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Cecily Niven

Cecily Niven

Cecily Niven (née FitzPatrick 1899-1992) was born into a world where ornithology was invariably about collecting specimens, of birds and their eggs, often whilst out hunting, and then selling these on to collectors and museums in order to fund another hunting/collecting expedition. Although very much a male preserve, Cecily was exposed to such trips, both through stories from her father of his youthful expeditions as a transport rider and through participating in expeditions as a child. In 1906, when she was 5 years old, Cecily went with the family on a trek to the bushveld with Edmund Caldwell, the illustrator of Jock of the Bushveld. Her father’s love of the bush was to have a life-long impact on Cecily’s interest in natural history but according to her sons Cecily’s interest in birds was her own focus.

Few bird collections made in southern Africa at this time found their way into local museums. By far the greater proportion of southern African type specimens were sent to collectors and museums in Great Britain and Europe and in some cases were sold on to collectors in the United States of America. The Transvaal Museum was established in 1892 only seven years before Cecily’s birth, and it was here that Austin Roberts 1883-1948 started his formal career as an ornithologist in 1910. This was only after some years of making collections for the museum and being paid for specimens rather than having a fixed post. Roberts was to become a friend of Cecily and her husband Jack in the early 1940s, visiting them on their farm, Buckland Downs, in the Harrismith District. During a 1942 visit, retold by Patrick Niven, Roberts involved the family in a collecting expedition to the nearby Spitzkop for specimens of swifts. There can be no doubt that Roberts played an early role in Cecily’s interest and later involvement in ornithology.

Cecily’s name is reflected in the List of Members of the Southern African Ornithological Society (SAOS) for April 1935, the receipt for her subscription is signed by Austin Roberts who was Hon. Secretary at the time. Cecily was an enterprising participant in the activities of the SAOS between 1937, when she became the area representative for the Eastern Cape Province of the SAOS and 1955 when she was elected as President of the SAOS. The first notable milestone in her early endeavours on behalf of South African ornithology was the establishment in 1948 of a Committee for Bird Protection as a subsection of the Wild Life Protection Society. In 1957 Cecily was the driving force behind the 1st Pan African Ornithological Congress which took place in Livingstone, Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) in July of that year.

By 1958 she was free to concentrate her energies on the establishment of an Institute for African Ornithology, a place “to house in perpetuity records of field ornithology in southern Africa” (proposal made by Cecily on 25 June 1955 at the AGM of the SAOS and seconded by her husband Jack - Ostrich 26(3):173 1955). When the institute opened its doors in September 1960 it was dedicated to the memory of her father, Sir Percy FitzPatrick and made possible through a £15,000 endowment (equivalent to around £707,273.62 or R10,112,306.00 in 2007) from the Percy FitzPatrick Memorial Trust which had been set up initially for the benefit of the Citrus Industry, possibly by Sir Percy.

Image: UCT News Magazine 14(1), March 1987: Mrs Cecily Niven and Dr Phil Hockey try out one of three trail bikes donated by BMW on long loan for use by ornithologists during the Karoo Biome Project. Photo by Ken Gooch.

Margaret Koopman
Niven Library Manager
July 2007