An imposing, life-size oil painting dominates the main meeting room at the RSPB's base in the heart of England: 'the man above the fireplace' – always present, rarely mentioned. Curious about the person in the portrait, the author began a quest to rediscover William Henry Hudson (1841–1922). It became a mission of restoration: stitching back together the faded tapestry of Hudson's life, re-colouring it in places and adding new threads from the testaments of his closest friends.
This book traces the unassuming field naturalist's path through a dramatic and turbulent era: from Hudson's journey to Britain from Argentina in 1874 to the unveiling by the prime minister of a monument and bird sanctuary in his honour 50 years later, in the heart of Hyde Park – a place where the young immigrant had, for a time, slept rough. At its core, this extraordinary story reveals Hudson's deep influence on the creation of his beloved Bird Society by its founding women, and the rise of the conservation movement. It reveals the strange magnetism of this mysterious man from the Pampas – unschooled, battle-scarred and once penniless – that made his achievements possible, and left such a profound impression on those who knew him.
By the end of his life, Hudson had Hollywood studios bidding for his work. He was a household name through his luminous and seminal nature writing, and the Bird Society had at last reached the climax of a 30-year campaign, working to create the first global alliance of bird protectionists. A century after Hudson's death, this is a long-overdue tribute to perhaps our most significant – and most neglected – writer-naturalist and wildlife campaigner.
Part 1: Late Victorians
1. Smelling England
3. The Bird Society
4. Branching Out
5. Saving London’s Birds
6. Further Afoot
Part 2: Twentieth Century
7. Early Edwardians
9. Later Edwardians
10. Wider Horizons
11. Shadows of War
12. Lamps Going Out
13. Picking up the Pieces
A last word
W.H. Hudson’s books and pamphlets
Conor Mark Jameson, an award-winning writer and naturalist, is author of Silent Spring Revisited, Shrewdunnit and Looking for the Goshawk. He is a feature writer and has written for television and radio. He is Scots-Irish, Ugandan-born and lives in a corner of the forest in Cambridgeshire.
"[...] the book strays much further than a typical biography. [...] This book is well written and well researched, with Jameson drawing on a broad range of sources. It is refreshing to see a biographer's obvious interest in his or her subject come through so clearly. [...]"
– Mike Toms, BTO News 349, winter 2023
"Hudson is vividly present. It's constantly surprising and poignant. Reading it has felt like living a life. It's a bit like going to the funeral of a friend and discovering their life and friendships beyond your shared experience. It's wonderful!"
– Angela McAllister, author
"If you read one new nature book this year make sure it's this one."
– Matthew Oates, naturalist and author of In Pursuit of Butterflies
"I'm blown away! This guy was way ahead of his time and totally amazing; the original urban birder."
– David Lindo, The Urban Birder
"This is an impressive, beautifully written and really enjoyable book – the perfect book if you love nature, literature and writers, and the fight for animal rights, with the brilliant writer Hudson at the centre of it. It's been a pleasure to read."
– Richard Hines, author of No Way but Gentlenesse
"Based on extensive research and wider reading into the lives of Hudson's in many cases illustrious acquaintances, the style remains conversational and to some extent conjectural, the narrative compelling and insightful, which gives the reader a greater understanding of, and deeper feeling for, this intriguingly enigmatic, hugely popular and yet publicity-shunning figure and the cause for which he lived."
– Dr Lachlan Munro, Biographer of Robert Louis Stevenson and R B Cunninghame Graham
"W.H. Hudson, whose writings combined extensive knowledge of the natural world with acute powers of observation, a lyrical response to the beauties of birds, and tireless campaigning to save them from extinction, is certainly a man for our time. We are fortunate that Conor Mark Jameson proves to be the perfect biographer: expert both in ornithology and Hudson's life story, but, even more important, possessing a passion for conservation which equals Hudson's own, and shines through on every page."
– Professor Diana Donald, author of Women Against Cruelty
"Even long-term conservationists have only a vague reverence for Hudson. Conor does this neglected campaigner a great service by bringing his struggles and achievements to our attention through assiduous and illuminating detective work."
– Derek Niemann, Guardian Country Diarist
"Conor has done a wonderful job in bringing to life the man whose picture has for so long hung above the fireplace in RSPB Headquarters but whose backstory is not well known. By revealing the campaigning techniques that Hudson and others successfully used to secure greater protection for birds, Conor reminds contemporary campaigners of what it takes to tackle the existential threats facing our environment today. It's a great read for all those that care about nature and what it takes to save it."
– Martin Harper, Interim CEO, Birdlife International
"As one who has long admired both the man and his writing, I am delighted that W. H. Hudson has found in Conor Mark Jameson an author fully able to do him justice in this comprehensive and beautifully written biography."
– Jonathan Elphick, natural history writer
"A charming and empathetic portrait of the man that for many epitomised empathy for birds."
– Tim Birkhead, author of Birds and Us
"Very well written and entertaining."
– Professor Jason E. Wilson, author of Living in the Sound of the Wind
"A fascinating exploration of the life one of the great forgotten Victorians. Jameson more than does justice to a complex and gifted man and his iconoclastic work in the early days of wildlife conservation. An impressive, important and long overdue biography."
– Richard Smyth, author of The Jay, The Beech and the Limpetshell
"A fascinating insight into Hudson the man and his fundamental role in the early years of the RSPB – his vision, gift for strategy and campaigning passion shine through in this most enjoyable book. I always enjoy Conor Mark Jameson's writing."
– Beccy Speight, CEO, RSPB
"I'm 100 pages in already, and it's superb. I'm hooked."
– Julian Hughes, Welsh Ornithological Society
"As one campaigner discovering another, I found myself drawn in by the charm and deep curiosity that frames Jameson's exploration of Hudson's life. A life well-lived, pieced together with outstanding detail and vivid commentary. Without doubt, Jameson achieves what he sets out to do: to give us a fascinating opportunity to get to know Hudson; and to give voice to 'the man above the fireplace'."
– Philip Lymbery, CEO, Compassion in World Farming, and author of Farmageddon
"This is a warm and welcome representation of an exceptional man."
– Jack Watkins, Country Life
"Jameson has done a wonderful job in researching Hudson's life [...] It is fascinating."
– Mark Avery, author and environmental campaigner
"[...] an intimate and engrossing account. Conor is a consummate story teller. His enthusiasm is infectious and he has done the hard yards of research [...] I enjoyed this book immensely."
– Ian Carter, British Birds
"Impeccably researched [...] sparkles with skilfully drawn portraits of Hudson's female collaborators [and] such friends as "Don Roberto". A creative blend of detective work and narrative intuition."
– Christoph Irmscher, Wall Street Journal
: Plaudits to Conor Mark Jameson for his timely biography of a fascinating naturalist."
– James Wright, The Wryneck
"[...] through his tireless and often inventive research (which must have taken many hours), Jameson has provided as fully-rounded a portrait as conceivable, with plentiful insights and anecdotes."
– RSPB Book Club
"Such a comprehensive and valuable piece of work. Greatly impressed and totally in awe. It really is a wonderful tribute to Hudson."
– Pat Brockway, biographer of Sir Edward Grey
"It is evident that the book is well researched, with Jameson drawing on a broad range of sources, and it is well written. It is refreshing to see a biographer's obvious interest in his or her subject come through so clearly, in a genre where the scholarly approach usually restricts such personal reflection."
– Mike Toms, British Trust for Ornithology
"Finally, a book that shows the strength of the real Hudson in the UK and its projection in terms of conservation."
– Bernabé López-Lanús, author of the Audiornis Guide to the Birds of Argentina
"A must read for anyone with an interest in British ornithological history."
– Ian Paulsen, The Birdbooker Report