Recently, a charming little book I bought online arrived in the post. Illustrated with delightful engravings, W. Aldridge’s A Gossip on the Wild Birds of Norwood and Crystal Palace District (1885) was a collection of articles that had originally appeared in the Norwood Review. Inside the front cover is the bookplate of Camberwell Public Libraries Reference Section, and the title page bears the inscription ‘With Author’s Compts’. No doubt what are left of our public libraries have little use for such Victorian curios, but I was glad to repatriate the book to its south London birthplace.
A little research unearthed the facts that Aldridge was a cabinet-maker and upholsterer with premises on Westow Street, and keen amateur ornithologist; he judged the stuffed bird category at the Crystal Palace Bird Show in 1887. His book reveals this Norwood tradesman to have been a keen pipe-smoker, angler, painter and amateur taxidermist, well travelled – he had visited Paris, Holland, Switzerland, Norway and Prussia – well read, and a believer in a benign Creator; he quotes approvingly Izaak Walton’s remark on birdsong:
‘Lord, what psalmody hast Thou provided for Thy saints in heaven when Thou affordest bad men such music on earth?’
In all, he listed 51 species of birds, which he considered ‘a very respectable quantity for a suburb of London within a few miles of St. Paul’s’. The only raptors he reported were the ‘much persecuted’ kestrels, occasionally sighted hovering on the air currents between Westow Street and Beulah Spa, and on South Norwood Hill. One evening, smoking his pipe in a friend’s garden on Belvedere Road, he saw a barn owl glide silently over the ground.
He also reported rooks and jackdaws in the taller trees from Dulwich to Beulah Spa; green woodpecker in Sydenham Hill Wood; nightingales nesting in Sydenham Woods and at Elmer’s End; cuckoos, goldfinch and bullfinch in Grange Wood; redwing and fieldfare in winter between Central Hill and Beulah Spa; and skylarks in the open fields that still existed on either side of Wells Road between Sydenham Hill and Sydenham town.
‘The oldest inhabitant,’ he reported, recalled that thirty years previously there was ‘a small Heronry in the old Norwood woods’, the nests ‘as large as bushes, at the tops of trees’.
By August 1887, when Aldridge wrote to the London Standard to report the rare sight of a cormorant perched on the steeple of the Wesleyan chapel at Upper Norwood, his tally of birds had increased to 56 – though sadly I can find no record of the four intervening species.
Aldridge took a melancholy view of the future of bird life in the area. ‘In a few (very few) years,’ he wrote, ‘when, by the increase of population, Norwood will be a part of London, undivided by fields and hedges, most of the birds will have retired beyond our district, and be as extinct in Norwood as the Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus – nay, more so, for these monsters, or, rather, their restored figures may still remain in the [Crystal] Palace grounds…’
He was perhaps too pessimistic, underestimating the capacity of many species to adapt to urban conditions. While it is true that nightingales and skylarks have long since disappeared from the suburbs of southeast London, the swifts and swallows, thrushes, finches and tits have held out, while other species, absent in his day, have reappeared. In addition to kestrels, buzzards, sparrowhawks and hobbies patrol the skies over Sydenham Hill Wood; magpies, made scarce in Victorian times by persecution from gamekeepers, staged a recovery in the 1970s and are now ubiquitous; the green woodpecker has been joined by the great and – more rarely – lesser spotted varieties; and goldcrest and firecrest, absent from his list, are now frequent winter visitors.