First notes on Oaken Grove

September 5, 2009

My father finished his monograph on Oaken Grove in 1997.  Understandably, it took him several years to organize the data he had collected over a lifetime.  However, he wrote his first draft in Changi during the spring or summer of 1942.  He would  write several more drafts before he was released.  The drafts are very similar to each other and anticipate in remarkable detail his final introduction to the monograph half a century later.  I do not know what was going through his mind as he wrote them.  Perhaps with a little time on his hands he thought he might as well get down to it. But as suggested in my first post on Oaken Grove, below, I can’t help thinking that there was a lot more to it than that.

The map and cross-section shown in the extract is titled: Map 1 (a) showing the chief physical & geographical features of that part of the Middle Thames area occupied by the Heronries.

Entrance to Oaken Grove

as it is today

The note taker

August 30, 2009

No doubt my father’s note taking at Changi and Krangi became a survival strategy; a way to ward off both the boredom of captivity and an apprehension, that seemed to increase as time dragged on, about what the future would hold.  If there was to be a future, that is.  But I doubt if this is how he thought of it.  He arrived in Singapore with his notebooks, after all, and had filled up one of them in the weeks before his capture.  In fact, he had already been an inveterate note taker for many years.

The pages shown here are from his 1931 notebook; he would have been nearly 17 at the time.  As can be seen, he was an avid bird watcher, though his notes were essentially ecological in nature.  A bird’s nest might be described in detail, but this might lead to other observations about the surrounding plant life, soil composition, or of the droppings found (and, yes, studied) at a nearby rabbit warren.  It was all connected.

As indeed was his work and leisure.  By this time, he had already joined his close friend Eric Basden as a lab assistant at the Imperial Institute of Entomology in Farnham Royal near Slough.  The pay was not very good, but for the moment this was of little or no concern.  It would have been hard to imagine a job that so completely mirrored his natural interests.  And then when the day was done they would cycle down to Burnham Beeches, Egypt Woods, Temple, or Hurley for a little field work.

Extract from 1931 notebook

Leaving for camp along the

Thames near Henley, 1930

Oaken Grove

August 21, 2009

In my first post Where to begin? I wrote that I expected to go down all sorts of byways before I completed this journey.  Oaken Grove is the first of these byways.  It is also the longest of them for it was my father’s life’s work.

Oaken Grove is a small wood just off the Henley to Marlow road near the River Thames at Fawley.  My father often cycled to this area with friends before the War, frequently camping by the river at nearby Temple or Hurley.  It was an almost idyllic Three Men in a Boat sort of existence — indeed this stretch of the Thames wouldn’t have changed since Jerome Jerome wrote about  not that many years before.  I am quite sure these were the happiest days of my father’s life.

As teenager he had come across a large heronry at Oaken Grove and had gained permission from the local landowner to count and ring the herons each spring.  To make a very long story short, he was still counting the herons at Oaken Grove well into his eighties when he finally wrote a monograph on what was no longer simply an annual bird census but a sixty year natural history of the wood.

I will come back to this is future posts.  The main point for the moment is that there are frequent references to Oaken Grove in the notes.  Indeed, they contain several drafts of the monograph that would not be completed for another fifty years.  No doubt these were exercises in mental discipline.  But they were also, surely, an attempt to hang on to a world that meant so much to him.

Jack Spittle and friend camping near Hurley

on the River Thames during the early 1930s.

Cover of Oaken Grove, Fawley Buckinghamshire:

An Account of Part of its Natural History,

Particularly its Heronry, 1997

Jack Spittle

Jack Spittle

According to his birth certificate my father was born on March 30, 1914 in Ascot though he dismissed the location as an administrative fiction.  In fact, he maintained stoutly, he had been born just down the road in the village of Eton Wick.  Why the distinction was so important to him I never thought to ask but it may have to do with the fact that Ascot was in Berkshire and Eton Wick, in those days at least, was just across the county boundary in Buckinghamshire.  My father was a Buckinghamshire lad through and through.

As a teenager he developed a strong interest in natural history embarking on a project that was to occupy (not to say preoccupy) him until well into his eighties; a census of herons nesting at Oaken Grove, a small wood near the Thames between Henley and Marlow.  After leaving school he went to work  at the Farnham House Laboratory of the Imperial Institute of Entomology at Farnham Royal near Slough.  Though only a lab assistant he worked closely with some of the leading entomologists of the day and illustrated a number of the Institute’s publications.  He was probably at his happiest working (and learning) at Farnham House but the job did not pay well and in 1938 he qualified as a sanitary inspector and quickly got a position working for Slough Council.

He was called up in 1940 and initially joined the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry.  This wasn’t what he had in mind at all, however, and he was eventually transferred to the RAMC.   Trained for anti-malarial work, he was sent to Singapore in November 1941 and after a chaotic first few weeks posted to Palau Tekong island in the Jahore Straits as sanitary assistant.  It was from here that he got a “grandstand view” of the invasion of Singapore.  He was a prisoner first at Changi (where he worked at Roberts Hospital) and then at Krangi, for the remainder of the war.

Returning to England he settled again in Slough marrying my mother, Jean, in 1947.  He had been reappointed as sanitary inspector but within three or four years became deputy river pollution prevention officer for the Severn River Authority, another position that allowed him to pursue his entomological interests.  In 1950 he published an article on the ‘Nesting Habits of Singapore Birds’ in the Bulletin of the Raffles Museum, based on his observations and hundreds of pages of notes while at Changi and Krangi. In 1961 he was appointed to a more senior position at the Devon River Authority where he remained for the rest of his career.

After retirement he got down to serious work.  This involved the completion of a thirty or so year study of insect life in Devon streams,  now housed at Plymouth Museum,  and the writing up of his Oaken Grove project which by this time had mushroomed from a heron census to a full-blown ecological study of the wood.  He was still making the three or four hour drive from Devon to Oaken Grove into his eighties; except for the war years he had visited the heronry at least annually since 1928.

While he rarely talked about his experience as a prisoner of war, he finally started to sketch out some notes about it a year or two before he died.  Clearly, he was planning to write up his memories and reflections in some way and had come up with a working title: Changi Years Recollections: An Education in Frugal Living. He died in 2004.