Fred Gowan Grey, MA - considerable appreciation of classical music. ... even on his birth

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  • Fred Gowan Grey, MA


    Fred Gowan Grey (1911-1997) was a remarkable, inspirational man, a hugely

    influential secondary teacher who taught English for 38 years, at the South

    Shields Grammar Technical School. He made a major contribution to the

    development of birdwatching in the north east of England, County Durham in

    particular, and can rightly be considered as ‘father’ of the Durham Bird Club.

    He was a pioneer ornithologist, at a time when there were perhaps half a

    dozen serious such figures in the region. As well as being a natural historian

    of great renown, he was a long-time wildlife columnist for The Shields

    Gazette. In the early part of his teaching career, he established a generation-

    spanning bird watching club whose members grew, both as people and

    natural historians, through Fred’s inspirational activities.

    Fred’s stature as an ornithologist and his prodigious field skills were based on

    a life-time of careful observation. His ability as an educator was legendary,

    conveying a limitless enthusiasm for his subject. He was an inspiration to

    almost all, a mentor to many and a father-figure to a lucky few.

    He succeeded George Temperley as Honorary Secretary of the

    Ornithological Section of the Natural History Society of Northumbria in 1957

    but his most enduring legacy is in the way he changed the lives of hundreds of people through his inspirational

    passion for nature, above all, birds. Many people owe their interest in both nature and cultural things to Fred

    Grey; he had the accessibility of the common man with the cerebral air of a scholar and he managed to create a

    functioning hybrid of the two. Throughout his life, his love of literature and poetry, particularly the works of

    Wordsworth and Shakespeare, equalled and fed his passion for nature and were touched upon by his

    considerable appreciation of classical music.

    Fred Grey and the school bird club that he established in its nascent form around 1939/1940, changed the lives

    of the many boys who he introduced to the study of wildlife. Through the decades, it dawned on some that

    biology and wildlife might prove to be a

    career option as well as an exciting

    hobby and a lifelong passion. Many

    took that route and some served, and

    still serve, in those fields with great

    distinction. In at least one instance, he

    encouraged a pupil (that ‘had no

    academic potential’) to try for

    University, against the Headmaster’s

    advice. That student went on to

    receive his degree, later a PhD and

    eventually, the epithet Professor in

    front of his name. As a result of the

    influence he brought to bear upon

    generations of naturalists, he can be

    considered one of the north east’s

    most important natural historians of the

    late 20 th century.

    Fred Grey - naturalist, teacher, correspondent, gentleman

    Fred, in his sporting heyday, the mid-1930s, on Marsden Beach - Camel Island in the background

  • Fred Grey - A Lifetime

    Fred Grey was born in South Shields on 6 January 1911, the eldest son of Richard Gustav Grey, a Marine

    Engineer, and his wife Gertride Aline. He was always Fred and never Frederick, even on his birth certificate.

    The family lived in Burleigh Street, a short walk from the shore and coastal fields which stretched, uninterrupted,

    from Shields to Marsden Village and beyond, to Sunderland.

    In the early 1920s this was a very different landscape to the long ribbon of grassland present between The Bents

    and Marsden Village today. At that time, there was pasture where cattle grazed, and barley, kale and turnip

    fields where Lapwings, Skylarks and Partridges all nested. Corn Buntings, Yellowhammers and Linnet were

    plentiful and sang from the straggling hedgerows and limestone walls that marked out the patchwork of fields.

    Spring and autumn migrants were attracted by the variety of shelter and the winter stubble fields held large

    flocks of buntings and finches. The shoreline and sea offered rich possibilities for the burgeoning naturalist.

    It was along this coastline where Fred’s passion for wildlife was nurtured and where he returned years later as

    an adult to pass on the ‘baton’ to the next generation. A latter-day interview in The Shields Gazette, described

    how he “lived on the shore almost daily during his youth and grew up in the web of Marsden’s magic.” He even

    used this area for his rugby training, running across the beaches of Marsden Bay, up and down the steps from

    beaches to the cliff tops and swimming out from Camel Island, around the seaward side of Marsden Rock,

    before heading back to shore on the south side of the Rock.

    Early Days

    As a boy, Fred’s other birding contacts were a few boys who boasted of their egg collections. In May 1996, he

    told of growing up interested in birds and wildlife in the early part of the 20 th century. He said, “today’s young

    birdwatchers can have no conception of what it was like in the days of my boyhood and youth. Quite literally

    there wasn’t a soul to tell me that there was a place called

    Jarrow Slake where I could actually hear curlews in winter”.

    Like many children of the time he collected cigarette cards,

    and he had a collection featuring birds but there were few

    books about birds available to him. In South Shields at that

    time, there was no elder statesman, no teacher to take boys

    out into the countryside and the only society for interested

    people, the Natural History Society of Northumberland,

    Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne, was based at the Hancock

    Museum in Newcastle, of this Fred was ignorant - at least at

    that time. All of these factors might help explain why he was

    so keen, as he grew older, to provide all of these things, which

    he had craved as a youngster, to boys who aspired to be


    He taught himself about wildlife by roaming around the

    countryside surrounding South Shields – Marsden, Cleadon

    Hills and Boldon – occasionally accompanied by a friend

    called Bill Foster. He recalled that at the age of about 12, he

    and Bill walked from Shields to Hylton on the Wear, and back

    (some 12-13 miles); a prodigious distance at that age. This

    anecdote well illustrates the point that in his youth, his

    knowledge had to be accrued by his ‘own endeavour’.

    Educated at Westoe Secondary from 1922-1929, Fred

    flourished both as a scholar and as an athlete. As he grew and his education developed he used the South

    Shields Public Library then located on Ocean Road, to acquire a deep knowledge of the birds, botany, geology

    and history of the coastline that he so much loved. In the 1920s, as a penniless schoolboy and later as a

    Fred Grey c.1939

  • student in the early 1930s, he practically lived at Marsden, discovering, watching and then charting the

    development of the seabird colony there.

    On leaving secondary school, he studied English at Armstrong College, Durham University (later incorporated

    into Newcastle University) with Latin, French and philosophy as subsidiary subjects. He was awarded a BA

    (Honours) in 1932, which he converted into a Master of Arts in 1935. Sport, rugby in particular, was always

    close to Fred’s heart and in the mid-1930s he played for the successful Westoe Rugby Club when it won the

    Senior Cup (1936/37 season), later serving as a Club committee member and a coach when his playing days

    were over.

    Into Education ~ 1930s

    After graduating, Fred became a teacher at Stanhope Road Senior Boys School; the start of a teaching career

    that would last 43 years. He worked there from 1933 to 1938, moving in September of that latter year to South

    Shields High School for Boys, an establishment that later became South Shields Grammar Technical School for

    Boys; where he taught uninterrupted until 1976. He was Head of English for many years and also taught Latin,

    ran the library, gym club and the ‘nature club’.

    As a teacher, Fred was an awe-inspiring figure. He kept a stuffed Kittiwake in his cupboard and he produced

    this on occasion to dramatic effect during class. Early in his career, he had been a keen boxer and at school he

    coached rugby, ran gym clubs and took up to 40 boys to the public swimming baths, to learn to swim – taking

    the lessons himself, as the official coach was by then a little ‘too corpulent’. Because of his combatively sporting

    prowess, he became known by the boys as ‘Basher’, an epithet that could not have been further from his real

    nature and one that he wasn’t keen on. With his clipped military-style moustache however, and a nose that paid

    testament to his boxing bouts, it was easy to see how the nickname stuck. He bemoaned the use of this name,

    he who reluctantly used the cane – the sanctioned, indeed encouraged, method of punishment - in his first

    teaching post when appointed to the toughest class in the establishment by a head teacher who resented the

    ‘graduate teacher’. Thereafter