The Swan and her crew (1876)

One of the books often cited as a source for Arthur Ransome’s Norfolk-based stories (Coot Club and The Big Six), is the 1876 work by G. Christopher Davies, “The Swan And Her Crew, or the adventures of three young naturalists and sportsmen on the broads and rivers of Norfolk“. The subtitle should have been a give-away, but I was unprepared for the extent of the slaughter enacted by the crew of the Swan on the local wildlife. In the first chapter alone, a pair of crossbills are shot out of a rare-to-Norfolk flock, caterpillars are harvested by the handful to be raised for pinning, and the Swan undertakes her maiden voyage, during which a grebe’s nest is entirely mown down, and a coot’s nest is cast adrift (a sequence inverted in the first chapter of Coot Club).

Soon afterwards, the three young protagonists receive, from their tutor (a vicar), the following lecture on how to be good naturalists, and I dared wonder whether they might behave more carefully for the rest of the book.

Now it won’t take you long to decide that Natural History is a very right and proper thing for you to take up, and therefore you may study it with all your might, and, I doubt not, to the praise and glory of God ; but be very careful about the collecting part of the business. Don’t let your zeal carry you too far. Don’t let collecting be your sole aim and object, or you will become very low types of naturalists. Let it be only secondary and subservient to observation. Let your aim be to preserve rather than to destroy. Remember that God gave life to His creatures that they might enjoy it, as well as fulfil their missions and propagate their species. Therefore if you come across a rare bird, do not kill it unnecessarily ; if you can observe its living motions it will interest you more and do you more good than will the possession of its stuffed body when dead.

Nope. The book goes on to describe a year spent pursuing their interests, in which it becomes clear that “sportsman” and “naturalist” are more alike than a modern reader would expect, and that “naturalist” does not in the slightest mean “conservationist”.

Dozens, maybe hundreds, of eggs are taken from the nests of over twenty different species of birds, although in a few cases the nest is already abandoned through no fault of the protagonists (e.g. someone else shot the parent bird), and the boys rarely take more than half the eggs of each clutch. However, these meliorations are entirely offset by the author’s other disclaimer: “It must not be supposed that I mention all the nests and eggs the boys found in their rambles. Space forbids me to notice more than those which are rare or unusual. For the nest of one rare or uncommon bird they found a dozen of the commoner sorts, for they were very quick observers.”

That habit makes the recorded egg collection look like a parade of rare species: bearded tits, siskins, hen harriers, water rail, wryneck, golden orioles, corn-crakes, bitterns. The scarcity of these birds is often mentioned as a point of interest. Sometimes in the same sentence as the egg collection. On a couple of occasions, the fact that the birds are rare because of egg collectors is mentioned in the same paragraph as the egg collection.

On bitterns, for instance:

Early the next morning they renewed their search, and while they were crashing through the very middle of the reed bed, the bittern rose with a hoarse cry, and flew away with a dull, heavy flight. And there, as good luck would have it, was its nest, a large structure of sticks, reeds and rushes, and in it were four eggs, large, round, and pale brown in colour. It was not in human nature (or at least in boy nature) to resist taking all the eggs.

At one time [the bittern] was common enough in England, but the spread of cultivation, the drainage of the marshes, and the pursuit of the collector have rendered it rare ; … its nest is now but rarely found.

As well as eggs, the boys are keen on hunting, mostly wildfowl, but happy to take anything else that comes their way. On one occasion, a punt gun is demonstrated to devastating effect. (“The mighty gun flashed forth its deadly contents with a tremendous roar, and Frank found himself hurled back upon Jimmy… The birds which were unhurt swept away with a great clamour, but the mud was covered with dead and dying.”). The correct time for shooting ducks is revealed to be, not only in winter on mud-flats, but also in late summer on corn-fields, and in early summer when young ones have just learned to fly and aren’t very good at it yet (“for an hour or so they had good sport beating about the dykes, and flushing them one by one until they had disposed of the whole brood.”), and basically whenever else you like.

There is less empathy for fish killed in sport, but the sheer volumes documented in The Swan are staggering. Here is one of their better days:

Before six o’clock in the evening they had caught over three hundred fishes, big and little, the largest about five pounds in weight. The total weight was about twelve stone. Norfolk bream fishers will know that I am not exaggerating.
“I am thoroughly tired of this,” said Dick at length; “this is not sport, it is butchery, especially as we do not know what to do with them now we have caught them, except to give them to some farmer for manure.”

As with the “nesting”, Davies assures us that the documented days of fishing are only a small proportion of the boys’ activities.

So, obviously this book is going on 140 years old now, and I wasn’t expecting a conservationist agenda, but its entire tone is strikingly different from the Coot Club books of Arthur Ransome, despite the similarity in setting and focus. Ransome obviously drew inspiration from The Swan, but it is the fishing incidents that he gives to the Death and Glories to have (the eel-fishing, and the giant pike), not the murderous transects through the local bird-life. And now I wonder how much the invention of photography, as a non-fatal method of documenting sightings, had on practical ornithology. So all in all I’m rather glad that it is Ransome’s books that are still read, that egg-collecting is no longer common practice, and that wildfowling is managed in a conservation-aware way.