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Introductory lecture: Maxwell Knight the naturalist – Prof. John E Cooper

The lecture that follows was the one delivered by John Cooper at the Maxwell Knight Commemorative Symposium on Saturday 24th November 2018 at Birkbeck College in London. Entitled “Maxwell Knight the naturalist”, it and Simon King’s presentation “Maxwell Knight the spy-master” set the scene for the rest of the afternoon’s lectures and interactive sessions.

John Cooper’s lecture was not recorded at the time so some wording has been prepared – see below – that helps explain what is depicted in the slides. The added text also includes more detail about Maxwell Knight and his wife Susan, as the Coopers knew them, than could be recounted in the short time available at the symposium.

We hope that this lecture will be of interest to both those who attended the Maxwell Knight Commemorative Symposium and others who were unable to be present but are interested to know more about the day’s proceedings.

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The PowerPoint, including the images, are copyright John and Margaret Cooper, FFON and others. JEC/MEC/SK  << Click here to download the Power Point >>


The British Herpetological Society (BHS)

Commemorative Symposium


Maxwell Knight, the original “nature detective”

and Second World War MI5 agent.

Birkbeck College (Gordon Square Annex) 43 Gordon Square London WC1H 0PD

Saturday 21st November 2018


Introductory lecture: Maxwell Knight the naturalist

John E Cooper, DTVM, FRCPath, FRSB, CBiol, FRCVS

RCVS Specialist in Veterinary Pathology

Diplomate, European College of Veterinary Pathologists

Diplomate, European College of Zoological Medicine

This symposium is about natural history, about the countryside, about the relationship between animals and humans. But you will also hear references to events 70 or more years ago, especially the Second World War …… and that is where my story starts.

I was born during that war, in March 1944, when my father was in Calcutta, in the Indian Army.  He returned to Britain – and he and I first met – in 1946, when I was 2½ years old.


My mother and I lived in a small flat (Figure – top left) in Essex. When he was back in Britain from the war my father regaled me with stories of his time in India, Burma and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He told me about large moths and other insects attracted to searchlights and snakes and crocodiles. He described time spent with his Indian troops and taught me some words in Urdu. He took me out on the Essex Marshes looking for newts and fish and we collected caterpillars that we reared to moths from the bushes in the nearby Highlands Boulevard. These animals had to share the balcony of the flat with a washing line and sundry domestic items.


When I was six, the family moved to a small semi-detached house in Thorpe Bay. This had a small garden (Figure – bottom, centre right)!  I continued to catch and keep local animals, ranging from hawk moth larvae to grass snakes, and I read avidly all I could about them. We also bought a tortoise with a damaged shell, for five shillings.


In 1954, when I was 10, still at primary school, my father arranged for me to join the Amateur Entomologists’ Society AES. In my letter of welcome (Figure – left) I was given my .personal membership number, 2343, which I still hold. It is a pleasure to have fellow AES members in the audience, amongst them David Lonsdale, Dafyyd Lewis and Victoria Burton, two of whom will be speaking later.

In that same year, 1954, I attended for the first time the Annual Exhibition of the AES. This was held in a London school in an area that still showed severe damage from the war-time bombing.

In 1955 I joined the local Scouts and I decided almost immediately to study for my Woodcraftsman Badge, the junior version of the Naturalist’s Badge. This badge, bearing an acorn and oak leaf, required me to keep a natural history diary for three months and to record in it the birds, butterflies and trees that I saw during that period. I passed the test, was awarded my badge (I still have it) and decided to continue writing the diary. I still do so, 64 years’ later.


On September 17th 1955 I wrote in my diary:

Morning: Went to London.  Ate lunch by lake in St James’ Park.  Fed crumbs to Mallards, Teal, Coots, Moorhens, Shelducks, Tufted Ducks, Pochards etc.

Afternoon:  Went to exhibition of Amateur Entomologists’ Society.  Heard lecture by Major Maxwell Knight on bird pellets.”


Who was this “Maxwell Knight”?

Maxwell Knight was already a familiar name to me and thousands of others who heard him regularly on the radio on such programmes as Nature Parliament, and The Countryman (Figure – top centre left).

In addition, I had repeatedly borrowed from the library, read and used his books. These included Bird Gardening (Figure –bottom centre right), which encouraged us to attract birds to our garden, and my bible at that time, Keeping Reptiles and Fish (Figure –bottom right) – at six shillings far too much for me to buy initially -which told me how to look after the various creatures that I was finding in local ponds and streams.

In 1959 my family was due to leave Essex and move to Crowthorne, Berkshire. I realised that Maxwell Knight lived only a few miles away, in Camberley. Encouraged by my father, I wrote with some trepidation to him. To my delight and surprise, he replied promptly – a postcard, inviting me to come over for tea..  No emails in those days.  No mobile ‘phones.  Many didn’t have a ‘phone in their house.  In a similar vein, one must remember that MK was two generations older than me – he was addressed as “Major/Mr Knight” not only to me but by my parents and members of the public.

MK invited me to cycle over for tea with him and Mrs Knight. That was the beginning of several years of a close relationship.  My diaries recount my many visits to the Knights’ home and the various trips we did together.


MK became my mentor and advisor and I was greatly influenced by him.  I set up my own Bug Room at my parents’ home –for live and dead species – modelled on his at Camberley (top 2nd from left). I learned how to study animals’ tracks, signs and sounds. The Knights guided me on the care of the various animals that I found or had brought to me including my first injured kestrel (Figure – top and centre left), the story of which I have recounted elsewhere (Cooper, 2017). And I became aware – MK put it over so well in his book “Animals and Ourselves” – of how one could reconcile a love of natural history and the tending of wildlife with many other activities, such as country pursuits, the keeping of animals in zoos, and the care and use of animals in laboratories.


A significant part of the tutelage I received from MK resulted from my joining the Camberley Natural History Society (CNHS).  MK was President and Founder. The documents in the slide (Figure) date back to 1959.   The CNHS is still in existence and I am pleased to see Bernard Baverstock and Joan Morrad and Drs Pat and Mary Morris in the audience today.  The pictures in the bottom right (Figure) are scenes from our visit to Camberley and to the Baverstocks’ home earlier this year.


I continued to keep and study animals at home.  Many of them were wildlife casualties (birds and hedgehogs) (Figure) or snakes and other reptiles that I caught in the local heathlands (Figure) (bottom row).  I went hawking with Paul Jacklin (Figure). Throughout MK remained a source of advice and encouragement.


In 1962 I went to Bristol University to read veterinary medicine and, although most of the course dealt with domesticated animals, I had access to the local countryside, especially Leigh Woods and the Mendips, and my natural history interests blossomed. I joined the Bristol Naturalists Society and met many leading biologists and naturalists, including John Burton from the BBC, who has sent a tribute to MK today.  As you see (Figure top left), I was lucky enough to have a nice girlfriend, Margaret Vowles (now Cooper).  Although in the picture she is looking a little cautious about my python, in truth Margaret joined enthusiastically in my animal keeping and natural history interests.

While I was at university in the early 1960s, I remained in close contact with MK and visited him when I was home during the vacation. He (MK) already had strong links with the veterinary profession, especially through his friend and veterinary advisor, Oliver Graham-Jones FRCVS, who amongst other things served a term as president of the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) and invited MK to open the association’s annual congress (Figure – courtesy of the BSAVA).

The university was remarkably tolerant of my interests and activities. With my room-mate Roy Clutterbuck (later my best man) I kept animals at Burwalls, my hall of residence and at Langford, the veterinary field station.  I developed a particular interest in birds of prey and examined many, live and dead and this ultimately led the publication of my first book (Cooper, 1978).

MK was aware of my interest in going overseas after graduation and in 1966 he was a referee for me when I applied to Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and became the first ever VSO veterinary volunteer.


I was posted to in Tanzania and spent a wonderful year there. In letters, I relayed tales of my adventures to MK – and, of course to my parents and my girlfriend Margaret Vowles.  Remember that this was 1966-67.  All correspondence was through airmail letters, the famous blue aerogrammes, but MK had a bonus because I also sent him a live gecko in the post for his menagerie!

I returned from Tanzania in September ‘67 and had only a month before I started post-graduate studies in tropical veterinary medicine at the University of Edinburgh.  During that month I visited the Knights. On 8th September 1967, I attended a local natural history meeting at which MK was speaking and I was pleased to be asked to do the vote of thanks to him.

I was not able to visit the Knights during my Christmas vacation, 1967-68, because I was on duty fighting foot and mouth disease in Shropshire.  I returned to Edinburgh and my studies in January 1968. On Friday 26th I was surprised and concerned when my landlady called me downstairs to a ‘phone call.  This is what I wrote in my Diary at the time:

10.0pm:  Mum and Dad have just ‘phoned to tell me that MK died yesterday.  This is a great shock.

       There must be thousands of young people in this country who have benefitted from MKs books, his encouragement and willingness to help young people at all times. …. I myself will never forget his kindness to me.

       I am glad that I proposed the vote of thanks to him at the Natural History Group meeting in September, when had just returned from Africa – the wording of my speech was really a “thank you” to him from all young naturalists, past and present.

I was unable to attend MK’s Memorial Service in London but I was sent an Order of Service.



See how he is described in the prayers (Figure):

MAXWELL; especially for his love and knowledge of nature, his wisdom and common sense, his gift of friendship particularly for young people, his unceasing charity, together with his devoted service to this country.”

Following MK’s death Margaret and I spent more time with Mrs Knight (SK).  She was, alas, unable to be at our wedding in April 1969 because she was overseas, but she sent gifts including a print of Peter Scott’s Wigeon in the Creek, which we still have on our wall.

In December 1969, Margaret and I flew to Kenya for four years. Mrs Knight kept in touch – by air letter, of course.  She was delighted when we our son, born in Nairobi in 1972, was named and christened “Maxwell”.

Back in England SK devoted much time to devising a tribute to her husband.  A letter issued by WWF was published in British newspapers.  It announced an Appeal in memory of MK.  Amongst signatories were Sir Peter Scott, Sir David Attenborough, Lord Cranbrook (who is sorry not to be here today) and John Burton (mentioned earlier, more later). The Appeal led to the establishment of the Maxwell Knight Young Naturalists’ Library but progress was painfully slow, as you will hear later from Simon King.  The Maxwell Knight Young Naturalists’ Library is still in existence in the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London.  See the picture of Margaret there on one of our visits (Figure).


In the 10 years following our return from Kenya, we and our two children got to know SK well.  She passed on to us many of MK’s possessions – books, papers and equipment.

SK became critically ill in 1981.  We paid our last visit to her when she was in a Sue Ryder home. On that last occasion our son Max, 10 years of age, took a live water spider to show her.  This was appropriate because she and MK knew water spiders well- and their habitats, around Camberley, and the species featured in one of my favourite MK books (Figure).



Mrs Knight died in January 1982.  She and MK had no children and so for me this appeared to be the end of my relationship with the family. This was not to last long, however.  In 1983 we received a letter from a gentleman called Anthony Masters.  He told us that he was writing a book about MK.  Could he come and see us?  We said yes, and he did.


AM’s book. “The Man Who Was M”, appeared in 1984 and caused great distress to SK’s sister and her family – and to us, the Coopers, too.  The picture of MK that AM painted was liberally embroidered with allegations about homosexuality, bankruptcy, blackmail and supposed ill-treatment of Susi Knight.  I consulted Professor Angus Bellairs, a close friend of MK’s, who suggested that I write a critical review of the book for the BHS (Figure). 2nd column – a copy is also in each registrant’s pack) and thereby challenge some of Anthony Masters’ claims.

Our much-lamented friend John Pickett (who so looked forward to this symposium) was also upset about what he saw as an attack on one of his great heroes. John suggested in a letter (Figure) that there was a need for a proper appraisal and recognition of MK the naturalist. But the damage was done.

What AM did achieve in his book was to publish previously confidential information about MI5 and the part played by MK before, during and after the 2nd World War. You will hear much more about this from Simon King later.

The revelations about MK’s work in the war was all news to us.  I had only ever known MK as a naturalist, although I had realised from a comment made by SK when I first raised the questions of my writing a book about her husband that many aspects of his war service were not public knowledge and better not discussed.


We lived with unhappiness for 30 years about AM’s claims concerning MK as a person.  After all, we had named our son after him. And then, in 2016, we were approached by another would-be biographer of MK, Henry Hemming.  Like Anthony Masters HH interviewed us.  He had done his research well.  HH’s book appeared in 2017. In it, he not only lauded MK as a great patriot but also wrote that he could find no evidence for the claims that AM had made.  We and remaining relatives of the Knight family were greatly relieved.

What continues to drive me in my bid to put on record what MK did for me – and, less directly, thousands of others?  Why, with the unstinting support of Margaret, and the boundless enthusiasm of SK, did I decide to organise this symposium?

FIRST, because neither AM nor HH gave full credit to MK for his contributions to natural history and education of young people.

SECONDLY, because for me MK’s influence lives on. For example, I still have my own Bug Room – no longer part of my bedroom!  I always carry a hand lens and a pot for collecting specimens (a small plastic lens is also in each registrant’s pack). Whenever I examine bird pellets, snake skins and hairs, I follow methods taught to me by MK.

Likewise, my interest in the care of wildlife continues to be influenced by what I learnt from MK and SK.  Similarly, what MK taught me and so many about bird gardening fuels my ongoing collaboration with Haith’s Bird Foods in promoting responsible and healthy feeding of wildlife.


And the influence is there in my veterinary work. For instance (Figure) bottom right) Margaret and I are walking in the footsteps of MK, “the original nature detective” in our joint forensic work, especially when this relates to the investigation of wildlife crime.

MK’s emphasis on the importance of fieldwork was legendary. This is what we wrote in his presidential message to the CNHS in 1959: “…The proper place for studying Natural History is in the field.”  That philosophy permeates both my natural history pursuits and my veterinary studies.




Margaret and I do fieldwork here in Britain with our grandchildren and with naturalist friends. And we also use and teach field techniques in our ongoing voluntary work in East and Central Africa (Figure). Twenty-five years ago fieldwork formed the basis of our care for the mountain gorilla in Rwanda and, as you can see from the picture (Figure), it also came into its own when a colleague and I returned to Rwanda soon after the cessation of the genocide, hoped to have an evening meal, and found that even the nation’s capital, Kigali, was without electricity and running water.

This, then, has been a brief account of MK as I knew him.  A book is still needed, to put on record his teachings and all he did for the natural world. But MK’s influence lives on, as we shall hear from others later today.  Those who continue to be affected by his approach to animals and natural history come from many backgrounds. Because of him, they remain aware of the need to cherish, to enjoy and to conserve our precious, fragile, planet.

I feel proud and honoured to have been a protégé of MAXWELL KNIGHT, the naturalist.



Cooper, J. E (2017). Letter to the Editor (Paul Jacklin). The Falconer 5-7.

Cooper, J. E. (1978). Veterinary Aspects of Captive Birds of Prey. The Standfast Press, Glos.

Cooper, J.E. & Cooper, M.E. (2013). Wildlife Forensic Investigation: Principles and Practice. Taylor and Francis/CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, USA.

JEC 08.03.19.

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