‘Olla podrida with Nescio quidquid Sauce’: The Transactions of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society

The Report and Transactions produced annually by the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society provide a treasure trove of material on all aspects of the natural sciences. By 1900 the Society was flourishing, with over 500 members and separate sections for archaeology, biology, geology, physics and chemistry. The reports and papers produced by the sections were collated each year and published as a record of the Society’s activities and as a contribution towards the wider understanding of the natural sciences. Bound volumes of the Report and Transactions from the creation of the Society in 1867 through to 1970 can be found on the shelves of the searchroom at Glamorgan Archives. Dipping into just one of the books (for example, the volume that draws together reports for 1897 to 1902) you are struck, immediately, by the range of material produced by members of the Society. There is something for most tastes and interests with papers on:

The Excavations carried out on the site of the Blackfriars Monastery at Cardiff

The Birds of Glamorgan

Effects of a lightning flash

The Great Flood of 1607

Notes on the Psalter of Ricemarch

Notes on the hatchery and fish hatching at Roath Park

The Geology of the Cowbridge District

Meteorological observations in the society’s district.

However, if you are looking for a recommendation why not try a piece provided by Robert Drane in Vol. 33, ‘Olla podrida with Nescio quidquid Sauce’? Drane was one of the leading lights of the Society from its creation in 1867 to his death in 1914. He was the first life member of the Society and its President in 1896-97. His interests were wide ranging and he was a regular contributor to the Report and Transactions. In the article titled ‘Olla podrida with Nescio quidquid Sauce’, first delivered as a lecture to the Biological section of the Society on 15 December 1898, he set out the findings from one of his many visits to the islands off the Pembrokeshire coast.

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In the report Drane provides detailed observations on the wildlife and the local flora and fauna that he found on the islands in June 1898. His writing is characterised by an unerring eye for detail, whether assessing the stomach contents of a Herring Gull, the physical characteristics of the Skomer vole or the varieties of Broom found on Ramsey Island. He evidently delighted in attempting to debunk existing theories and local folk lore and, in particular, the suggestion that ‘nothing can be false that’s once in print’. For example, in the paper he contends that the Skomer vole was most likely a new and distinctive species and, therefore, challenging the view of …an authority at the Natural History Museum… that they are a local variety of the common bank vole. He also concludes that the Herring Gull on Skomer prefers a diet of eggs, including Puffin eggs, rather than local reports that its staple diet was rabbit.

The core of the paper lies in his investigation of three areas. In Drane’s words he set out to:

…determine the question of the specific difference of the Ringed and Common Guillemot, to find out what the Shearwater feeds on, and obtain some specimens of a large Vole, abundant there, which I am disposed to regard as an Island variety.

He reports in detail on each subject. However, as always with Robert Drane, you are provided with much more. For example, he condemns the …rapacious egg collectors… on Grassholm, praises the owner of Ramsey for his care of the island’s population of Choughs and quizzes the keepers of the South Bishop’s lighthouse on the range and number of birds observed.

The report is also peppered with titbits of information from his observation that a Puffin on Skomer had 39 sand eels in its crop to the sighting of a Dew moth on Ramsey Island. Drane, who was 65 at the time, and his travelling companion, a fellow member and later President of the Society, J J Neale, must have amused and alarmed the local people as they edged out over cliff faces to observe Guillemot nests and carried off puff-ball fungus to be cooked and eaten. With regard to the latter he reported:

We took it home and, sliced it, fried it, and ate it for breakfast much to the doubt, if not to the disgust of the natives, who subsequently finding that we suffered no harm regarded us as gods…

Drane

Robert Drane and Joshua John Neale, both members of Cardiff Naturalists Society, c.1900 ref.: DXIB23d

For a rich and detailed account of the wildlife on the Pembrokeshire Islands with a slice of humour and local colour ‘Olla podrida with Nescio quidquid Sauce’ is well worth a read. As for the title, Drane enjoyed setting his audience a challenge. A previous paper titled ‘A Pilgrimage to Golgotha’ had evidently left many mystified as to its possible content. Robert Drane explained that ‘Olla podrida with Nescio quidquid Sauce’ had, therefore, been carefully selected …so that everyone here tonight perfectly understands… what I am going to talk about…  Perhaps I will leave you to work it out for yourself. Drane’s explanation is at page 59 of Vol. 33. Why not have a look?

If you are interested in finding out more Robert Drane and the many and varied reports produced by the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society, bound copies of the Annual Report and Transactions for 1867 to 1970 can be found on shelves of the Searchroom at Glamorgan Archives.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer