Exhibit of the Week: Historic account of the Avi-Fauna of Yorkshire

The Birds of Yorkshire book in the Scarborough Collections.
The Birds of Yorkshire book in the Scarborough Collections.

We Brits are a nation of bird lovers. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, known to most of us simply as the RSPB, was formed in 1889 by a group of women campaigning against the use of feathers in fashion.

To begin with, the organisation consisted entirely of women who were appalled at the thought of young birds left to starve because their parents had been killed in the name of beauty.

Image from the book.

Image from the book.

Fast forward nearly 130 years, and the RSPB is internationally known as a major force in conservation, with campaigns covering not just specific birds and sites in the UK, but also global issues such as climate change.

One of their most popular events – because it’s so fantastically easy for the birdwatcher-on-the-street to contribute to some seriously important research – is the Big Garden Birdwatch, which takes place this weekend – and Scarborough Museums Trust is taking part.

On Saturday and Sunday, Museums Trust staff will be on hand at Scarborough Art Gallery to lead groups bird counting and identifying in the Gallery’s gardens. Meanwhile, inside the Gallery, there’ll be drop-in sessions for all the family with bird-themed arts and crafts between 10.30am and noon, and 1.30 to 3pm both days.

To celebrate our participation in the event for the first time, we’ve selected as our exhibit of the week today this gorgeously illustrated book – The Birds of Yorkshire, Being a Historical Account of the Avi-Fauna of the County, by TH Nelson MBOU (that’s member of the British Ornithologists’ Union) with the co-operation of W Eagle (yes, really!) Clarke, and F Boyes.

Image from the book showing a 'climmer' looking for seagull eggs.

Image from the book showing a 'climmer' looking for seagull eggs.

This beautiful book, published in two volumes in 1907 by A Brown and Sons of London, Hull and York, is singular in that it’s not just a straightforward identification guide – although there is that aspect to it – but covers many historical and sociological areas connected with the birds of the region, including the story of the ‘climmers’.

These brave and hardy souls descended the cliffs around here using only the most rudimentary kit to collect seabirds’ eggs which were then sold as souvenirs, for use in sugar refining, in the manufacture of patent leather and, most importantly, as food, making an important contribution to the economy of the small villages.

One of the images reproduced here today from the book is a particularly dramatic shot of a ‘climmer’ at work and in profile – the mind boggles as to how 
the photographer managed to capture it!

Our author is Thomas Hudson Nelson (1856-1916), a native of Bishop Auckland, and a keen naturalist. After retiring early from his profession as a lawyer, he moved to Redcar to focus on his great love, wildlife. Before long, he had befriended many of the local fishermen, who regularly brought him new and interesting finds: the story has it that Nelson slept with a string tied to his foot and hanging out of the window so they could wake him quickly and easily if they turned up at his house in the early hours with any thing particularly interesting.

He had a wide and remarkable collection of both the birds (stuffed) and their eggs from the Yorkshire coast, which was bequeathed to Middlesbrough’s Dorman Museum by his wife in 
1918, and can still be seen there to this day.

The Big Garden Birdwatch aims to bring participants closer to nature, and is suitable for all ages and abilities. More than half a million people from across the UK are set to take part by counting the birds in their gardens. For more information: www.rspb.org.uk

For more information on the Big Garden Birdwatch at Scarborough Art Gallery, please call the gallery on 01723 374753.

The Birds of Yorkshire is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.