GILLHAM, MARY ELEANOR (1921 - 2013), naturalist and educator

Name: Mary Eleanor Gillham
Date of birth: 1921
Date of death: 2013
Parent: Edith Gertrude Gillham (née Husband)
Parent: Charles Thomas Gillham
Gender: Female
Occupation: naturalist and educator
Area of activity: Nature and Agriculture; Education
Author: Alan Reeve

Mary Gillham was born in Ealing on 26 November 1921, the daughter of wood- and metal-work teacher Charles Thomas Gillham (1890-1974) and professional dressmaker Edith Gertrude (née Husband, 1887-1975) and sister to John Charles Gillham (1917-2009).

Despite living within London the family were keen campers and would regularly travel out into the countryside on weekends and holidays. This, with being a keen member of the Girl Guides movement, nurtured Mary's passion for nature and in particular birds and flowers. By 1939 there was little of Britain the Gillhams had not explored so they undertook a road trip to Switzerland, returning to the UK just 3 weeks before Germany invaded Poland and WWII began.

After attending Little Ealing Infants and Junior School, then Lionel Road Primary School followed by Ealing Girls Grammar School, Mary sat the Civil Service and London County Council entrance exams, ready to begin the 'dreariest part of my life' working as a clerk. When war broke out, she seized the opportunity to leave her office job and work in the countryside by joining the Women's Land Army.

Gillham then spent the next four and a half years contributing to the war effort on farms in Berkshire. During this time she was involved in all aspects of farm work, in the fields, tending animals and milking cows. Despite the rigours of the work she also set up and led a new Girl Guide company and completed a Diploma of Proficiency correspondence course in 'General Farming'. It was due to her academic aptitude in achieving this Diploma that the Women's Land Army proposed she enter university after de-mob, and in October 1945 she began a BSc in Agriculture at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Whilst at university she worked under the tutelage of eminent phycologist and botanist Professor Lily Newton who swiftly noticed Gillham's botanical talents and urged her to continue with postgraduate studies. It was during her undergraduate degree that Gillham first visited the Pembrokeshire islands of Skokholm and Skomer, which began her lifelong love for islands and paved the way for her future endeavours abroad. Over a ten year period she made annual visits to the islands and completed the research for her PhD, investigating the effects of substrate, environmental conditions, grazing and birds on the differences in vegetation between the islands. After completing her PhD in 1953 she spent three years as Assistant Lecturer at the University of Exeter, based in the newly opened Hatherly Biological Laboratories. There she continued researching island ecology, adding Lundy in the Bristol Channel as one of her islands of interest.

For reasons now unclear, Gillham decided to move on from Exeter and secured an exchange lectureship at Massey College (now Massey University) in New Zealand in 1956. After a year at Massey, she moved to Australia, where she spent a year as Senior Demonstrator at the University of Melbourne and then worked for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), attempting to determine the cause of the degeneration of commercial mutton bird (shearwater) rookeries on the remote islands of the Bass Strait.

In 1959, after convincing the Minister for External Affairs that women were capable of contributing to a research expedition, Mary Gillham, along with Hope Black, Isobel Bennet and Susan Ingham, became the first female scientists to join an Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE) to the Antarctic research station on Macquarie Island. The expedition, of course, passed without a hitch and these four women opened the door to more women wishing to research in the Antarctic.

In April 1960 Gillham's time in Australia came to an end and she travelled home via a three-month research trip to multiple African countries, including South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Nigeria, finally returning to the UK in October 1960. After two years of fruitless job applications, many returning with the phrase 'we feel this post calls for a young man', she finally secured a job with Cardiff University in 1962 as an extramural lecturer. Over the following 25 years until her retirement in 1988 Gillham was to teach botany, ecology and ornithology to hundreds of students at sites across Wales, England and Scotland, as well as venturing abroad to Europe, North Africa, the Caribbean, the Seychelles and North America.

At the time Gillham was living in South Wales the extractive industries of mining and quarrying were beginning to decline and, after the tragedy at Aberfan, measures were being made to make safe and beautify ex-industrial areas. The industrial landscape of South Wales consequently dominated her attention, and she was interested in and routinely consulted on how the land could be rehabilitated, both for wildlife and the enjoyment of people.

On arrival in Cardiff Gillham immediately joined the Cardiff Naturalists' Society and Glamorgan County Naturalists' Trust, affiliations that were to last for the remainder of her life. Her work and home lives had a very indistinct boundary. When she was not leading an extramural group she would be scouting locations for field meetings, leading or attending nature walks, giving talks about wildlife and travel, writing notes on her many excursions, or composing letters and reports advocating the protection of certain areas.

During her life Mary Gillham was a committee member for the Brecon Beacons National Park (1972-1978), president of the Cardiff Naturalists' Society (1974-1975), council and committee member of Glamorgan Naturalists' Trust (an early name for the Wildlife Trust), vice-president of the Merthyr and District Naturalists' Society, and a member of the Welsh committees of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Botanical Society of the British Isles.

Mary Gillham was passionate about education and generous about sharing her knowledge. Over her career she taught thousands of students and members of the public about botany, ecology and conservation and raised the profile of environmental issues with a huge number of people through lectures, guided walks and study tours. She was a strong-willed and focussed woman who succeeded through a combination of determination, intelligence and an openness to new opportunities.

After her retirement in 1988 her extramural classes may have ceased but her life otherwise proceeded as before. With her new-found time she expanded her travel, and began turning 30 years' worth of notes into books. After nearly 50 years of working to protect and rehabilitate nature she was awarded an MBE for services to nature conservation in 2009.

Mary Gillham died in the Royal Glamorgan hospital, Cardiff on 23 March 2013, aged 91 and was cremated at Thornhill Crematorium on 8 April.

After her death the Mary Gillham Archive Project was created to digitise much of her archive. Between 2016 and 2018 the project team digitised 115,000 wildlife records, scanned and transcribed 27,000 slides, and uncovered Gillham's life story using her handwritten notes. The slides themselves, along with Gillham's written archive, are now all stored in Glamorgan Archives.


Published date: 2019-04-30

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