It’s more than a stuffed bird in a box…
Matt Limb OBE looks at the work of William Hales, a Lincolnshire taxidermist who works on creatures great and small in an unusual rural workshop.
But for many of us taxidermy is most commonly associated with the Victorian era, when it was used as a method of displaying recently discovered animals and birds – in that respect, it was the equivalent of today’s wildlife photography and filming, at a time when cameras and film were in their infancy.
Like many people, I have always liked and admired taxidermy – at home there have always been a couple of pieces – so when I was given the chance to join a friend and collect his prized roe deer head which was finished, mounted and ready to hang, I jumped at the chance. It was a drive across the county to the Lincolnshire Wolds and a meeting with
William Hales, a professional taxidermist who has been practising the art form for most of his life.
When I entered his workshop, I was a little surprised to be greeted by a tiger looking at me with a snarling growl.
William explained that it is one of the biggest pieces he has done, as I stood and admired the magnificent beast. At that moment I felt like a lesser student in one of the well documented Victorian lectures, as the lecturing explorer revealed a new species he had discovered on his most recent expedition to Africa.
While chatting in William’s showroom, I found a wide range of animals, from a mighty red deer stag’s head with a fine set of antlers to the most humble wood pigeon – but there on the wall was the roe head we had come to collect.
Inevitably I asked William how he became a taxidermist. He said it dates back to his school days in Yorkshire: “In the school’s great hall was a large collection of taxidermy, which was probably my initial inspiration.”
At school William was interested in art, especially sculpture, and on leaving taxidermy became a hobby – his interest was further heightened when his brother bought a two-day course for him. “I have been perfecting that skill ever since,” said William.
Farming brought William’s family to their Claxby home from Northamptonshire in the 1960s. Soon after the move they started a quail farm, supplying the newly emerging supermarkets up and down the country with a growing demand for their eggs. After some time a move into the fur trade followed as a mink farm was established. William grew up against this background with a growing passion for the countryside. Today that passion is still very much alive. William works part-time as a gamekeeper – a calling that started soon after leaving school. As he explained: “It helps me with my study of wildlife and animals, it gives me a chance to study them and – equally important – their habitats, both of which are vital in my taxidermy. Plus getting out into the woods and fields gives me a break from the workshop.”
As William’s taxidermy hobby started to grow, he had several friends visit saying, “I’ve shot my first pheasant, can you do anything with it?” Eventually his hobby became a business. Today, some three decades later, there is still a regular trail of visitors to his door with various species, often picked up after being hit on the road, which forms a major part of his work – provided they are not too damaged. The species arriving like this can vary from common garden birds to owls, especially barn owls, which William reflects on with some sadness, given Lincolnshire boasts possibly one of the highest volumes of barn owls per land area compared to other counties.
Looking at the tiger, William also mentioned his zoo work. In the past, this has included lemurs and zebras. Some of the smallest specimens William has worked on include a wren and a goldcrest, plus a pygmy shrew – the smallest mammal in the British Isles, typically weighing in at four grams and with a body length of just two inches. When I asked about the most unusual specimen, I was surprised at the answer: a white jay, which I agree would have been a once-in-a-lifetime specimen and probably unique across the country. Yes, he explained, it still had the distinctive blue and black wing feathers, but the rest of the bird was pure white.
With such a wide range of birds and animals, it is vital to have a register containing both paperwork and photography as an audit trail, as many are protected species. This is especially important if an owl or similarly protected bird has been brought in by someone after being killed on the road. When a customer brings a specimen in, William will spend time discussing how they want it to be displayed, plus where it will be in their home or office, then he will spend time studying the species to get the finished piece right. Still very popular with customers is the red stag’s head – especially if it’s been culled by a deerstalker whilst in the Highlands of Scotland – and also grouse, especially a first grouse. It was also interesting to learn that William has regular and returning customers, with some of them having first visited over 30 years ago.
We spoke about the modern revival in taxidermy. It is different today, with specimens displayed in very modern, 21-century, almost minimalist settings. As William commented, today it is seen as a true art form, no longer a stuffed bird in a box, which is very much the image of the Victorian era. Here we agreed to be hesitant on some of the more modern pieces, such as a red squirrel smoking a pipe whilst wearing a flat cap and a smoking jacket. Today there are maybe fewer than 50 full-time professional taxidermists throughout the British Isles, but this recent modern twist and growth in interest have generated numerous hobby and amateur taxidermists across the country and each year more enthusiasts join them.
It was time to pick up our roe and make a move towards home, but there was still more to see and learn, as William’s workshop is a disused church. There has been a church on the site in Claxby for many centuries, including a documented thatched building. The current church, completed in the 1840s, is built of brick under a slate roof. Like many buildings in the area, the bricks are made from local Farlesthorpe clay, quarried just a few miles down the road, and today the original clay pit is a fishing lake.
The church is dedicated to St Andrew and has been close to the family for the past 50 years, with William and his brothers having been baptised in the church’s font by their grandfather, an army padre. The font is still in place, as is a plaque listing previous vicars of the parish dating back to 1219.
William clearly remembers services in the church, which stopped sometime in the late 1980s as services fell to just a few a year, mainly at harvest and Christmas. But with a dwindling congregation numbering less than a dozen people, including five from William’s family, the closure of the church was inevitable. The church was purchased by William in the early 1990s as a listed building and it has been his workshop since. Viewing photographs from the time of purchase, it was a building in need of some care with the church front overgrown with ivy plus damage to the roof which was starting to leak.
Today, some 50 standing headstones in the churchyard still attract visitors, usually turning up with scythes, mowers and grass clippers thinking a grave will require some serious trimming; they are pleasantly surprised at the manicured surroundings to the church and the graveyard. Before leaving, a walk around the outside of the church revealed a few more surprises. Sitting in the shade of some trees was a grave that caught my eye. The war grave, pointed William, as I knelt to read the inscription dedicated to Jesse Hewis – who along with his father James lived in the parish. Jesse died whilst serving as a Corporal with the Royal Berkshire Regiment on 7th November 1918 aged 30, just four days before the end of World War One. (A little research on returning home suggested he died from the flu pandemic that swept across Europe at the end of the war.)
A final look around the churchyard as the rain started to fall heavily and then it was a swift run back to the car and a steady drive home in torrential rain. We admired the roe’s head we had collected and I pondered over how a redundant church, which was at risk and could so easily have been demolished, has been given a second lease of life, as a functional rural working environment for a family that has lived on its very doorstep for over half a century and will care for the building well into the future. I also thought about the skill and talent of William as a taxidermist. It may have been a 30-plus-year journey but talking to him, it is clear he is passionate about every piece he works on and confesses he is the biggest critic of his work.
With the evening light fast fading and the rain still falling, I arrived home with one thing on my mind: a quick check in the bottom drawer of the old freezer. Yes, it was still there – a snipe. I picked it up some time ago and it has been in the cold for far too long. Maybe I need to return and let William work his skills on this small bird, as I think it would look good sitting on my office desk.
To learn more about William Hales go to www.williamhalestaxidermist.co.uk