Constantine Cornwall

The falconer of Fore St – Episode 1

Lockdown has had many disadvantages and difficulties but it has given me time to do some research into the history of our house. I had promised myself I would find out more about 61 Fore Street when I first saw the handwritten deeds from 1824 and 2020 has given me that opportunity. I have been able to follow a fascinating trail of local families, businesses and occupants.

61 Fore Street was built by John Reynolds, mason, after he obtained the lease in January of 1824. It was then owned and /or occupied by the Reynolds family for 122 years! The final family member being a Mrs Ada Vague, nee Reynolds who left in 1947. I discovered a wealth of detail about the Reynolds family and what went on here, but there were also other remarkable occupants.

The years moved on and in 1954 it was bought by Mr George Morrison Reid Henry and his wife Olive. He was a retired officer of the Ceylon Government Service and had been the Senior Entomologist of the Columbo Museum. He was a Baptist lay preacher, a falconer and a very well-regarded bird artist, with many scientific texts, books and book illustrations to his credit. I first came across his name on passenger lists of steamers going to India!

This explains a few things we had been told about previous occupants and a curi- ous fact about our floors! Some people in the village remember a ‘military’ type chap living here and that he had been in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and that he had a big aviary in the garden with an ‘eagle’ in it! When we first arrived and took up old carpets and lino we found that many of the solid floors, doorsteps etc. were deep red, not paint but some softer material. It was Cardinal red floor polish, very, very popular in Sri Lanka then and now. There are still adverts for it on YouTube!

Mr Henry, or ‘GM’ as he was known, retired to Constantine for the mild climate and luckily for us wrote his memoirs which were published under the title ‘From Pearls to Painting’.

He was born in 1891, one of eleven children, on the Goatfell Tea Estate, Kandapola, not far from where some of the Good Karma Hospital TV series is filmed when they go to the tea plantation at Wilehena. His father was a ‘planter’. Planters were employed by wealthy owners to manage everyday matters. GM never really went to school but was taught by his older sisters and the odd tutor. The family moved around various remote estates and they were strict Baptists so life was fairly austere. At one point they lived 12 miles away from the railway and 4 from a cart road ‘Isolated from european society’ but well- schooled in Scripture! Their father made them learn texts from the bible. Already a great lover of wildlife GM scoured the bible for zoological references and learnt ‘Deadflies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour’!

GM’s interest in wildlife prompted a neighbour, who collected moths, to set him up with nets, killing bottles etc. and he began to collect insects. He led a fairly free existence, foraging in the jungle, capturing ‘pets’ (sometimes snakes!) and falling in the estate waterhole. It all sounds like an eastern version of Gerald Durrell and ‘My family and other animals’!

The family suffered various trials over the years, moving to Columbo when his father was sacked for not making the ‘Coolies’ work on Sunday and there sadly his brother died of dysentery. At one point they were living off the charity of the Mission Home. So, at 16 he started his first job as draughtsman and lab assistant to the Ceylon Company of Pearl Fishers, the company did not last many years, but he had begun his scientific and artistic career.

In 1913 his talent for drawing was recognised when he became Assistant in Systematic Entomology at the Columbo Museum. He had some training in India but basically was self-taught. He made the post his own, reading, collecting, organising, displaying and writing, officially on insects and also, on his great love, birds.

He never found his career easy as without formal training the colonial British class system was unassailable but he resolutely pursued his talent and interests. At home he had an aviary, insect rearing cages and raised many species of chicks from eggs. He still had his pets, owls, vampire bats, a green pit viper and at one point kept a crocodile tethered in a zinc bath in the garden! This obviously explains the aviary in the yard here in Constantine!

When WW1 came along GM had to stay in Ceylon allowing him to continue his work. We shall hear more of his adventures in the east in the next edition of the Constant Times.

Lynda Gregory