John Fursdon 1920-2011 – A Skokholm Warden

Perhaps not surprisingly few in the Wildlife Trust will have heard of John Fursdon who died on 18 June, yet he was someone who was a pioneering stalwart in Pembrokeshire over sixty years ago and deserves to be remembered. Born in Bristol where his father worked as a manager for Fry’s Chocolate, John a sensitive boy was sent off, somewhat unhappily, to boarding school, including Westminster School where he excelled at athletics; winning several cups for victories in the 100 yards.

Aged sixteen John’s world was turned upside down when his father died and the family, he had a brother, later Major General Edward Fursdon now deceased and a sister Jenefer who survives him, came to live at Fursdon, in Cadbury, Devon, the family home since 1259. Here his mother ran the house for his somewhat eccentric grandfather, though it was a spartan existence as they had no money. There was no electricity and no heating in the house except for coal fires in the grate. In 1941 his grandfather died leaving him with the responsibility of Fursdon at the tender age of 21. Thereafter the challenge of trying to keep the Estate going took over more and more of his life.

John first visited Skokholm Bird Observatory in 1938 to stay with the Lockley family and was immediately captivated returning in each of the following two summers, indeed he was present to help when the Lockley’s left the island in August 1940. The rapid reawakening of interest after the war in what we now call nature conservation saw John appointed warden of Skokholm in 1946 by the West Wales Field Society, later the Wildlife Trust. In this same year the Society managed nearby Skomer as a Field Centre. The hand written messages which passed between the islands and Pat Higginson, stores officer based in what is now Lockley Lodge, make fascinating reading.

The Field Society then owned Dale Fort, and John was warden in 1947 prior to John Barrett taking up the post, and then for the rest of the season as Skokholm stores officer. In 1948 and 1949 he served as Nature Warden in Pembrokeshire, a task which combined bird protection and educational activities. Until the end of his life he retained a close interest in all that took place on the Pembrokeshire islands and made a number of return visits, while his memoirs, photographs and films provide an almost unique record of those early days. Readers of R M Lockley books will recognise the title Travels with a Tent; the young man John whose idea it was, who drove Lockley on this journey round western Europe in 1952, was indeed John Fursdon.

John was good looking and often seen in the company of attractive girls but he didn’t marry until 1968, then to Christine, formerly the wife of Henry Williamson. The next 20 years were some of his happiest as they moved back into the house at Fursdon. It was Christine’s illness which subsequently turned out to be a brain tumour that led to them leaving so he invited his nephew David and wife Catriona to give up their jobs in London and to run the Estate.

Christine died in 1990 and John moved to Crediton where he kept himself busy with writing, reading and pretending not to watch the television! He had always enjoyed writing to the papers on a whole range of topics particularly enjoying word play or quirky co-incidences. This he continued to do as well as sending cuttings from the newspaper to anyone he thought might be interested. His handwriting was easily recognised because it went round and round the paper or postcard, or the outside of the envelope as it got smaller and smaller and as he had more and more to say. He enjoyed reminiscing, as you are entitled to do when you reach 90!

John was an interesting man, intelligent, thoughtful yet eccentric, with clearly defined interests. He managed to fulfil what he saw as his destiny, which was to keep Fursdon going. His interest in natural history also ensured that it remains a haven for wildlife. For us in Wales his passing removes a real character and the last link with the pioneering days in Pembrokeshire, and especially Skokholm over sixty years ago, of what is now our Wildlife Trust.

Acknowledgement. I am most grateful to David Fursdon for his assistance with this Obituary.
David Saunders