Keble Martin, William


Published in DA Transactions, 1970.

Rev. W. Keble Martin, Hon.D.Sc., F.L.S., passed over in January 1970, in his ninety-third year, after a long and active life, of which a great part, including his last 48 years, was spent in Devon. He had strong Devonian connexions: his grandmother was a Champernowne of Dartington, of which parish his father Charles served as Rector from 1891 to 1910. His grandfather William Martin had been Rector of Staverton.

Born at Radley on 9 July 1877, while his father was Warden (i.e. headmaster) of the College, Keble Martin was one of the younger members of a family of five boys and four girls. From boyhood he developed an interest in natural history, stimulated by the rural surroundings of the vicarages of Wood Norton in Norfolk, of Poulshot in Wilts, and, particularly, of Dartington in Devon. When he went to school at Marlborough in 1891 he found a flourishing Natural History Society run by Edward Meyrick, who about that time was preparing his classic Handbook of British Lepidoptera. On holidays from school and vacations from Christ Church, Oxford, Keble’s interest in botany grew and eventually outstripped birds and butterflies as his main outdoor hobby.

Having taken his degree in Greek Philosophy (his father’s subject), supported by Botany and Church History (a combination of subjects that might seem odd today), he embarked with lasting zeal and devotion on a long career as a parish priest. He was particularly conscious of the missionary nature of his clerical duties, amongst which he attached special importance to personal contacts with his flock. Ensuring that he paid his parishioners regular visits often left him no spare time for relaxation.

His earlier appointments were up-country, curacies at the mining town of Beeston, Notts (1902-1906), at Ashbourne, Derbyshire (1906-1908), and at Lancaster (1908-9). In 1909 he married Violet Chaworth-Musters, and in the same year was installed as Vicar of Wath-on-Dearne, near Rotherham. There he remained till 1921, with an interval of one year’s war-service as chaplain on the western front. He had the distress of seeing his church almost destroyed in a fire started by a disgruntled choirboy.

For the sake of the health of one of his growing family he moved south, to follow one of his brothers in the benefice of Haccombe and Coffinswell. This quiet rural parish gave him chances of bird-watching in his own church, but left him restless for more work. He even applied to return north, but fortunately the opportunity was not offered. He was permitted, however, to take interest in the growing new estate at Milber, on the outskirts of Newton Abbot. To him, more than anyone, this estate owes its new church. He relates how the main design came to him in a dream—a dream which his architect brother was able to help materialize. In 1934 he became Vicar of Torrington where he stayed until 1943. He then returned to the Newton Abbot area with a spell at Combe and Milber.

Botany remained his main relaxation. His first botanical note was published in 1901 in the Journal of Botany (Vol. 39, p. 428) on his discovery of a thriving colony of the very local Lobelia urens in the Bovey area. He had then just begun to make water-colour paintings of individual species of wild flowers as they came his way. He records that the first of these, in 1899, was a snowdrop with a background of ivy leaves, and points out that it was the first and only instance in which the flower had leaves of another plant.

The habit persisted. A plan gradually formed to include all the flowering plants native to Britain. It gained some momentum during the 1920s, when parochial duties left him reasonable spare time for perhaps the first occasion in his adult life. By then ideas of eventual publication must have been in mind, since now a dozen or more flowers were grouped on one plate and there was a target of 100 plates. But this target could not be reached quickly, though eventually reached it was. The history of the popular Concise British Flora, with its almost dramatic ups and downs, is a splendid success story, in which love of the subject and simple devotion has triumphed, with results that professional botanists may well envy.

But in the meantime—to go back to 1930—another project began to occupy him. The Botanical Section of this Association was particularly active about then and working to produce a comprehensive Devon Flora. This was work in which Keble Martin was able to co-operate, and it must have given him much satisfaction. He became a member of the Association in 1931 and was active at meetings of the Botanical Section, for which he served as Recorder of Phanerogams for many years. He became the chief editor of the Devon Flora, which set a new standard for county floras when it was eventually published in 1939. Much credit is due to him for the successful outcome of this project.

During the Second World War Keble Martin was one of Professor L. A. Harvey’s Committee which produced proposals for national parks and nature reserves in Devon. His special contribution was to report on thirty sites considered to be deserving of protection from a botanical angle.

It is difficult to say exactly when, if ever, Keble Martin retired. He left his last incumbency at Combe and Milber in 1949, but he was still performing part-time clerical duties at his final home at Woodbury in the late 1960s. He celebrated his golden wedding in 1959, but the following year found his wife an invalid until her death in 1963. Later, in 1965, at the age of 87, he married his second wife, Mrs. Florence Lewis. The publication of the Concise British Flora, also in 1965, was followed in 1968 by his autobiography, Over the Hills, a story that fascinates with its directness and simplicity. Not least of his latter-day contributions to the world outside his parish were the designs of a set of four floral postage stamps issued in April 1967.

Keble Martin’s love of natural history and its marvels was woven into his religious convictions, perhaps not entirely in an orthodox manner. ‘Nature’ he wrote ‘is good, beautiful and happy.’ This is indeed revealing: for was he not perhaps simply observing the projection of his own personality?

Papers published in DA’s Transactions

Year  Vol.Pages
1955Rev. W. Keble MartinA Short History of Coffinswell87165-190