Oliver Pike: a Brief Memoir

by Prof. Jonathan Dollimore

I was around the age of four when my family moved into the house where my grandfather, Oliver Pike, had lived for many years. It was near the village of Billington, and about a mile from the town of Leighton Buzzard. A one-storey house built of wood, it was set in grounds deliberately left quite wild to encourage wildlife. Added to that, the place opened out onto surrounding countryside. Nearby were some wonderful small lakes, and the workings which supplied the legendary sand of that area. Across these places we wandered and trespassed when they were deserted, sometimes risking life and limb in the process. (Sorry Mum!) It was an ideal place to grow up. It was also where Oliver Pike had produced some of his noted wildlife photographs and films.

Born in Enfield in 1877, he became, along with Richard and Cherry Kearton and R.B. Lodge, a pioneer wildlife photographer of the 1890s. He obtained his first camera at the age of 13, and his first book, In Birdland with Field Glass and Camera was published in 1900. It went quickly into six editions. Twenty four more books followed. He is also remembered for his design of a lightweight camera, which was eventually marketed by others and called the "Birdland" and used worldwide.

Around 1906 Oliver Pike became deeply involved with the cine-camera and was to go on and produce over 50 wildlife films. During the second quarter of the last century he also travelled extensively throughout the British isles, both to make his films, and to show the and give lectures on all aspects of the countryside. His most remarkable trips were to St Kilda in 1908 and also in 1910 (along with Paton and Dr Hutchinson) and also Bass Rock, Ailsa Craig and the Outer Hebrides.

Oliver Pike
            with Badgers

In the late 1940s he suffered a stroke and was unable to continue his work. It was shortly after that that we went to live in his old house. He and my grandmother continued to live with us, in a small bungalow newly built in the grounds. He would sit outside for long parts of the day and we children - there were four of us, all boys - would talk with him about many things, but especially the countryside and his work. He had fond memories of many of the films he had made. One of them had been shown at the Palace Theatre, London on a daily basis for a full month in September 1907. He was proud of having filmed, in 1922, a cuckoo laying its egg in the nest of a Meadow Pipit. I recall especially the stories he told us about the badgers he had tamed in that very garden, and of the amazing tricks these intelligent creatures got up to in the house when he and his wife were away. I suspect that she was less enthusiastic that these creatures were allowed the run of the house: one of their tricks was to roll up carpets into tunnels. They were not kept in captivity and eventually met the fate of many tamed wild-life still allowed to run wild; too trusting of other human beings, they were shot by a "neighbour".

In 1907 he was awarded the Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society, and in 1948 was made Honorary Fellow.

Oliver Pike died in 1963, and my family finally left that house in 1975. Some years later, travelling in the area with a friend, we made a detour to see the place again. We arrived to see it being bulldozed to the ground. Shortly after that the area was flattened and concreted over to become a huge parking lot for inter-continental lorries. Of my grandfather's and my family's life there, nothing recognizable remains except the odd tree we climbed. Since then I have dreamt about it time and time again. Ordinary rather than disturbed dreams, they are, none the less, a kind of mourning for a past irretrievably gone.

But some 15 miles away, at the wildlife reservoirs near the villages of Marston and Wilstone in Buckinghamshire, it is a very different story. It was in the memorable stillness and ordinary beauty of these places that Oliver Pike, almost a century ago, found inspiration for his work. It was there too that he met Anne Primrose Chapman. Living nearby, she had already been warned by her parents to be wary of this "fast young man" who came from London with motor car and camera. They were married in 1914 and she became his most enthusiastic co-worker. She survived him by over twenty years, dying in 1986.

And it was to these reservoirs, summer after summer, that my family used to go as I grew up. We boys learned to swim in the one at Wilstone, and fish in the other at Marston. When I last visited them a few years ago, both places, thanks to their protected status, were almost exactly the same as they were in my childhood and as my grandfather knew them. Thinking now of his last visit there I recall Thomas Hardy's poem "At Castle Boterel". The poet returns for the last time to a place holding memories of early love. He recalls a walk with a girl and, as he drives away from the place, in the rain, he looks back one last time "at the fading byway":

And to me, though Time's unflinching rigour,
In mindless rote, has ruled from sight
The substance now, one phantom figure
Remains on the slope, as when that night
Saw us alight.

I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
I look back at it amid the rain
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking
And I shall traverse old love's domain
Never again.

Thomas Hardy: March 1913

Jonathan Dollimore
March 2001

This piece was originally written for the preface of the 2001 reprint of The Birds of Ayrshire by E. Richmond Paton and Oliver G. Pike [ISBN 1897604025].  The reprint was published by Castlepoint Press and the paperback is available from some Internet sellers.