A Naturalist Looks Back

Reminiscences of G. E. Hyde, President of the Doncaster Naturalists’ Society for the Centenary Year 1980.

When Ernest Philips and E. R. H. Danby wrote “The Story of Doncaster” they covered a wide field of local history, but included few references to natural history and made no mention of Doncaster Scientific Society which was founded in 1880 and which has played a significant part in the town’s affairs. The omission however is perhaps understandable for, although the society still exists, it changed its name to Doncaster Naturalists’ Society some years ago.

I joined the society in the later years of the First World War when, despite inevitable restrictions, meetings were held regularly in a room attached to Parkinson’s Shop and Café in High Street. This was long before the days of the 35mm colour slide, but a very wide range of subjects was covered by lectures and discussions.

A leading member at the time of my joining was Dr H.H. Corbett, a well-known Doncaster medical practitioner, and a widely recognised authority on many branches of natural history. In common with me, however, he was primarily an Entomologist. And it was this mutual interest which, in spite of considerable difference in age, led to a close friendship which lasted until the doctor’s untimely death in 1921.

Doncaster then differed considerably from the ever-spreading township of today, with its teeming traffic. There were tramcars and horse-drawn vehicles of many types, but motor-cars were so uncommon that one could cycle in comfort and safety into the countryside which started immediately beyond the houses. It is hard to picture today, but the built-up part of Thorne Road ended close to Avenue Road, and there was no Intake or Bessacarr as we know them today. It was inconceivable then that one day the wide fields and woodlands would become busy town suburbs.

One of the finest mixed woodlands, now alas gone forever, was situated close to Armthorpe Lane. It was shown on the Ordnance Survey Maps as Wheatley Low Wood, but was better known locally as Flint Wood because the keeper’s house was ornamented with flint; the house, like the wood, has now gone: Considering its proximity to town, Wheatley Wood was surprisingly rich in wildlife due to its wide variety of broad leaved and coniferous trees. The rich growth of rhododendrons was presumably planted originally to provide cover for the pheasants. In Spring the carpets of bluebells amongst which were many white examples of these favourite spring flowers, was the finest in any wood around Doncaster. The bird life included Sparrowhawks, Long-eared and Tawney Owls, the three British Woodpeckers and, in summer, the Nightjar and Nightingale, together with the usual summer visitors of the Warbler family. The moth population was also rich and it was because of this that Dr Corbett and I spent many enjoyable hours there in the different seasons. In early spring we went there “sallowing”; this entails shaking the pollen-laden catkins of “Pussy-willows” over a sheet laid on the ground below the bushes and collecting the moths falling on to the sheet, with the aid of a lamp.

Another favoured nocturnal sport was searching for the night-feeding caterpillars. Both pastimes, on mild spring nights, could provide numerous specimens of a wide variety of species.

A favourite hunting ground, a little further from Doncaster, was Martin Beck Wood near Bawtry. Now submerged in the conifer plantation of Bawtry Forest, this was at the time a more open wooded area than Wheatley Wood, containing a considerable proportion of well-grown oak trees. In those days it was a strictly guarded game preserve, and we were only allowed entry on promising to respect the precious pheasants. For us a feature of special interest was a colony of Ringlet butterflies inhabiting the grassier parts.

On one memorable occasion we caught a High Brown Fritillary there – the only one we ever found anywhere near Doncaster. Even in those early days the Doncaster area was not as rich in butterflies as some more southerly parts of England, but its moth population was rich in both numbers and variety. The Rev. F.O. Morris, author of several Victorian books on ornithology and entomology lived in Doncaster for a time. He mentions several butterflies, such as the Wood White, Duke of Burgundy, Fritillary., Marsh Fritillary, Small Blue, Marbled White and others, which he found locally, but these had all disappeared from the area before my time.

Amongst other notable lepidopterist friends I would mention L.G.F. Waddington, who came from Leeds, where his father was a doctor. An accountant by profession, he settled in Doncaster soon after Dr Corbett’s death. He was a keen collector and breeder of butterflies and moths, and his fine collection is now in Doncaster Museum, along with his notebooks. He lived for a time at Rosehill Rise, near the Racecourse and there obtained a remarkable variety of night-flying moths in his garden, as his notebooks show. Another notable entomologist is Albert Wright of Woodlands near Doncaster, an expert breeder of Lepidoptera with a special love for the exotic giant silk moths.

The Society, of course, catered for all tastes. A particularly valuable contribution was made by W.W. Nichols. A keen egg collector in his early days, when this was a popular and legal pastime, he later turned to bird photography. His work included some of the finest photographic studies ever taken of choughs, filmed in Western Ireland. Some of his photographs and his egg collection are now in Doncaster museum.

The museum also houses the splendid shell collection which was the life work of Mrs E.M. Morehouse. Mrs Morehouse was a widely known authority on Conchology, but she was well-versed in other subjects, as was her daughter, Kathleen, a very able botanist whom death, so soon after her retirement from the Technical College, was a great shock to many of her friends.

The name of Ben Burrell, another member of long standing, is widely known in connection with astronomy. A popular lecturer, he has given many interesting talks on the subject illustrated by numerous original photographs of the moon and the planets.

Finally, I would mention Eric Lee, who lived in Loversall for many years. A keen and careful observer of nature, he contributed many interesting and valuable records of unusual birds, mammals and plants. His observations on Water shrews near Doncaster were especially valuable as this shy animal is rarely noticed and is indeed unknown to the majority of people. Mr Lee was also a keen gardener and his three greenhouses contained a rare assortment of exotic plants. It was, however, as an expert grower of Pelargoniums that he is particularly remembered.

Mention should be made of the other local society concerned with natural history, namely the Doncaster and District Ornithological Society. This organisation has done splendid work in encouraging an interest amongst young people and has assembled much valuable information through extensive bird ringing, general observation and detailed research. The Nature Reserve at Potteric Carr is managed by the members of that society.

For obvious reasons the length of this study must be limited but I hope that the Doncaster area will continue to produce naturalists and other observers who will carry on the useful work of recording, and where possible protecting for posterity the more important rural features of our fascinating area.