Tag Archives: Nottingham

Where did those three “merles” come from? Part One

Not many people would be able to answer this question.

What exactly is “Ermine a Lozenge Argent charged with three Blackbirds rising proper on a Chief Gules an open Book also proper garnished Or between two Ducal Coronets of the last.” ?

Well, it’s one of these, more or less. What’s a lozenge between friends?:

Notts Crest COLOUR xxxxxxxxxxx

The origin of the High School’s coat of arms has always been, to me, a major enigma. Apparently, there has always supposed to have been a connection between the arms of Dame Agnes’ family, namely “Mellers” and another family called Mellor, who lived in Mellor, a village between Stockport and Glossop.

(Where?)

(Well, let’s put it this way. in either town you can easily get a bus to Manchester. It’s a distance of some seven miles and twelve miles respectively)

Here is their coat of arms:

0mellor coat of

To me though there is quite a difference in spelling between Mellor and Mellers, although the Mellor coat of arms is obviously a reasonable fit with the school’s crest.

This theory, though, does rely almost totally on the supposition that Richard Mellers was related to this “Family in the North” whose coat of arms displayed three black birds. In actual fact, there is no reason to suppose any proven link whatsoever between the two families. After all, it’s a very long way between Nottingham and Stockport in late medieval times. More than ninety miles, in fact. The best part of a week on foot, not counting any unexpected meetings with Robin Hood and his Merrie Men.

Let’s look at a small number of other likely coats of arms. Let’s start with Mellers. It should be said that Dame Agnes herself always spelt her name as “Mellers” (but never as “Mellor”):

For “Mellers”, we find very few coats of arms, but there is this one:

meller_c

Let’s try “Meller”. We do find this one, and furthermore, the very same shield is listed elsewhere as “Mellers” :

meller_cThat’s not the answer, though,, because we also find this shield for Meller, as well:

meller-ireland

And this one:

meller_large irish

And this one:

Smeller red

Clearly, something, somewhere, is not quite right. It may even be very wrong. There are problems here, and the first major one may well be connected with the simple issue of the spelling of Dame Agnes’ surname. Despite her own insistence on Mellers, mentioned above, a quick look at “Google Images” will reveal that Mellers, Mellor, Meller and probably Mellors, appear to be disturbingly interchangeable.Coats of arms just seem to come and go. They are different every tine you look at Google. This is because, I suspect, they are connected less with accurate heraldry than the desire to sell tee-shirts, mugs, key rings, ties and even underpants with your family crest on them.

Those black birds on the High School shield have always been regarded as Blackbirds, an everyday bird species in England:

blackbird

The theory is that the heraldic word for a blackbird is “merle”, taken from the French, and this gives us a devilishly funny pun for the surname “Mellers”. Such side splitters are called “Canting Arms”. They are used to  establish a visual pun, as in the following examples:

canting
I am just not sure about this word “merle”. Just because a coat of arms contains a number of black birds (as opposed to green ones), that does not automatically mean that we are dealing with canting arms, even if the French word “merle” refers to our familiar back garden bird, the Blackbird, aka turdus merula, and the name “Mellers” sounds perhaps, possibly, maybe, slightly, conceivably, like it.

What is more disturbing, though, is the discovery that “merle” appears to mean absolutely nothing whatsoever in English Heraldry. On Amazon, the search for “Heraldry” reveals five books, all with the same title. It is “A Complete Guide to Heraldry” by A.C.Fox-Davis:

fox daviesThis rather old book is the standard work on English Heraldry and has been for quite a considerable time. It is a book of some 645 pages, but there is not a single “merle” on any one of them.  And more important still, if merles did actually exist in Heraldry, then why did the Heralds’ College, known also as the College of Arms, call these birds “blackbirds” when they made that formal grant-of-arms to the school as recently as 1949? Why didn’t they call them “merles” and thereby preserve the “Laugh, I nearly died” visual pun?
And don’t think that the College of Arms are just a bunch of fly-by-night door-to-door sellers of heraldic key rings and underwear. They were founded well before Dame Agnes Mellers, in fact as far back as 1484. To quote the definition on the Heraldry Society website:

“The College of Arms is the only official English authority for confirming the correctness of armorial ensigns — Arms, Crests, Supporters and Badges — claimed by descent from an armigerous ancestor, or for granting new ones to those who qualify for them.”

In other words, if they say it’s a blackbird it’s a blackbird. You can’t just decide to call it a “merle” because you feel like it, or because it seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s just not allowed. Here is another blackbird, just to refresh your memory:

Blackbird-01

In 1920 at least, nobody called it a “merle”. In June of that year, the new school magazine, “The Highvite” contained a “Sports Chorus”, including appropriately vigorous music. The words were…

“Score our High School / ye Highvites now score for victory.
Our High School / For Highvites, never, never, never shall be beaten
By any Worksop / Newark & c. team
At the Sign of the Blackbirds three.”

No “merles” there then. It is equally interesting to note that in “The Nottinghamian” of December 1921, the school’s emblem is again referred to as containing blackbirds, rather than merles. This overturning of tradition, however, does not mean that the use of three black birds does not connect us directly with Dame Agnes. Let’s look at it from a different angle, just for a moment.

Many people have believed over the years that it was only when the school changed its site from Stoney Street to Arboretum Street in 1867 that the three black birds were first adapted. But this was definitely not the case since photographs from the mid-nineteenth century show quite clearly that a badge with three birds was displayed on the wall of the Free School building. In this case, though, their wings were folded rather than the modern version, flapping and ready for immediate and dynamic intellectual and sporting take-off:

stoney st enlarged

Indeed, it is thought that the three black birds were in evidence as an unofficial badge for the school from at least June 16th 1808 onwards. On this date, an unknown but apparently very bored clerk has decorated the title page of the funky new volume of the Schoolwardens’ Annual Balance Sheets with the traditional three black birds, so it has clearly been known as a symbol connected with the school for a very long time.

Interestingly enough, another slightly more modern place where the birds’ wings can be seen as folded dates from 1936, when some new stained glass sections were put into the windows at the back of the recently built Assembly Hall:

assembly hall

And nowadays, of course, this folded wings version forms the badge of the Old Nottinghamians’ Society. Presumably, that is why they appear in this guise on a car badge being sold off on ebay:

car badge

Next time, I will attempt to answer the question of where did those black birds come from? In the meantime here’s a clue. Not all black birds are Blackbirds:

chough_nb_tcm9-94034

 

 

 

 

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Storks in Victorian Nottinghamshire

The White Stork is a very large and spectacular visitor to England. People have asked me on many occasions why we think that babies are brought by storks. My answer has always been that a good number of new babies have a red mark on their forehead when they are first born. This mark is triangular and it looks as if their head has been grasped for a considerable period of time in a stork’s beak. My own daughter certainly had the mark on her forehead when she was first born, although it usually fades with time.

Victorian Nottinghamshire recorded a number of storks, and in actual fact, the very best records come from the era of King George IV, Beau Brummell’s “fat friend”.  In 1825, therefore, a single bird was killed near Bawtry on an unrecorded date during the year:

white-stork-113589 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Four years later, in 1829 an entire flock of these magnificent birds was seen on the River Trent at the very same location as the 1825 individual:

white-storks-flockxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Two of them were subsequently shot as they overflew the nearby market town of Bawtry. Look for the orange arrows:

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On Monday, April 12th 1915, a single bird was seen in flight over the road between Nottingham and Mansfield. The observer was Sir Herbert Chermside :

220px-Sir_Herbert_Chermside

In 1899 Sir Herbert had married Geraldine Katherine Webb, the daughter of Mr W.F.Webb, the owner of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire. The poor lady was to die in 1910 without any children.

Sir Herbert immediately typed a letter to Joseph Whitaker, as soon as he reached home after seeing this wonderful bird:

“This morning a specimen of Cicogna Alba passed across the Nottingham-Mansfield high Road (sic) at 9.50 a.m. between the Pilgrim Oak and the Hutt House, the bird was in Spring plumage, with legs and beak very bright:

bilyl_leleka_pislja_opysu xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

It was, I think, a hen bird, and passed directly over me within easy gun shot, flying relatively low, over the tops of the Beech trees by a few feet. It is possibly a War Refugee from the Low Countries.”

The Pilgrim Oak or Gospel Oak stands opposite the Hutt at the main entrance to Newstead Abbey. This is the Hutt:

thre hutt

The Pilgrim Oak was the place where pilgrims would stop and read the gospels before entering the Abbey (not the pub). The age of the tree is unknown but it was already quite large in Lord Byron’s time. The American author, Washington Irving, described as “a venerable tree, of great size” when he visited the area in the early 19th century:

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Here is the Pilgrim Oak in both spring and autumn:

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Joseph Whitaker would have been totally gutted, to use the modern expression, that a non-birdwatcher had seen such a wonderful, spectacular bird, and he hadn’t:

white-stork-hungary-2007

Just under a week later, on Sunday, April 18th, Sir Herbert wrote again to Whitaker confirming the identity of a bird that he had already seen in many locations in the Middle East. This must really have twisted the knife, although, of course, unwittingly:

“I wish that you had seen the Stork instead of I (sic) although it is the first one that I have ever seen in England. Last year I was in the uplands of Algeria, south of Constantinople on the day of their arrival in very considerable numbers (early March) at the Dardanelles on the shores of the Sea of Marmora , 17th March is the day of their arrival. A day’s march from Gallipoli on the eastern side, they have a great assembly place-for both spring and autumn.

White-Storks_1164flock xxxxxxxxxxx

The natives allege that in Autumn, the birds of the year pair there, before the migration.”

All the way through this account, I have deliberately used the phrase “White Stork”. This is because there is a Black Stork as well. This is a much rarer bird, and one which I myself have yet to see:

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In Victorian times there was just one report of this species being seen in the county. This was an unfortunate individual which was shot during the autumn of 1871 at Colwick by Mr John Brown of Old Moat Hall. Joseph Whitaker was told the facts in a letter from Mr P. Musters of West Bridgford. As Old Moat Hall is in Cheshire, I suppose we can presume that Mr Brown was a guest of one of the members of the extended Chaworth-Musters family, who were rich landowners in Nottinghamshire.

As far as I can see, their possessions included Annesley Hall, Colwick Hall, Wiverton Hall, Edwalton Manor, West Bridgford Hall and for Sundays, Felley Priory.

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“Go straight to Hell ! Do not pass Go ! ” Part One

Having explored the history of the High School for more than twenty five years, I have always thought that the school’s beginnings are shrouded in mystery. For me, the High School has always been very like the Soviet Union:

“a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”

What do we know about the founder of the school, Dame Agnes Mellers, for example? What was she like as a person? There are a very few illustrations which are thought to be her. This is the school’s charter:

charter

And here is a close-up of Dame Agnes and King Henry VIII:

charter001

This is the charter changed into a line drawing:

agnes

For me, there have always seemed to have been two enormously important motivating forces in her character. The first was her staunch religious faith as a Roman Catholic with a sincere love of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. Dame Agnes seems in many ways to have been an uncomplicated soul, who viewed the world in a simple direct way. She tried to be a good person, with the sincere belief that we should all try to make things better rather than worse, that we should do good things rather than evil and that we should always strive to be on the side of the Angels.

The second motivation for her was the love she had for her husband, Richard, which seems as sincere and unswerving as her love for the Church. Richard was, as his name suggests, a rich man. He was at one time or another, Sheriff of Nottingham (1472-1473), Chamberlain (1484-1485) and Royal Commissioner and Mayor of Nottingham (1499-1500 and again in 1506). In 1499, he is known to have given twenty shillings to help repair the Hethbeth Bridge, as Trent Bridge’s predecessor was called. Here is one of the last photographs ever taken of the old bridge before it was superseded by the present Trent Bridge. You can certainly see why it was easier for the river to freeze up in those days:

old-trent-bridge-1871xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

This is all that remains of the Hethbeth Bridge nowadays:

771942beth heth xxxxxxxxxxx

It is in the middle of a road island to the south of Trent Bridge. If you decide to take a look at it, be very careful of the traffic and use the proper crossings. Look for the (camouflaged) orange arrow in the centre of the (red) road junction:

trent

Richard Mellers was a brazier, and probably a potter, and he had certainly dealt in metal pots and dishes. Most important of all, he owned the largest church bell-foundry in the region. The site of his premises has long disappeared, but its exact location is still known today.

From 1888 onwards, just a very few yards north of the city centre, steps began to clear away:

“a curious V-shaped slice of slum property…a most unhygienic and immoral neighbourhood and nothing good could be said for it”.

This slum clearance took a number of years, and resulted in the formation of King Street and Queen Street, the latter being opened on June 22nd, 1892.

During this time, it was inevitable that, along with all the slums and all the undesirable features, a few other more reputable premises were destined to disappear. Among these was Richard Mellers’ Bell Foundry, which is known to have stood more or less exactly on the site of the present day Queen Street Post Office. The orange arrow points to the general area, and the letters PO stand for the purple edged Post Office:

king street

Perhaps it was working so close to such an “immoral neighbourhood” that deflected Richard away from the straight and narrow. He had, for example, already paid out £20 to be the Mayor of  Nottingham for twelve months. There wasn’t really much of the democratic process involved here, or indeed, much evidence of any genuine interest in the workings of democracy. That payment of £20, a rather sizeable sum of money by modern standards, may well have been the reason that, in the very same year, Richard had been so keen to do a good deed by paying  for the upkeep of the ever ailing Hethbeth Bridge.

Richard was certainly widely known as a fairly unscrupulous businessman. During his lifetime, in his efforts to acquire great personal wealth, he certainly seems to have cheated many of his bell buying customers. In 1507, for example, we know that Richard had received a pardon for having committed offenses against the statutes of weights and measures. This charge is believed to have related to problems with the purity of his bells and the metal they contained. The pardon would only have been granted because of his previous position as Mayor of Nottingham. A less prestigious person would have been in very, very, serious trouble. These bells, though, are all 100% the real peal:

100911_Lowell_bells_147.jpg

To be continued……………………….

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The very first football season of them all 1888-1889 (Part 1)

At the moment, the High School has very strong  footballing links, both with the Premier League and the Championship. They come in the person of Patrick Bamford, a young man who would seem to have a sparkling footballing future ahead of him:

He is not the only Old Nottinghamian to have played professional football, however. Well over a century ago, for example, a number of old boys took part in that inaugural season of 1888-1889, playing for Notts County in the newly formed Football League.

The season was totally dominated by Preston North End, “The Invincibles”, who beat County on aggregate by 11-1, for example, and were undefeated at the end of the campaign after 22 matches. They dismissed Wolverhampton Wanderers by an aggregate of 9-2 and Stoke City by 10-0. Notts County were to finish in eleventh place out of twelve. Their record of five victories, two draws and fifteen defeats produced a grand total of 12 points, with two for a win and one for a draw. Stoke City also managed 12 points, but their goal average (not difference in those days) was 0.510 as opposed to County’s much more impressive 0.548. That difference of 38 hundredths of a goal was enough for County to escape the Wooden Spoon! Derby County had 16 points and Burnley had 17 points. All four teams were re-elected to the League for the next season:

league table

One Old Nottinghamian who appeared in the County team that season was Arthur Frederick Shaw, of whom I have been, unfortunately, unable to find any photographs whatsoever on the Internet. Arthur was born on August 11th 1869 in Basford. His father was Alfred Shaw (1842-1907), the famous Nottingham and Sussex cricketer:

AlfredShaw_RedLillywhite1876

Shaw senior played for England, and he actually bowled the very first ball ever in the entire history of Test Cricket, which was to the Australian batsman, Charles Bannerman. During his cricketing career, Alfred Shaw took more than 2,000 wickets for Nottinghamshire and Sussex from 1864-1897, before becoming a first class umpire. He died in 1907 at Gedling, Nottingham, and is buried in the churchyard there, close to the grave of Arthur Shrewsbury, the former Nottinghamshire and England batsman:

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At the time when their son entered the High School on April 28th 1881, at the age of ten, the Shaw family was living at the Belvoir Inn in Kirkby Street, Nottingham, a street which no longer exists. The date when he left the High School remains unknown.
Arthur Shaw played just two games for Notts County during that inaugural 1888-1889 season. His first game was on December 8th 1888 at home to Aston Villa, which resulted in a 2-4 defeat for the Magpies. A crowd of some 2,000 spectators watched the game, where Shaw played as an inside right (Number 8, except that there were no numbers in League Football until August 25th 1928). At left full back (No3) was Herbert Durrant Snook, a fellow Old Nottinghamian, with George Hutchinson Brown, a third Old Nottinghamian, playing at right half (No 4). I will talk about these two gentlemen in a later article.
Arthur’s second game came on March 5th 1889, when County entertained Bolton Wanderers at Meadow Lane. A crowd of some 3,000 spectators watched the match, where Arthur played on this occasion as an inside left (Number 10). County lost narrowly by four goals to nil.

Arthur went on to play for Notts County on two more occasions in the Football League. These both came in the following season of 1889-1890, when the team finished in a much improved tenth place in the League. On December 14th 1889, he appeared in a game at Meadow Lane against Wolverhampton Wanderers, watched by 3,000 people and ending in a narrow 0-2 home defeat for the Magpies. A week later, they entertained Derby County and beat them by three goals to one, in front of a Meadow Lane crowd of, again, some 3,000 spectators. On both occasions, Arthur was playing as an outside right, and, again, had there been numbers on the players’ shirts at this time, he would have worn a No 7.

Arthur appeared a number of times for Nottingham Forest, both before and after his appearances for Notts County. At the age of barely eighteen, therefore, well before Forest were a League club, Arthur made his début for them in the 1887-1888 season, scoring the only goal in a 1-1 home draw against Burslem Port Vale. His other game for Forest was a 3-2 home win against Bolton Wanderers, when Shaw scored what turned out to be the winning goal.

During the following season of 1888-1889, Arthur made four appearances for Forest and scored two goals. He played at home against Preston North End (0-2), Newton Heath (2-2, one scorer unknown), and Clapton (3-2, two goals). He played in away games at Newton Heath (1-3), a team who were later to become Manchester United. All of these games were friendlies. Here are some Forest strips from this long ago era. Things have not changed a great deal:

forest 1868 zzzzzz

In the 1889-1890 season, Arthur made eleven appearances for Forest and scored six goals. He played a number of games in the Football Alliance against Long Eaton Rangers, Sunderland Albion, Darwen, Newton Heath and Small Heath (later Birmingham City). The result in this last game, a 0-12 loss, remains Nottingham Forest’s record defeat. Arthur also appeared in the 0-3 away defeat at Derby Midland in the First Round of the F.A.Cup.

Perhaps the most unusual moment in Arthur Shaw’s whole football career came in this 1889-1890 season when he played for both Nottingham Forest and Notts County. He appeared in the Football Alliance for Forest against Sunderland Albion, (3-1) and then, as we have already seen, for County in the Football League against Wolverhampton Wanderers (0-2) and Derby County (2-3). Shaw capped it all on Boxing Day, December 26th 1889, when he turned out for Forest against County in a 1-1 draw in a friendly at Meadow Lane. I presume that this swapping of allegiances was possible because County played in the Football League and Forest played in the Football Alliance. There would have been no connection between the two organisations.

In the 1890-1891 season, playing for Forest as an outside left (No 11), Arthur appeared in the First Round of the F.A.Cup against Clapton. He scored one goal at the wonderfully named Spotted Dog Grounds as Forest won narrowly by 14-0, still the record away score for the F.A.Cup, and indeed, the record away win in any competition. Clapton had only trailed 0-5 at halftime before conceding nine quick goals in the second half. Arthur’s fellow Old Nottinghamian, the “ageing Tinsley Lindley” was also playing:

Tinsley_Lindley

“There’s only one Tinsley Lindley” scored a mere four goals in this one sided game, where five goals came from the Scottish international Sandy Higgins. A third Old Nottinghamian was playing for Forest in the person of John Edward Leighton, called “Ted” or “Teddy” at the High School and later in his life, “Kipper”, for his ability to fall calmly asleep in the dressing room before big matches. He played quite a few of those over the years, but his greatest honour came on March 13th 1886, when he won his only international cap for England, as an outside left in a 6-1 victory over Ireland in Belfast. Teddy Leighton was making his England début in the same team as fellow High School Old Boy, and Nottingham Forest player, Tinsley Lindley, mentioned above. This was one of no fewer than four occasions on which two ex-pupils of the High School have played together for their country. On other occasions, Leighton and Lindley had also played together for the fabled “Corinthians” club.

Overall, Arthur Shaw was to score a grand total of 11 goals in 79 appearances for Nottingham Forest. After he left Forest he went on to score three goals in 11 appearances for Loughborough, who, at the time, were playing in the Football League, Second Division. He would have worn these long forgotten colours:

Loughborough_Town_1895-1900

Arthur’s final appearance of any kind for Nottingham Forest came when he played as a right half in the semi-final of the Bass Charity Cup. The game was away from home, against Leicester Fosse, and took place on April 6th 1899. It finished in a 1-1 draw, and was watched by approximately 1,000 spectators.

Arthur’s final appearance for Nottingham Forest in the Football League had already come in a 0-5 defeat in an away game against Derby County. This fixture took place at the Baseball Ground on April 11th 1898, and the legendary Steve Bloomer scored a hat trick, before a crowd of some 12,000 spectators:

bloomer xxxxxxxx

Only five days later, the same two teams were to contest the F.A.Cup Final at Crystal Palace before a crowd of 62,017, Forest triumphing on this occasion by 3-1. Unfortunately, Shaw did not make the team for the final, his position of right half being filled by Frank Forman. This is the closest, however, that any Old Nottinghamian has come to winning an F.A.Cup winner’s medal but only if you don’t count the School Gardener,

programme

By the way, the illustrations of old football kits came from the best ever website for the soccer nerd and all the boys who had more than twenty different Subbuteo teams. New Brighton Tower 1898? Oh, yes.

 

 

 

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The Beast of Ennerdale: Part Two

Last time I introduced you all to the Beast of Ennerdale, an unknown creature that rampaged over the Lake District in north western England in 1810. Here is Ennerdale:

1280px-Ennerdale

The original source for the tale was a book called “Cumbriana; or, Fragments of Cumbrian life” by William Dickinson. It was published in 1876, more than sixty years after the events it portrayed. Here, a typical chase after the Monster is described:

“One Saturday night a great number of men was dispersed over the high fells, watching with guns and hounds, but the animal avoided  them and took his supper on a distant mountain ; and the men not meeting with him, came down about eleven o’clock on Sunday morning and separated about Swinside Lane End:

Swinside

In a few minutes after, Willy Lamb gave the “view halloo.” He had started the beast in crossing the wooded stream, and away went the dog with the hounds in full cry after him. The hunt passed Ennerdale Church during service ; and the male part of the congregation, liking the cry of the hounds better than the sermon, ran out and followed. It has been said the Reverend Mr Ponsonby could not resist, and himself went in pursuit as far as he was able. This run ended at Fitz Mill, near Cockermouth, in a storm which the wearied men and dogs had to encounter in a twelve-miles return.”

The Beast’s identity was still a matter of considerable debate for the locals:

rustic

Some thought it was a lion. Some thought it was a tiger. Some thought it was a wolf. One wealthier farmworker, who had recently been to France for his holidays, said that it was “Like a wolf but not a wolf”.

And exactly as had been the case in France, many of the local peasants thought it was a werewolf, although the one who had been to France for his holidays, said it was “un loup-garou” or even “un rougarou”. Proof of the supernatural qualities of this Beast came in the fact that it drank blood:

eyes wolf

Just as a piece of information, there were no wolves in the Lake District at this time, and had not been for, probably, the best part of 400 years. The most recent record of wolves in England came, most fittingly, from Nottinghamshire where, in the reign of Henry VI (1422-1460), Robert Plumpton, who owned land in Nottingham itself, was given the job of “chasing wolves in Sherwood Forest”. By 1500, wolves were totally exterminated in England.

Whatever the Beast of Ennerdale was, the locals came up with a cunning plan to catch it. Somebody thought of putting together all the best hunting dogs into an élite pack, a Special Forces Unit which would hunt down the Sheep Slayer once and for all:

pack dogs
There was a pursuit which lasted several days. Finally, the poor monster was flushed from cover. It fled, but the hounds caught it. The plan now went pear shaped though, as the Beast took on all of the Special Forces dogs at once in a ferocious combat. Several of these ninja sheep dogs were killed outright in a matter of minutes. All the survivors then suddenly changed their minds and headed off home, to the safety of their nice safe kennels. Obviously, whatever the Beast was, “dog” could pretty well be crossed off the list.
And just as was the case in distant Gévaudan, there were the hard luck stories. William Jackson who lived in the middle of wild and lonely mountains at Swinside, had his musket loaded and ready, as he left his wild and lonely farm. Here it is, as it looks today:

Cragg_Hall_Farm_-

The Beast was watching him, just thirty yards away. William took careful aim, pulled the trigger and the fifty years old relic of a rifle failed to fire. The Beast, of course, made his escape easily.
On another occasion, a group of men, armed to the teeth, along with their pack of hounds, had the Beast surrounded in a small wood and totally at their mercy. It charged out and the weakest link in the human chain duly lost his nerve, dived out of the way and the chance was lost.

Interestingly enough, an incident very similar to this happened with the Beast of Gévaudan and with at least one of the other French creatures. The Beast of Ennerdale, though, continued onwards and knocked over an old chap called Jack Wilson. Jack was collecting wood for his fire but was completely unaware of the Beast’s presence, because he was totally deaf.
The guilty nerve loser was probably Will Rothery who is actually named in another very similar version of the tale. Will explained that he failed to take his easy shot at the animal because he was so surprised by its huge size and unexpected appearance. I would expect Mr Rothery’s fellow hunters might have had something to say about that. Later, Will Rothery was to testify that he thought the animal was some kind of lion.

Meanwhile, in Cumberland, the slayings continued. Sheep continued to die in large numbers:

sheer

Great was the disappointment, therefore, when, one fine morning in July, an enormous army of more than 200 armed men, with their hounds, found themselves scouring Kinniside Fell after the Beast had been seen moving away towards Hopehead. The contour lines show how steep the sides of the valley were. Look for the orange arrow:

kinniside

The huge pursuit went on, along the tops of the mountains between Wasdale and Ennerdale. And then it was the wild slopes of Stockdale Moor and then, finally, a cornfield near Calder Bridge.
But the enormous, and prolonged hunt was in vain. After they had waited for hours, not a single Beast was found hiding in the corn. Somehow, it had slipped away.

And then there was another wasted, breathless chase through Drigg and out to Seascale, right on the coast of the Irish Sea itself. Overall, the Beast took its admirers on many tourist trips around the fringes of the Lake District. Kinniside. Lamplugh. Through the icy waters of the Marron. Out to Little Clifton and then to sunny Workington. Or perhaps they would have preferred Seaton or the Fitz Mill at Cockermouth. Maybe Irton or Dent Hill or Egremont or even St. Bees. Here is the wonderfully named Cockermouth. The orange arrow indicates the Fitz Mill :

cockermouth
And still nobody knew what the Beast was. Hundreds of people, noblemen, farmworkers  and professional hunters had all seen it. And it remained an enormous puzzle. Meanwhile the death toll mounted. And still they were haunted by the worry that it might one day change from drinking sheep’s blood to killing children.
The longer it went on, the more gloom and despondency the locals felt. As autumn approached, they all made the conscious decision to accept the losses of sheep temporarily, but above all to make sure that the harvest was gathered in. All the hunts were abandoned for the moment, as gathering in the harvest continued apace:

George_Cole_-_Harvest_zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
By September, the hunters were back, combing the hillsides and fields for the Beast. Now the writing was on the wall. No animal, however secretive and cunning, could continue for ever to elude so many hundreds of pursuers:

aa-bete-des-vosges-cxzcfe
A significant chance event occurred on September 12th, when the Beast was seen by Jonathan Patrickson to go into a cornfield. The tale is told by William Dickinson in his “Cumbriana; or, Fragments of Cumbrian life”. It starts with some traditional Lake District Gibberish:

Jonathan quietly said, ” Aa’l let ta lig theer a bit, me  lad, but aa’l want to see tha just noo.”

Away went the old man, and, without the usual noise, soon raised men enough to surround the field. As some in their haste came unprovided with guns, a halt was whispered round to wait until more guns were brought and the hounds collected. When a good muster of guns and men with dogs were got together, the wild dog was disturbed out of the corn ; and only the old man who had seen him go into the field was  lucky enough to get a shot at him, and to wound him  in the hind quarters:

Replica_Remington_Zouave_firing

This took a little off his speed, and enabled the hounds to keep well up to him, but none dared or did engage him. And, though partly disabled, he kept long on his legs and was often headed and turned by the numerous parties of pursuers, several of whom met him in his circuitous route from the upper side of Kinniside, by Eskat, Arlecdon, and Asby, by Rowrah and Stockhow Hall, to the river Ehen. Here is Arlecdon and Rowrah, indicated by the orange arrow:

rowrah

Each of these parties he fled from, and turned in a new direction till he got wearied. He was quietly taking a cold bath in the river, with the exhausted hounds as quietly looking on, when John Steel came up with his gun laden with small bullets, but dared not shoot, lest he should injure some of the hounds. When the dog caught sight of him it made off to Eskat Woods, with the hounds and John on its track, and after a few turnings in the wood, amid the greatest excitement of dogs and men, a fair chance was offered, and the fatal discharge was made by John Steel:

Brown_Bess_Musket_firing

The destroyer fell to rise no more, and the marksman received his well-earned reward of ten pounds, with the hearty congratulations of all assembled.

After many a kick at the dead brute, the carcase was carried in triumph to the inns at Ennerdale Bridge;  and the cheering and rejoicing there were so great that it was many days before the shepherd inhabitants of the vale settled to their usual pursuits.”

What was left of the mystery animal was taken triumphantly then to the various public houses at Ennerdale Bridge. On the map, the orange arrow indicates “PH” which means public house:

the pub

The locals, thirsty from the rejoicing and the cheering, clearly made serious attempts to drink the place dry:

Beer_Cans-1ccccccccccccccccccc

Not cans, though. They were not invented until 1935. Stick to bottled beer. Foreign, if they stock it:

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The people who were still sober enough then weighed the animal (eight stone or 51 kilos: a big wolf is 100 kilos). They put it on a cart and paraded it around. It finished up in Hutton’s Museum, at Keswick where the resident taxidermist stuffed what remained of the animal after the Special Forces hunting dogs had all had a free bite each. It was given a collar round its neck, stating that the wearer had been the destroyer of nearly three hundred sheep and lambs in the five months of his Ennerdale campaign.

When the Museum closed in 1876, the Beast, though, was lost, and that was that. Another tale says that the curator of the Museum just decided one day that it was too tatty and too moth-eaten to be kept and the strange stripey Beast was simply thrown in the dustbin:

thylacineimg_1230

Whatever the truth, the Beast was still unidentified. So what was it? Just a dog?
Well…have a think, and I’ll tell you the extremely cunning theory in my next article.
Meanwhile, let’s finish with the Official Song of the Beast of Ennerdale. Unfortunately, perhaps, it has many, many verses, but this is the catchy chorus, sung to the tune of “D’Ye Ken John Peel”:

It was big,
It was strong,
It was eight feet long.
It could leap,
It could bound,
It could outrun any hound.

It had stripes and a tail, and it gave out such a wail,
And you’d find dead sheep in the morning.

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Victorian Cormorants and Victorian Shags

To keep birdwatchers on their toes, many birds exist in what are called “species pairs”. This means that you may know that a particular bird is either a Ruff or a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, but it will not necessarily be that easy to separate them:

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And there are literally hundreds of these species pairs, some easy, some not quite so simple. House Sparrow and Tree Sparrow are unmistakable, but what about that rare vagrant to England, the Spanish Sparrow?

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Montagu’s Harrier and Pallid Harrier, for females or juveniles at least, will require careful and probably lengthy examination:

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Occasionally, a particular bird will never be identified for definite. Nearly thirty years ago, I drove all the way to Weymouth in Dorset, a round trip of nearly 500 miles, to see a Pipit which was present from mid March to early May 1989, in a field near the Observatory. Look for the orange arrow:

wetymouth

It was either a Richard’s Pipit (not that rare) or a Blyth’s Pipit (one of the first two or three ever in England). Here they are:

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And the controversy has never really been solved. Indeed, this particular bird is usually known to twitchers as the “Portland Pipit” after the Bird Observatory in whose fields it spent the winter.

In the Victorian era, of course, without modern telescopes worth more than my car, and, more importantly, field guides with colour photographs, many birds remained unidentifiable especially if they were both fairly rare. One such pair, which I still find challenging enough even now, is the Cormorant and the Shag. Here is a Cormorant:

gret corm xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

And here is a Shag:

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You can probably guess what the Victorian solution was to this problem, at least as far as a rare bird was concerned. You shot the bird, if at all possible.

SHAG-03 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

With all that in mind, let’s take a trip back to the real era of Steampunk:

“According to H.E. Forrest in a letter to “The Zoologist” magazine, it was on an unrecorded date during the year of 1863 that a single Cormorant was shot at Lamb Close Reservoir near Eastwood and acquired for the collection of Joseph Whitaker:

“The keeper had seen it about some few days and noticed when he put it up, it always flew over the boathouse to another pond beyond. He told Mr Percy Smith, who was staying there, who the next morning took his gun and stood by the side of the boathouse; the keeper rowed round the lake, the bird rose, came as usual and was shot. Just as Mr Smith was lowering his gun, another large bird followed and shared the same fate; on getting to it, he found it was an immature Great Black-backed Gull; thus he brought off a very curious right and left, and secured two very rare Notts birds, which through his kindness are now in my collection.”

cormorant d xxxxxx

Thirty years later, in 1893 came the appearance of another Victorian anecdote about cormorants, this time concerning a famous bird at Newark on Trent. Once again Joseph Whitaker tells the tale:

“I am indebted to Mr Cornelius Brown of Newark on Trent for the following very interesting note : during October 1893 Newark was a centre of interest to naturalists and others owing to the visit of a friendly cormorant which continued to perch week after week on the arrow on the top of the spire of the Parish Church. The Times, Standard, and most of the leading newspapers noticed the incident while Punch magazine had some poetry upon it. The bird went away several hours each day to fish in the Trent, and returned after its sport to its lofty perch, where it might be seen trimming its feathers and making himself smart and comfortable. It left on Friday, November 17th, the day after a heavy storm, after a state of eight weeks save one day.”

The poem appeared in the comical magazine Punch on November 11th, 1893, and is a surprisingly radical comment on the church in general and clergymen in particular. It went thus:

“We are told a Cormorant sits, and doth not tire,
For a whole month, perched upon Newark spire!
Vinny Bourne’s jackdaw is beaten, it is clear
Yet there are cormorants who, year after year,
Perch in the Church. But these omnivorous people
Favour the pulpit mostly, not the steeple
Thrivers upon fat livings find, no doubt,
Cormorant within is cosier than without.”

Wikipedia tells the tale of Vincent “Vinny” Bourne, a Classical scholar who wrote a comic poem about a jackdaw which lived on a steeple.(In Latin, of course)

cornoran

For some people, the Cormorant was a bird of very ill omen. Out in the wilds of Lincolnshire:

“On Sunday, September 9th, 1860, a Cormorant took its position on the steeple of Boston Church, much to the alarm of the superstitious. There it remained with the exception of two hours absence, till early on Monday morning, when it was shot by the caretaker of the church. The fears of the credulous were singularly confirmed when the news arrived of the loss of the P.S.Lady Elgin at sea with 300 passengers, amongst whom were Mr Ingram, Member of Parliament from Boston, and his son, on the very morning when the bird was first seen.”

corm flying xxxxx

The Shag is very similar to the Cormorant, but is slightly smaller, a fact which is much more obvious when the birds are seen together. A single bird is often nowhere near as easy to identify as it is supposed to be. In the Victorian era both species were very rare in Nottinghamshire, so the chance of seeing the two together in order to make a comparison was never going to happen. For this reason, people had great difficulty in distinguishing between the two species of birds.

However in 1879, Joseph Whitaker wrote a letter to “The Zoologist” about some Shags which had turned up in the City of Nottingham itself.

“ON COMMON BIRDS IN NOTTINGHAMSHIRE.- ….Early in the same month, as some workmen at Nottingham were one morning proceeding to their work,  they came across two Shags, flapping about in Cross Street, and after an exciting chase caught them both. They were taken to T.White, birdstuffer, who tells me they dived for fish in his tank, eating several; he kept them alive for two days, but finding they “did not look like living”, killed and stuffed them. I have purchased them for my collection. Another was caught in a street close by, and the fourth was shot on Mapperley Plains. They were all young birds, possibly from the same nest, and having wandered away, got lost; or they may have been driven inland by a gale.”

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In one of his newspaper articles about birds in North Nottinghamshire, published in the Nottingham Evening Post on June 21st, 1937 , Clifford W. Greatorex, a Fellow of the Zoological Society told the following story:

 “Finally, mention must be made of a Shag, three or four examples of which were recorded in early spring from various parts of North Notts. Contrary to a widely held opinion, the Shag does travel inland occasionally, although its inland visits are not so frequent as those of the more familiar and more abundant Cormorant.

sahg scilli xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

One of these visitors from the coast lingered on a part of Welbeck Lake, where it was seen by several reliable observers and its instinctive characteristics noted. Another, apparently injured in some way, was found in a field near a North Notts Village.

shag rutl xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The finder induced this bird, which could not fly, to enter a small pond, where it remained, and for the greater part of the week was fed by school children who brought it herrings, soaked bread and table scraps, all of which were devoured with avidity. Unfortunately, however, its injuries proved fatal, and one morning the young folk were grieved to find their new pet lying dead upon the bank.”

Nowadays, Shags remain fairly numerous on the rocky coasts of England, particularly in the west, but overall, they are probably diminishing in number. They are still very rare inland. Cormorants are extremely numerous, enjoying the many lakes conveniently filled with large fish for anglers to pit their wits against. At the moment, they are a protected species, but this may not last too much longer.

In the meantime, Cormorants will continue to entertain, as greedy but ever optimistic birds:

great-cormorant xxxxxxx

 

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A lovely old bird called Elsie

(An extract from my birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

Saturday, June 25, 1988

Birdline organises another weekend for me. Look for the orange arrows:

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This Saturday, it’s a vagrant duck from North America, a drake Surf Scoter, that has been found offshore at Holme next the Sea  in north Norfolk. A very well-behaved bird, it has been seen every single day of the week, and should be a cinch. Should be:

xxxxxxx surf_scoter_1655

I go with Paul, Robin and Sue. It’s a beautiful summer’s day, blue skies, a bright sun and a typically bracing east coast wind. After an uneventful three hour trip, we park in a layby at the side of the road at the western end of the Holme reserve. As soon as we get out of the car, I see a most peculiar bird. It’s a large tern, flying steadily eastwards along the beach. About the size of a Sandwich Tern, it has a straw yellow bill. I am paralysed, I can’t remember what colour bill a Sandwich Tern has. For a few moments, I think that I’ve got everything exactly backwards, so that all Sandwich Terns have a yellow bill with a black tip. But that’s not the right way round. Sandwich Terns have a black bill with a yellow tip! I force myself to look at the bird for the duration of the flypast, but it’s very difficult to take in a great deal, because I’m so panic stricken:

Sterne voyageuse (Sterna bengalensis)

I think of shouting to Paul, but he’s three miles away, year ticking Redshank. I don’t have the courage to yell to another group of nearby birdwatchers, because deep down, I have a terrible suspicion that I have got it all wrong, that I will be calling out to them just for a Sandwich Tern. I keep looking. The bird is fairly round winged, with fairly dark upper parts to both its wings and back. It has a noticeably white trailing edge to its wings, a little like a Laughing Gull, and for a tern, it seems big, almost the size and bulk of a gull. I walk thirty or forty yards, trying to dismiss the bird as an aberration, the product of a rarity crazed mind. I even consider the idea that I just got out of the car, tired from the driving, and somehow misidentified a Little Tern. There are quite a lot of them over the beach, and mental blocks through fatigue are not that unusual. Then suddenly, the bird reappears. It is in company with  two Sandwich Terns and I can easily pick it out, totally different from its two companions:

 

This time, I shout to Paul and tell him to get on to the last bird. He manages to pick it out and agrees with me on two things. Firstly, that it is different to the Sandwich Terns, and secondly, that it has a straw yellow bill.  We have an exciting discussion about it and Paul puts forward the idea that it is a Lesser Crested Tern, a very rare vagrant to Britain, but one which has been seen a few times of late, due in part, it is thought, to a single lost bird which wanders the east coast of Britain, looking eagerly for its Libyan homeland. I haven’t a clue. I’ve never even heard of a Lesser Crested Tern. I thought that Gaddafi had abolished birds as being too flippant. I don’t even have a book with Lesser Crested Tern in it:

xxxx LCT 2

When I get back to Nottingham, I spend many a happy hour, trying to get information on the mystery bird. What convinces me though, is an illustration that I find in an old Indian birdwatching book, where the most salient points are the yellow beak, the dark mantle and the brightest of white trailing edges. They ought to know. They see them a damned sight more often than I do. And what finally proves it to me totally is an announcement a couple of days later that a Lesser Crested Tern has recently been present, on and off, at Cley next the Sea, just a few miles down the coast to the east. Seduced by the promise of eternal fame, I send a letter to the Norfolk Bird Recorder, and also to the Reserve Warden at Holme.

The Surf Scoter, of course, after all this, is long gone. We spend the rest of the day looking for it, but without any luck at all. The Common Scoters are exactly that, but among the hundreds of sea duck, there is no bright white head:

We also see a lot of Little Terns, who succeed in sowing the seeds of doubt, but who, at the same time, solve quite a few problems. They fly down the same track as the putative Lesser Crested Tern, but with a completely different flight action. They flutter like butterflies. They don’t fly purposefully like the mystery bird:

And anyway, I saw it in the company of Sandwich Terns, so I have a good idea of its size, and it’s a lot bigger than a Little Tern. It’s a different bird, in actual fact. A thrilling end to a memorable day is provided as we motor south to Kings Lynn, on the way back. Look for the orange arrow:

lynn

Just beyond the ring road, we see a large raptor quartering the fields to our left:

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It crosses the road above our heads, continues the quartering, and finally disappears behind the line of trees on the horizon. It is a male Montagu’s Harrier, perhaps the North Wootton bird, but more likely, from a site not yet revealed to the Verminous Company of Egg Thieves. It is fairly isolated out here though. Let’s hope that the Montagu’s Harrier family spend their summer undisturbed, raise their babies and leave peacefully. Flying back if possible, not over Malta or any other world centre of illegal hunting:

xxxxx montagus_Harrier_Serengeti_

 

I sent in my claim of a Lesser Crested Tern to the British Bird Rarities Committee, but after a year or two of careful consideration, they rejected it,  even though the Birdwatching Committee in Norfolk seemed reasonably satisfied with it. So, a few years later, I drove to Spurn Head in Yorkshire to see another, or conceivably the same returning, Lesser Crested Tern. Look for Nottingham in the bottom left and the orange arrow:

spurn

I went there on two separate occasions, and finished up driving nearly 500 miles in total. After almost two days standing in “The Place”, “The Bird” did not deign to tern up (sick). On the second day, I was there at seven in the morning, and I was then the last to leave at eight o’clock in the evening. Another birdwatcher arriving alone at half past eight then found the bird exactly where it was supposed to be standing and I’d missed it. That started to make it personal.

A little while later, I drove to the north Norfolk coast where foolhardy twitchers were wading across a tidal creek to Scolt Head Island, their telescopes and tripods held above their heads like the Marines in Vietnam. They were looking for a Lesser Crested Tern which had been seen in the Sandwich Tern colony. Look for the orange arrow: 

scolt

I decided, though, to stay on the mainland, not drown and keep my eyes open for the bird flying down the coast to fish. Three wasted hours. No chance!

It was by now way beyond personal. Around this time a Lesser Crested Tern had been hybridising with Sandwich Terns in a tern colony on the Farne Islands, some three or four miles off the coast of Northumberland, some 200 miles to the north of Nottingham. Eventually, everybody realised that all the many records of Lesser Crested Tern on the English East Coast were most probably this one returning individual, being seen over and over again by different people.  Because the initials of a Lesser Crested Tern are “LCT”, the bird was now being called “Elsie”. I decided to bite the bullet  and drive up to the Farne Islands. As the bird was nesting, it should be a cinch. Should be.

Look for the orange arrows :

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I failed to see it. So I decided to try again, and at very long last, I saw Elsie’s straw yellow bill sticking jauntily out of a crowd of black billed Sandwich Terns, all sitting on their eggs.

And I watched this good tern, this most excellent tern, for a very long time. A very long time. And then, half an hour later, I came back for seconds. And yes, I had already seen a bird just like Elsie, with her unmistakable bill, somewhere else, a long time previously, but the details escaped me for the moment.
Afterwards, I worked out that the nearest colonies of Lesser Crested Tern were on the coast of Libya. To see one, I had driven to Holme (210 miles for the round trip), Spurn Head twice (500 miles for two round trips), Scolt Head Island (250 miles for the round trip) and the Farne Islands(880 miles for two round trips). How far is it to Libya by car?

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