But first, some very serious schooling.... at Aysgarth school in darkest God-forsaken Yorkshire, where the headmaster personally force-fed the students boiled beef and spotted dick (fnarr fnarr!) and made them run of miles in the freezing dawn rain until they either died or developed the physique and mentality of a public library. Richard at 6’ 5” tall and 4’ wide, opted for the latter. Then to Harrow (crumpets, fagging and thrashing), and finally
In 1917, during the Great War, he was posted to the
So what of the birds? Natural History had taken a back seat in his early army career, but after a series of high profile humiliations and other troubles, he turned back to birds as a kind of occupational therapy, somewhere around 1912/3. But it was when he got to
He once thought he saw a Monk Seal just off the beach in Egypt, so ran off for his gun and was going to shoot when he realised it wasn’t a Monk Seal, it was his Chief-of-Staff’s wife, a Mrs Waters-Taylor, skinny dipping.She would have looked good mounted, I bet.
The ‘Meinertzhagen Collection’ wasn’t the only love of his life, however – he had two wives, not at the same time. The first, Amorel, married 1911, he never slept with, which also was ironic because just about everyone else did! The second, Anne, was a fantastic ornithologist in her own right, until she accidentally shot herself in the head in 1928 with Richard’s revolver, while they were practising with targets. Not sure how she managed it, as she was very gun-savvy, but the position of the entry wound and the damage done are apparently more consistent with her being shot by someone else, a tall man, for example. Richard was the only other person there, but no inquest was ever held. Still he seemed pretty shaken up, especially when he inherited his wife’s vast estate, but he only got it on condition he never remarried. He spent the rest of his life with his gorgeous pouting 33-years-younger cousin, Theresa Clay, with a secret passage connecting their next-door houses. I bet he was up and down her passage all the time.
With Meinertzhagen’s travels and collecting came publications, and it was through these, there were plenty of them, that he became one of the elder statesmen of British Ornithology. He lacked a scientific education, but he was very clever, and cut through to the heart of many pressing ornithological issues by bringing that second sight that characterised his military career into the bird world. He was, for example, one of the few people who was never convinced by the Cambridgeshire Moustached Warbler records (see Secret Freezers passim). Not that all his work was great – there were problems with it. For example he published personally observed details about the life history and ecology of Razo Larks in spite of never having visited Razo to see them. His two major bird books were Nicoll’s Birds of Egypt (1930) and the magnificent Birds of Arabia (1954). He met Michael Nicoll, assistant director of the zoo at
So there were problems with his publications… but there were also problems with his collection of bird skins. The care and work he put into maintaining the high standards of his specimens was legendary, but strangely it was also known, during his life, that he could be extraordinarily careless about the labels he tied to them. ‘Quirky’ might be one way to describe it, but he made some crazy mistakes, and relabelled things for no apparent reason, gave birds wrong or misleading data, and hence began the process of devaluing his greatest achievements. And he stole things – birds from other peoples’ collections held in museums around
So has Meinertzhagen pissed on his legacy to such an extent that his collection is now totally useless? Probably not. For a start, many of the stolen specimens can be recognised as missing from the original series or collection they came from, and can be ‘repatriated’. Second, there are immensely important skins in the Meinertzhagen collection that appear to be totally genuine – his Afghan Snowfinches (the types – there was nowhere to steal these from) and his Yemeni specimen of Northern Bald Ibis. To be handled with care… but the Meinertzhagen birds are beautifully prepared and it would be a criminal to burn the lot, as has been suggested. You cannot spend 40 years shooting everything that moves without building up an interesting collection; somewhere among the 20000 genuine birds are bound to be some important stuff.
Why did he do it? Prestige? It could be that, but he would have had that anyway. I put it down to arrogance, and to contempt. While Meinertzhagen was extraordinarily generous and kind to his friends, at the same time he didn’t seem to care about honesty in his professional relationships. He loved ruses – to be played out equally on enemies or friends – and was contemptuous of the opinions of others. He KNEW what he was trying to prove, about avifaunas, was true, so felt justified in stealing and relabelling the skins, or inventing data for publications, to prove it. And he let nothing stand in his way… maybe even his second wife.
Meinertzhagen died in 1967, but was virtually bedridden for some time after he bumped into a big dog and broke his hip. For a man who had thrived on the thrill of being alive, the joy of movement, of feeling things, and excitement, it must have been a wretched end. But he probably took some comfort in the trail of wreckage he left behind.
Richard Meinertzhagen DSO CBE. You were one of the elder statesmen of Palearctic birding. A pioneer who was perhaps the last scientific collector, hiding a gun in your walking stick, to mingle in the world of modern day birding. I would have paid good money to have seen Ken Williamson’s face when the Fair Isle birders were back at the Obs debating the identity of a ‘pipit’ in 1952, and you pulled the corpse of a Short-toed Lark out of your pocket – ‘Is that it?’. You were one of the most brilliant soldiers and ornithologists ever produced, not only a double life, but a triple, and quadruple. You were an imperialist enforcer, arrogant and inspired, generous, ruthless, a thief, a real spy, and a liar, occasional bigot, and always a whirlwind. At the moment we don’t know if you did more harm than good. History needs people like you, but I’m not sure why. I therefore decorate you… Halloween Hero of the Birding Revolution, 1st class.
‘… For the future, I shall go my own way, disregarding conventionalities, with hardened morals, ignoring failure and thwarting disappointment, following my own inclinations, regarding the World as one huge plaything made for my amusement, doing good to others where and when I was able but refusing outside effort to make me happy, encouraging companionship but avoiding friendship and ignoring the advice of and, if necessary, even the existence of my family.’
Richard Meinertzhagen, 1917.
‘Meinertzhagen knew no half measures. He was logical, an idealist of the deepest, and so possessed by his convictions that he was willing to harness evil to the chariot of good. He was a strategist, a geographer, and a silent laughing masterful man; who took as blithe a pleasure in deceiving his enemy (or his friend) by some unscrupulous jest, as in spattering the brains of a cornered mob of Germans one by one with his African knob-kerri. His instincts were abetted by an immensely powerful body and a savage brain....’
‘Needless to say he [Meinertzhagen] never rose in the War above the rank of Colonel. I met him during the peace Conference and he struck me as being one of the ablest and most successful brains I had ever met in any army. That was quite sufficient to make him suspect and to hinder his promotion to the higher ranks of the profession.’
David Lloyd George (Memoirs).
‘Meinertzhagen will be remembered as an eminent and outspoken ornithologist of international fame and as one of the best and most colourful intelligence officers the Army ever had’
The Times, obituary, 1967. I actually think that Meinertzhagen wrote this himself. Before he died.
‘I can say upon my oath that Meinertzhagen’s collection contains skins stolen from the Leningrad Museum, the Paris Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, and perhaps other museums but the three I mentioned were verified by me. He also removed labels, and replaced them by others to support his ideas and theories.’ Charles Vaurie, 1974.