Michael Rowntree: Birdwatching from Pembrokeshire to Palestine
The Rowntree Society is committed to offering opportunities for education and skills development, and we recently welcomed two passionate and talented interns to our team. Suzannah explored aspects of Jean Rowntree’s life, and Sacha investigated areas of Michael Rowntree’s life. Check out our Instagram and Twitter to see the campaigns. Below you can read Sacha’s blog post to see what he found.
Over the past four weeks, I have been researching the life of Michael Rowntree (1919-2007). One of Arnold and May Rowntree’s six children, Michael (pictured as a young man) was born into a Quaker family. The importance of public service, social justice and peace were therefore instilled into him from an early age. During World War Two, he was a conscientious objector, and served in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU) in Finland, the Middle East and Germany. Michael is most well-known for his work for Oxfam, where he served on the Executive Committee from 1952 right until the end of his life.
However, my research focused not on Michael’s professional life but rather his lifelong personal passion: birdwatching. I relied predominantly on the Rowntree Archives in the Borthwick Institute for Archives in York; there I found two whole cardboard boxes filled with birdwatching records which Michael kept throughout his life. These records provide a glimpse into Michael’s deep appreciation of the beauty of the world around him.
At first, I was surprised by the fact that the vast majority of records that Michael Rowntree left behind were to do with birdwatching. These stretch from 1929 up until the last years of Michael’s life. Indeed, in the Borthwick, apart from several school letters, Michael’s careful birdwatching descriptions, tables and accounts remain the only records of his life written by Michael himself. I was curious to understand more, and why birdwatching clearly meant so much to him.
The first hint of Michael’s fascination with birds are five double-sided, A5 pieces of paper, dating from the Spring of 1929. These are detailed bird watching records, which Michael wrote on holiday with his family in Palestine when he was just 10 years old. The care with which they were written is immediately evident: for instance, take the key Michael uses to note down where he spotted each species of bird, or the way he divides species into categories of ‘residents’; ‘common residents not seen’; ‘winter visitors’; ‘common winter visitors not seen’; ‘migrants’ and ‘common migrants not seen’. In total, he lists 104 birds in this way. Whilst these papers only feature tables and lists, a sense of the person behind them really shines through: a bright, conscientious, observant child taking pleasure in the beauty of the world around him.
Michael’s birdwatching records in Palestine page 1
Without a doubt, the most impressive and alluring of Michael’s birdwatching records is also the next chronologically: the diary he kept of his trips to the Farne Islands (off the coast of Northumberland) in 1934 and Skokholm (an island of the coast of Pembrokeshire) in 1935 when he was 15 and 16 respectively. The journal is the only record which is not a table or list but instead a story in which Michael’s voice can be heard. Also of interest are the photos of birds and landscapes which Michael glued into the journal. These demonstrate the rigour with which Michael recorded his trips. (The one below shows Michael ringing a puffin with his father in the Farne Islands)
The journal is split into two halves for his two different trips and what is immediately striking is the extremely informative descriptions of the two places Michael visited:
“The Farne Islands are a cluster of some fifteen small, rocky islets, mostly of basalt, lying off the coast of Northumberland, the nearest of which is about two miles from the shore + the farthest about five. In this limited area we observed seventeen different species of bird” (p.3)
“Skokholm is an island of about 250 acres situated about 2 miles from the Pembrokeshire coast Between St Brides Bay and the entrance to Milford Haven. With its neighbouring islands of Skamer, Ramsey + Grassholm, it has acted as a remarkably fine bird island as besides its resident population of sea birds, it lies right in the track of autumn + spring migrants” (p.73)
It is characteristic of his writing that Michael narrates the natural history before describing the nature of his visit. Careful reading is required to discern that, while his trip to the Farne Islands was something of a family holiday, Skokholm was a school trip with some friends from the ornithological society, where they set out to build a trap to study birds. This impersonal tone, whilst it provides insight into Michael’s character as a clearly very mature teenager, serves as a frustrating barrier between the journal and his thoughts at the time. There are several moments where Michael allows us such a glimpse, however. For instance, the description of the rock formations in the Farne Islands known as the pinnacles demonstrates his awe:
“Further on we caught our first glimpse of the pinnacles – a marvellous sight. The pinnacles are a group of sheer basalt rocks as seen in the photo. The rocks are crowded with guillemots in great profusion […] Every moment birds dropped down to the sea to pick up a fish + fly back again.” (p.25)
On Skokholm, Michael’s main task was the construction of a heligoland trap. This large, building-sized, funnel-shaped, structure of netting is used to trap and study birds. It took a week for Michael and his friends to build. Having spent eleven pages detailing the stages of the trap’s construction, including a helpful diagram (pictured), the pride with which Michael describes its completion is evident:
“When the trap was finished we had a grand ceremonial opening since Bootham School had the honour of declaring open the largest Bird Ringing Heligoland Trap in the British Isles” (p.105)
The trap then caught 60 birds over 3 days (two are pictured below). Michael’s pictures of the birds he caught give more of a sense of pride in his work and appreciation of beauty. Overall, the photos in this journal provide an excellent reminder that this was a journal that Michael consciously and carefully crafted. Indeed, the journal would later win him his school’s natural history prize.
Unfortunately, after these two trips, Michael’s birdwatching records are never again as detailed. Michael kept various lists and tables up until his death. These include birds he saw around York in the 1930s, birds he saw whilst working for the Friends Ambulance Unit during World War Two, various records he kept whilst working for Oxfam, and records of birds seen in his Yorkshire garden from the 1990s. One document that Michael evidently wrote in the last few years of his life lists the 1500+ different species of birds which he saw in his lifetime.
This astonishing document (page 1 of 40 is pictured below) would have been one soaked in nostalgia and memory for Michael. Indeed, all these records must have had sentimental value to Michael, as he kept some of them for over 80 years.
After delving into the birdwatching records above, I wanted to get more of a sense of Michael Rowntree as a person. My research led me down 2 different paths: an exploration of his childhood, and a deep dive into his experiences in the Friends Ambulance Unit during the World War Two.
Firstly, at the Borthwick were a collection of letters from 1930-32 written by Michael and his younger brother Richard during their time at Earnseat School at Arnside, in the North of Cumbria. They reveal Michael to be a dutiful son who wrote frequently to his parents, describing grades, interesting outings and football matches. Secondly, York Explore Archives holds records of the magazine of Bootham School in York, which Michael attended afterwards from 1932-6. The school’s natural history prizes, recorded in the magazine each year, provided another perspective. Michael and his friends Geoffrey Appleyard and Archie Willis began a bird-ringing operation at the school’s Ornithological Society, which, in Michael’s final two years of school netted 2000 birds per year and earned them a special commendation from the judges. Michael writes a report on it in 1936 with obvious pride:
“We are now one of the leading trapping stations in the country, and have had birds recovered in Britain at places from Fife to Penzance, and several places abroad”
Michael’s time in the FAU left little archival record in the Borthwick. Three short letters focusing on Michael’s time in North Africa in 1942-3, where he commanded a unit attached to Hadfield Spear’s hospital, were the only physical traces of Michael’s wartime experience. These letters paint a uniform picture of Michael’s character: he was above all a skilled leader, who naturally garnered support and affection from those he commanded. One of the documents references a book written by the head of Hadfield Spear’s hospital. Also of note is the oral history given by Michael, held at the Imperial War Museum. These sources piqued my interest but were unfortunately beyond the scope of the project. Overall, it seems that much of Michael’s time in the FAU will remain a mystery for now, but further research into this topic would certainly be illuminating.
The only other reference to Michael’s time in the FAU are the dozens of letters written to him by his mother Mary from 1940 to 1942. Whilst they unfortunately provide almost no information as to Michael’s experience of the war, they paint a fascinating picture of World War Two, the horrors of the blitz, and the continued importance of the Rowntree family to city life in York during this period. This was not the focus of my project, but again, the opportunity to do more research would be most welcome.
Nonetheless, the letters from Mary do provide a small insight into the nature of Michael’s upbringing. I found this quote, describing a countryside hike, written by Mary on the 25th June 1941, extremely powerful:
“This certainly is the most beautiful district to live in and it was so peaceful up there on the hill side; it seemed as though the horror in the world must be a bad dream and that we should soon wake up and be able once more to rejoice in God’s lovely world and in his overwhelming generosity in his gifts of nature.”
Clearly, Michael was taught to appreciate the natural beauty of the world around him, even (and perhaps especially) in the darkest of times. Indeed, after World War Two, he maintained that it was keeping up bird watching that kept the horrors of war at bay. Michael’s birdwatching records in the Borthwick do indeed confirm he kept up his hobby during the war in North Africa. In fact, during the war, Michael’s birdwatching played a more immediate role in his well-being. For, whilst driving to a trench in Libya, he stopped to observe a mourning wheatear. When he arrived he found the slit-trench had been destroyed by shellfire.
It was this last foray into Michael’s time at the FAU that helped me draw meaning from Michael’s lifelong passion for birdwatching. There are two main themes I wish to highlight, so as to relate Michael’s passion to issues we face today. The first is the danger that humans pose to the natural environment, and the second is the importance of nature to our mental wellbeing.
To start with the most obvious: it is unlikely future generations will be able to enjoy the variety and number of birds that Michael did. A combination of climate change and habitat loss mean that half of the world’s bird population is in decline, according to the ‘State of the World’s Birds’ Report from last year. Sadly, Britain is little different. Of the 628 different species of British birds, over 70 are now on the RSPB’s red list, the highest level of concern, and 103 are on the amber list, a moderate level of concern. And both lists are increasing. This is not a new problem; indeed Michael’s diary from the Farne Islands bears witness to how human activity can harm local wildlife. He recounts:
“Unfortunately, there had been, the day before, a representative of the ministry of agriculture and fisheries who had gone round systematically throwing nests + young (cormorants) into the sea.”
There is no doubt that we will have to work hard to protect our wildlife. But it will be worth it. For, quite simply, nature makes us feel good. During the pandemic, two-thirds of British people surveyed reported that they found solace in the sight or song of a bird. This is unsurprising, for there is every piece of evidence to suggest that the more often we interact with nature, the happier we become. Indeed, a study published in the academic journal Ecological Economics in 2012 managed to put a price on this happiness. Using data on the satisfaction of 26,000 European adults, they found that being near fourteen additional bird species provided happiness equivalent to an additional income of $150 per month. The “gifts of nature” which Mary Rowntree described are certainly invaluable. Let’s conserve and treasure them.
For those interested in birdwatching, this is a great place to start.
Or for those who want to help birds, visit the RSPB’s page here.
- Borthwick Institute for Archives
- York Explore Archives
- Imperial War Museum: Oral History of Michael Rowntree
- Unpublished Biography by Sarah Sheils
- Birdwatching Statistics
- Photographs (in order)
- Unknown source. Please contact us if this image is yours.
- Reproduced with Permission from the Borthwick Institute for Archives RFAM/MR/PD/1/14 p.1
- Reproduced with Permission from the Borthwick Institute for Archives RFAM/MR/PD/1/3 p.47
- Reproduced with Permission of Borthwick Institute for Archives RFAM/MR/PD/1/3 p.25
- Reproduced with Permission of Borthwick Institute for Archives RFAM/MR/PD/1/3 p.89
- Reproduced with Permission of Borthwick Institute for Archives RFAM/MR/PD/1/3 p.113
- Reproduced with Permission of Borthwick Institute for Archives RFAM/MR/PD/1/3 p.117
- Reproduced with Permission of Borthwick Institute for Archives RFAM/MR/PD/1/1 p.1