Spurn Bird Observatory

JOHN CUDWORTH (1927-2016) : a tribute by David Proctor

24 January 2016

John Cudworth was born on July 5th 1927, the only child of Arnold and Ida Cudworth of 17A Prospect Road, Ossett, an address many ornithological correspondents would become familiar with. John was educated at Wakefield Grammar School, where his school report described him as ‘an excellent pupil, being very good not only in the English language, but also at French, Greek and Latin’.
Between 1945 and 1948 he served his time in the Armed Forces in the Royal Air Force, and was posted to Cairo, Egypt, as an administrator. From there he went on to attend Leeds School of Architecture from 1948 to 1951. Following the School of Architecture he gained a post with the West Riding County Council, where he became a fully qualified architect. After local government re-organisation John was employed by the Wakefield Metropolitan District Council, a post he held until taking early retirement.
Away from employment he had become strongly interested in birds. In 1948, at the age of 21, he became a member of the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union, and by 1951 was leader of the Wakefield Naturalists’ Society Ornithological Section. His interests, however, took him to the East Yorkshire coast, where he discovered Spurn Point. Bearing in mind that he did not, and never was, a car driver, he nevertheless made regular visits to Spurn (which when he first visited was owned by the War Department). He made friends with Henry Bunce and Bob Dickens, the three of them visiting Sweden and Iceland together. By then he had become a member of the British Ornithologists’ Union. John was one of only a few to see, in 1954, Britain’s first Stilt Sandpiper, on what we now know as Easington Lagoons. In 1954 he became a member of the YNU Birds Protection Committee, upon which he served until 1957. He also gained a ringing permit from the British Trust for Ornithology, continuing to hold it until 1999.
At county level he became VC63 recorder in 1960, a position he held until 1967. At Spurn he had become a member of the Observatory Committee. In 1960 the peninsula was sold by the War Department to what was then the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Trust (now the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust). Spurn now became a nature reserve! The Spurn Bird Observatory continued to lease Warren Cottage, something which Ralph Chislett had previously funded out of his own pocket. Chislett was by 1962 in poor health and felt unable to carry on as Chairman of the SBO, and John became Chairman, a position he held until 1999. The early 1960s was very much a time of change. Since 1959 finders of rare species had to submit rarities to the BBRC (British Birds Rarities Council). Interest in birding grew.
As well as his very frequent visits to Spurn, John travelled widely. He travelled to many parts of the African continent, including Ethiopia. There were no Arctic trips, but Siberia was another favourite. His last trip was to Texas and Arizona. Who knows what his world list was!
His correspondence was phenomenal. He kept every piece of post. He was in touch with all the big names of those eras. He was West Yorkshire’s co-ordinator of the WEBS wildfowl counts. He was a member of over 30 wildlife organisations, a BTO member from 1955. He never married, never owned a car or a television or a fridge (until I pushed him to buy the latter in his later years). He had no time for anything but birds (other than the Times crossword!).
When he was working, travel to Spurn on Friday evenings involved bus home from work in Wakefield, bus to Leeds, train from Leeds to Hull, bus to Easington (stop for fish and chips) and taxi to Spurn, arriving at Spurn at 21.00 hours! Later in his Chairmanship I think he became very tired. He found himself in a changing world. There were so many visitors to Spurn and he was not happy in crowds. His visits to Spurn tended to be in mid-week, no weekending any more.
For a man who did not like changes he oversaw many. His contribution to Spurn was immense. His passion for the area was total. His final illness was debilitating and brought his time at Spurn to an end. For Spurn it was the end of an era too. He died in a nursing home on January 18th 2016. John asked that his ashes should be sprinkled at the Narrows at Spurn on a day with a south-westerly wind.

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