By Haydon Luke
Callers to the old Visitor Centre and visitors approaching the Country Park from Coastguard Lane cannot fail to have noticed the prominent memorial plaque to Grey Owl and will have read the brief account it gives of Archie Belaney’s life. The reason it is there is because of the influence that the area of the Country Park had on this interesting and sometimes controversial local figure who later attained international significance as a conservationist and, it must be said, some notoriety as a person.
Archie had an unsettled childhood. Though born in Hastings and educated at Hastings Grammar School, after his father and mother returned to the United States, he was largely looked after by his father’s mother Juliana Belaney and his father’s two younger sisters, Julia Caroline Belaney and Janet Adelaide Belaney. So, at 36 St Mary’s Terrace, in the care of these two ladies, whom the boy knew as Aunt Carry and Aunt Ada, (who was particularly strict – though tolerant of his various pets) Archibald Stansfeld Belaney (18 Sept 1888 – 13 April 1938) grew up in East Sussex fascinated with, and by, animals and adventure.
Archie Belaney’s association with Fairlight derives from his early life when he would range widely over the cliffs, glens and farms of the area taking a close interest in all aspects of the wildlife he came across. Something of a loaner at school, he did well in many subjects such as English, French and Chemistry but his real passion was the outdoors. Mainly alone, but occasionally with his one close friend, Henry Hopkin, he would climb the East Hill and make his way to the glens to look for plants and wild animals. Snakes were a particular interest. On one occasion he took a snake he had caught in Fairlight Glen back to school. From an early age he also became captivated by the life and cultures of north American indigenous peoples.
No surprise then when, schooling over, as an eighteen-year-old he emigrated to Canada in 1906 with the intention of studying agriculture. After a brief period in Toronto he quickly moved north where he lived among the indigenous Ojibwa people of northern Ontario and learned to hunt, trap and survive in the wilderness.
It was also in his early days around Fairlight that he encountered others with, as he saw it, insufficient respect for the natural world. Donald Smith in his biography of Grey Owl explains:
“On these walks, Archie… crossed much of the same territory covered by the East Sussex Foxhounds. As Grey Owl, he bitterly wrote that “under no circumstances could I make peace with a mediaeval custom which I had always abhorred.” Two or three days every week, from November to March, the local gentry, led by the future Lord Brassey, rode to hounds. Two of their principal meeting places were Guestling and Fairlight, both favourite locales of Archie.
On occasion he must have encountered the scores of scarlet-dressed riders, with their pack of yelping hounds, pursuing a single terrified fox. Years later he wrote: “Sportsmen claim that an animal which is to be killed for fun – can you imagine it? – should be given an even chance. Is that an even chance, a hundred to one, I ask you?” (Smith, Donald B, From the Land of Shadows; the Making of Grey Owl, Western Producer Prairie Books, 1990, p.21)
One of the locations where the Hunt assembled was Fairlight Hall which, after the conversion of local squire William Lucas-Shadwell to Catholicism in 1902, was little used by the family. William became Private Chamberlain to Pope Pius X and thereafter was seen infrequently in Fairlight. He lived instead mainly in Rome, letting out The Hall to various tenants, although in fact he died in Pett in 1915.
In 1900, for instance, The Hall was let to Philip Mael, a ship owner, of Cardiff and London. Then the Hastings Mail noted the arrival in August 1907 of Mr and Mrs James Kirkley and family of Cleadon Park, South Shields, Co Durham. Kirkley, who had recently come into a fortune, was described as “one of the largest colliery owners in the North of England,” who would “divide his attentions between his new country seat at Fairlight and Cleadon Park.”
SPORT AND RECREATION
THE EAST SUSSEX FOXHOUNDS
will meet on
Monday, December 23rd – Robin Hood, Icklesham, 11
Thursday, December 26th – Battle, 11
Monday, December 30th – Westfield Place, 11
THE BEXHILL HARRIERS
will meet on
Tuesday, December 24th – Red Lion, Hooe, 11
Friday, December 27th (a cap will be taken for the Hunt Servants). – Sackville Hotel, 11
THE HAILSHAM HARRIERS
Saturday, December 21st – Castle Inn, Westham, 11.15
*Monday, December 23rd – Willingdon, 11.15
Thursday, December 26th– Horse Eye, 11.15
Saturday, December 28th – Royal Oak, Pevensey (a Cap for Hunt Servants will be taken).
Monday, December 30th – Hampden Park Station, 11.15.
Subscriptions are due, and are to be paid to the Master, Alexander Campbell, Priesthaus, Hankham, Sussex.
*Riding Days. – All persons riding with these Hounds are expected to subscribe. Anyone over-riding Hounds, after being once cautioned, will be requested to withdraw.
ROMNEY MARSH FOXHOUNDS
will meet at Eleven o’clock on
Tuesday, December 24th – Plough Inn, Udimore
Tuesday December 31st – Royal Oak, Beckley, 11.
ROMNEY MARSH HARRIERS
will meet on
Thursday, December 26th – Lydd, 11.
Saturday, December 28th – Rye Railway Station, 11.
Friday, January 3rd – Appledore Bridge, 11.
Captain Fiennes, Hon. Secretary, Rye
The paper further noted that “The Hall had for some time past been in course of preparation to receive the newcomers, and the charming and extensive grounds, as well as Pett Shoot, which had also been taken, had been occupied since April by four gamekeepers, as it was intended to revive the preserves so noted when Mr and Mrs Lucas-Shadwell were in tenancy at the Hall. Mr Kirkley had brought with him a large number of capital hunters, as well as hounds.” (Source: Hastings Chronicle website, 2012).
In the Edwardian period field sports were very popular. Gentlemen and others wishing to hunt over the Christmas and New Year period in December 1912 for example (see above) would be spoiled for choice, the local paper listing no less than 5 options. So for several years hunting and shooting figured prominently in estate life – for the well-to-do – and it was witnessing those activities at first hand in the local countryside that helped shape Archie’s sympathetic attitude to the natural world.
In Canada, encouraged and tutored by Anahareo, his Iroquois wife, he became convinced of the need for conservation, and that became the central theme of his writings. Belaney became obsessed by the culture of the indigenous people, took the name Grey Owl and created a new identity for himself maintaining he was the son of a Scot and an Apache. He wrote extensively about conservation and the natural world, featured in films about the wilderness and made two very popular lecture tours in England in the 1930s. It was during his appearance at such a lecture in Hastings in 1935 that his aunts recognised him. Thereafter his supposed Canadian First Nation ancestry started to be questioned.
In retrospect he is seen as a controversial character, admired still, especially in Canada, and recognised for his writing and for his highly effective conservationist work by some, including novelist John Buchan who as Lord Tweedsmuir was then Governor-General of Canada. However, by others he was regarded as a fraud, drunk, bigamist and liar.Donald Smith’s judgement, after the most detailed study of all the evidence, is that he was “one of the most effective champions of the Canadian wilderness in this [i.e. the 20th] century.” For all his flaws and the complexity of his relationships, he was “a conservationist visionary”.
”Portrait of the real Grey Owl in 1936 by the celebrated Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh”
His life was the subject of a 1999 film starring Pierce Brosnan and directed by Richard Attenborough. Although admired by many, the film was not a box office success.
By Haydon Luke