Obituary: ‘Trowelblazer’ behind world famous West Runton mammoth find

Margaret Hems, who discovered the real mammoth with her husband Harold, on West Runton beach with t

Bringing it to life: Margaret Hems, who discovered the real mammoth with her husband Harold, on West Runton beach with a model - Credit: Archant / PAUL DAMEN

She is known across the globe for being the discoverer of the famous West Runton mammoth more than 30 years ago. 

The find would go on to formulate a more complete picture of what Britain looked like before the Ice Age and propel Margaret Hems and her husband Harold into the history books. 

But despite this claim to fame, to her loved ones she was a family-orientated woman with a great sense of humour, vast knowledge of the natural world, and always on hand to offer a cup of tea. 

Paying tribute to her, the family said: “She leaves a proud legacy that reflects the person she was, to her children and their spouses, her grandchildren and their partners, and all who knew her. 

“She was kind to everyone, and to everything she met.” 

Margaret Hems pictured at West Runton beach, the place she found the West Runton elephant bone in 19

A remarkable life: Margaret Hems found the West Runton elephant bone in 1990 following an overnight storm in December - Credit: ARCHANT

Early life before the famous find

The youngest of two, Margaret Elsie was born on December 29, 1932, in Dronfield, Derbyshire, to parents Harold and Alice Barber. 

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She described having a happy childhood and even in later life referred to her much-loved and cheeky brother, Hedley, as “our kid”. 

From an early age, she showed a gift in craft and needlework but regularly said she wished she had been more academic. Despite this admission, she lived a rich and full life that demonstrated her vast learnings and wisdom.  

She trained as a nursery assistant and became a nanny to two children in a large house in a village near Bakewell, Derbyshire.

She continued her career in schools and it was at this time she would meet her future husband, Harold.

He used to meet her on the bus coming home from work and would always offer to carry her bags and reserve her a seat. 

Harold Hems

A perfect match: Harold Hems, who discovered the West Runton mammoth with his wife Margaret - Credit: ARCHANT

The Sheffield-born son of a first world war amputee, Mr Hems spent his childhood living just above the poverty line, gaining a place at grammar school aged 10.

His family couldn't afford to send him to university and he initially worked for the Post Office until he was conscripted in 1941.  

A multi-linguist, Mr Hems spent several years overseas as a wireless operator with the 113th Special Wireless Section of the Royal Corps of Signals. After the war, he trained as a teacher at university and later had further specialist training in biology.  

The couple married on July 29, 1955, and spent their early married life near to Dronfield.

In March 1959, their first child, Alison, arrived, and by 1960, they decided to move to Norfolk to be near the sea.

Prior to this, Mr Hems, a keen natural historian, had been a biology teacher but took up the post of head of maths at Cromer Secondary Modern School, which he held until retirement in 1981. 

Margaret Hems pictured at West Runton beach, the place she found the West Runton elephant bone in 19

Looking back: Margaret Hems pictured near the place she found the West Runton elephant bone - Credit: ARCHANT

Mrs Hems was “in her element” being a mother and they commissioned a bungalow to be built in Renwick Park in West Runton, where Mrs Hems lived for almost 60 years.

In 1961, their eldest son Richard was born and in 1968, Stephen arrived and completed the family. With parents and in-laws living both with them and next door, there was always family support. 

Her family described Renwick Heath as a “very busy and happy home”. 

"They were hugely supportive of their children's learning,” they said, “but it was also heaving with interest in the house, in the garden, and in the surrounding area.  

“There was always a warm welcome, great humour, and a meal on the table for anyone who needed it. 

“Her sense of humour was legendary, and she loved slapstick comedy. Her ability to pass comments that left her audience in fits of laughter was second to none.” 

Mrs Hems never lost her rich Derbyshire accent and became known for her greeting of “’ello, Luv" and always offering a cup of tea.

She was a keen churchgoer and prior to Stephen’s birth was active in the Sunday school at West Runton Rectory. She was a member of both the Women’s Institute and the Young Wives, a church-based social group that later became the Runton Ladies. 

As the children grew older, Mrs Hems returned to work taking on the position of welfare assistant at Sheringham Primary School, where she remained until her retirement.

In 1989, the couple welcomed their first grandchild, Edward, followed by Michael, Hannah, George, Lauren and Joshua over the next 13 years. 

Mr and Mrs Hems were avid natural historians who had a passion for photography.

Once retired, they regularly drove away in their campervan, to places such as Norway and Portugal, to discover and photograph wildlife. 

However, their greatest discovery was far older and much closer to home. 

The great discovery of the West Runton mammoth 

The couple first hit the headlines in 1990 following a walk along their beloved West Runton beach. It was a move that would later propel them into the international spotlight. 

On December 12, 1990, the weather forecast threatened high winds and potential flooding along the north Norfolk coast. This meant only one thing for the couple: fossil hunting. 

At the time, the couple hoped the earlier rough weather might have uncovered something. To say they were not disappointed would be an understatement. 

Margaret Hems pictured on the dig at West Runton beach, the site where she found the West Runton ele

Digging away: Margaret Hems pictured on the dig at West Runton beach - Credit: ARCHANT

On the morning of December 13, they set out with tools and headed down to the beach. More of the fossil riverbed had been exposed and that is when Mrs Hems spotted a bone sticking out of the cliff. 

Following four days of secret digging to unearth the pelvis, the presence of an anklebone next to it hinted at the true extent of the find.

When more bones were unearthed following another storm, an explorative excavation was carried out in January 1992. A three-month excavation in 1995 followed, with Mrs Hems joining in, eager to learn more about the find. 

Her family said: “The significance of the mammoth for palaeontologists is easy to see but for Margaret, the most wonderful part of the discovery is its ability to inspire another generation of natural history enthusiasts. As she said, ‘children love dinosaurs, but the children here have their own treasure’.” 

Margaret Hems, left, pictured on the dig at West Runton beach, the site where she found the West Run

World-famous: Margaret Hems, left, pictured on the dig during the 1990s - Credit: ARCHANT

Margaret Hems pictured on the dig at West Runton beach, the site where she found the West Runton ele

A proud moment: Margaret Hems pictured during the 1990s with her husband Harold on the dig at West Runton beach - Credit: ARCHANT

In the five years between the find and the full excavation of the skeleton, scientific investigation of the site gave the most complete picture to date of what Britain was like before the last Ice Age.  

The 10-tonne beast's 85pc complete skeleton is the most entire example of its species ever found in the world, as confirmed by Martin Warren, the former curator of Cromer Museum who joined the Hems on the beach that day and helped to excavate the bone. 

As further remains were discovered and excavated, she and Mr Hems led tours and gave talks on the beach. Later, appearances on the radio and television became the norm. 

Today, there is a dedicated display about the West Runton mammoth at Cromer Museum as well as a small display in Norwich Castle Museum. 

Margaret Hems pictured at West Runton beach, the place she found the West Runton elephant bone in 19

Inspiration for the family: Margaret Hems pictured at West Runton beach, with her grandson Josh, 12, and Prof. Tony Stuart - Credit: ARCHANT

A later life enjoyed with loved ones 

Mrs Hems worked tirelessly maintaining the National Trust property behind her house and became an expert in her own right on the local fungi, leading autumn forays in the woodland. 

She would go on to care for her husband during his long illness and when he died in 2012, she was determined to continue to live life to the full.  

She enjoyed holidays at home and abroad, loved music and dancing, and attended many clubs including craft, doll making, and dollhouse making. She remained very active with friends and the church. 

“To see a week's activities from her 2013 diary is, frankly, exhausting," her family added.

Mrs Hems developed vascular dementia and in early 2020 she moved into Crossways Home, Sheringham. Her carers commented that when everyone else went for an afternoon rest, she would stay with them and socialise. 

From July 2021, her illness progressed rapidly and she moved to Ashfields Care Home, Rackheath. She died on January 11. 

A tribute to a "great storyteller with a sharp mind” 

Cromer, Harold and Margaret Hems with a cast of the Runton Elephant's Tibia, pictured with fossil co

A massive find: Harold and Margaret Hems with a cast of the West Runton elephant's tibia, pictured with fossil conservator Nigel Larkin - Credit: ARCHANT

Dr Tori Herridge, an evolutionary biologist and Daphne Jackson Research Fellow at the Natural History Museum in London, paid tribute to Mrs Hems. 

She said: “The West Runton mammoth is the most complete example of a Steppe Mammoth, and the research on this specimen and the associated palaeoenvironmental, palaeoecological, and chronological research that came out of the excavation made a significant impact on our understanding of the UK Middle Pleistocene. 

“I met Margaret when filming a TV programme in 2015, and kept in touch with her and her family from then on.  

“She was a warm and generous person, a great storyteller with a sharp mind. She cared very deeply about the natural heritage of Norfolk, and the transformative power of education and public engagement.

"She desperately wanted the West Runton mammoth to be on display, and was energetic in her efforts to help make that happen."  

Five facts about the West Runton mammoth 

Pieces of the West Runton mammoth. Picture: Archant

Pieces of history: A small display about the West Runton mammoth - Credit: ARCHANT

  • The remains of the mammoth were found in the Cromer Forest-bed Formation, a 1.5m-thick layer of organic-rich mud deposited during the Cromerian Interglacial about 700,000 years ago, long before the last ice age. 
  • It was a Steppe Mammoth Mammuthus trogontherii - a very early type of mammoth – aged around 42 years old. 
  • Standing at least four metres at its shoulder, it weighed about ten tonnes, twice the weight of any African elephant.  
  • The mammoth skeleton is the largest ever found in Britain and is also the oldest to have been found in the UK. 
  • Had the skeleton not been found at West Runton when it was, the sea would have destroyed it within a decade.