The Bird Watcher's Tale

Ralph Chislett: Yorkshire's pioneering bird ringer and ornithologist

Hull on Film: Tales From A City Exhibition (2018) by Yorkshire Film ArchiveYorkshire Film Archive

Ralph Chislett (1950) by UnknownYorkshire Film Archive

The Bird Watcher's Tale: Ralph Chislett

Ralph Chislett was one of the founders of the bird observatory at Spurn Point, the first mainland ringing station in the UK.  Together with three other committee members, in 1937 he secured the promise of a lease for Warren Cottage, at the northern end of the peninsula, to be established as an observatory.  A communal log for ornithological observations was established in 1938 by members of the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union. 

Ralph & Lillian Chislett (1933)Yorkshire Film Archive

Ralph Chislett was born in Rotherham in 1885 and became a chartered accountant.

In 1911 he married Lillian Wiles at the Friends Meeting House. Ralph travelled the length and breadth of the country lecturing on birds and promoting their conservation.

The onset of WW2 meant that bird watching on Spurn was suspended, but the observatory was finally opened shortly after the end of the war, in 1945. The first bird to be ringed was a blackbird on 17th November the same year.

Together with George Ainsworth and other members of the Yorkshire Naturalists, Ralph built a Heligoland trap - a huge wire cage (named after the German island where it was first used) that birds fly into, which narrows down to a final trap box where the birds can be safely taken out, ringed, then released.

The Spurn Bird Observatory (1950-10-22) by Charles ChislettOriginal Source: View the full film on the YFA website

The ringing of birds was first started over 100 years ago, and is a highly skilled process to ensure that the birds are not harmed or distressed.

Bird ringing is organised and co-ordinated in Britain and Ireland by the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology), using a network of over 2,000 highly trained and licensed volunteers to ring over 850,000 birds every year.

This film, made by Ralph's brother, Charles Chislett, shows the original committee who set up the ringing station on Spurn Point, and captures the dedication of an earlier generation of bird enthusiasts seeking to help in the protection of birds. Miss Carrie Leonard, shown feeding her hens, lived on Spurn and looked after the ringers.

Lillian, Ralph’s wife and life-long companion on all his field trips, can also be seen in the film.

Ralph Chislett in Filey (1937) by Charles ChislettOriginal Source: View the film on the YFA website.

Ralph's brother, Charles Chislett, was a very talented semi-professional filmmaker, in addition to being the manager of William Deacon’s Bank in Rotherham, and working in the Intelligence Corps during WW2. He made a considerable number of films of exceptional quality.

This still, and the following film clip, shows a family trip to Filey. It features Charles’ daughter Rachel, and Ralph Chislett in the striped swimming costume.

Ralph Chislett in Filey (1937) by Charles ChislettYorkshire Film Archive

Chislett Newspaper Article (1934-12-14) by Hull Daily MailYorkshire Film Archive

Ralph was also a pioneer bird photographer, ranked alongside other great Yorkshire wildlife photographers, such as Robert and Cherry Kearton, and Reginald Lodge from Lincolnshire, who is credited with taking the first ever photo of a wild bird.

Ralph’s first foray into the world of photography took place in 1906, when he began using a huge wooden camera with fragile glass plates. 1922, he received the medal of the Royal Photographic Society and a year later was awarded his Fellowship. He was a member of the Zoological Photographic Club for 50 years, being its secretary from 1931 to 1946 and later its President.

Northward Ho! - For Birds, Ralph Chislett, 1933, From the collection of: Yorkshire Film Archive
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Ralph spent days studying and stalking birds, building hides to allow him to get close enough for the photo, and travelling from the wild moorlands of England and Scotland to the windswept hills of Shetland, Lapland and Sweden.

In 1932, Ralph published his first book: “Northward Ho! for Birds” (the title is a tribute to that great adventure story "Westward Ho!" by Charles Kingsley) which described some of these trips and included many of his photographic masterpieces.

As well as the meticulous observation of the smallest ornithological detail, the book recorded the people that he met on his travel.

By his side throughout the journey, Lilian, his wife, provided unstinting and constant support.

Redwing (1933) by Ralph ChislettYorkshire Film Archive

“As we passed his territory a cock redwing would often warble from a bough; the song always sweetly musical”

From "Northward Ho! for Birds", Ralph Chislett

Tawny Owl (1933) by Ralph ChislettYorkshire Film Archive

“Without hesitation the bulky bird pushed its head into the hollow and settled itself on the eggs; then turned its head round over its back and stared. I made no sound ... Except for occasional blinks the bird sat quite still, which was fortunate, for the situation under the spruce was dark necessitating a photographic exposure of seven seconds to ensure a decent illustration of the scene.”

From "Northward Ho! for Birds", Ralph Chislett

Ring Ouzel (1933) by Ralph ChislettYorkshire Film Archive

“There again I waited for ring ouzels, between the bank and the wall. The dark cock bird displayed his clearly defined crescent first on top of the wall behind me, singing sometimes a bar of a song, whilst his bill held wriggling grubs”

From "Northward Ho! for Birds", Ralph Chislett

Sandpiper (1933) by Ralph ChislettYorkshire Film Archive

“True to his promise the stalker led us ... to where he knew there was there was a nest of a greenshank. We were anxious to talk birds, but the stalker preferred to discuss European history of the nineteenth century with a predilection for the period of the third Napoleon.”

From "Northward Ho! for Birds", Ralph Chislett

Credits: Story

We are indebted to the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting our work to preserve these films and make them accessible for future generations. The research has been extensive and the exhibition contains only some of the stories we have discovered. To see further films visit

It is not possible to list everyone who has helped with this project – we are hugely grateful for the generosity of responses we have received, from families, historians and volunteers. In particular we would like to thank:

Val Baxter, Jonathan Barker, Malcolm Dunn, Daniel Morgan,

Curator: Martin Watts, Hull on Film
Editor: Andy Burns, Yorkshire Film Archive
Writer: Ruth Patman, Yorkshire Film Archive
Archivist: Megan McCooley, Yorkshire Film Archive

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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