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West Midland Bird Club

C. A. (Tony) Norris

It was with great sadness that we learned of the death of C. A. (Tony) Norris, our former president, at the age of 88, on 25 February 2005.

Tony was, without doubt, one of the most influential people in the history of the Club and the instigator of the Bardsey Bird and Field Observatory. He also played leading roles in the RSPB, BTO and WWT. In fact his ornithological background together with his personality ranks him highly in British ornithology.

Our obituary

The following obituary was published in our Bulletin:

With his passing on February 25th, 2005 aged 88, Tony Norris had outlived contemporaries, such as, Horace Alexander, James Fisher, Max Nicholson, Peter Scott and other notable ornithologists of their day, with whom he helped shape modern-day British ornithology from the 1930's, through to the 1970's. Tony's early interest in birds quickly developed into a "cause celebre", which led to an enquiry into the status of the Corncrake, which at the age of twenty he undertook for the BTO, single-handed. Around that time he joined the RSPB while a little earlier he had become a member of The Birmingham Bird Club, which later under his guidance, would become The West Midland Bird Club, the UK's largest provincial bird club we know today.

Cuthbert Anthony Norris was born in 1917 at Cradley, Worcestershire, where his father was a vicar. His mother was the daughter of Reginald Hudson, who ran a family printing firm in Birmingham. Educated at Monkton Coombe, Bath, he went to The London School of Printing, joining the family business of Hudson & Son, in 1936. At the outbreak of war, Tony was called up to serve in the army. Commissioned in 1940, he married Cicily, the daughter of The Lord Hurcomb, the same year. Seconded to The Royal West African Frontier Force in 1942, he served in Sierre Leone and Nigeria. A major by 1943, he also served in India and Burma, where he was mentioned in despatches. At the end of hostilities Tony rejoined the family business, to become its Chairman. He also renewed his links with the Birmingham and West Midland Bird Club and was invited to join its committee. By 1947 he was its Secretary and Editor of the annual report. In 1945 membership was 90. By the end of 1947 it had more than trebled to over 300. The Club continued to grow in number and influence with regular programmes of both indoor and field meetings, instigated by Tony. In 1948 he introduced a monthly bulletin that was sent to all members and which would become the Club's "life blood", which it remains to this day. Tony's energy and enthusiasm knew no bounds and in those early days he was instrumental in the establishment of branches in Kidderminster, Studley, East Warwickshire and South Warwickshire, whilst extending the Club's sphere of influence to take in the whole of Staffordshire. Particularly interested in the movements and distribution of birds he arranged "bat fowling" sessions to catch and ring Starlings in south Warwickshire when he lived in Stratford-on-Avon during the late 1940's. In 1947 he established a Research Committee comprising some of the Club's most active birders of the day to look into and study the distribution of the more uncommon species found in the Club's area. This resulted in the construction of a Heligoland trap at Westminster Farm near Bartley reservoir and the publication in 1951 of a series of distribution maps in colour based on local authority areas, the forerunner of future bird distribution maps, which would be based on 10 km squares, resulting in "The Atlas of the Birds of the West Midlands" two decades later. A major club survey was counting roosting Starling in the centre of Birmingham during he early 1960's. Strange looking men peering up at the Grand Hotel's windows, in Colmore Row, with binoculars on dark wintery evenings, resulted in the attentions of the local police and needed explanation, which Tony easily provided with his usual aplomb!

Tony's wider ornithological interests were reflected by his election to the RSPB Council when he chaired its finance and general purposes committee in the early 1960's. During this period Tony was instrumental in the society's move from its cramped headquarters in Eccleston Square in London, to a more appropriate and roomy location at Sandy, Bedfordshire. During the negotiations it was necessary that a quick decision be made in order to clinch the deal. As the full RSPB Council could not be contacted over a weekend to ratify the move, Tony took it on himself to agree to the purchase. One of his favourite stories that he would recount years later, was how for just one day he owned the Lodge at Sandy! In 1964 Tony was awarded the RSPB Gold Medal for his work on behalf of the Society. Equally, Tony was also greatly involved with the work of the BTO and was its Secretary for a time. He was also an advocate in the Trust's move to its present headquarters, The Nunnery, in Theford. For his services to ornithology he was awarded the BTO's Bernard Tucker medal in 1959. In 1992 was presented with its Jubilee Medal.

Tony's great interest in bird migration extended beyond that of local bird movements in the West Midlands and which, in conjunction with The West Wales Field Society, led to the establishment of the Bardsey Bird and Field Observatory in 1952. Over 50 years on, the island still has a thriving much-visited observatory and to this day the Club still has strong links with it, providing three elected members to its administrative council every year. With its growing influence in the west midlands region, Tony advocated the club change its name to The West Midland Bird Club. This was agreed at the 1959 AGM, though there were a few members who were not overly happy at the loss of the Club's Birmingham origins reference in its title! Even so, the Club continued to thrive and prosper under Tony's Chairmanship for the next several years, during which time his father-in-law, The Lord Hurcomb accepted the Presidency. By this time attendance at indoor meetings was averaging 200.

In 1963, Tony announced his resignation as Chairman. His successor Phil Hinde inherited what was then surely Britain's most successful bird club, which by then had 1000 members, a fitting testimony indeed to the work and dedication of a man, who had spent half of his life in the study and protection of wild birds with such passion. However, Tony did have other interests and particularly a love of South African nerine lilies, spending many of his later years cultivating new species and establishing a most successful full time horticultural business at Brookend House, Welland. Before this he lived for twenty years at Queen Ann Stables, Clent, restoring the building and its gardens, the lawns being used for archery parties, reflecting another of his pastimes as a keen member of The Worcestershire Archery Society.

Tony was not totally lost to ornithology after his resignation in 1963 as he continued to take a great interest in the development and welfare of the West Midland Bird Club and its members, becoming its President in 1977, which post he held until 1999, the longest term of any previous President. Whilst at Welland, he was active in local politics and served on the Hereford and Worcester County Council from 1977 to 1985. He was also a founder member of The Worcester Trust for Nature Conservation and chaired the county branch of The Council for the Protection of Rural England. He was honorary secretary and editor of the Nerine Society from 1966 and a member of the Royal Horticultural Society committee from 1968.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is not a lot of published material to Tony's credit. I guess he just didn't have the time. However, his major contribution to ornithological works must be his "Notes on the Birds of Warwickshire", Cornish Brothers Ltd, 1947. A modest sized publication, its title page proclaiming "This book is produced in complete conformity with the authorised economy standards", indicating the austere times of post World War II that still existed at that time. Then, as a 14 year old birdwatching beginner, I avidly devoured each word of my copy (which Tony inscribed for me years later) being inspired to seek out the birds recorded within its 80 odd pages and in years to come add to the information included in it. When I joined the bird club in 1949 junior members had to be proposed by an existing senior member, but I was soon enjoying its advantages, even though it meant travelling by bus from Coventry, where I lived at the time, to attend meetings in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Some years later, I was elected to the Club's Committee and was privileged to see Tony in action at first hand. I recall one of my first meetings (if not the first?) held in the Hudson & Son offices, Edmund Street, when as Chairman Tony opened the proceedings, with, "Good evening gentlemen, let's get down to business. First item on the agenda, I will deal with that, second item, I've seen to that, third item, leave that with me" and so on, until, I am sure virtually every item listed had been dealt with, or would be attended to by him. Particularly, I also remember his closing comments. "Well gentlemen, it is now 6.28pm [the meeting started at 6pm], I think that's an all time record, let's go down the pub and talk birds". I think that sums up the measure of the man he was, in that he got things done, even if it meant, as it frequently did, he took it on himself to move things along!

I doubt the birding world will see another of his ilk. British ornithology in general and The West Midland Bird Club in particular owe much to his leadership qualities and many other talents. After the death of Cicily in 1976 he married Barbara Dean, who helped in his numerous interests during the later years, until her death in 1998. Tony is survived by two daughters from his first marriage, to whom all Officers and members of The West Midland Bird Club offer their sincerest condolences.

Alan Richards

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