len howard

Foreword (10 August 10 9:42 a.m.): This blog post is about my early discovery and research into the author, Len Howard. If you are looking for up-to-date findings on this person, please consult my blog page, “Who is Len Howard?”

I discovered Len Howard a few years ago when S. and I were in a used book store, and she brought to my attention a little hardcover called Birds as Individuals (Collins Press, 1952). I bought it, and a few years later I found its sequel on Amazon (or was it eBay?): Living with Birds (Collins Press, 1956). Both books are out of print and difficult to find.

These books fascinated me immediately. In them, Howard writes about the birds on her property. She lives very closely and privately with the birds, and makes many remarkable observations about their behaviour. With respect to biology she is an amateur (a “naturalist”), but she is trained in music and makes a detailed analysis of birdsong in Birds as Individuals. I’ve never seen anything like these books before.

Equally intriguing is the author herself. Little is revealed about her in her books: She lives (well, lived) in “Bird Cottage” in East Sussex, having moved there from London. Her name is “Len” … a little odd. There are no pictures of her face (although there are shots of her arm, hand, back, foot – pictures in which a bird is the subject). She can draw and write, is formally trained in music, lives alone, and is unemployed, so I assume she’s from an upper class family; yet she never mentions any family or friends, and in fact appears – especially in Living with Birds – to be rather reclusive, and with a heightened need for control over her environment (all purportedly for the birds’ sake, which I’m not denying had a huge impact on the success of her relationship with the birds and her studies on them, but it does suggest a little something about her character, yes?).

Photo of Len Howard holding a bird in outstretched palm
Published in The Beacon magazine (Feb 2007)

At the time, there were few references to Len Howard online, and none of them offered any information not presented in her books – including her Wikipedia entry. I did find the photo I’ve posted here, but even that was tricky because it was always being moved or removed or protected by the host website (alternatively the National Library of, or the Art Gallery of, New South Wales, where the portrait, by photographer David Moore, is for sale). After a while I found a contemporaneous (to Howard, that is) article in a children’s newspaper, which was neat, but not revelatory. I tried searching British census, realty records, maps, and other archives for signs of her and/or Bird Cottage, but nothing conclusive popped up.

A few months ago, I gave the search another go. I can’t remember exactly what led me there, but I ended up on a pdf of a Lewes District Council list of applications for property amendments, where “Bird Cottage, 91 Lewes Road, Ditchling” was noted for the “erection of a single storey three bay garage and new entrance driveway.” Google maps confirmed that Ditchling is in East Sussex, so I started searching for connections between Ditchling and Len Howard. I found my big breakthrough on page 34 of the February 2007 edition of The Beacon: The Magazine for the Parishes of Ditchling, Streat & Westmeston, wherein I read the following:

“Olive Howard, who wrote under her brother’s name, Len … arrived in Ditchling around 1942 where she lived in Bird Cottage for about eleven years.”

Amazing!! Of course, after catching my breath, I immediately updated her Wikipedia entry. Unfortunately, the article in The Beacon is really about how little information is known publicly about Len Howard, so I may have reached a permanent dead-end (the author writes that “even the Librarian at the RSPB … said he had drawn a blank in trying to find out more about this celebrated naturalist”). I’ve searched the 1911 British census, and may have found her under the listing “Olive Mary Howard, born 1904, lived 1911 at Evesham, Worcestershire,” but I have to pay to see the complete listing. Time is one thing: money is another.

Update (03 June 09 8:29 a.m.):
New information has been added to her Wikipedia entry from a British IP address (80.176.155.215): “Howard died on 5 January 1973 at Bird Cottage, at the age of 79.” Wah! I am dreadfully curious about how this person found this information out.

Update (06 April 10 3:04 p.m.):
More new information from Wikipedia – sadly, conflicting information, but information nonetheless. One Susan Copus wrote on Len Howard’s Discussion page that Howard’s true name is not Olive but, rather, Gwen, and that the name “Len” is likely derived from “Gwen,” because there was no brother Len. She writes:

“Gwen was the youngest of the four children of Henry Newman Howard (b 1861) and Florence Howard, nee Warman. The other two children were Kingsley Newman Howard and (Ernest) Dudley Howard. Kingsley was my grandfather; none of his siblings married. Except during their war service, Olive and Dudley lived with their parents, latterly in a house in Ottery St Mary, until they died one by one, Olive on 2nd August, 1962 and Dudley on 13th August, 1962.”

She also writes that Len Howard was nicknamed “The Bird Woman of Sussex” – a name I had not encountered before and which, sadly, Google knows nothing about.

I can’t but notice, however, that my copy of Birds as Individuals is signed: “Derek. With best wishes. Gwen.” Coincidence?!

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5 thoughts on “len howard

  1. How curious to find this post of yours. I too was hunting for information about Len Howard as my husband was given Birds As Individuals for his birthday and I recently got Living With Birds (which I’m currently reading, though I think I could’ve done without several pages on the habits of spiders!)

    I’ve not tried to do this but it occurred to me that another avenue you could pursue is to track down Julian Huxley’s family (he wrote the forward to Birds As Individuals, but died in the 70’s)) and see if they know anything.

    My interest in these books stems from the fact that I’ve a similar interest in birds, though not as obsessive or intense as Len Howard (and I wouldn’t open my house to them!) but I’ve blogged about two individuals – Baby Baby Hen Feathers the female blackbird and Hasslebob the (European)Robin – who are very tame, very friendly and extremely individual. Do come and visit and read them.

    My thoughts on Len Howard’s reclusivity is that maybe she just didn’t get on with other people and turned to birds for company. Myself, I’ve had a lifetime of ill health and so have led a rather srange life and I spend a lot of time just watching and observing birds and have come to understand a lot of their ‘language’. They have a wealth of different positions in body language, and are very adaptable.

    It would indeed to interesting to contact the other people who contributed to her wiki entry (which I’ve read). Have you tried to find the British contributor via a ‘whois’ search on the IP address?

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    1. My father, took photos of Len in her garden. I believe she talked about putting some in a book she was writing. He was the pharmacist in Hassocks and interested in both birds and photography. He used to deliver her prescriptions as she was averse to leaving her cottage and on one occasion I was allowed to accompany him when he took photographs. I think that was round about 1955. He was given a signed copy of a book thanking him. Very sadly, I have none of this memorabilia.

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  2. Interesting the Olive Mary Howard mentioned being born in 1904 and living in Evesham, is almost certainly my grandmother. She did have a brother Len, but as far as I know did not write any books. She went to Durham University and married an Ansell Savage, and she died in 1999 in Great Missenden, Bucks

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  3. As a small child during the war I lived with my grandparents at Lane End, Spatham Lane and used to go past the Bird Lady’s gate to visit my two ‘aunties’ at Old Yard Cottage’. That was 1947 or so. A rather spooky place with a gate that seemed never used, with huge overgrown hedges almost obscuring it. A hand written note ‘no entry. birds nesting’. and (probably ‘keep out’ as well) I was always told to be very quiet as we went past which added to the mystery and spookiness to a seven year old. She was well known, if only by rumour, as being able to talk to the birds. I have come across this page by accident and so glad that my childhood memories are
    not just dreams. The world needs more people like Miss Howard!

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  4. Dear Ms. Sally Bell,

    It’s nice to know something about the Bird Lady.
    Thank you very much.
    I am fascinated by her books, and looking for
    information about her.

    I am a Japanese woman living in Japan.
    It is a blessing that I could obtain her books.

    Chie

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