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A Sporting Century

Shooting wild birds in the period before World War I was characterised by the phrase “what’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery”, and Stanley Duncan, founder of the Wildfowlers’ Association of Great Britain and Ireland (WAGBI), eventually to become BASC, was most definitely in the former camp. He shot anything that presented itself. His diary for 12 August, 1911, opens with the note: shot 1 barn owl, 3 waterhens,
2 curlews & 4 pigeons. The bag for the remainder of the two-day visit included a gull, a grey plover, a knot, two immature shelducks, two greenshanks, a redshank and a kestrel.

The season continued in a similar vein thereafter: herons, kingfishers, waders, gulls, wildfowl and waterbirds of all sorts fell to his gun on a weekly basis, though 1 September would see him walk the drains and marshes for the coveys of wild grey partidges which abounded in the East Yorkshire countryside, plus hares, rabbits and anything else he could stow aboard his bicycle for the journey back to Hull.

Big bags were not in his nature, though he was not averse to enjoying a bonanza when conditions were right, once shooting 150 curlew in two tides with his brother Norman. In his younger days, Duncan went pigeon shooting on his bicycle and could only carry 100 cartridges at a time, but even so, his best bag was 65 pigeon, which were carried home on his bike. Times improved and he got a car, enabling him to increase the number of cartridges which he carried with him. On one occasion he fired 200 shots at birds coming into newly sown peas and bagged 145. “I enjoyed the 65 got on the bike better than the 145,” he commented later.

A somewhat florid communicator in the written word, Duncan thought long and hard before he opened his mouth in public. But when he did so, his words were short and to the point. Shooting Times editor Tim Sedgwick once described a meeting which he had attended at which Duncan had been present. Discussion had raged over some point or other while all the time the old man had remained silent. Then, at an appropriate pause in the conversation there started a deep rumble from somewhere down in Duncan’s stomach and out came the few choice words which cut straight to the point of the debate.

Duncan took the opportunity to meet and talk to any shooters of note who visited his part of the east coast and one of these was Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey. One of the greatest of all the Edwardian gentleman-wildfowlers, Payne-Gallwey, of Thirkleby Park, Yorkshire, had devoted his life to shooting and most especially wildfowling. The third volume of his Letters to Young Shooters, published in 1896, was and in some respects still is the text book on the subject. Payne-Gallwey was constantly investigating, experimenting and researching on matters such as ballistics, duck decoys and the design and construction of gunning punts, and travelled all over the British Isles in pursuit of wildfowl. Early in January 1904, he visited Patrington, on the Humber estuary, over a period of two weeks to shoot the area around Sunk Island, lodging at the Holderness Arms. He noticed that an old fisherman and fowler spent every winter all alone on board a smack moored in the very creek where, coincidentally, Duncan launched his punts. I envy him, observed Payne-Gallwey in his diary, adding that he at once engaged the old man to attend him when he was afloat. But the weather was not favourable and Payne-Gallwey must have spent hours kicking his heels by the tideline, no doubt talking with the local gunners, one of whom was, of course, Stanley Duncan.

The railway engineer shared with the baronet his dreams of founding an association for the protection of wildfowlers, to be told that such an organisation had indeed been formed, but that it had foundered through lack of support. However, Duncan was undaunted and pressed on with his vision. It must have been obvious to anyone intent upon forming a wildfowling association at the time that the support of such a formidable authority as Payne-Gallwey would be invaluable, and in due course Sir Ralph gave his personal blessing to Duncan’s endeavours and consented to become the association’s first president.

The exact date upon which WAGBI came into existence remains something of an enigma. Long-established tradition holds that it was in the year of 1908, and this assertion has been celebrated on countless thousands of badges and car stickers, not to mention the fact that it was emblazoned on the association’s letterhead for many years. Imagine WAGBI director John Anderton’s embarrassment, therefore, when at the association’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations at Hull in 1968, “young” Stanley Duncan confided to him that WAGBI had actually been founded by his father in 1907. The earlier date is alluded to in a brief reference in a typewritten article by Duncan senior, undated but probably written at some time in the 1950s. In it Duncan states: It was not until 1907, at a meeting in the Imperial Hotel, Hull, that the Wildfowlers’ Association of Gt Britain and Ireland was formed, and Sir Ralph Payne-Galwey [sic] consented to become its first President.

With the jubilee celebrations in full swing, Anderton kept the discrepancy quiet, and stuck to the “official” line that the association’s birth was in 1908 and not the previous year. He was probably right to do so, for Duncan’s memory in his later years was failing and there exists no other independent corroboration of the comment made in that brief typewritten statement. We know that on 26 October 1907, Duncan sought the assistance of the Editor of Shooting Times with the words: Sir, I have been asked to suggest a Wildfowlers’ Association, to which you, Mr Editor, might give some assistance by permitting your paper to be the organ through which proposals might be considered and views obtained? Those words do not suggest that the association was already in being, so if indeed it was formed in 1907, then the formation did not occur before the very end of that year. So far as the documentary evidence is concerned, the first entry in the minute book is a record of a committee meeting held on 4 March 1908.

Six persons were present at that first recorded meeting held at 44 De la Pole Avenue, Hull, all of them local men: Alec Holt, Percy G. Timms, J. W. Barchard, Norman Duncan, William Lancaster and Stanley Duncan himself. Lancaster, a local undertaker, acted as treasurer and of course Duncan was secretary. In his minute book he recorded that the London, City & Midland Banking Co Ltd, Hull, would be the association’s bankers, that the rules were approved by all present and that the Imperial Hotel, Hull, had been selected as the place to hold a General Meeting. In the closing minute of that brief account, William Lancaster considered progress to date highly encouraging and favourable. In response, Norman Duncan wished success to attend the efforts of the association.

Progress was rapid as the founders threw their energies behind the infant association, and another committee meeting was held on March 18th. Then, on 2 April, a further committee meeting was combined with a General Meeting, most probably the first full meeting of the Association. While it was claimed in later years that this first meeting of WAGBI was held in the “Black Hut”, the tarred and weatherboarded structure beside the tidal channel at Patrington which formed the base camp for so many of Duncan’s fowling expeditions, the gathering was in fact held in the rather grander, if somewhat less romantic, surroundings of the Imperial Hotel, Hull.

The structure of the fledgling Wildfowlers’ Association was already becoming established and at that General Meeting simple administrative tasks were set in motion, such as the purchase of receipt books, the ordering of the first metal badges and the printing of membership cards and 5,000 letterheads at a cost of £2 10s. Impressive stationery designed by C. H. Stafford of Nottingham was adopted to ensure a gravitas appropriate to a national organisation ? WAGBI maintained the tradition of having a pictorial letterhead until after World War II. A network of regional contacts was also drawn together. While the original Executive Committee members were from Hull, WAGBI’s sights were set high from the outset, and hon secretaries for Scotland and Ireland were immediately appointed, with 5 shillings being voted to W. A. Nicholson (Scotland) and Thomas B. Gower (Ireland) to defray or assist in expense of postage stamps.

Relationships with other bodies were discussed and settled. Nicholas Everitt, WAGBI’s first hon solicitor, was a Norfolk lawyer and author of the book on shooting law Shots from a Lawyer’s Gun who also, incidentally, had the first motor car registration in Norwich. In July 1908, he suggested that WAGBI should affiliate to the Amalgamated Game Guild and Field Sports Association, but the committee cherished its independence and wrote to Everitt explaining that it did not, for the time being at least, see any means whereby a benefit would be derived or any compensation for its outlay by affiliation. The invitation stood, however, and affiliation was eventually agreed, on the basis of a £5 subscription. This was later, in 1914, altered to 10 per cent of turnover WAGBI’s income in that year being £46 5s.

From the outset it was clear that WAGBI was to be a politically active organisation which fought for the interests of wildfowlers. At the General Meeting held on 12 November 1908, in the Imperial Hotel, indicated in the minute book as the First General Meeting but more likely merely the first such meeting in the second subscription year, it was resolved to seek additional short period game licences at a cost of 10s per week or 2/6d a day, an extension of the open season until 15 March and free rail travel for members’ dogs accompanying their masters when bent on shooting.

A letter was sent by Duncan to the Railway Clearing House and two leading Railway Managers on this latter point. Naturally there was discussion about the very issue which had fired Duncan’s enthusiasm in setting up the association in the first instance access to the foreshore. There was concern over a court case which threatened to stop public rights over the foreshore, and it was agreed that sporting MPs should be written to on the subject with a view to increasing public interest on matters relative [to] foreshore & public rights. Members were also exhorted to ascertain the attitude of their local county councils with regard to wildfowling, open seasons and the protection of birds, a particularly important matter at a time when local authorities had considerable powers to determine when certain species of wild birds could be shot. Finally, it was agreed that meetings should also be entertaining and instructive. A decision was made to obtain a lantern and slides with a view to an illustrated address being given at the next meeting. These “magic lantern” talks became a feature of early WAGBI meetings.

And so WAGBI was launched on to an unsuspecting shooting world: a confident, energetic organisation with big ambitions and a spirited determination to get things done.

Few if any in that meeting room at the Imperial Hotel could have guessed that their association would still be in business in a hundred years, let alone could they have dreamed of the size and breadth of what it would become.

A Sporting Century will be available from Country Books direct from 15 September and costs £25 (free p & p). To obtain a copy, tel (01393) 261616 or visit