In August 1962, the ornithological journal ‘British Birds’ published two articles devoted to the examination of one topic. The authors, Max Nicholson and James Ferguson-Lees, made clear their intention in the accompanying editorial. This was to prove, by statistical analysis and comparison of records, that many, if not all, of the rare birds recorded from the Hastings area, in the period 1890 – 1930, were the result of a deliberate deception.
Within a short time of the publication of the articles, dramatic newspaper headlines were speaking of the ‘Hastings Rarities Fraud’, and, for some time afterwards, the issue assumed almost national importance.
In spite of the fact that the authors of the report had wished ‘to record our warning against the use of the investigation to seek to fasten any sort of guilt on any person or persons, living or dead’, the newspapers of the day selected the local gunsmith and taxidermist, George Bristow, as the individual most likely to have the means and motive to perpetrate the alleged fraud. It was suggested that rare birds were brought into the country as frozen specimens and then presented as locally shot examples.
Although it is probable that most ornithologists accept the recommendations of the authors of the ‘British Birds’ report, the issue is still alive, and books and media programmes still focus on the debate.
Summary of Recommendations of the ‘British Birds’ Report
That 16 species and 13 sub-species be completely deleted from the records. This list included the Slender-Billed Curlew, now in Hastings Museum. That all occurrences contained in Appendices A and B be deleted from ‘The Handbook of British Birds’ subject to reinstatement where a particular case could be made showing them to be valid.
The two appendices comprised a list of nearly 600 birds recorded as having been shot or seen in the Hastings area.
Of the 16 species deleted, it was noted that 10 had been recorded elsewhere in the British Isles since the publication of ‘The Handbook of British Birds’ (1938–41).
An addendum acknowledged that in the light of further information supplied by Dr. N. F. Ticehurst, the White-spotted Bluethroat should be re-instated.