The Victorian Amateur Naturalists on Skomer Island: 1895 - 1915

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J. J. Neale (1854 – 1919)

Joshua John Neale (always known as J. J. Neale) was, along with naturalist Robert Drane, among the first to appreciate Skomer Island for its wildlife. In 1905 Neale, a trawler owner from Cardiff, leased Skomer from the Kensington estate, marking a profound change in the island's management: moving away from farming and effectively becoming a private nature reserve. 

Neale held the lease for 10 years, spending the Summer months on the island with his family and visiting for shooting in the Winter. Despite being a keen naturalist, Neale was also a keen sportsman and would shoot a number of species, although these appear to mostly be the predators such as Great Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls.  Apart from maintaining Skomer as a sanctuary for wildlife and reducing the intensity of agriculture, Neale, his family and servants had very little impact on the island during his period of tenure. In 1915 Neale relinquished the lease to Skomer when his sons were away at war, moving to Oxton House, a large country house in Devon in 1917.

J. J. Neale was struck down with peritonitis and underwent an operation on Christmas Day, 1919, but died on 29 December, aged only 65. 


Robert Drane (1833 – 1914)

During the period of his lease, Neale was frequently visited by his close friend, Robert Drane, a chemist, scholar theologian, natural historian and antiquarian. 

Robert Drane was born on 21st August 1833 in Guestwick, near Reepham in Norfolk. His father was a congregational minister and Robert was one of his six children, two of which died in early childhood. In July 1849 he became an apprentice chemist with a Mr Francis in Woodbridge, Surrey but remained only for about 4-5 weeks. In September of the same year he became an apprentice to Mr Smith, a chemist in Magdalene Street, Norwich where he stayed to complete his four-year apprenticeship and joined the Pharmaceutical Society.

Drane was one of three founding members of the Cardiff Naturalists' Society, which was established according to many documented sources in his shop at 16 Queen Street, Cardiff in 1867. He published numerous papers on natural history, including many on Skomer Island. He was also among a small group who influenced the development of the Cardiff Museum, ensuring that the Natural Museum of Wales would be located in Cardiff, and in 1896 he was appointed honorary curator by the Museum.

Perhaps his most famous contribution to natural history was his recognition that the Skomer Vole (Myodes glareolus skomerensis) was a different race of the Bank Vole (Myodes glareolus) to that found on the mainland. In 1896 he wrote: "Caught a little animal which I do not recognise as any British species that I know. It is larger and more highly coloured than the bank vole. I have never seen a bank vole like this one."

Robert Drane died in 1914 at the age of 81.

('Skomer Island', Alexander M., 2021)


Excerpt from an obituary for J. J. Neale in the Cardiff Naturalists' Society, 1920:

Born Joshua John Neale in County Antrim in 1854, he came into the world richly endowed by nature with unusual capacities, but under circumstances which made it necessary that he should develop them without much external help - his school life terminated at the early age of twelve.

Of extraordinary strength and physical vigour, he distinguished himself as an athlete in several directions. Against his wish he was on one occasion matched in a weight-lifting competition against a professional, and won, thanks to his special training in the Bristol Gymnasium. He played Rugby football with great success, and won many prizes as a cyclist.

He was naturally keen of eye, little that was of interest to him escaped his observation. His business as a trawler owner and fish salesman at Cardiff brought him into daily contact with one department of natural history. Concerning this he was remarkably reticent, although his knowledge was so profound that on more than one occasion, in conflict with Government experts on questions of fact, it was not he who was proved to be wrong. His interest extended, however, to many branches of natural history, but more especially to birds, insects, shells, and plants. His interest in birds led him to make several expeditions to the birds island off the coast of Pembrokeshire, and at one time to take a lease for ten years of the Island of Skomer where he made a close study of the habits of the various interesting birds which nest there. Some of this work was fortunately communicated to the Society in the form of popular and much appreciated lectures.

Although not a botanist in the strict sense of the term, his knowledge of the Flora of Glamorganshire was very wide, it was almost impossible for him to pass by a rare or interesting plant. Nothing pleased him more than a scramble over the escarpments and cliffs of Glamorgan, or a day amongst the numerous sand dunes of this county.

Mr. Neale came to Cardiff in 1884, to set up in business with a partner - Mr. West - as fish salesmen. This business was for years conducted with great vigour and success in very restricted premises at West Canal Wharf, but was in 1897 removed to Hope Street, where it is now being carried on by his seven sons under the original name of Neale & West, Ltd., although Mr. West has recently withdrawn from partnership.

The demands of a fleet of trawlers at one time 17 to 20 for constant supplies of ice, made it necessary that cold storage premises and an ice producing plant should be established in Cardiff, and it was largely due to the foresight of Mr. Neale that the Cardiff Ice Company was established a company which since its formation has had a very successful career and over the development of which Mr. Neale, as joint manager with Mr. West, lavished the utmost care.

In 1917, realising the desirability of throwing more responsibility upon his sons, and desirous of more leisure for pursuing his many hobbies, Mr. Neale bought Oxton House, near Kenton, Devon, and removed there two and a half years before his death. The estate covers about 700 acres, but its chief charm for its new proprietor was the extraordinary beauty of the surroundings. The large woods, which afford shelter for fallow deer and more than one family of buzzards, and numerous specimen trees the finished product of a century's growth-formed perhaps for him the chief attractions. Here both Mr. and Mrs. Neale found the rest and recreation they sought under almost idyllic conditions, and all their friends will regret that he was not allowed to spend a happy old age in such a congenial environment. But his work was done manfully had he striven, building up a personal character which his friends will gratefully and profitably remember: and a business which has added to the strength and prosperity of Cardiff. He was suddenly struck down by peritonitis, underwent an operation on Christmas Day, and passed away on December 29th, 1919, and was buried in Kenton Churchyard on December 31st, 1919.