25 April 2010

Joseph Whitaker and the Bird Stone, Thieves Wood, Nottinghamshire

The 'Bird Stone' in Thieves Wood is a replacement of the original, which was inscribed:

'This stone was placed here by J. Whitaker of Rainworth Lodge [Nottinghamshire], to mark the spot where the first British specimen of an Egyptian nightjar was spotted by A. Spinks on 23 June 1883. It is only the second occurrence of the bird in Europe.'

Albert Spinks was a gamekeeper who lived opposite the Bessie Sheppard stone on the edge of Harlow Wood. He was firing at a rabbit and the sound caused the bird to fly out, so Spinks shot it. It was only by chance that he mentioned this to Whitaker - a naturalist and writer of sorts - before disposing of it. The very grateful Whitaker salvaged the bird and had it stuffed.

Joseph Whitaker was the elder son of Joseph Whitaker of Ramsdale, where the younger man was born. He was educated at Uppingham School and inherited a love of the outdoors from his father, who was one of the backers of the local boxer Bendigo. Whitaker lived most of his life at Rainworth Lodge, where his house resembled a museum, containing cases of stuffed birds and other natural history exhibits. Whitaker was a keen sportsman, botanist, fisherman and collector of curios. He published a book on medieval dovecotes in Nottinghamshire, although not all the examples were medieval and not all were even in the county. He also had his own deer park and collected deer horns.

Whitaker had a penchant for writing poems, of which this is a mercifully brief example:

'I know the south, I know the north,
I've seen the counties up and down,
Sailed in a yacht all round the coast
From Jura's Isle to Lerwick town,
I've seen cathedrals east and west,
And sung for joy of what I've seen
But the one spot I love the best
Is Rainworth, when the trees are green.

The original Bird Stone that Whitaker put in Thieves Wood was vandalized in the 1980s, and the replacement erected to remind passers-by of the event. At the same time, it keeps alive the memory of one of Nottinghamshire's eccentric characters who furthered our knowledge of birds, dovecotes and other topics.

Mansfield Museum and Art Gallery holds the Whitacker Collection of exhibits in its archive, which include the Egyptian nightjar.

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