When 32-year-old William Henry Hudson (also known by his Spanish name of Guillermo Enrique) first set foot in England, in the cold light of a May morning in 1874, he told those disembarking around him on Southampton quay that he didn’t want to come with them to London, where fortunes were to be sought. Not yet, anyway. London could wait. He wanted to go into the countryside and find English birds. 

He hired a pony and trap, and, with a boy on the reins and an American from the ship whom he couldn’t shake off, they made for Netley Common. Sadly, the boy was no bird guide. He could name only two species for his clients: the Skylark Alauda arvensis and the ‘Dobbin-dishwasher’ (Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea). The ‘wagtail’, it turned out, was in fact a Robin Erithacus rubecula

Interestingly, the boy was able to guide Hudson to the cottage occupied by exiled former Argentine military leader Manuel de Rosas, ‘the Nero of South America’, now living out his days in Hampshire under the cunning alias of Mr Rose, tenant farmer. The old man was well known to Hudson, who had witnessed the turbulent years of Rosas’s reign in his native Argentina. 

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262. William Henry Hudson, from Adventures Among Birds.

 Unknown

Two decades on from this standing start as a British naturalist, Hudson produced his first and only textbook on British birds. It was written to order, and he had found it a chore. It was called – more prosaically than most of his works – British Birds. He had, by this time, also written the Society for the Protection of Birds’ (SPB) pamphlet, Lost British Birds

Hudson was, in many ways, a man of mystery, particularly during his first 15 years in England. I think he liked it that way. Long after his death, biographers repeated that he had landed here in 1869 – five years before he actually did. For reasons I haven’t quite fathomed, Hudson led everyone to believe this, and several biographers duly recycled the misapprehension. A quick check of Hudson’s published reports to the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) would have shown that he was still in Argentina – in quest of new bird species and better knowledge of those already known – until 1874. That historians didn’t check this speaks, I think, of the curiously overlooked place of Hudson in ornithological history.

Hudson’s largely uncharted years of poverty and obscurity in London were not spent idly. He amassed his knowledge of our avifauna (and much more besides) through long hours in the British Museum Library, cramming after a childhood and early adult life spent on the vast Pampas of South America with no formal education. 

Argentine Birds, his collaboration with Philip Sclater, head of ZSL, finally came out in two volumes in 1888, 20 years in the making. Hudson’s travels, observations and detailed notes on bird habits added immensely to knowledge of that huge country’s avifauna, and in the course of his explorations he discovered two new species, which bear his name – Hudson’s Canastero Asthenes hudsoni and Hudson’s Black Tyrant Knipolegus hudsoni

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263. Hudson’s Black-Tyrant Knipolegus hudsoni, Argentina, November 2014. 

Dominic Sherony

In 1889, he was the only man present at the first meeting of the London bird protection group that went on to merge with its Manchester counterpart to form his beloved ‘Bird Society,’ today’s RSPB. If the scientific establishment wasn’t his place, the drawing room of Eliza Phillips would provide a welcome sanctuary.

His early interactions with eminent scientists had left him bruised, and to some extent vengeful. As a young man, he had called out some errors by Charles Darwin more publicly than was the norm in polite society, through the pages of the Zoological Society journal. He was repelled by John Gould and his 5,000 stuffed hummingbirds dangling on wires. And he had endured a long and fractious collaboration with Sclater, lamenting that ‘two men who have not one thought or taste in common should be associated together in writing a big book. We are both big ugly men, and there all resemblance ends.’

By the time Hudson passed away in 1922, after another three decades of prodigious writing, campaigning, badgering county councils, writing to the press (including in defence of albatrosses) and exploring mainly the southern counties of his new/ancestral homeland, he had lived just long enough to see the Plumage Act become law, and the founding of BirdLife International at a meeting in London. Just weeks before he died, Hudson was invited to meet the Chair of that meeting, T. Gilbert Pearson of the Audubon Society in North America, although I can’t confirm if Hudson did attend. It would be typical of him to have shied away from the occasion. 

I have looked for Hudson in many of the histories of ornithology and lists of celebrated ornithologists. He rarely, if ever, features. In one such book, of the two things recalled about Hudson, both are tellingly inaccurate. He is accused of being at the helm when, in the 1930s, the RSPB – in the author’s view – started to founder, like a ship on the rocks. It’s a curious error to find in a respected series. Hudson had, by that time, been dead for over a decade. He had been the organisation’s first Chair, albeit briefly, 40 years before, for just long enough to confirm that he was no administrator, nor orator. He never addressed an audience of adults.

The other error is a photograph captioned ‘W. H. Hudson bird-nesting’. Whoever it is, it isn’t Hudson. He would be mortified to be represented and remembered in this way. Bird-nesting (egg-collecting) was among the things he detested; his distaste for it, and collecting in general, is one of the very things that define him, and set him apart from other male naturalists in that era. It is precisely the kind of thing that made him persona non grata with the gentlemen’s club of hobbyist collectors. 

The RSPB published an anthology of Hudson’s prose in 1964, Birds and Green Places. The Foreword is measured, about what Hudson was, and wasn’t, and worth looking up, for this reason. It’s interesting that this collection was published just two years before James Fisher’s much-loved Shell Bird Book in which ‘the old Etonian doyen of post-war English ornithology’ (as Richard Smyth describes him) mounted a curious attack on Hudson, perhaps daring to put in print the unspoken resentment of an otherwise silent, simmering constituency of frustrated collectors (and shooters), still coming to terms with the changing of the conservation guard, the pace of which had been set and forced by Hudson. The transition from the gun- and trap-wielding collecting age had been painful for many. 

Something about Hudson had really annoyed Fisher. Roger Tory Peterson’s obituary of Fisher in British Birds (64: 223–228) is telling: ‘For some reason hard to fathom, [Fisher] was against W. H. Hudson: although he acknowledged Hudson's contribution to bird protection and his clear use of the English language, he could not forgive him for his faulty facts (as when he stated that the ‘St Kilda Wren’ [Troglodytes troglodytes hirtensis] was extinct).’

It seems to be the only substantive charge against Hudson. It is true that Hudson had been (and this was also Alfred Newton’s expressed view) premature about the demise of the St Kilda Wren; but had legislation to protect this newly identified type of bird not been rushed through in the early years of the twentieth century, thanks in part to Hudson’s urgings, then the collectors would indeed have made a good fist of extinguishing it. 

Some of Fisher’s reservations about Hudson are fair, but most smack of an unspoken agenda. He found Hudson’s novels ‘curiously kinky’. In the end, what matters more is the opinion of great people who actually knew the man. Hudson was quite simply revered by his contemporaries – among them Sir Edward Grey, John Galsworthy, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, Robert Cunninghame Graham, Joseph Conrad and Margaret Brooke. And what is lost, for me, in any assessment of his rightful place in ornithology and literature (as if these things are league tables) is acknowledgment of his contribution to the cause of conservation through his actions, influence and painstakingly earned cash. 

It is fair to say that Hudson expressed some idiosyncratic views and was out in some of his speculations – the range of topics about which he was curious makes this inevitable – but he was less inclined to hedge his bets than someone more protective of a reputation, and it is wrong for example to call him a Lamarckian, although he was uneasy about the ‘Darwin cult,’ and dissatisfied with the ‘lofty air of complete knowledge’ displayed by Darwin ‘purists’. It is worth noting that he was greatly admired by, and a friend of, Darwin’s fellow discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. 

The immigrant Hudson’s initial lack of knowledge of the birdlife or avifauna of the British Isles makes his subsequent mastery of the subject and later achievements as a published authority on its natural history all the more remarkable. From this starting point, and within the limits of his poverty and meagre income, and for a long time without the aid of many books of his own (or optical equipment, or transport), he amassed a remarkable body of knowledge and ability to identify, describe and above all make relatable what he saw and heard around him. 

Hudson survived the stresses of First World War and serious illness in those years, but he knew that time was running out. He strove doggedly to complete a colour version of his early SPB pamphlet, Lost British Birds. The project was finished for him by his colleague Linda Gardiner, RSPB publications editor and assistant to the boss, Etta Lemon. He paid for it himself, with the money now flowing belatedly but steadily his way from American publishers. His other unfinished project was a book on animal senses, A Hind in Richmond Park – a work of extraordinary range, and the culmination of a lifetime spent trying to understand the inner lives of other creatures. 

The happy ending is that so many of those ‘rare, vanishing and lost’ species are now back – which would delight and surprise him, notwithstanding the widespread dwindling of the once-abundant that has occurred in parallel with targeted conservation success and recovery once the guns and traps were withdrawn. 

‘There are a hundred bird-lovers now for every one who lived even fifty years ago,’ Max Nicholson wrote in his era-defining 1926 work, Birds in England. He might have had the influence of W. H. Hudson in mind when he wrote this line on the first page of Chapter 1, written up to 1925: ‘Only during the last generation have bird-lovers become numerous enough to be reckoned a force. By the lowest ebb of Victorianism, birds had practically ceased to mean anything to England.’ If you read nothing else about Hudson, read Nicholson’s chapter devoted to him in this important book, from as reliable an authority as any. It will help any bird and nature enthusiast to consider – or reconsider – Hudson. I am in no doubt that our found-again species owe as much to this individual, and the women he quietly supported to create the Bird Society (Emily Williamson and Hannah Poland are just two of the others who should be named), with a figurative two fingers up to the establishment, as to any other named individual in the who’s-who texts of ornithology. 

And, in this, the centenary year of his death, I would recommend a visit to Hudson’s bird sanctuary and memorial in the heart of Hyde Park. You may have fun, as I did, finding this extraordinary sculpture of Rima, the ‘bird-girl’ from his best-selling novel, Green Mansions, and imagining the furore it caused at the time when the then Prime Minister unveiled it. That’s a whole other story – but be prepared for some nudity. 

‘Hudson was not a dreamer to think that it ought to be possible for the many who love birds to restrict the mischief of the few who destroy them,’ Max Nicholson wrote. Opinions today may yet vary as to whether Hudson – and Nicholson – were right.

Conor Mark Jameson

Footnote Did Hudson invent the term ‘birding’? According to Wikipedia, the term birdwatcher was first recorded in 1891, but the term birding – the verb ‘to bird’ – was not introduced until 1918 (although birding was the term Shakespeare used for fowling or hunting with guns). Yet, we find Hudson using it seven years earlier: ‘Have not been well enough to go birding,’ he writes in 1911, ‘and the cold was too much to attempt it’. James Fisher, in his Shell Bird Book, also credits Hudson with inventing the birding term ‘jizz’.

Conor Mark Jameson’s book, Finding Mr Hudson: naturalist from La Plata, is due to be published later this year by Pelagic Publishing.

 

 

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Issue 6
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