Harold Hems FRPS

 

Harold Hems was born in Sheffield in 1921. His father had returned from WW1 having lost most of his right leg as a consequence of a sniper’s bullet. As a result, the family lived just above the poverty line.

Harold was a bright boy and went to grammar school from the age of 10 and for the next 6 years. Unfortunately, the family finances were such that he was unable to go on to university so he joined the Civil Service. This was not his choice, but as he said, in those days beggars could not be choosers.


In 1941 at the age of 19, he was conscripted into the Army and joined the 113th Special Wireless Section of the Royal Corps of Signals where he was trained in the mysteries of Enigma messages. He then went on to join the North Africa campaign, was in the first intelligence unit to land at Salerno and took part in the battle of Monte Cassino. At the end of 1945, Harold was granted leave allowing him to see his parents for the first time in three years. He bought his first camera, a Leica, during a visit to Venice.

Following demobilisation in 1946, Harold trained as a teacher and later had special training in biology. His first teaching post was in Dronfield. His interest in nature photography developed and he bought a quarter plate camera as a result of meeting Alan Faulkner Taylor in the Spring of 1947. The two of them scoured Derbyshire for subject matter, particularly birds and mammals. It was during this period that Harold took a photograph of a badger sow reversing into the sett with a ball of bedding. This created huge interest among badger experts and photographers alike as this behaviour had never been seen before, let alone photographed.


He joined The Royal Photographic Society in 1951, achieved his Associateship in the same year and Fellowship in 1953. He was a member of the Society until his death. In those days the RPS Nature Exhibition  was keenly contested by all the top nature photographers of the day, such as Eric Hosking FRPS. Harold was delighted to win the exhibition medal in 1956. His winning panel included the badger shot. As an old soldier, he was even more delighted to be presented with his award by Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke. He continued to serve the Society by membership of the Nature A & F Distinctions panel from 1966 to 1991.

Harold and Margaret were married in 1955 and in 1961 they moved to Norfolk where Harold took up the post of head of mathematics at Cromer High School. He was soon revelling in the natural history of his adopted county. He was a true polymath with a keen interest in all aspects of nature and an enthusiastic gardener with a particular interest in Alpines. He was proud to be the first person to photograph Collared Dove at the nest in Britain, in Norfolk of course.

 

He joined the Nature Photographers’ Portfolio in 1950 and the Zoological Photographic Club and was a member of both for many years. Many photographers benefited from his firm but fair comments. He was always quick to praise good work but never afraid to say if something could have been better, just like a true teacher. He moved with the times, replacing his quarter plate with medium format, later 35mm SLR and digital equipment. Norfolk provided Harold with many opportunities, but he and Margaret were also frequent visitors to Wales and Scotland. They ventured further afield to Portugal, Norway and Tanzania. Nature photographers were always made most welcome at their home and I was only one of those who benefited from their hospitality.

Harold is remembered in Norfolk principally as a teacher and also for finding the West Runton Elephant on the 13th of December, 1990. The weather forecast the night before predicted an overnight storm and, coupled with a high tide he knew that there was the possibility of interesting finds on the beach. So Margaret and Harold went down to the beach early next morning armed with some gardening tools.

 

They found a newly exposed cliff face and protruding from the base was a large object which later proved to be the pelvic bone of a Steppe Mammoth, Mammuthus trogontherii. They were joined on the beach that day by Martin Warren, then curator of Cromer Museum who helped to excavate the bone.

The find provoked huge interest locally. The animal roamed Europe 600,000 – 700,000 years ago and must have been a formidable sight, standing 15 feet tall and weighing more than 10 tons, twice the size of a present-day elephant. Complete excavation had to wait until 1995 when 85% of the skeleton was recovered along with many other interesting plant, bird, mammal and reptile remains. These have enabled the experts to build up a picture of a Norfolk very different to that we know today. The narrative which has been developed is that the unfortunate animal was suffering from a leg injury when it made its way to a river where it died. The corpse was scavenged by hyenas as shown by the imprint of a tooth and fossilised hyena droppings nearby. The skeleton is the most complete example of the species in the world and is now preserved by the Norfolk Museums and Archaeological Service at Gressenhall.

Scientists from the universities of Manchester and York were able to extract some protein from the bones and produced the collagen sequence for a fossil species for the first time. The story was told in a programme on BBC Radio 4 in which Harold described his remarkable find. The site is now marked by a plaque and the road signs as you drive into West Runton proclaim “home of the West Runton elephant”.

Harold suffered a stroke in 2006 and was not expected to survive. However he did and although he was confined to a wheelchair his mind was as acute as ever. He used to boast that the carers and nurses who came to attend to him were all former pupils of his. Photography was now restricted to what he could do from the house. He spent many evenings photographing a fox and cubs which Margaret managed to attract into the garden. He celebrated his 90th birthday on Trafalgar Day, 2011. Those of you who were in Norfolk that day and saw all the flags probably thought it was something to do with Nelson! Unfortunately, shortly afterwards he suffered  another stroke and this time he did not recover, dying on the 9th. of January. His funeral was widely reported by the local media, including regional television and an obituary was published in the Daily Telegraph on the 23rd of January.

Extracted from Harold's obituary written by another former member Tony Bond FRPS

Harold hems

Harold Hems

Harold and Margaret Hems

Barn owl