A House of Crows, or, The Strange Passion of Mr and Mrs Melford

William Henry Hudson in his seventies.  Image in William Henry Hudson Adventures Among Birds (1915) frontispiece.

If you read my recent piece on the rookery in Kensington Gardens, which can be found on the London Overlooked website by following this link, you will recognise the name William Henry Hudson.  Hudson was a writer on natural history with a strong interest in ornithology, which he indulged in the course of his many walks through the green spaces of the capital.  With a sharp eye for detail, and a deep empathy for his subject, he celebrated the life of the birds of London in prose of extraordinary power and magnificence.

One species that Hudson found particularly captivating was the jackdaw.  He claimed that he owed his acquaintance with “the beauty and the grandeur of some of our finest buildings” to its soaring flight, which would lead his eye over the architectural features of cathedrals and castles:

Watching the bird in his aërial evolutions, now suspended motionless, or rising and falling, then with half-closed wings precipitating himself downwards, as if demented, through vast distances, only to mount again with an exulting cry, to soar beyond the highest tower or pinnacle, and seem at that vast height no bigger than a swift in size—watching him thus, an image of the structure over and around which he disported himself so gloriously has been formed—its vastness, stability, and perfect proportions—and has remained thereafter a vivid picture in my mind.

Only in the capital was this method of studying architecture unavailable to him, for there the jackdaw was extremely rare.

View of Kensington Gardens by Camille Pissarro.   Watercolour dated c.1890.

THAT OLD FROLICSOME MOOD
Indeed, Hudson had a fine knowledge of the distribution of these garrulous corvids, which in London proper resided only at Kensington Palace, where about twenty-four had set up a colony, flitting through the neighbouring Kensington Gardens and Holland Park to breed in elms and other trees.  Observing them with his characteristic appreciation he wrote that

there is something curious about this small isolated colony: the birds are far less loquacious and more sedate in manner than daws are wont to be.  At almost any hour of the day they may be seen sitting quietly on the higher branches of the tall trees, silent and spiritless.  The wind blows, and they rise not to play with it; the graceful spire of St Mary Abbott’s springs high above the garden trees and palace and neighbouring buildings, but it does not attract them.

But occasionally in winter, as Hudson goes on to note, the jackdaws experience “a sudden return of the old frolicsome mood”, fluttering among the elms, and cawing joyfully.

A “scholastic” jackdaw.  Image in Chatterbox Album of Animals (1878) page 186.

However, the jackdaws so beloved of Hudson were not in all instances members of a colony, and he was aware of a number of solitary birds, such as the brazen individual who appeared every morning at an acquaintance’s house, tapping on a window to call for breakfast, flying through the rooms, and eyeing jewellery and other attractive objects left lying on a dressing-table.  And it was in connection with these “vagrant daws” that Hudson wrote of another acquaintance, a certain Mark Melford, who was in a number of ways a very remarkable fellow.  Although he regarded the jackdaw as especially intelligent and companionable, Melford was fond of the crow family generally, and he was happy for its members to wing their way freely through his house in Fulham, coming and going as they pleased.  But there was more to him than his genial hospitality, as we are about to find out.

MELFORD THE ENTERTAINER
Mark Melford, who would have been in his late forties when Hudson was writing about birds in London, was a distinguished figure in the world of entertainment.  In fact he was not Mark Melford at all—this was a stage name—but George Smith.  He first attracted attention in the theatres of his native Hampshire, and for many years performed in and around the Portsmouth area, although his later career took him up to the capital, where he appeared frequently at the London Pavilion.

Both as an actor and as a playwright—he was a prolific writer—Melford specialised in farce and music hall variety.  He toured extensively with his own company, and, although he was an unqualified success with his audiences, he was not universally appreciated by the critics, some of whom were unimpressed by his attempts to adapt serious subjects to his particular brand of humour.  But his best work was richly rewarded, and Non-suited, a comic sketch on the theme of an action for breach of promise, earned him record amounts in performing rights.

Photograph of the actor and author Mark Melford in his comic sketch Non-suited, which opened at the London Pavilion in September 1899.

As the nature of popular entertainment changed, Melford moved from the stage to the studio, and in the years before his death in 1914 he was heavily involved in the fledgling film industry.  However, the real cinema pioneer was not Melford but his daughter Alice, who was born in 1888.  Alice acted in some of her father’s films, and she may even have been the first woman to direct a British film, a claim based on the release of The Inn on the Heath in November 1914.  She was also actively involved in the Women’s Social and Political Union, and she was jailed more than once for her part in violent protests.

Alice Melford had in fact been baptised Alice Bradshaw Jackeydwra Melford, which simply has to have a story behind it!  Her second name was a tribute to Annie Bradshaw, a popular novelist who would collaborate with Melford on The Skyward Guide, a drama in four acts that had its first outing in 1898.  Her third name would be a complete mystery were it not for the known fact—well, known to us—that Melford harboured a passion for jackdaws.  As we have seen, he opened his home in Fulham—15 Ranelagh Avenue, to be precise—to these and other corvids, and in another house, which was on the outskirts of Southampton in his native Hampshire, and which was called The Jackdaw’s Nest, he and his wife and their servants lived in happy intimacy with a number of winged companions.  One room in the house was entirely given over to birds, and it was perhaps inevitable that their first child be blessed, or burdened, with a suitably corvine name.  Their other children—Mark Benjamin Roy, Paul and Mavis Annie—got off comparatively lightly.

DEFENDING THE DEFENCELESS
Melford had married Ethel Maria Byford, the daughter of a master mariner, in 1887, when he was in his late thirties and she in her late teens.  She was as fond of birds as he was, and Hudson tells a charming story about a pet jackdaw of hers, which I will come to shortly.  First, though, in order to illustrate their shared enthusiasm for the Corvus monedula, it is worth recording the following anecdote.  Melford had seen an advertisement offering a hundred jackdaws to be sold for trap-shooting.  In great distress he bought the lot, and took them home, where he and Ethel tended them in an outhouse in their garden.  The wretched birds had been starved by their previous owner, but the kindly couple fed them up until they were strong enough to return to the wild, which at first they were reluctant to do, so fond had they grown of their saviours.

Views of nineteenth-century Fulham.  Image in Edward Walford Old and New London volume 6 (1878) page 523.

Not that this was the only time Melford intervened on behalf of defenceless creatures.  In Life in a Booth, an account of his youthful experiences with a touring theatre company, he describes with obvious pride the time he smashed three bird snares—“hideous gins with their cruel teeth”—which he discovered in some woods.  He was also quick to prevent the cruelty routinely inflicted on animals in the theatre, and he recounts his outrage at the treatment handed out to four baby elephants by their trainers in Nottingham:

The stabbing of the gentle, docile creatures at rehearsal till the blood had to be collected with sawdust, and their poor jagged hides blackleaded to conceal the savagery from the public, had to be stopped by somebody, and with the assistance of my daughter as spy-in-chief we caused the police raid that brought them to justice.

He concludes that his intervention, which had been a “task of infinite trouble”, had also been one “of measureless satisfaction”.

IN A HOUSE OF CROWS
But to return to Ethel Melford, and the story I promised you about a pet jackdaw.  He was a particular favourite, and he in his turn was clearly attached to Mrs Melford, for every time he returned to the house after one of his many excursions he flew in search of her, and having found her he would sit on her head, affectionately rubbing his beak in her hair.  He also had an unfortunate habit of sneaking into the hen-house, where he made such a nuisance of himself that finally he was attacked, and almost pecked to death.  Mrs Melford saved him, and nursed him back to some sort of health, but he never recovered his former love of life and adventure.  He was a broken bird.

Then the unhappy jackdaw simply disappeared.  A distraught Mrs Melford was at a loss to know where he had gone, but she guessed that in his enfeebled condition he had not got very far.  Probably he had flopped down into a neighbour’s garden.  Possibly that neighbour, moved by compassion, had administered the coup de grâce.

A year passed.  Then one day something rather remarkable happened.  Mrs Melford was resting in a room on the ground floor—she had recently been unwell—when she heard her husband shouting to her in excitement from the garden.  A wild jackdaw had fluttered down beside him, he cried.  A jackdaw of unsurpassed beauty.

A double portrait of Ethel Melford and her favourite jackdaw.  Image in William Henry Hudson Birds in London (1898) page 60.

Could it be that the pain of last year’s loss might now be assuaged?  That a new jackdaw might take the place of the old, not only in that house of crows, but also in Mrs Melford’s heart?  She called back to her husband, her voice trembling with excitement, and begged him to do everything he could to persuade the new arrival to stay.  At which point the little bird darted into the house, for he had recognised the voice, and having flown the length of three rooms he stood gently on Mrs Melford’s head, rubbing his beak in her hair.

What joy filled the house in Ranelagh Avenue!  For several hours the Melfords fussed over the bird, feeding him generously, and he for his part hopped about with all the gaiety he had shown in former times.  It was as if the hen-house had never existed.  It was as if the assault had never taken place.  But as Keats realised,

Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine
,

and the little bird did not stay long.  Even before night fell he had gone.  Hudson believed that he had taken up with the wild jackdaws on the outskirts of the city, which would account for the sad fact that the Melfords never saw him again.

© london-overlooked 2022

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