“Newts, nadders and neophyte naturalists” – a dramatic interlude (A re-enactment of Maxwell Knight’s childhood encounter with youths and newts at a Surrey pond – Simon H King, John Cooper and others).
Explanation of title: “nadders” (Old English for an adder) and “neophyes” (young conscripts).
The Foster and Cooper families and Sarah Pellett act out Maxwell Knight’s pond dipping story, which features in his unpublished manuscript, The Frightened Face of Nature. Simon H King (SK) is playing the part of the 1961 Maxwell Knight (complete with hat, overcoat and pipe) and is assisted by John and Margaret Cooper.
The children spoke with true conviction (see lines below in green):
Introduction by Simon H King (SK):
During the 1960s Maxwell Knight “M” was working on a manuscript entitled The Frightened Face of Nature, snatching brief moments to record his thoughts on how man had treated nature so unfairly for the first fifty years of the twentieth century. The manuscript documented Knight’s greatest fears that time was running out for nature and its greatest threat was man’s destructive revolution and the reverse of evolution.
The manuscript was kept under lock and key and it remained a secret until 2015 when the (hitherto unpublished) manuscript was discovered inside M’s personal filing cabinet, which had been bequeathed to a family friend. The manuscript will be updated and released as a book to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Maxwell Knight’s death in 1968 and it is hoped that it will shine a spotlight on the unacceptable way man treats nature.
SK: CHAPTER I – YESTERDAY AND TODAY
SK: “I can well remember what it was that first aroused in me a genuine interest in animals. It was a small pond near the Surrey village in which I spent my early childhood. Even before I got to the stage of wanting to keep and observe wild creatures I had a general interest in living things. For this, I owed much to my father who encouraged me quietly when I was hardly more than a little boy in a sailor suit.
SK: He would take me round the garden, pointing out some of the various butterflies which visited the flowers, or explaining to me the difference between a frog and a toad, so that long before I went to boarding school at the age of nine I had a reasonable all-round knowledge of the commoner birds, mammals, insects and so on. It is just as well that my father did do this, for mother had not passed on to me any love of wildlife, especially insects!
SK: She, like many other adults, had a curious fear of moths or daddy-long-legs; in fact, she could not stay in a room with one. Fortunately, she did not infect me with her phobia. In fact, being an averagely nasty little boy I took rather a delight in showing off by catching moths in my hand.
SK: However, let me go back to my pond… (PAUSE.)
Actors appear with nets etc. Pond is established. Actors remain stationary (freeze) while SK continues text.
SK: One day, just about the time when my proper school days started, I was walking by this pond where some boys, quite a bit older than I was, were dabbling about with a net. Of course, I was anxious to know what they were doing. On my asking them they proudly displayed a large jar in which were some very handsome newts in all the splendour of their breeding colours
Actors come to life and youths hold up jars and animals.
SK: I was spellbound. I had, of course, seen pictures of our newts in books, but this was the first time I had ever seen any close up.
SK: The boys informed me that they were “efts” (a country name for newts) and they added the information that they were very poisonous.
Actors come to life and youths call out “Poisonous, dangerous, they will kill you!”.
SK: This was too much for me, for I knew very well that although newts could exude a mildly irritating liquid through their skins – a form of protection – I also knew that this was harmless to us.
SK: I was consumed with envy, and would have given anything at that moment to have had even one of those newts with their fine crests and orange-marked tummies. Quickly, and with youthful cunning, I thought of a way in which I might get one of them there and then. I asked the leading newt-catcher in what way they were poisonous.
“They bite you”, he said. Youths call out “They bite you! They bite you!”)
SK: I promptly offered to handle one saying that if I was bitten then he would be right, but if I was unharmed would he give me the newt. Needless to say, I was on to a good thing, for having read about newts I knew I would not be bitten.
SK: The newt-catcher must have been quite a kindly boy, for he was so certain that these creatures were poisonous that he didn’t want me to try. One of his companions had no such fine feeling for he said: “Let him try – if he gets bitten, serve him right!”
Actors come to life and youths call out “Serve him right, serve him right”.
SK: The leader told me that I would have to get the newt out of the jar myself – he was not going to do so. Of course, I found that doing this was easier said than done, because newts are wiggly things at the best of times, and the mouth of the jar was not large enough for me to do more than get two fingers inside.
SK: Watched with no little interest by the boys I tried my luck and managed to get out a large male.
YMK lets newt crawl over hand and shows the audience.
SK: I let it crawl over my hand though I had to take care lest it tumbled off and escaped. I can see those boys’ faces now: half fearful, half hoping that I would regret my rashness; they waited to see what happened. Nothing did, and I was told that I could keep the newt.
Actors come to life and youths call out “Keep the newt, keep the newt”.
SK: This was fine, but I had neither jar nor anything else in which to carry it home, which was a mile or so away. I then had a brainwave. I got out my handkerchief and wetted it in the pond and placed the newt in it holding the corners tightly. I could hardly wait to get away, but I did ask the boys what they were going to do with the others. “Oh – put ‘em back”, was the reply. “If you are going to do that”, I said quickly, “may I have your jar? I’ll give you a penny for it”.
Actors come to life and youths call out: “Give him a penny, give him a
In those days a penny was something; you could buy four ounces of sweets with one! The boys agreed, possibly because they were going home themselves, and off I went with four newts not just one. I left these young pond-hunters thinking that they had not only met a lunatic who didn’t realise the risks he had run, they had had their fun and a penny to spend into the bargain.
All actors leave the pond, carrying newts, snakes, frogs, jars, etc with them.
SK: Only recently (1961) I passed by the same place when in my car. The whole episode came back to me and I stopped to have a look at the scene of an early exploit. Alas! What had been a pretty reed-fringed pond was now a sorry sight. There were no reeds and hardly any water. Where newts had bred and countless other pond dwellers thrived, there were now only old motor tyres, rusty bicycle wheels and numerous tins. Senseless vandalism.
There was not even the excuse that the site had been taken over for housing. The general situation was much the same, save for the fact that the pond had been changed into a rubbish dump. This is now happening all over England; and we are not only losing pretty village ponds, we are losing places of great educational and recreational value. A good pond makes a splendid starting-point for teachers who wish to show their pupils some practical nature study.
Why, oh why do we tolerate this? And why do local authorities do nothing about the upkeep of village ponds? It would cost little to do so and it would provide excellent facilities for boys and girls to learn something useful in addition to preserving worth-while features of the countryside.
If only children could be given an appreciation of the world around them at an early age the seeds of interest in beautiful and fascinating forms of life would be sown, and in a great many cases would germinate and flourish. Later on, if such children sought to take up a career in botany or zoology they would be far better equipped. They would not merely regard plants as crops for our consumption, nor animals as things to be got rid of should they be any kind of problem in respect of meat-production.
They would have a more balanced outlook and would treat the inhabitants of fields, woods, jungles, rivers and seas as things to be respected and pondered over so that a balance could be struck between the ever-increasing needs of Man and the continued existence of organisms, large or small, which share earth with him.”
Fast-forward to the 21st Century:
Pond dipping in the 21st Century is still possible but many of the creatures (and the habitats) associated with this fascinating and happy activity are protected by law, especially the great crested newt. If you are lucky to spot one in a pond it is best just to observe it and go elsewhere to pond dip.
The great crested newt (Triturus cristata) is fully protected by law in the United Kingdom. It is illegal to kill, injure, capture or disturb one or its young or to interfere with its breeding or resting place. Its eggs must not be taken. A licence must be obtained for activities such as scientific study or land management. Trade is not allowed.
The palmate newt (Triturus helvetica) and smooth newt (Triturus vulgaris) must not be traded and the latter has full protection in Northern Ireland.
Learn more about newts, their biology and legal protection on these websites:
Pond dipping within the law is still fun in the 21st Century
Photo credits: Margaret E Cooper
JEC/MEC 21st November
“Copyright Simon King, Margaret E Cooper, John E Cooper and FFON”.