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Rare Norfolk Broads photos rediscovered

A photo of Emma Turner.

A photo of Emma Turner.

The Reverend M C H Bird Archive

It was a sepia-toned age of wildlife, wherries and windmills - captured through the lens of a committed and colourful photographic pioneer.

But during the intervening century, many of the evocative Broadland images snapped by Edwardian naturalist Emma Turner have been lost.

Now, in the centenary year of her greatest discovery, a collection of previously unpublished photos has come to light among the diaries of the equally-esteemed naturalist with whom she shared her work.

New links have been established between Miss Turner and the Rev MCH Bird, the rector of Brunstead, who was one of the most meticulous recorders of Norfolk’s bird life and habitats in the early 1900s.

Miss Turner spent many of her summers living on a houseboat on Hickling Broad where she, along with the Rev Bird and local gamekeeper Jim Vincent, discovered nesting bitterns had returned to Britain in 1911.

This year’s 100th anniversary of that rediscovery prompted wildlife writer James Parry to research the photographer’s life – leading him to the Rev Bird’s great granddaughter, Alison Horne.

He found that Mrs Horne’s family had hoarded diaries, photographs and letters at their home in Essex, spanning 40 years of the rector’s work and highlighting his close friendship with Miss Turner.

Mr Parry, who lives at Oxborough, near Swaffham, said the collection served as a priceless record of bygone Broadland wildlife, catalogued by two early trailblazers of the conservation movement.

“It is a revelation,” he said. “We thought Emma led a lonely life, but that’s obviously not so. The fact they were talking to each other underlines her importance as undoubtedly the most eminent female photographer of her day, and flags up the eminence of the Rev Bird as well.

“There are very few records as complete as this, and the reverend’s diaries and the photographs fill in the gaps about what we know of Emma Turner. It makes it clear that Norfolk’s naturalists were the leaders in their game.”

Miss Turner would have seemed eccentric to many in her day, when photography was an emerging art – particularly for women.

“She used to do extraordinary things, like covering herself in rotting vegetation at four o’clock in the morning with just her lens poking out,” said Mr Parry. “She spent a lot of time living on her own and that is probably why there was such a lovely exchange of letters.”

Mr Parry said most of Miss Turner’s original photographs were bequeathed to the British Trust for Ornithology in London after she died, but were lost amid the chaos of the Blitz in 1940.

Among the unpublished photos are an image of the Rev Bird on Hickling Broad with the old mill in the background, and one showing the photographer’s houseboat, The Water Rail, being delivered in 1905.

Another image shows Miss Turner sitting with the “much admired” Irish setter mentioned in one of 
her letters to Rev Bird, in which 
she thanks him for finding the 
dog for her.

Although Miss Turner’s letters are penned with the customary formality of the day, the warmth of her friendship with the Rev Bird is evident in her constant requests for his opinions and updates on his family news.

Mrs Horne, who lives in Little Sampford, near Saffron Walden, said: “I first remember learning about MCH Bird when I had to do a primary school project to find out about our family. I remember my grandfather took me into his study and showed me all these diaries.

“When he died, he was likened to the Gilbert White of Broadland. We’ve got 40 years of diaries here and I feel glad that it’s coming to people’s attention. It is a wealth of information for the whole of Norfolk.”

chris.hill@archant.co.uk

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