”These words were at the end of our last face-to-face conversation on June 9th, 2009, on the occasion of the naming of the hide overlooking the top end of Pengy’s Pond at Pennington Flash in Tom’s honour. Family members and a small group of Leigh Ornithological Society devotees had gathered to share in a moving, long-overdue and deserving act of recognition of the pioneering work of Tom Edmondson who sadly passed away on February 27th (2016) at the age of 93.
Two days after the naming ceremony, the late Lesley Richards wrote a very fine account of the day under the headline ”Hide at Flash named after Conservationist” in the Leigh Journal, and three short extracts from her article deserve to be repeated at this time. They are:-
By Lesley herself –
“Leigh’s ‘father of conservation’, 86-years-old Tom Edmondson, has been honoured. The former New Hide at Pennington Flash has been renamed Tom Edmondson hide and was unveiled by the pioneer himself on Tuesday.”
My contribution was –
“It’s no overstatement to say that Tom’s pioneering spirit makes him the father of conservation, not just in Leigh, but for the borough as it is now. His contribution to alerting people to the importance of the Flash as a wildlife haven was massive.”
And Tom’s own comment, in connection with the aspirational, but short-lived Leigh Field Naturalists and Town Improvement Society (1948-1950), read –
“The scheme was visionary and ahead of its time, and a decade or so would elapse before the movement to establish county conservation trusts became widespread. However, the rich bird life of the Flash had been established and the emergence of a group of like-minded individuals eventually resulted in the formation of the Leigh Ornithological Society. One of the Society’s many aims was to promote wildlife conservation in the Leigh area.”
Tom’s parents, Martha (nee Derbyshire) and James, were born in Wigan, and Tom was the fourth of five sons. He was educated at St. Peter’s School (in Firs Lane) and Leigh Boys’ Grammar School; studied later at Manchester Technical College; qualified as a Chartered Chemist and was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry; and thereafter worked as a research chemist to various companies. His marriage to Sheila Cartwright of Bedford was blessed with a daughter, Linda, and a son, Stephen. In his own words, Tom’s non-professional interests were ‘The British countryside and its flora and fauna. Particular interests in Chat Moss, the birds of the South Lancashire flashes and in the conservation of prime sites.’
With regard to the beginnings of the local conservation movement, my brief account of over thirty years ago in ‘Birds and Birdwatching at Pennington Flash’ still holds true:-
“The earliest landmark in a history of continuous concern by local naturalists was on 29th September, 1938, when Tom Edmondson (while still a student at Leigh Grammar School) persuaded three other young men – Wilf Cartledge, Tom Durkin and Frank Horrocks – to consider the formation of a local association (to be named the Firs Lea Naturalists’ Association), two of its objectives being “to study and record the natural history of the Leigh district” and “to promote the preservation of the local countryside.”
Uppermost in the minds of these pioneer conservationists was concern about the future of Pennington Flash. The 1939-45 War brought about an end to the ‘association’, but did not dampen the enthusiasm of Tom Edmondson, who motivated interest in the flash and other local sites in his capacity as secretary of the short-lived Leigh Field Naturalists’ and Town Improvement Society (1948).
There was a brief resurgence of local interest in the 1950s, no doubt brought about by concern at the commencement of tipping of refuse by Leigh Corporation and coal waste by the National Coal Board. A public meeting held in Leigh Technical College in March, 1958, and chaired by Dr. Brian Fox of Atherton, heard a strong case for the conservation of the Leigh Flash area, the main aim being “To create an area of undisturbed natural beauty and to provide a centre for naturalists and students of various sciences.”
By this time, Tom had left Leigh for good, but an article of his which appeared in the Journal in September, 1956, in response to a proposal to introduce hydroplane racing on the flash, concluded with a paragraph which was both visionary and a template for those who have continued the conservation struggle until the present day. Under the subtitle “Much Abused Region”, it reads –
“Local citizens would appreciate it if local councils were to show awareness of fundamental problems by publishing, for all to see, a full development plan for the district. In such a plan, if civilised ideals are to survive, it is necessary that ‘green belts’ should be clearly defined so that the abuses which have continued since the war and which threaten to increase may be checked. Among other things the future of Leigh Flash should be assured, and it should be confirmed as a nature reserve where sailors, anglers, naturalists and countrylovers exist peacefully. When that occurs we may have hope for a much abused region which has long been one of the Cinderellas of an industrial country.”
In a short note about the time he lived in Cheshire since 1957, Tom mentioned that his main activity was now botany, and included intensive studies of plant distribution in the parishes of Frodsham and Helsby and then, following the family move to Chester, of Flintshire and the eastern part of Denbighshire. In the Botanical Society of the British Isles publication ‘Dandelions of Great Britain and Ireland’ (1997), his contribution was recognised in the Acknowledgements with the statement –
“Foremost among the workers in the British Isles has been Tom Edmondson, who, despite ill-health, has made an important and original contribution to the study of the dandelions of North-West England.”
This praise would have been accorded Tom on account of his commitment to botanical studies in general and to his identification of two new species of dandelion – Taraxacum nigridentatum (Edmondson) and Taraxacum edmondsonianum.
In recent years, Tom took a keen interest in identifying the moths which came to his garden trap and, throughout his half century of birdwatching in Cheshire, he maintained a great fondness for Frodsham Marsh, a dedication recognised in an entry in the Frodsham Marsh Birdblog of December, 2013. Under the title ‘Old Tom the Birder’, Bill Morton wrote –
“Many years ago there was an old chap who used to visit Frodsham Marsh and would regale tales of his early birding visits to the marsh and many other sites (mainly Pennington Flash) in the North-West. Tom was a proper old school birdwatcher and he would raise an eyebrow if I ever called him a ‘birder’. One thing Tom had was time to spare and share his love of birds and birdwatching. I’m a sucker for such things, especially those pioneers of Cheshire birding in the years following the end of WWII. Tom was a generous old man and would kindly give me copies of photographs and documentation from the marsh during his pioneering days here.”
Throughout his lifelong interest in natural history, Tom Edmondson was a prolific writer whose style and vocabulary suited any occasion, be it notes on bird recording, letters to newspapers, descriptions of treasured sites, tales of memorable past events, or whatever was required to please the reader. His output, chiefly between 1942 and the 1990s, included contributions to the North Western Naturalist (14), the Field Naturalist (3), Country-Side (16) and the Leigh, Atherton and Tyldesley Journal (42). With such a vast collection of interesting material, I propose to use a few of the most memorable extracts to allow Tom, in a way, to use his own words to conclude my article of profound appreciation and admiration.
On submitting records to the County Bird Recorder, when often only numbers and dates suffice, an account of two races of Redshanks at Astley Flash in 1958 reads –
“8 believed “Icelandic” (‘robusta’) sleeping together with several active ‘britannica’ a few yards away for comparison. Seen in bright sunlight at thirty yards with steady 30x telescope. White nictitating membrane closed. Appeared a little bigger and bulkier than ‘britannica’, but this may have been because they were hunched up in sleep. Plumage, under conditions of observation, perceptibly different – upper parts much darker brown, bill dark red at the base, remainder greyer than ‘britannica’ with smoky grey flanks and breast much more heavily streaked and darkly marked. Only flew when disturbed. April 20th.”
Part of the chronological account in ‘The Spring Migration of Wagtails and Hirundines in South-East Lancashire” illustrating committed recording and a huge change in the local status of wagtails in the past half century –
“1951. April 8th: gale force W. wind. 1 White Wagtail with 10 Pied Wagtails on Chat Moss. At Leigh, 1 Yellow Wagtail and 1 Chiffchaff. Also 4 Wheatears at Leigh and 23 on several mossland fields. These migrants may have been “grounded” by the wind strength or may have been deflected from a preferred coastal route April 9th – 14th: cold, bright cyclonic weather, gale force on the 14th. April 15th: strong southerly wind. At Leigh, 1 Yellow Wagtail, 3 Sand Martins and 2 Swallows. April 16th: W. gale. 2 Yellow and 2 White Wagtails, several Swallows moving north across the strong wind. April 17th – 25th: fine, warm and dry, anticyclonic with light variable winds. During this period, Swallows and Sand Martins were moving north continually in small numbers or small flocks; a mixed party of 80 halted at Astley on the 20th. 2 Swifts appeared at Leigh on the 22nd – the earliest record for the district.
Although the weather was obviously suitable for migration, both kinds of wagtails were constantly at both flashes. Feeding conditions at Astley were exceptionally good and there were two peaks in numbers there on April 20th (45 Yellows, 12 Whites) and April 24th (124 and 34). On both these days there were halting flocks of hirundines. On the rich feeding grounds at Astley some 20 Pied Wagtails fed regularly during this period. These were nesting in the district and when approached too closely they flew away in various directions. Migrant parties of Meadow Pipits were similarly attracted.
April 26th – 29th: strong, cold northerly winds with rain. Wagtail migration was retarded and their high numbers remained constant; on the 27th, many were sheltering from the wind behind tussocks of reeds. There were “build-ups” of Swallows and Sand Martins. As is usual under such conditions, they were fly-catching and flying upwind very low over the flashes. May 1st – 3rd: light SE winds, mild.. Rapid decrease in wagtail population at both Leigh and Astley. No obviously migrating Yellow Wagtails were seen after May 3rd: there were about 25 breeding pairs at Leigh and 15 at Astley.”
On a late summer walk with members of the fledgling Leigh Field Naturalists across part of Chat Moss in 1948 –
“Even more people went on the early September meeting, probably because the mosslands were unknown and intriguing. About thirty folk walked from Astley to Glazebury across the moss, seeing such new birds, at least to some of them, as Turtle Doves, Whinchats, Wheatears and Corn Buntings. Attendances remained high during the society’s first year and the future seemed secure.”
In praise of a site at Gathurst and a local poet (Leigh Journal, 3rd September, 1948) – “Dean Wood not only has a rich plant and bird life, but, because of its situation in the valley, has an intrinsic beauty of its own. It has captivated many country lovers, but perhaps none more so than Arthur Hodson, who dwelled there for several years and described his experiences in 1,300 lines of verse.”
The opening lines of his first poem, “My cherished woodland memories”, are a fitting introduction –
“It may have been a glacial torrent
That carved, through rock, a bleak ravine
And Nature’s healing hand had fashioned
An Eden from the cheerless scene.’
Truly an Eden, a hidden gem of beauty near a wilderness of industry.”
A short extract from a Leigh Journal article on 14th November, 1947 –
“Every year, in nature’s inexorable way, vast numbers of Redwings from Northern Europe and North Asia seek the milder climes of the British Isles and the North Mediterranean countries. This year, I heard that welcome sound, so full of mystery, over Leigh on October 17th, which is also the average date for eight years. The following evening there occurred one of the greatest migratory movements that I have ever known. Above the glare of the brilliant lights, great multitudes were flying south-west and, during lulls in the traffic’s roar, their calls were distinct but ignored by the crowds below. In the quieter reaches of the town they could be heard continually.”
Movingly bemoaning the destruction of a much-loved place, from “Astley Flash: A Lost Bird Haunt” in the magazine Country-Side (1970) –
“For many years Astley Flash gave considerable pleasure to birdwatchers. Unfortunately, coal production was increased after re-organisation of the industry and the spoil was tipped into the flash at an increasing rate. I re-visited the site after a few years’ absence and found little left. I walked over the vast new tip where the flash lay buried and tried to visualise the teeming life of previous years. All was silence and death as if a primeval monster, regretting its act of grace, had devoured its own fair child. Even avoiding all sentiment, I felt that I was witness to a crime which ought not to happen in a proper society.”
In the closing lines of two of the last letters he wrote to me, reminiscing about two sites which are still being developed as wildlife havens. Of the Bickershaw complex – “ … a haven for a young lad who was fascinated by the countryside – as he is still”: and of the mosslands – “I must make an effort to look over Chat Moss again. A good day on Bedford Moss or Woolden Moss was as joyous as anything that I have enjoyed in the wilds of Scotland.”
And, finally and fittingly, the closing lines of Tom’s loving account of his spiritual home from his last article for the Leigh Journal in 1954 – “Leigh Flash in the Spring” –
“In future years, when flicking through the pages of memory’s notebook, I shall always remember the spring of 1954 and the sight of thirty-odd exquisite Black Terns floating and swinging in the air against a background of colliery headgears and mill chimneys. Perhaps, however, I shall recall those things which belong more permanently to Leigh Flash – an elegant White Wagtail hurrying along Sorrowcow Creek and Swallows arrowing to and from their nest in the barn, elusive Sedge Warblers scolding the intruder from the depths of the reeds, or clamouring Redshanks on the west shore, unheedful of miners cycling homeward along the cinder path. The last birds I saw at the Flash before returning to the Metropolis were three young Lapwings – little, animated blobs of down, cheeping and tottering on tiny legs. That is what I preferred, since it is the birds which make the place their home which belong there most.”
In concluding my words of appreciation for a dear friend, I need to mention that Tom’s superb photographic collection, along with copies of his writings, will now be lovingly catalogued and made available to a wider audience when/if the proposed Leigh Archive opens in the Town Hall. As our “Father of Conservation”, his contributions towards the town and its surroundings will occupy its rightful place alongside those other daughters and sons deserving of recognition – good, ordinary folk in company with the more well-known – Alfred Wilkinson VC; James Hilton, the author of “Goodbye Mr. Chips”; the world of music’s Tom Burke (the Lancashire Caruso), Georgie Fame and the recently-departed old boy of Leigh Grammar School, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Music; and countless others from many fields, not least in sport during peace-time and in other activities during war-time.
As for the future, Tom would surely wish that more people would become personally involved in the struggle to protect and conserve our countryside and its wildlife, especially at this time of great uncertainty and when important decisions are made by those who care little or nothing about our natural environment. Total reliance on one or two committed diehards in the L.O.S. and those of professional conservation bodies is certainly not an option. Perhaps our greatest collective tribute to Tom would be for many of us to follow his example of skilful observation and recording; determining the degree of dependence by individual species on specific habitats; emphasising the importance of retaining and enhancing certain sites; and using the acquired information to challenge, verbally or in writing, the cavalier attitudes and decision-making which might destroy even the smallest parts of our cherished wildlife surroundings. There is no doubt that there will be a few successes, but more likely many disappointments as the pressures mount on finding ways and places to accommodate an ever-increasing population.
The pleasure in what might be achieved through individual involvement in local conservation will often involve a degree of wistful looking back to earlier times, and this was captured by Tom in a short article from 2006, where he welcomed the creation of the Pennington Flash Country Park, but with a moving reference to earlier days :-
“The flash became a new Country Park in 1981 but before that the splendid east reed bed and the equally fine south-side marshland east of Sorrowcow Creek had been tipped on.
The main water is still there but no longer can you stand on the eastern shores, far from habitations and people, in an autumn dusk and listen to garrulous wild ducks from afar as they cross the moon and pitch gratefully into the welcome reed beds.”
‘The Conservation of Pennington Flash: Early Considerations’
Tom Edmondson C.Chem. F.R.S.C.
Written by David Wilson
Member of Wigan MBC’s Greenheart Forum & Bickershaw Steering Group.
Pennington Flash User Group and Pennington Flash Volunteers
With many thanks to David Wilson and David Shellcross for their permission to include this article in the Frodsham Marsh Birdblog. WSM.