Hurrell, H. G.


H. G. Hurrell, M.A., M.B.E., J.P.

Published in DA Transactions, 1981.

H. G. HURRELL, M.A., M.B.E., J.P.

Devon has suffered a severe loss in the death of a very well known naturalist and a most public spirited citizen of Plymouth, who passed away peacefully at his home at Moorgate, Wrangaton, S. Devon on 23 May 1981. Henry George Hurrell, widely known as ‘H. G.’ was born at Peverell Park Villa, Plymouth on 3 July 1901. A keen naturalist from early childhood, Harry lived at Down Park, Yelverton, during most of his teens. He kept an astonishing variety of wild creatures, but his chief interest was in falconry. He went to Plymouth College and to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1920 in Natural Sciences. He ran the family corn-merchant business for nearly 20 years. In 1927 he married Miss Lilian Jones and they went to live at Down Park. They had a daughter and two sons. In the depression of the 30s they joined the older generation at Peverell. He sold his business interests shortly before the Second World War and the family moved to Moorgate in 1939. Employed by the Ministry of Food inspecting grain stocks during and for a short time after the war, he also helped to instruct and entertain troops with his films. Then ‘H. G.’ was able to devote all his energies to his chosen pursuits as a naturalist and in public service. At Moorgate he made use of some pens built by a previous owner for a silver fox farm mostly to observe the behaviour of foxes and pine marten.

He joined the Devonshire Association in 1946 and soon became the Recorder for Mammals, a service he continued for 32 years, preparing his last report in rapidly failing health. He served as a member of Council for many years and was President of the D. A. in 1966, giving an address entitled ‘The Changing Fauna of Devon.’ Delivered in his simple, direct style it created a lively picture of faunistic changes through geological and recent times and stressed man’s influence on natural habitats.

When the Devon Bird Watching and Preservation Society was started in 1928 (as an offshoot from a section of the D.A.) he was active as a founder member, first joint secretary and one of its three editors. This society was among the first in the kingdom to encourage field observation and photography as opposed to shooting and egg-collecting as methods of studying birds. ‘H. G.’ took a lead in the buzzard survey, at that time a novel way of studying a species; he also organized coastal watches for migrating birds during the 30s. Watches for arrivals and migration of swifts were organized by him on a national scale for the British Trust for Ornithology in the years 1947-51.

‘H. G.’ was involved in the inception of the Devon Trust for Nature Conservation and was a member of its Council from its inauguration in 1961, becoming its first Chairman. He continued to serve on this Council until 1976. He made generous gifts to the Trust, including its first nature reserve at Ladieswood, part of his land in the Wrangaton area. He also designed the first ‘Dipper’ emblem. More recently he was one of the Founder Trustees of the Woodland Trust for the conservation of broad-leaved woods. This Trust has grown rapidly from local beginnings in 1972 to be a nationwide body. It is appropriate that under the auspices of this Trust, the purchase of an ‘H. G. Hurrell Memorial Wood’ is envisaged as a reminder of one of his chief interests, woodlands and the wildlife they contain. ‘H. G.’ was a founder member of the Mammal Society of the British Isles and its first hon. treasurer. His width of interests were further reflected in his membership of the Otter Trust, British Deer Society, Fauna Preservation Society, Lundy Field Society, Cornish Bird Watching Society, the R.S.P.B., Devon Speleological Society and the Devon Archaeological Society. He was a member of the Committee for the Conservation of the Large Blue Butterfly from its start in 1963 and served on the Committee for England of the Nature Conservancy for a few years in the ’60s in a voluntary capacity.

An excellent observer and careful recorder of the behaviour of wildlife he started his natural history diaries in his teens, keeping meticulous records for over 60 years. He included some, always carefully attested, records from other people, and his diaries are a mine of valuable information. He published many articles and several booklets. In a Sunday Times series he wrote one on Foxes and one on the Pine Marten (1962) and his booklet on the latter species written for the Forestry Commission is still in demand. In 1964 he published a book entitled Atlanta My Seal which was the outcome of several years care of a stranded youngster saved from the Yealm and kept in the swimming pool at his home. Atlanta’s surprising degree of intelligence was revealed by tests he devised with full scientific attention to detail. During 13 years this seal was seen by many hundreds of visitors to Moorgate. A book entitled Wildlife: Tame but Free, published in 1968, described ingenious tests on tits and observations on other birds visiting the bird-table close outside the kitchen window; it also gave lively accounts of some of his work on foxes, otters, dormice, hawks, ravens and swifts. His latest book, Fling the Pine Marten—accurate observation turned into very readable story form—was published in May 1981, just before he died. His determination to make the effort, though very weak, to sign a copy for us—friends of many years—will long be remembered. He had prepared some memoirs for private circulation in 1977 but did not complete their revision.

His patience and knowledge as a naturalist photographer resulted in the making of many black-and-white and colour films. He gave unstintingly of his time in winter evenings showing these films to enthralled and packed audiences around the county and farther afield, sharing his enthusiasm and enjoyment in a most charming and instructive way. In filming foxes he invented a mobile hide which disguised him and the camera as a blackfaced sheep. Having been to his lecture and seeing a flock of sheep in a field, a child asked “Which of those sheep is Mr Hurrell?” By his films and commentaries he made a great contribution to and stimulated interest in nature conservation in the South West and among larger audiences when his many films were shown on TV. He took part in early natural history programmes in the ‘Look’ series. His film on the Pine Marten and on ‘Atlanta’ especially made a very great impression on viewers. He enjoyed giving short radio talks on ‘Morning Sou’west’, the 100th being heard in the spring of 1981.

His drawings and pastel pictures of mammals and birds captured the liveliness and personalities of his subjects because of his intimate knowledge of them. There was often a humorous touch in his individually drawn Christmas cards reflecting his current wildlife interest; these he sent annually to very many friends exemplifying his real affection for people.

His interest in Dartmoor included its archaeology. He helped in a rescue dig before the Avon Dam was built, and excavated a damaged hut-circle on his part of the moor near the Glazebrook. As an experiment and for demonstration to the many visitors to Moorgate he had a hut-circle built and roofed it with branches and turves so that its habitability could be tested. His interests were so diverse that one can only mention a few of them. He collected folk-names for wood-lice and wild arum. He found himself to be adept at water-divining, encouraging others to try for themselves. When the technique became available he enjoyed listening to bats as well as watching them. He was much travelled, largely in pursuit of natural history, visiting Holland, Switzerland, the Pyrenees, the Camargue, Norway and Finland, Kenya and the Holy Land. Latterly he attended several international conferences on birds, visiting Switzerland, Finland, both coasts of the U.S.A., Holland, Vienna, south-eastern Australia and Tasmania. He was thrilled by the scenery and by the unusual animals he saw but always said on return “Devon is the best place in the world”. He loved his home at Moorgate, close to the events of nature which were a constant source of interest and strength to him and to his family. These pleasures were shared with the very large number of visitors for whom there was always a warm welcome from Lilian Hurrell and himself. “H. G.” was especially keen to stimulate children’s interests and in the early 70s he devised a nature trail and converted a nearby barn at Cheston to accommodate parties. Even by 1977 there had been over 4000 visitors including scientists, authors and artists—friends from all parts of the world.

Besides being remembered for his great contribution to nature observation and conservation in the South West his involvement in community affairs was always keen and “H. G.” was generous of his time and abilities. The City of Plymouth had much reason to be grateful to him. He was the youngest President of the Plymouth Athenaeum (in 1930) and uniquely gave a 50 year anniversary lecture in 1980. He was an active member of the Port of Plymouth Chamber of Commerce in the 30s and one time its President. He was President of the Plymouth Rotary Club in 1949-50 and was a founder member of the Plymouth Advisory Board of the Salvation Army which was started in 1965. H. G. Hurrell was made a Justice of the Peace in 1946. His clear perception and fairmindedness, as well as an understanding of human nature, especially of children, were qualities which enriched his 26 years of service as a Plymouth magistrate; he was for 15 years on the Juvenile Bench, latterly being its vice-chairman until retiring in 1972. When the Dartmoor National Park was designated in 1951 he was nominated by the Minister as one of the independent members of the Park Committee on which he served until 1972—twenty years of valuable public service.

Official recognition of his great contribution to nature conservation and of his service to the community came belatedly, and as many of his friends thought somewhat inadequately, in the award of an M.B.E. in 1974.

He was a teetotaller and a non-smoker and always followed a very unostentatious way of life. The mainspring of his life was his Christian faith. Sundays were always set aside for regular attendance at Mutley Baptist Church where his family had long connections. He was a Deacon for nearly 50 years and one of the Elders for 25 years. A large room which is a focus for many activities has been named after Mr and Mrs H. G. Hurrell.

To summarize, if that is possible, he was a distinguished naturalist of great integrity and a man held in high esteem by all who knew him. His enthusiasm for the projects he undertook was infectious. His determination and application were tremendous. A born educator, he communicated his enthusiasm and enjoyment of the natural world with great vividness. He was a prime mover in various conservation groups and kept up his support with wise advice on committees. The qualities which endeared him to a very wide circle of friends and admirers were his love of and enthusiastic interest in wildlife, his willingness to give freely of his time and to share his knowledge with people of all ages. He had a quiet humour which carried him through adversities—it was wonderful even during the last weeks of his illness. He was deeply affectionate and people were very fond of him. He was not a man to show his emotions readily yet he could be deeply moved by an especially beautiful sight. There was a calmness and strength about him. He lived intensely in this world but was organized and prepared for the next. He was, indeed, a Christian gentleman.

In all his interests he was aided and supported by his wife, Lilian, a very special and understanding lady, who passed away less than a year previously. His daughter Elaine, his doctor son Leonard with his wife and family and his second son Kenneth carry forward the interests of their father. To them is offered very deep and sincere sympathy.

G. M. and M. F. Spooner