Bradfield College’s enduring interest in birds began with its founder Thomas Stevens who was an avid collector of specimens which he acquired himself or purchased abroad from Norway and other countries.

Stevens rented a room in the village where he stuffed birds and established a museum at Bradfield which grew to include 250 examples. His fascination with birds may reflect a tradition within the family suggested by the two birds of prey incorporated into the Stevens’ coat of arms when it was created in the seventeenth century. The two birds were adopted by the College in its first crest of 1924, since modified to the current form so familiar today. Little more of the crest will be written here since Graeme Salt of the Biology Department has delivered an informative Assembly examining the history of the crest and the species of birds depicted, more information can be found here.

During the late nineteenth century, an Old Bradfieldian pupil reminisced, ‘One of the most universal occupations was birds’-nesting. Pretty nearly everybody passed through an egg-collecting stage. It began in the lower Forms, where it was impossible, except in a very mild way, because of bounds. In the Fifth it often became a rage, and reached its height as a boy entered the Lower Sixth, after which it gradually subsided. It was hardly good form for a Prefect to collect eggs.’

The banks of the Pang and the surrounding water meadows and woods offered excellent breeding grounds for kingfishers, magpies, moorhens, little grebes, sedge-warblers, wild ducks, nightingales and other birds whose nests were plundered of eggs. Boys solely driven by collecting mania and lacking the naturalists’ instinct for exploration bought eggs from enterprising village boys. The prominent ornithologist Francis Orphen Morris, whose three sons were at Bradfield, stoked this extremely competitive hobby when he donated copies of his lavishly colour illustrated A History of British Birds and A Natural History of the Nests and Eggs of British Birds to the Library.

One of Bradfield’s earliest pupils, the sculptor George Blackall Simonds (younger brother of the first boy), was keenly interested in falconry. His most famous sculpture, The Falconer, portrays a young man in 14th-century dress casting a giant peregrine falcon into the air. The original bronze sculpture was cast in Florence in 1871 and a copy stands in New York City’s Central Park. Simonds founded the British Falconer’s Club in 1927.

He took over the family brewing business in Reading after 1905 and lived the final years of his life in Bradfield at Rushall Grange and Bradfield House, where he was an active falconer. He is buried in St Andrew’s Churchyard.

From its foundation in 1899, ornithology featured prominently in Bradfield’s Natural History Society, channelling much of the boys’ egg-collecting energy and enthusiasm noted above into more scientific study. The society was led by a series of knowledgeable, devoted organisers who inspired both in the classroom and in the field.

Two notable early figures were Edward Peake (SCR 1896-1909) Head of the Junior School, who had a ‘real delight in birds and flowers and insects, in the whole beauty of copse and hedgerow’ and the school’s physician Dr Norman H. Joy, who became Vice-President of the Scientific Society in 1922. Joy was an expert ornithologist, who often lectured to the school, and published the very popular guide How to Know British Birds in 1936. He urged everyone to adopt a hobby which carried them out into the open air.

Pupils learned about birds’ anatomy, behaviour, feeding, courtship rituals, reproduction and flight. Records were kept of annual bird sightings. After undergoing training, the society began a sustained programme to study the migration of the local bird population through ringing. In 1914, 600 birds were ringed, and several previously ringed birds were recovered. In that year the society published an impressive list of all birds observed at Bradfield over fifteen years, many identifications bearing Joy’s initials. In 1932 a bird census was taken, providing data to assess the health of the population and any factors contributing to the decline of certain species.

One of the most striking articles published by ornithologists in the Bradfield Chronicle appeared in July 1904, written by a witness to an extraordinary event. He had discovered a recently hatched cuckoo in a dunnock’s nest close by his garden and recorded in minute detail how the interloper expelled a dunnock chick; ‘This time the cuckoo got the young bird well onto its shoulders, and with one great exertion, lifted it right on to the edge of the nest. Now I wondered how it got the young bird quite clear of the nest; but I found it was simple enough. The victim did it by its own struggles. However the cuckoo had to make sure that it did not struggle back into the nest, and it was one of the most extraordinary parts of the whole business to see it wriggle up the side of the nest backwards, plant its legs wide apart almost on the very edge of the nest, and wave its wings about behind its back. Here it remained for nearly a minute, looking every second as if it would tumble backwards, and eventually it let itself down gently again into the nest, with what I almost fancied to be a wicked smile on its face!’

The endowment of a prize for Natural History in 1918 by Francis Hollowell in memory of his son Francis, killed during the First World War, provided important encouragement. It was renamed the Hollowell-Gardiner Prize upon the death of A.P. Gardiner (SCR 1916-53) in recognition of his outstanding Biology teaching, practised in the field as well as the laboratory. The strength of interest in ornithology is reflected in the many entrants and winners of the competitions over the years. In 1963 for example, the prize went to Richard Aisbitt (1960-64) for his exhibition The Development of the Chick inside the Egg for which he taught himself to make sections of chick embryos on microscope slides. Interest and understanding was reinforced by a series of innovative ornithologists invited to speak at Bradfield. Richard Kearton, the pioneering wildlife photographer, visited the College in 1906 and again in 1922. In 1895, he and his brother Cherry had produced one of the first zoological books illustrated with photographs taken in the wild. One of Kearton’s most important messages was upon preservation, clearly absorbed by a pupil photographer who wrote of his work; ‘No egg or nest of any sort has been taken or destroyed… The idea of not taking eggs originated in a lecture given here by Mr Richard Kearton, who spoke very strongly against the collection of “egg shells” (to use his words), and since then it has become evident that photography is far more interesting, lasting and humane.’

In 1941, Ludwig Koch lectured upon his ground-breaking work recording birdsong. In 1928, Koch had joined the German branch of Electric and Musical Industries (EMI) to create a cultural gramophone programme and he began recording animal sounds with the latest equipment. Koch was Jewish and sought refuge in Britain in 1936 to escape persecution by the Nazis. He had developed the idea of the sound-book, including gramophone records with an illustrated text, and began recording birds across England for a sound-book of British birds. His Songs of Wild Birds was released in 1936 and he produced two more sound-books by 1938.

At Bradfield, Koch ‘showed how much easier it was to distinguish songs on his gramophone records, comparing a songthrush and a mistle-thrush and went on by letting his audience hear a blackbird, a chaffinch, a woodlark and a lark, five warblers, a curlew, a nightjar and several others’. He also spoke of the many practical difficulties working outdoors in all weather and landscapes, citing one example where the wax had become so cold that the recording was ruined. Koch was applauded for having ‘brought the study of birdsong within the reach of everyone’. In addition to lectures, the Natural History Society screened films, many devoted to ornithology.

The late 1960s and early 1970s marked another period of fruitful activity when the revived Natural History Society’s ‘hard core’ was ‘about a dozen boys, mainly ornithologists.’

Three bird hides were constructed on campus to facilitate sustained observation. Mark Mallalieu (1968-71) and Andrew Prescott (1967-72) recorded more than 100 species they had seen between 1969 and 1972. There were expeditions to Oxmoor north of Oxford and Thurle Down in Berkshire. Concern for conservation and environmental issues was developing and in 1975 surveys of the neighbouring rookeries and of the great crested grebe were undertaken in collaboration with the British Trust for Ornithology. David Stroud (1970-75), who served as Senior Ornithologist at the UK’s Joint Nature Conservation Committee until 2019, has reflected upon how inspiring teaching by the Biology Department at this time set him upon a career path in conservation. Read the full article here.

The Archives are very fortunate to preserve records created by two College ornithologists. The first item is a volume recording what appears to be a lifetime’s birdwatching activities by Colin Eddison (1903-08). Eddison’s book contains an alphabetical list of the hundreds of birds he had observed between 1929 and 1953, accompanied by detailed notes on where they were seen and anything distinctive in their behaviour. Virtually every part of the United Kingdom is included along with visits to the Netherlands and the Austrian Tyrol.

The second collection is a series of 142 photographs of birds taken by Anthony Weldon (1921-25) at Bradfield and its surrounding wetlands, woods and farms. The images are accompanied by a notebook describing their subjects, locations, and the challenges of approaching and photographing birds and their nests. Some of the more striking photographs record the hatching of a swan’s eggs; ‘The swan consequently was most irate’, and a cuckoo discovered in a robin’s nest. Weldon also witnessed the birth of a fawn, which ‘was about ten minutes old when photographed. It could just stand on its legs but rather shakily.’ In an apt coincidence, Weldon photographed a sparrowhawk bearing a ring put on it by the falconer Simonds, ‘who is interested in the birds, and will on no account let them be destroyed.’