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?).
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 (184.108.40.206): “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?!