A Force of Nature: The Papers of Beatrice Gillam

on Tuesday, 29 May 2018. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

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Beatrice’s Illustration of the Anatomy of a Bat (from 4313/2/3)

Alongside our parish, ecclesiastical and local government collections, the History Centre is also home to many fascinating personal archives. I have recently completed cataloguing one such collection; the papers of the ecologist Beatrice Gillam (1920-2016). Beatrice was a dedicated observer of wildlife, and a vociferous advocate for the county’s natural history. As the cataloguing project comes to a close this seems a timely opportunity to celebrate the life and achievements of this local hero. 

Early Years

Beatrice’s interest in ecology began in her childhood, partly spent in Exmouth where she enjoyed exploring the local countryside. She began her career as a teacher of natural history and physical education in Somerset and later became an occupational therapist. But Beatrice never lost her interest in wildlife and in the 1950s took evening classes in natural history through Bristol University. This led to the award of a mature scholarship at London University to study zoology and botany in 1963. In 1966, she gained a Certificate of Proficiency in Natural History. Beatrice’s study notebooks give us an insight into the teaching of natural history at this time.

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Beatrice’s Drawing of a Whinchat (from 4313/10/1)

Observer and Campaigner

Beatrice devoted many hours to observing wildlife at numerous sites across the county, and used diaries and notebooks to record species sightings and their behaviour. Beatrice also took part in many national and local wildlife surveys. Even when she was well into her seventies, Beatrice was out in the field, contributing to initiatives by the British Trust for Ornithology, such as their survey of skylarks (1996-1997) and annual Winter Farmland Bird Census (in the years up to 2000). Thanks to her long-standing commitment to many such surveys we can develop a picture of the changes to species population over time. Another component of the collection are the reference files which Beatrice compiled on butterflies, snails, ladybirds, deer, bats, grasses and many other species. These files typically contain printed articles, correspondence with conservation groups and habitat surveys.

Beatrice contributed her enthusiasm and knowledge to many nature organisations. In 1962, she was a founder member of the Wiltshire Trust for Nature Conservation (now the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust) and served as a council member for many years. Similarly, she helped to establish the Wiltshire Ornithological Society in 1974, and edited its society magazine Hobby between 1975 and 1980. Beatrice was also a founder member of the Wiltshire branch of Butterfly Conservation, for whom she undertook various surveys, such as her detailed study of the butterflies on Roundway Hill in Devizes.

From 1968 until the early 1990s Beatrice was a voluntary warden for the Nature Conservancy Council (now Natural England). She was also the regional representative for the British Trust for Ornithology, for whom she carried out many bird censuses at assorted farmlands and nature reserves for over fifty years. In addition, Beatrice was an active member of the Wiltshire Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society and the Mammal Society, for whom she was the County Representative for Wiltshire. Her archive includes files relating to many of these groups which typically contain wildlife surveys, hand-drawn maps, correspondence, minutes and newsletters. 

Beatrice also campaigned as part of the Salisbury Plain Training Area Conservation Group, advocating for ecology to the Ministry of Defence. She drafted much of the Site Dossier, an important document for the management of the area’s ecology. Her archive includes many of her study notes relating to the plain, including her flora species records and ornithological mappings. Beatrice was also active in the conservation of the Chirocephalus Diaphanous a rare species of fairy shrimp, which survives on the Plain in puddles left by army tank tracks. Beatrice promoted the species in an article for the Ministry of Defence's conservation magazine, raising awareness for this now protected species.

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Page from one of Beatrice’s observation notebooks (from 4313/10/1)

Beatrice’s Archive

Following her death in 2016 at the age of 96, Beatrice’s family kindly donated her archive to the History Centre, which has now been catalogued in detail under the collection number 4313. These details will be added to our online catalogue shortly.

Beatrice’s research notes tell us much about the protection and use of many of the green spaces of Wiltshire, as well as charting the activity of our county’s wildlife. In addition, her collection gives us evidence of the methodologies of many nature organisations over the last 50 years. Through her field surveys and ecological research Beatrice Gillam made a lasting contribution to the preservation of Wiltshire’s natural habitats, as well as informing our knowledge of the county’s wildlife. We have much to thank her for.

David Plant, Archivist

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