This week, as we look forward to spring, we highlight the work of a celebrated Hampshire naturalist. Dr Canning Suffern (1892-1978) made a significant contribution to ornithology in the county and is perhaps most famous for his association with the nature reserve at Titchfield Haven, near Fareham. His research papers, held in Special Collections, reflect his wide interests in the field of natural history, and include his scientific notes, records of observations and working papers.
Canning Suffern grew up in Worcestershire and developed a keen interest in the natural history of his county, particularly in the area around Rubery, near Birmingham. As a boy he was an enthusiastic birdwatcher and throughout his life he kept detailed records of his observations. He began reading medicine at Cambridge in 1911 but his studies were interrupted by World War I, in which he served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, as a surgeon probationer. He completed his medical studies at St Thomas’s, London, and held posts in a number of hospitals before turning to medical journalism. He later joined the staff of The Lancet as a sub-editor. During World War II, he served as a controller (operations officer) in the RAF and from 1943-5 was stationed in India. His papers include reminiscences of his war-time service – ‘The log of a loblolly boy at sea, 1915-17′ about WWI – and several chapters on his time in India in WWII (MS 205 A523/1/1-2).
Dr Suffern visited Titchfield Haven for the first time in 1921, while staying with his parents, who lived across the road at the site now occupied by Hill Head Sailing Club. His studies in natural history switched to Hampshire and his ornithological work around Titchfield Haven acted as a catalyst for further collaborative study after World War II. It was shortly after the war that he began taking parties of birdwatchers around the marshes at the Haven with the permission of the owner, Colonel Alston. Throughout his life he worked to encourage an interest in ornithology, particularly among young people, teaching them not only to identify birds and other wildlife but to accurately record their sightings. Under his guidance, birdwatchers produced the records which highlighted the Haven’s importance as a wetland habit for birds. This data helped lead to the declaration of over three hundred acres of the Lower Meon Valley, including Titchfield Haven, as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1959.
Dr Suffern’s research interests were wide. In Hampshire, in addition to birds, he observed and recorded dragonflies, butterflies, and moths, particularly at Hill Head, Fareham, and Titchfield Haven.
This drawing from Canning Suffern’s sketchbook of dragonflies is embellished with original dragonfly wings. It was part of his research into dragonflies at a pool at Hill Head in 1950. (MS 205 A517/3/4).
His diaries are a working record of the weather, detailing sunshine, rainfall, type and density of cloud cover, and atmospheric pressure. In the summer of 1950, Suffern discovered a relationship between high pressure and the number of S. striolatum emerging at the pool — the peak occurred on 9 July, when he counted 417 in a single day. His research excited the interest of other naturalists and was published in one of the earliest volumes of the Entomologist’s Gazette.
Dr Suffern’s papers include articles from natural history magazines and journals, and related notes; there are manuscripts of his literary works as a naturalist, as well as his reminiscences. His significant ornithological archive – covering several decades of field work – forms part of the papers of the Hampshire Ornithological Society at the Hampshire Record Office, Winchester (HRO 75M94/C1), which also holds notes for his book The birds of Titchfield in relation to those of Hampshire and of Great Britain historically considered, or, A conspectus of birds mainly with reference to T H [Titchfield Haven].
To this day, Doc Suffern is fondly remembered at Titchfield Haven for his 50-year association with the nature reserve. During the 1960s, as an elected member of Fareham District Council, he fought for the future of the Haven. He lived to see the purchase of the estate by Hampshire County Council and the opening of the reserve for visits in 1975. The ‘Suffern Hide’ is named in his memory – a physical reminder of his life’s work.
Canning Suffern’s research papers, MS 205, are freely available in Special Collections at the University of Southampton – a significant legacy for the natural history of Hampshire.
For information on Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve go to:
For information on Canning Suffern’s ornithological papers at the Hampshire Record Office:
We acknowledge with grateful thanks the assistance of the staff and volunteers of the Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve, and of the Hampshire Record Office. The photograph of Canning Suffern is courtesy of Dr Sue Dent and colleagues at Titchfield Haven. Any errors are those of the author.