The naturalists who enriched our understanding of the Broads

Ted Ellis at his Nature Reserve, Wheatfen, probably late 1970s. 

Ted Ellis at his Nature Reserve, Wheatfen, probably late 1970s. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

In his latest column, Robert Paul, Museum of the Broads director and president (and past chairman and vice president of the Broads Society), shines a light on some of the naturalists who have enriched our understanding of the Broads. 

With all the many recreational activities enjoyed on the Broads today, we sometimes forget the richness and diversity of habitats to be found there. With more than 27 designated ‘Sites of Special Scientific Interest’, the Broads has become a haven for a quarter of Britain’s rarest species, birds, insects and plants including crane, bittern and marsh harrier, swallowtail butterfly, fen raft spider, milk parsley, holly leaved naiad – the list goes on.

Robert Paul, member and past chairman of the  Broads Society.

Robert Paul, member and past chairman of the Broads Society. - Credit: Supplied by Robert Paul

I find it quite incredible, that all this recreation – sailing, fishing, tourism, and even powerboating, can exist side by side with the natural environment. Of course, there are pressures, and it is up to those in charge of managing the Broads, and all of us, to reconcile this potential ‘conflict of interest’.

So, this unique area of ours, in east and north Norfolk has attracted and continues to produce some influential, knowledgeable and devoted scientists from the world of nature study.

Because of my involvement with the Museum of the Broads, I have been lucky enough to meet some wonderful people. In the early 2000s I was lucky enough to meet Dr Joyce Lambert at her home in Brundall where she grew up. Born in 1916, she attended the Norwich High School for Girls and later studied botany at the University College of Wales. Her great love seems to have been the ecology of the fens and broads of Norfolk. In 1950 at Cambridge University, she teamed up with colleague J. N. Jennings, a famed stratigrapher.

Together, and with the enthusiastic help from boys from the City of Norwich School, they carried out research which included using peat borers. This work resulted in the discovery that The Broads were in fact man-made and not naturally occurring, as had previously been thought.

Her findings were made public to the Norfolk Naturalists Society in 1953. It caused a sensation. And her Memoir Number 3 to the Royal Geographical Society set out the details of all her research. She was a lovely lady and I so enjoyed meeting her and hearing her story.

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At the conclusion of our meeting, she handed me the books and documents relating to her work, and the actual peat borer used in her work. It was a wonderful moment for me, and these items can now be seen in a display at the Museum of the Broads.

Dr Lambert was encouraged to carry out her research by Dr Ted Ellis of Wheatfen fame. Another of our famous broads’ naturalists. He was actually born in Guernsey and moved to Great Yarmouth as a child in 1920. It was here he became interested in ecology.

Dr Joyce Lambert in later years of her retirement at her home in Brundall. 

Dr Joyce Lambert in later years of her retirement at her home in Brundall. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

Dr Joyce Lambert in a small boat, taking peat borings as part of her research in 1952.

Dr Joyce Lambert in a small boat, taking peat borings as part of her research in 1952. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

He and his wife bought a property at Surlingham which consisted of a tiny cottage and 130 acres of woodland and fen. He is credited with the discovery of many British micro-fungi.

I met him briefly in the early 1980s. What came across was his depth of passion for the Broads and it’s nature. He had a lovely gentle way of talking which was appreciated by many when he made regular appearances on television and introduced his ‘nature postbag’.

Ted Ellis at his Nature Reserve, Wheatfen, probably late 1970s. 

Ted Ellis at his Nature Reserve, Wheatfen, probably late 1970s. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

The Ted Ellis Trust continues today providing a rich and accessible nature reserve.

Ted was inspired by one Arthur H. Patterson of Great Yarmouth. Perhaps my own particular ‘favourite’. His story is truly amazing.

Arthur Patterson, pictured on a visit to How Hill, Ludham (1923).

Arthur Patterson, pictured on a visit to How Hill, Ludham (1923). - Credit: Museum of the Broads

He was born into poverty but eventually became perhaps the most celebrated naturalists the Broads has ever seen. His mother died when he was three. He described himself as the ‘runt of the litter’ but in fact was the only one of eight children to reach the age of 21.

He had no formal education but despite this, became a pupil teacher at the age of 15. 

Following this he became an assurance agent, followed by postman, ticket seller, tea pedlar and an attendant in a travelling menagerie. 

He also spent a summer as attendant to a ‘travelling whale’ which had been stuffed following a fatal collision with the Gorleston lifeboat. Eventually he settled down a little, and became the school attendance officer in Great Yarmouth providing a secure income and stability.

He was a formidable truant officer, knowing all the popular hideouts in the town including the nooks and crannies of the Rows! 

He ended up publishing no less than 33 books, which are highly prized to this day. His books included some incredible drawings and cartoons. His nom-de-plume was ‘John Knowlittle’.

A pencil drawing by Arthur Patterson.

A pencil drawing by Arthur Patterson. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

One of my favourites is his ‘Through Broadland by Sail and Motor’. It is a fascinating travelogue but also demonstrates his depth of knowledge of nature.

As a preamble at the start of chapter one is a quote from Oliver Ready of Waxham Vicarage: "I cannot believe that any other boy ever had so happy and so interesting a childhood as myself, with the sea on one side and the dear old broad on the other and the kindest of friends at every turn". The broad referred to is of course Horsey Mere.

Patterson’s humour is evident in all of his writing.

This comedic tendency was well demonstrated in his weekly dialect article in the Great Yarmouth Mercury entitled ‘Melinda Twaddles’ Notions’! But that’s for another day.

So a brief roundup of other ecologists which some will know – Robert Gurney, of the famous Norfolk family, who in 1903 established the first purpose-built fresh water laboratory in the Country, ‘Longmore Point’ at Sutton Broad near Stalham.

 Robert Gurney, who established the country's first freshwater laboratory at Longmore Point, Sutton.

Robert Gurney, who established the country's first freshwater laboratory at Longmore Point, Sutton. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

A private venture funded by the Gurney family. It is thought work there ceased at the outbreak of the First World War. It was accessible to all with an interest in ecology. The building still stands today and has become a private residence.

Percy Trett of Great Yarmouth, who again regularly contributed to the Eastern Daily Press and was a greatly respected naturalist.

More recently, Dr Martin George, who I was honoured to have as a member of my committee of The Broads Society in the early 1990s, contributed so much, wrote the book to end all books on the Broads, ‘The Land Use, Ecology and Conservation of Broadland’ - 558 pages about every aspect of The Broads from limnology to tourism.

Dr. Martin George at his home in Strumpshaw.

Dr. Martin George at his home in Strumpshaw. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

He joined the Nature Conservancy in Norwich in 1960 and was appointed Regional Officer for East Anglia in 1966. He was awarded an OBE in 1990 for services to conservation. Together we worked long and hard to campaign for what the society considered the most effective flood prevention measures for The Broads.

We are so lucky to have had and continue to have such an amazing history of wonderful characters who have brought us so much from the natural world of Broadland and beyond. I never get tired of learning about their exploits.