Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Gwynne Vevers: Connecting Ailsa Craig, two Ayrshire families, the Bismarck, Ultra secrets, marine biology and London Zoo

Gwynne Vevers in 1981
When I mentioned to Gwynne Vevers at a Zoological Club dinner in 1978 that I was moving to Ayrshire he became very excited. ‘My granny was from Girvan’, he said, ’And I did the first wildlife survey of Ailsa Craig—surprisingly, there are slow-worms there’.

There was much more—very much more—to Gwynne Vevers than met the eye. An urbane, amiable and clubbable man he was from 1955 Curator of the Aquarium at London Zoo. He combined this job with being responsible for scientific meetings and publications at the Zoological Society of London. Although we all knew of his role, for which he was awarded a military MBE, in finding the German pocket battleship Bismarck during its breakout to reach the Atlantic, his more general and sustained activity in British intelligence only really became more common knowledge with the publication in 2004 of a short biography by Adrian Desmond in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

When scanning a batch of Animal and Zoo Magazines, I was surprised and delighted to find a two-page map in the July 1938 issue describing the survey Gwynne had talked about. The text box on the map reads:

Bird Island
Animal map of Ailsa Craig compiled by H.G. Vevers and James Fisher and drawn by Ronald Lampitt
     Ailsa Craig is a great lump of granite that sticks up in the middle of the Firth of Clyde for more than 1,100 feet. It is only just over twice as broad as high, and is less than 2½ miles round.
     Every spring for the past three years we have visited the island to study its animals. This map is the result of our investigation in early April 1938. Our main task was to count the gannets, and we found that there were 5,387 breeding pairs. Ailsa Craig is one of the largest gannet colonies of the twenty or so in the world.
     As it is possible to walk round the whole of the coast at low tide and to climb the upper slopes, we mapped out many other inhabitants of the rock, though we could not make accurate counts of all.—H.G.V. and J.F.
The centre-page spread in Animal and Zoo Magazine, July 1938

Not only was his grandmother from Girvan, the nearest town on the mainland to Ailsa Craig, but Gwynne was born in Girvan in November 1917. He was, in fact, connected to Ayrshire families on both his mother’s and his father’s sides. His father, Geoffrey Marr Vevers (1890-1970) was the son of Henry Vevers (1822-1901) and Ada Mary Keay (1867-1913). Ada Mary Keay was the daughter of Robert Keay (1839-1904) and Amelia Kerr Milne Marr (1844-1922). Amelia was the brother of Charles Kerr Marr (1855-1919) who bequeathed his fortune made in the coal export business to further the education of the townspeople of Troon. Marr College, now a secondary comprehensive school, in Troon was  one outcome. The other was the C.K. Marr Educational Trust which still provides bursaries and grants for tertiary education and beyond to students resident in Troon nearly 100 years after his death.

But who was the ‘Granny from Girvan’? His father’s first marriage was to Catherine Rigby Andrews of Girvan. I am confused as to the time and place of this marriage. In the Scottish registers it is recorded as 23 November 1915 at St John’s Episcopal Church, Girvan. However, the marriage is also shown in the English registers, this time in Paddington, London, in the fourth quarter of 1914; a civil followed by a religious ceremony perhaps? Catherine Rigby Andrews (1889-1971) was born at Union Bank House, Girvan, the daughter of David Andrews, solicitor and bank agent, who had died shortly before the marriage in Scotland, aged 77. Catherine’s brother, Walter, a Captain in the Indian Army, also died in 1915 in Mesopotamia. Her mother, and Gwynne Vevers’s grandmother, was Catherine Rigby Wason; she died, aged 78, at 10.57 pm on 30 January 1932 at 2 Golf Course, Girvan. There is an additional note that her usual residence was Glenalty, or Glen Alty, a house in Barrhill, a village inland from Girvan, the home of the Andrews family since at least 1901.

Glen Alty, near Girvan

When he started the surveys on Ailsa Craig he was an undergraduate at Oxford; he graduated in 1938, the year of the final survey. However, during this period he also started working for British intelligence. He led undergraduate expeditions to the Faeroes in 1937 and Iceland in 1939. During both he reported to Admiralty intelligence on the German ships which were surveying deep-water channels. As a research student between 1938 and 1940 he began his research at Oxford on the control of coloration and growth of the feathers in Lady Amherst’s Pheasant. Interrupted by the war, he completed the analysis at Plymouth and was awarded the Oxford D.Phil in 1949.

He was, like a number of his Oxford contemporaries, both a field naturalist and a lab worker.

He was commissioned as a probationary Pilot Officer in the Administrative and Special Duties Branch of the Royal Air Force in January 1941. He must have got to work quickly because he organised aerial reconnaissance of the ice floes in the Denmark Strait to plot the deep-water channels. When Bismarck broke out to the Atlantic to attack convoys in May, Gwynne predicted the route she would take. The destruction of H.M.S. Hood in the Denmark Strait, the frantic pursuit as Bismarck made for Brest, her crippling by the Fleet Air Arm and eventual sinking by the big guns of the Royal Navy are embedded in naval history.

The only clue I had of his later work in the war came from his telling me that while in Germany he was not allowed to fly. He knew too much to risk being shot down over enemy-occupied territory. Only with Adrian Desmond’s biography did the reason become clearer: Gwynne was an ‘Ultra’ insider. He, with his boss, another zoologist, Wing Commander Frederick Stratton Russell FRS, handled the air intelligence from Bletchley Park. They assessed the significance of the decrypted messages and distributed the findings to the R.A.F. The obituaries of Gwynne by Solly Zuckerman, nor the Royal Society’s biographical memoir of Russell contain any clue as to their roles in ‘Ultra’.

His gift for languages including all those of Scandinavia, German and Russian (put to great use in the publishing world in later years) must have opened up roles for him in intelligence within Germany as the allies advanced. Desmond notes that near the end of the war he was hunting down Bernhard Rust Reichsminister for Science, Education and National Culture, who committed suicide a few hours before Vevers caught up with him. My guess is that he was more secret service (MI6) than R.A.F. There were rumours on his continuing role in intelligence and Desmond notes…’Vevers's covert intelligence gathering, which was to last for several decades. His roving life as a zoologist proved perfect cover; even as late as 1970 he was being debriefed after a zoological trip to Rangoon’.

At the end of the war, Russell (later Sir Frederick) was appointed Director of the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth. He took Gwynne Vevers with him to Plymouth as Bursar. This job seems to have been a mixed scientific/admin post, the latter mainly entailing the care of visiting scientists. In addition to completing his D.Phil thesis on material obtained before the war, he started research in marine biology, particularly on animal pigmentation. He also devised an underwater camera that was used to investigate marine life and the sea floor as well as to search for lost submarines by the U.S. Navy.

In 1955 he was recruited by Leo Harrison Matthews FRS, then scientific director as well as responsible for running both London and Whipsnade zoos, recruited Gwynne to run the aquarium at London and to run the scientific activities of the Zoological Society including its publications. This he did until retirement in 1981. He also kept a close eye on standards in the sadly defunct Fellows’ Restaurant. He tried to keep it in line with the top London restaurants and it was one of the places  in London to meet for lunch. He entertained those of us who were organising symposia for the Society there, and I remember ‘Gip’ (G.P. Wells FRS, son of H.G. on one adjacent table) and David Attenborough being entertained after presenting a Bell Bird, on another.

It was at Plymouth that he began to publish his own popular books beginning with The British Seashore. To these he added translations into English from eight languages on a variety of natural history subjects. In all, around one hundred books appeared for twenty-four publishers. Zuckerman wrote: ‘I never did fathom how Gwynne was able to discharge his duties to the Zoo, and also carry on writing and preparing radio and TV programmes’.

He kept his interest in animal coloration and published The Nature of Animal Colours with his friend Harold Munro Fox (London: Sidgwick & Jackson) in 1960.

A stalwart of the Savile Club he also served the Linnean Society as Zoological Secretary and as Vice-President.

I found it hard to imagine Gwynne, the amiable and urbane inhabitant of Regent’s Park and the Savile, as a field naturalist on Ailsa Craig or the Faeroes in the 1930s, let alone in the 1960s. But there he was, a member of Royal Society expeditions to the Cook and Solomon islands in 1965 and 1969.

Gwynne compartmentalised his life, perhaps an attribute of the perfect spy. Few knew of his succession of four wives (James Fisher, his fellow surveyor of Ailsa Craig, was best man at his first, in 1942) or, as Desmond put it, of ‘other, less formal liaisons’.

His laid back style could be deceptive. At first acquaintance (1968 in my case), he could seem semi-detached from the happenings around him but I soon fond that he missed nothing. His knowledge of the ins and outs of often vicious zoo politics stretched back to the times when his father was superintendent and he had the run of the place as a boy. By the time he retired in 1981 he knew where all the bodies were buried.

Gwynne Vevers died at his home in Bampton, Oxfordshire on 24 July 1988.

So, how did the survey of Ailsa Craig come to appear in Animal and Zoo Magazine in 1938? At that time James Fisher, Vevers’s friend and collaborator on Ailsa Craig, was Assistant Curator at the Zoo, put there by the Secretary, Julian Huxley, as part of his ill-fated attempt to reform the Zoological Society. As part of his job, Fisher was contributing articles, and the work on Ailsa Craig was a natural subject for the magazine.

Ailsa Craig from Culzean, 14 miles (22 km) away

These are Gwynne Vevers’s papers on Ailsa Craig:

Vevers HG. 1936. The land vegetation of Ailsa Craig. Journal of Ecology, 24, 424-445.
Vevers HG, Fisher J. 1936. A census of gannets on Ailsa Craig, with a new method of estimating breeding-cliff populations. Journal of Animal Ecology 5, 246-251.
Vevers HG, Fisher J., Hartley CH, Best AT. 1937. The 1937 Census of gannets on Ailsa Craig; with notes on their diurnal activity. Journal of Animal Ecology 6, 362-365.
Vevers HG, Fisher J. 1938. The 1938 census of gannets (Sula bassana) on Ailsa Craig. Journal of Animal Ecology 7, 303-304.
Fisher J, Vevers HG. 1943. The breeding distribution, history and population of the North Atlantic Gannet. Journal of Animal Ecology 12, 175-213.
Fisher J, Vevers HG. 1944. The breeding distribution, history and population of the North Atlantic Gannet Sula bassana. Journal of Animal Ecology 13:49–62.
Vevers HG. 1948. The natural history of Ailsa Craig. The New Naturalist. A Journal of British Natural History 1, 115-121.

1Ronald George Lampitt (1906-1988) was a professional artist who worked for a number of magazines, illustrated many books and designed posters for railway companies.