Constantine Cornwall

The Falconer of Fore Street

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.

In 1916 George Morrison Reid Henry was extremely disappointed to be refused ‘Home Leave’ from Ceylon to go and join up and fight. However, it turned out to be a piece of luck as it was then that he met his future wife Olive and they were married in 1917. Sadly, Olive’s brother was killed in action but GM and Olive survived the war and ‘Spanish flu’. They next moved to the outskirts of Kandy where their son Bruce was born. When GM was fetching the doctor, they had to abandon the car, as the track was too rough. While the doctor delivered the baby at the house, the driver tried to turn round in the narrow lane and ended up with the car hanging over the edge of a deep ravine. Neighbours with ropes and pulleys had to rescue it! Expecting their next child, the Chief Taxidermist rented them a bungalow closer to town, but somehow things never seemed to go to plan and the bungalow having been built with sea sand was horribly damp! Maybe a good preparation for Constantine!

GM and Olive lived and worked in typically colonial style, going into the hill country in the hottest months and socialising with government officials, military personnel, missionaries, artists and scholars. There were various ‘Home Leaves’ of up to 11 months – on one of them he took his pet hobby, a falcon, with him on the steamer! He organised expeditions into the jungle and hills of Ceylon and India, exploring, shooting and collecting specimens, mounting, labelling and all the time building up and cataloguing a very great collection in the Columbo Museum. Many of these expeditions were financed by the Natural History Museum and the British Museum. In 1935 he came to England with 1032 specimens for them and worked at the museum cataloguing, drawing and researching. He applied for a permanent post at the Natural History Museum in London but again his lack of formal qualifications was a hindrance to him.

Back in Ceylon he worked towards protection legislation for Ceylon wildlife and improved the conditions and feeding of birds in the zoo. During the war he worked partly for the Department of Agriculture and travelled, looking at insect pests of the tea plant and fumigating imported foodstuffs. Although a very busy man he was also building on his great skill as a bird painter working in oils and gouache. He built up connections with bird artists and publishers, completing many assignments with great skill, but money was ‘always in short supply!’

Throughout the rest of his career he made huge contributions to his science and art. He wrote over 25 scientific papers including ‘Cannibalism in Pulchriphyllium crurfolium’ (gosh!), New and rare Hexacen- trinae from Ceylon’ (well I never!) He also wrote ‘The Butterfly Fauna of Ceylon’ and illustrated several ornithological works, including the ‘Guide to the Birds of Ceylon’. It is on this that his reputation as an ornithologist rests. His art work is still much respected and sought after, indeed Christies recently had some of his works at auction.

When the war ended it became apparent that it would be a difficult time for the museum in Columbo and so GM applied for early retirement. He did not wish to settle down to a ‘useless and selfish exis- tence’ and so in 1946 he took a Pastorate on the edge of the Cotswolds and then finally in 1954 moved to Constantine. Here he continued birdwatching, painting, sketching and beekeeping. GM’s sons Bruce and David both became skilled bird artists in their own right and in 1964 GM became a founder member of the Society of Wildlife Artists. His son Bruce tells us in ‘From Pearls to Painting’ that ‘Behind the house there was a large two-story shed, (I recognise that!) where father did most of his DIY activities. He was very good at woodcarving and had a longstanding interest in sailing ships. Over the course of one or two winters he made a remarkable scale model of a three-masted barque with detailed rigging and equipment all individually hand crafted. It was an astonishing achievement.’ I wonder if anyone in the village ever saw it?

In 1969 his wife Olive died and in June 1973 GM left Constantine and moved to Worthing to be near his son Bruce and so ended his occupation of our house. Thankfully his memoirs were printed and so we know about his talents and achievements. George Morrison Reid Henry may not have bequeathed ‘Blue Plaque’ status to number 61 but he certainly had an intriguing life.

Number 61 was then sold to Mr & Mrs McKenzie, who some of you knew, and in 2009 to us. If anyone has any more information about the house or any of its occupants, particularly Reynolds’, do let me know – lyndgreg@hotmail.co.uk. You never know what we may find out. If only some of the other occupants had written their memoirs!

Lynda Gregory