Sunday, December 10, 2006

Heroes of the Birding Revolution VI - Harry Witherby, 1873-1943

Henry (Harry) Forbes Witherby, son of Henry Forbes Witherby, owner of Witherby & Co. publishers, came out of nowhere, took British ornithology by surprise, gave it a good seeing-to and left it sore, grateful and forever changed. Indeed for much of the first half of the twentieth century, he was the face of the birding establishment.

He was born into the comfortable surroundings of the family of a small but moderately successful publishing firm, and seemed to have spent his early years pottering around the babbling brooks and whispering canopies of the New Forest, where one assumes he became interested in birds. He went straight from school into the family firm - nepotism compensating for lack of qualifications in the traditional olde-English way - and never received a formal scientific training. He got his feet under the table in a conventional self-educational-type magazine (published by Witherby's) called Knowledge, where he started a regular series of Bird Notes that proved extremely popular. He didn't have his own pair of binoculars, so he used the family pair of opera glasses and bumbled about the countryside observing and learning. Harry eventually started publishing books, pretty dreadful ones at first... but daddy owned the company, don't you know? Forest Birds in 1894 was the first, but then Harry started birding abroad, bought himself some bins, and got interested in plumage changes, moults, and geographical variation within species. So he bought himself a gun too, and started amassing a significant collection of skins. Ahead of his time, he saw the value in preserving moulting birds, immature specimens, and tatty things that he could not quite characterise. They were to form the basis of not only his education, but his readers' too. He went round Spain, through north-west Russia, North Africa and the Middle East, killing and preserving interesting birds, and meticulously forming his own opinions about the value of subspecies, and about the distribution of birds and the relation of moult timings to life histories. It was exciting stuff. He married his wife (as was conventional...) Lilian in 1904 and took her on honeymoon to Algeria where they whiled away the long evenings skinning birds together, their eyes meeting over a bucket of entrails, and their bloodied fingers accidentally brushing against each other by candlelight. They were eventually to have five kids together, so it must have worked.

Harry was bursting with ideas about birds, and was desperate for ornith
ology to take off in an organised way so that birders could find out new things. And he wasn't alone; although there were a number of Natural History magazines available to moneyed gentlefolk of the time, he saw that there was space on the market for a magazine devoted solely to birds. And moreover, to his vision of a modern, collective, scientific ornithology. He got together with William Pycraft at his Marylebourne Club and as the room filled with the pungent aroma of Turkish cigarettes, warm leather and fine Scotch Whisky they sketched out the crazy idea for a magazine called 'British Birds', which was launched in 1907 with Witherby as the editor, published by the family firm. The history of BB is about to be explained fully in a forthcoming article for the 100th anniversary, so I won't pre-empt that. But in the end, his crazy idea worked. British Birds was popular... and it did what Witherby wanted - it mobilised a generation of amateur ornithologists to intensify their hobby, and to work together, through BB, to perform large scale studies of the distribution, status and migration of birds. Two aspects of Witherby's personality and modus operandi are relevant to his hero status. The first was that he destroyed the competition, partly because his magazine was best, but partly because he had a web of international contacts and a family publishing house that was prepared to invest heavily in his undertaking. BB's 'forerunner', a Natural History magazine called The Zoologist was perhaps the most high profile casualty (although I guess 'Knowledge' didn't last long either). The Zoologist had been started by Edward Newman in 1843, but wilted under the pressure and finally gave in, being incorporated into BB in 1916. The second aspect of Witherby's hero status was that he was a stickler for accuracy, and indeed must have been a total pain in the butt. He insisted that everything that went into his magazine and books was checked and double checked for accuracy, and that every statement could be justified on the basis of published data. Nice if you can do it... but Witherby did, and he stuck to it. He was trying to bring some order to the chaotic situation that was developing as more and more authorities published more and more data in more and more places in the early 20th century. His solution was to say 'BB will have all that, thank you', and then he took on the job of checking it all. An enormous and heroic task that occupied the last thirty-odd years of his life; and if he hadn't succeeded none of us would have known what the heck was going on.

Part of his mission was to muscle himself to the the top of the British ornithological pyramid (and there were already some pretty huge giants trying to get to the same place), and a significant part of that was to place the editors of BB (in practice, himself) as judge and jury for records of rare birds in Britain. It was still more-or-less acceptable for records of rarities to be published piecemeal in County avifaunas and local publications, provided they were supported or verified by a recognised authority, but increasingly the gold standard of trust for a rarity record became publication in BB - not least because of the stringent checks made by Harry W. The battle between him, George Bristow, and J B Nichols over the provenance of the Hastings Rarities has gone down in folklore (a 1910s gentlemens' equivalent of a flame war), and it was one of the few times that Harry was beaten and ended up publishing duff records.

Sharp readers and tax-dodging students will have noticed that the things that Harry wanted BB to stimulate,
i.e. to mobilise a generation of amateur ornithologists to intensify their hobby, and to work collectively to perform large scale studies of the distribution, status and migration of birds, sounds very like what the British Trust for Ornithology, the BTO, considers its job to be today. And Harry did pretty much lay the foundations for the BTO. Nascent ringing (banding) schemes in Aberdeen and in Europe were the inspiration for Witherby to start his own ringing scheme via BB in 1909, and characteristically he then organised the sorting and collation of returns, and publication of reports single-handedly. The ringing scheme grew exponentially and became the biggest of its kind, but Harry stuck with it until 1937 when it was formally handed over to the BTO, who continue it reasonable well(!). Prior to that, he had sold his entire collection of several thousand bird skins to the British Museum for £1500 to get the BTO up and running.

Witherby took on one more battle early in his career - that of the International Rules of Zoological Nomenclature. In that, unlike other Brits at the time, including the BOU, he stuck to them. He recognised the value of trinomials for naming subspecies, and the value of strict use of priority for forcing some order on the chaotic world of scientific names. He fired a killer broadside at the establishment by the publication of the Hand-list of British Birds in 1912, which quickly became the established authoritative reference checklist. So much so that when the BOU published the second edition of th
eir checklist in 1915, they copied the Hand-list to a large extent, without acknowledgement. In his review of the BOU checklist for BB, Harry noticed that the BOU had also copied a few errors!

The Hand-list was followed in 1919-24 by the Practical Handbook of British Birds, which he co-authored with, among others, the future Mrs Meinertzhagen v2.0. It was a huge advance on what was already available because of the amount of detail on plumage sequences and life-history of birds, and became the standard reference for serious birders. Within 10 years, however, it was out of print and Witherby was ready for a final challenge. He had retired from the publising firm at the age of 63 (although still editing BB) and got his team together to produce the Handbook of British Birds (1938-43). The Handbook was, and still is, everything more than everything else, and was the standard reference until the 1980s when BWP hit the shelves. Harry wangled a full set of accurate colour plates for the Handbook depicting
different plumage states for all the species and subspecies in there (a pioneering idea). What really made the Handbook stand out was the full treatment of all subspecies - Witherby's hobby horse and in this case, his crowning glory. It must have been an unnerving experience, however, working his way through the publication of 5 volumes as war raged in Europe with no certain outcome, and with Witherby in failing health.

When Harry retired he had wanted to spend his time editing BB and tending his garden at the family home, where he was setting up a small nature reserve. BB was in a bit of a rut, to be honest. And then there were so many men of fighting age out of the country, Harry was forced to go back to work. The strain did not improve his health, and after a couple of bouts of illness he died in 1943. He had lived to see the Handbook universally praised, and had seen enough of the war to have a pretty good ide
a that there was eventually going to be a Britain where it could be used. Bernard Tucker took over at BB (see Heroes passim). Throughout his life he had published many papers in BB and elsewhere, and his last effort was an article for BB about Black Redstarts nesting on England's bombsites in 1942.

Harry Forbes Witherby. You had visions. In a good way. You were a gentleman, conventional, smart, smoked like a chimney. A self-taught scientist who brought order, your order, to your World, and organised the British birding scene into a useful fighting force that could learn more about birds as a unit than it could as a series of individuals. You pushed the boundaries of knowledge forwards by your own studies of moults and variation within speices, provided the vehicle, British Birds, for ornithologists to tell each other what they had seen, and a series of books that synthesised this knowledge for the next generation to define their own questions. You transformed ornithology into a mass-appeal collective endeavour that it was to remain for much of the twentieth century, and for this I name you a Hero of the Birding Revolution, 1st Class.

Harry Forbes Witherby 1873-1943.

'And finally, I come to the birds. What should we do without them? How can one help studying such wonderful and fascinating creatures? After months of toil in the museum or in the study you may sometimes wonder if it is really worthwhile. But you only have to go outside your door or, indeed, to any part of the world and watch the birds themselves, and you are quickliy reassured that any labour to find out more about them is worthwhile.'
HFW - acceptance address for BOU Salvin-Godman medal, 1938.


Smilodon said...

I enjoy reading these Heroes stories.

Rambling by Gently said...

So many pieces about my great-grandfather are full of inaccuracies.

I am delighted to report that in this amusing and nicely-written piece, I could find nothing that wasn't entirely correct.

Harry Witherby