John Knowlittle – the life of Arthur Henry Patterson

I’m constantly buying Norfolk Broads related books, quite often picking up some second hand copies of interesting titles in charity shops or via a well known internet auction website. I was browsing through the books in my local Oxfam branch last week and came across a copy of a book on the life of the Great Yarmouth and Broadland naturalist Arthur Henry Patterson which I duly snapped up to add to the collection!

I knew of the books about Broadland written by A.H. Patterson and also of his friendship and mentoring of a very young Ted Ellis (the renowned Broadland naturalist) during the latter years of his life, but knew very little about the man himself. Sadly, his books are now long out of print and are rather collectable so I’ve not yet had the pleasure of reading any of his writings, but have certainly been inspired to do so after reading the account of his life. “John Knowlittle – The Life of the Yarmouth Naturalist” was published in 1985 by Wilson-Poole (ISBN 0 9506592 7 4) and was written by Beryl Tooley, one of Arthur Patterson’s great grand-daughters. Beryl never knew her great-grandfather, but was intrigued to discover more and spent years lovingly researching his life and work. The book reveals what a fascinating character A.H. Patterson was, and how his love of the wildlife of Breydon and the Broads was such an enduring force, right up until his death in 1935 at the age of 88.

Arthur Patterson was the son of a shoemaker, born in one of the Great Yarmouth Rows, the youngest of eight children and the only one to survive beyond the age of 21.  His interest in the nature which surrounded him began at a very early age and eventually saw him spending much of his spare time on Breydon Water where he befriended the old “Breydoners” … the wildfowlers, poachers and eel catchers of the late 19th century. He kept detailed notes about the flora and fauna of the region in a series of diaries which were later donated to the Norfolk Record office. He had a variety of jobs during his lifetime – postman, tea pedlar, salesman, zookeeper, showman and local truant officer in Yarmouth, but throughout that time he was constantly submitting articles on nature to various publications and writing books. In an era when naturalists were generally “gentlemen of means” with time and money on their hands, Patterson often struggled to gain the acknowledgement of his peers, but never let his humble beginnings and limited finances stop his studies.

Arthur Henry Patterson c1906

Long before Sidney Grapes began to write his “Boy John” letters in the Norfolk dialect, Patterson had written a similar series of letters in the Eastern Daily Press under the name of Melinda Twaddles Notions. The series ran from 1893 until 1931. His humorous cartoons on local and political matters were also a regular feature in the newspaper. Adopting the pseudonym John Knowlittle in the late 1890s, his writings in the local press continued to attract more readers and he became well known as a public speaker in the area. His published works about Broadland included “Man and Nature on the Broads” in 1895, “Notes of an East Coast Naturalist” in 1904, “Through Broadland in a Breydon Punt” 1920, “The Cruise of the Walrus” 1923, “Wild-fowlers and poachers” in 1929 and “Through Broadland by sail and motor” in 1930. Copies of all of these do occasionally crop up for sale, but are now highly sought after and can command extremely high prices for the rarer titles! I’ll keep searching ….. I may pick up a bargain one day!

In the meantime, I can highly recommend Beryl Tooley’s biography of A.H. Patterson. I think this may also be out of print now, but secondhand copies can be easily sourced though Amazon, Abe Books or Ebay for under £10. Similarly, I noticed that the same author released a collection of her great-grandfathers writings entitled “Scribblings of a Yarmouth Naturalist: A Selection of the Writings of Arthur Henry Patterson” which can also be found through the usual sources …….. I think I am off to purchase a copy now!

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