just the second in Europe. Even now, a hundred and thirty years later, only one more has been seen in this country. Whitaker erected a stone to commemorate the event but it was smashed to smithereens in the 1980s (to celebrate its centenary, presumably) and replaced by a wonderful modern sculpture costing well in excess  of £8.50:

original mem

The pieces of the original stone were recently found and reassembled, although one little bit does seem to be somewhat of an enigma:

bits of stone

The bird itself was stuffed and, as an item of immense prestige, it went into Whitaker’s enormous collection. After his death, it eventually finished up in the foyer of Mansfield Library, safe behind highly reflective glass.

nightjar2

I thought it might be quite interesting to bring to a wider audience some of the birdwatching anecdotes which Whitaker mentions, both in his original book, and in the very many additions which he made to it. In future blog posts, therefore, I will bring you the true story of the famous Egyptian Nightjar and any number of other notable birds.

One final point is that the Nottinghamshire of the Victorian era was a very different place to the Nottinghamshire of today. The current Nottingham ring-road was just a muddy footpath alongside the Daybrook. Had our own suburban house existed then, there would have been no other private houses in sight in any direction. Just Bagthorpe Prison, Bagthorpe Hospital and the City Workhouse. It is amazing just how few people must have been alive in the county at that time.

A second final point is that many of these early ornithologists would not have had optical aids of any great standard, whether binoculars or telescopes. They may have had nothing beyond the Mark One Eyeball. In addition, they may have had no access to identification books, where they could carefully check what they had seen. This is why, if the presence of a rare bird was to be proven beyond doubt, it had to be shot. That is the origin of that grand old saying, “What’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery”.

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11 Comments

Filed under History, Humour, Nottingham, Wildlife and Nature

11 responses to “The Birdwatchers of Victorian Nottinghamshire

  1. Fascinating read. I imagine the bird-watchers of today would cringe at the thought of a stuffed bird collection! It is hard enough for me to identify birds (and bugs as well), I can hardly imagine how difficult it would be for the bird watchers of the time! Great post!

  2. Thanks very much for your interest, Dennis. Years ago, I actually went to see Joseph Whitaker’s stuffed bird collection which is now housed in the back rooms of Mansfield Museum. Two things were very striking. How lifeless it was compared to the real thing, and the clammy smell of formaldehyde. I think if they could quietly get rid of it, they would!

  3. Great ending: What’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery.

  4. Many thanks for your interest and encouragement. The phrase was used, apparently by Arthur Ransome, a British children’s author in “Great Northern?” the final book of his“Swallows and Amazons” series. It wasn’t Ransome’s invention however, but was given to him by a birdwatcher Myles North, so it must have already existed to some extent. Politically, Ransome was a bit “iffy”. I have just discovered that “evidence uncovered in the KGB files after the break-up of the Soviet Union indicates that his wife was smuggling diamonds from the Soviet Union to Paris to help fund the Comintern.” Whoops!!

  5. A sense of irony there, a rare bird being shot to prove it is a rare bird. That just makes it more rare and likely to be shot even more! A perpetuating cycle of shooting! A lovely post!

  6. Interesting post! Are you a bird watcher? We have relatives who live way up in the mountains and they spend a lot of time bird watching. They tried to take my son (who was 4 at the time) along with them but his stomping around made sure there were none to be seen!

  7. Yes, I am a birdwatcher, although at the moment I am waiting for a hip replacement, so I am not very mobile and I am limited to watching the garden at the moment. It’s not bad because some of the birds have started to recognise me, which is cute. Little children and bird watching are a difficult mixture. The easiest thing to do is to take them to see easy birds such as ducks and so on in the park. It can’t be easy though on a mountain!Thanks a lot for your interest, by the way.

  8. Also egregious (in the US, and I think your country) was the collection of bird eggs. The advent of great binoculars, spotting scopes, bird guide books, and stiff laws helped make birding a popular and less lethal sport.

    • Yes, collecting birds’ eggs has been a huge problem over the years. So too has ladies’ fashions such as egret plumes for hats or muffs to warm their hands made from the body of a Great Crested Grebe. You are right, though. Gradually, though, as you say, the greater knowledge from guide books, binoculars and scopes, and especially nowadays, fondness for digital cameras, is tipping the balance towards the birds.

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