Arthur Erskine Ellis, 1902 - 1983

Biographical Notes by A.E.E.

Extracted from Journal of Conchology, Volume 31, pp.193–199
Arhur E. Ellis
Arthur Ellis died suddenly, in his sleep, at Alphington, Exeter, on the 28th February 1983. Before his death he left biographical notes for his obituary with Dr. Paul, then Honorary Editor of the Journal of Conchology. His letter to Dr. Paul and his biographical notes require little comment and are reproduced here essentially unchanged except for bringing the bibliography up to date and with the addition of an appraisal from Terry Crowley.
7 St. Michael’s Close
Exeter l4 Jan. 1976
Dear Dr. Paul,
One of the headaches of an editor is the writing of obituaries of members of the Society on the melancholy occasions when this duty becomes due. I once inserted an appeal to members to let me have biographical particulars so that these notices might be accurate and according to the wishes of the subject. I had three responses, I believe. Either people are too modest, or else have a morbid fear of anticipating the inevitable. I think I did provide Heppell with biographical particulars some years ago, but they are now probably lost, and in any case a bit out of date. I am therefore sending you the story of my life and list of publications, on which the writer of my obituary will be able to draw. I did supply such particulars to the Linnean Society (which no longer publishes obituaries), but this provided the material for an advance in Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 2:326. Few people are privileged to read their own obituary in advance! Perhaps this document can eventually be placed with the Society’s archives.
I am also sending the last studio portrait I had taken, about 30 years or more ago I think.
Yours sincerely
A. E. Ellis
In common with all biographies, the really interesting parts are omitted of course!

Arthur Erskine Ellis: Biographical notes

Born at Bangalore, India, 1st October 1902.
        Father. Robert Arthur Ellis, Wesleyan Methodist Minister (obituary in the Minutes of the Methodist Conference, 1963, p. 185), author of Spiderland (Cassell, 1912) and articles on natural history, chiefly in the Magazine of the Wesleyan Methodist Church. All photographs illustrating the works of AEE were taken by RAE, who had been a keen and expert photographer since his student days at Richmond College. He was a son of Robert Powley Ellis, M.C.O., Superintendent of the Line, Great Eastern Railway. The family is traced back to Richard Ellis of Polebrook, Northants., early seventeenth century. The name Erskine is derived from Sir David Erskine, son of the eleventh Earl of Buchan, who married Anne Ellis—the family’s only brush with the nobility; it does, however, include a suspected murderer and its quota of drunkards.
        Mother. Mary Ellis (née Gardner), M.B., Ch.B. (Glasgow). She entered Glasgow University the year degrees were first conferred on women.
        Places of residence: being a Methodist minister, RAE moved frequently, starting at Taunton on returning from India, then Radcliffe-on-Trent; Triangle, near Sowerby Bridge; Chippenham; St. Just-in-Penwith; Market Harborough; Ampthill; Haverfordwest; Attleborough, Norfolk. He retired in 1932 and lived at Thorpe St. Andrew, till 1951, then at Carshalton, Surrey. Mary Ellis died in August, 1951, and RAE on St. Luke’s Day, 1962, in his ninetieth year.
        Education: Sowerby Bridge Secondary School, 1910–12.
Kingswood School, Bath, 1912–21. The pass mark for the entry examination was 80 out of 200: AEE just scraped through; after one term at K.S. was third from bottom of the school, where he had an undistinguished career. Quotes from early reports: ‘Owes his position to native wit rather than industry;’ ‘Laziness is spoiling his work.’ This has always been a besetting failing, inherited, his mother averred, from her Irish father.
School Prefect, 1919; Second Prefect and Head of House, 1920. Apart from a prize for French in the Lower Fourth, won no prizes involving work: Gabriel Prize for natural history, 1920 & 1921; Punshon Prize for reading, 1921. Received an old fashioned classical education and did no science at school, being considered too weak at mathematics—besides, the ‘modern side’ was looked down upon,—but whole life changed in his final term by winning the Gabriel Prize. This came to the notice of Frank Potts, Trinity Hall, Cambridge, University Lecturer in Zoology, an Old Boy and Governor of Kingswood, who happened to visit the school at that time. He recommended AEE to take Biology instead of English at Oxford, so an eleventh hour switch was made. The obstacle was the necessity of passing the Preliminary Examination in Physics and Chemistry, subjects of which AEE was entirely ignorant (he did not even know what Physics was about), but the Prelims. in Physics & Chemistry and in Zoology & Botany were passed in the first year at Oxford. An incalculable debt of eternal gratitude is owed to Potts, who has since been venerated like a patron saint.
        Oxford: St. Edmund HaIl, 1921–25. Christopher Welch Scholarship, 1925. First Class, Honour School of Natural Science (Zoology), 1925. B.A., 1925; M.A., 1933. Secretary of Oxford University Junior Scientific Club, 1924 (declined presidency). President of St. Edmund Hall Essay Society, 1925.
        Whole career shaped by the good fortune of being useless at games and sport, which left one free as a prefect at Kingswood to explore the country round Bath on an ancient bicycle, and to extend the study of Biology at Oxford beyond the laboratory.
        Posts: Biology master at Lancing College, 1925–31. This was another critical stroke of fortune: the Principal of St. Edmund Hall happened to be visiting the Headmaster of Lancing, when the latter casually observed that he was starting biology in the school next term (the subject was taught in very few schools then) and wanted a teacher. ‘I have the very man,’ replied Dr. Allen, ‘he has just won a university research scholarship and is bound to get a first.’ The upshot was that while in bed with ‘flu AEE got a telegram from Canon Bowlby summoning him to Lancing.
Head of Biology Dept., Epsom College, 1931–63. This was another random chance: the school secretary happened to remark that he had seen the post advertised, so as the salary offered was twice what AEE was then getting, he applied.
Examiner in Biology (Premedical) to the Royal College of Surgeons for eleven years.

Fellow of the Linnean Society, 1931. H. H. Bloomer Award, 1970.
Fellow of the Zoological Society. Stamford Raffles Award for 1974.
Member of Malacological and Botanical Societies (member of Council and vice-president for former).
Conchological Society, 1923; President, 1939–41; Recorder of non-marine Mollusca, 1948–61; Editor of Journal of Conchology, 1948–64; Curator, 1964. [Honorary Membership of the Conchological Society, 1976.]

        First interest was butterflies and moths, then plants, of which a comprehensive herbarium was amassed over 40 years (this is now at Lancaster University); botany has shared equal place with conchology in his interests and enthusiasm. Later on took up various small groups, such as dragonflies, ants, harvestmen, false scorpions, woodlice and Orthoptera (sensu lato). First became interested in freshwater Mollusca at Kingswood (Conchologists’ Newsletter No. 1, p. 16) and in land Mollusca at Oxford, where he became friends with O. W. Richards (later Professor of Entomology at Imperial College), with whom collections were exchanged — AEE receiving OWR’s land & freshwater shells, while OWR received AEE’s Lepidoptera; the latter had the best of the exchange.
While at Lancing became friends with Ronald Winckworth, then living at Brighton, whose elder brother was a visiting violin teacher at Lancing. He was greatly helped and influenced by this remarkable man (see J. Conch. 23: 157). Other valued friends were G. C. Robson, A. E. Boycott, A. S. Kennard, and J. R. le B. Tomlin: their memory has always been precious.
        Collections: the non-marine Mollusca, with which were incorporated those from Winckworth’s collection, were presented to the British Museum (Natural History) in 1963. Collections of woodlice, harvestmen and false scorpions were given to the Dept. of Zoology, Oxford. Collections of dragonflies, Orthoptera and ants were left in the museum which AEE created at Epsom College.
        Species named after AEE: Limicolariopsis ellisi Crowley & Pain, 1964 (Rev. Zool. Bot, Afr. 69: 191).
Pisidium (Afropisidium) ellisi Dance, 1967 (J. Conch. 26: 178).
        Contributed numerous plant records to Rep. Bot. Exchange Club, Wolley-Dod’s Flora of Sussex, Horwood’s Flora of Leics., and Druce’s Flora of Northants. Discovered a sea lavender new to science, Limonium paradoxum Pugsley, 1931 (J. Bot. 69: 44–47), and a new hybrid fumitory, Fumaria officinalis X micrantha (det. Pugsley). Specimens of L. paradoxum were presented to the Druce herbarium at Oxford.
        In addition to the publications in the appended list, AEE wrote the section on non-marine Mollusca for the new edition of Farmer’s Book of Nature Study, which never got beyond galley proofs. These were given to the Molluscan Library at the British Museum (Nat. Hist.) and subsequently lost.


Arthur Erskine Ellis: An appraisal

It was typical of Arthur Ellis that he should have written his own obituary, since he had a habit of accuracy which nothing could disturb. This to him was the mark of the scientist and certainly took precedence over popularity, expediency or the peaceful life. It was certain that he knew more about his own career than anyone else did, so he set it out fully for the use of future generations; and if they didn’t want it, he would not have been in the least concerned.

His words were few and always carefully chosen: he rarely made an unsolicited remark except on a matter of importance; such as paying a compliment to a lady. Partly, this was the practice of a shy man and indeed, Ellis was not for everyone an easy man to know. Much of himself was deliberately hidden, but having passed this little barrier and found something in common, you discovered that he had a rather rare genius for friendship, and would be happy to give, psychologically, more than he needed to take from you.

He never sought the limelight, this would not have been in accordance with his logical attitude: his term as President of the Society occurred during the dark days of the War, and nothing would induce him to take the Office again when meetings became so much better attended. It was with difficulty that he could even be prevailed upon to lecture the Society, and then only with the stipulation that all alternatives had been found wanting; but what a treat for members it was when he did. To learn from Ellis’s lips about his own favourite freshwater bivalves (among many other things) was an intellectual joy. Those who studied under him at Epsom College seemed to have had a healthy awe of him but felt at the same time a great allegiance and agreed in calling him an unusually effective instructor.

He remarked that he left his profession without regrets, but later, after a temporary appointment at a girl’s school, was heard to say that he had been wasting his time on horrid boys when he might have been teaching such attractive and delightful maidens. This may have been one of his occasional provocative remarks: Ellis has little use for humour in the restricted sense, but his wit was dry and could make the hearer squirm with delight. It was straight faced, bore not a trace of sarcasm or malice, and criticised no one (except sometimes, himself). Criticism was too serious a matter for wit, though he did not hesitate to criticise too, where he thought it deserved. To submit a paper to the Journal when he was editor was to take a risk. If he thought the work capable of improvement, either in matter or manner, back it would come, with a schoolmasterly note. References were always checked and if a quotation lacked so much as a comma, it was incorrect and had to be amended. Such a policy maintained a very high standard, both of the Journal and of those who wrote for it. Who could not improve under such an editor?

On the other hand, his book British Snails 1926, which was the standard work on the subject and the only up to date reference book for forty years, he dismissed as ‘a youthful indiscretion’.

The character portrayed above does seem to come out as a rather arid individual, but in fact Ellis was far from that. No toffee-nose could have written half the things he did—his ghost stories, for instance, or his studies of poetry. His chief delight for many years was a field meeting to survey an area or seek a rarity with one or two friends, or even solo, finishing up in a cosy pub with a pint or two of ale—providing it was understood that there was to be no treating. This was another matter of principle.

The men who worked in the molluscan field during the reign of King George V laid the foundations of the subject which has now reached scientific refinement. The best of them were not only men who had an immense general knowledge of the whole subject (and usually others as well), but where themselves great characters, remembered for what they were as well as what they did. To some of us, joining the Society after the last War, Ellis seemed then like the last member of that great company. Thirty years later, that is how he appears still. Logic ruled his life but left much room for humanity as well.

T. E. C.


Publications by A. E. Ellis


Non-molluscan publications

1929 Birds at Lancing. Lancing College Magazine 22: 62–65.
1930 More Lancing Birds. ibid. 23:2–4.
1929–30 Animal Associations. School Science Review, No. 41, pp. 31–38; No. 43, pp. 246–258; No. 45, pp. 43–54.
1942 The natural history of Wheatfen Broad, part 4. The woodlice and harvestmen. Trans. Norfolk & Norwich Nat. Soc. 15:291–300.
1943 Miscellaneous observations: notes on Ampipoda, Oniscoida, Chelonethi, Opiliones, Orthoptera and Odonata. ibid. 372–374.
1943 Notes on the woodlice of Surrey. Proc. Croydon Nat. Hist. & Sci. Soc. 11: 152–153.
1943 Miscellaneous notes (Opiliones, Dermaptera). ibid. 153.
1948 The survey of Bookham Common. Woodlice of Bookham Common. London Naturalist for 1947: 59–60. Ibid., Amphipoda: p. 60.
1948 Fauna and flora of Norfolk: miscellaneous observations. Notes on snails, amphipods, false scorpions, dragonflies and grasshoppers.
Trans. Norf & Norw. Nat. Soc. 16: 330–332.
1949 Flora and fauna in Dutt, W. A.,Norfolk (The Little Guides), revised by E. T. Long (brother-in-law of AEE) pp. 15–19. Methuen & Batsford, London.
1965 Molluscs, Woodlice and Harvestmen (pp. 164–171) in Ellis, E. A., The Broads. The New Naturalist vol.46. Collins, London.
(Edward Augustus Ellis and Arthur Erskine Ellis are not related though often confused)

Articles contributed to the Magazine of the Wesleyan Methodist Church:

1925 vol. 148: Nature’s Calendar, Jan., March, April, Dec.
1926 vol. 149: Nature’s Calendar (all months), in co-operation with RAE.
1926 vol. 149: The relation of snails and their allies to man. pp. 289–91.

Ghost stories

The Haunted Haven. The Eighth Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, edited by Robert Aickman. Collins/Fontana, 1972.
French version, ‘La port hanté’, in 13 Histoires d’Oceans Maléfigues, Marabout, Brussels, 1976.
The Chapel Men. The Tenth Fantasia Book of Great Ghost Stories, edited by R. Chetwynd-Hayes. Collins/Fontana, 1974.
‘If thy right hand offend three...’ Frighteners, edited by Mary Danby. Fontana/Collins, 1974.
The Life-Buoy. The Thrill of Horror, edited by Hugh Lamb. W. H. Allen, London, 1975 (also published in USA).
Compartment 1313A. The Second Book of Horror. 1976.

Newspaper articles:

‘The Way of the Snail.’ Address given to the Epsom Rotary Club, reported by the Rev. S. K. Anderson. Epsom & Ewell Herald, 7 March 1941.
‘Snail-Country Trail’ (not the author’s title). The Western Morning News, 28 July 1975. [on Devon snails and collections]
‘A once-maligned mollusch’ (again not the author’s title). ibid. 25 April 1975. [on the oyster riddle in the Exeter Book]

International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature: Applications resulting in the following Opinions:

335 (1955), 336 (1955), 351, (1955), 431 (with R. Winckworth, 1956), 475 (1957), 495 (1957), 573 (1959), 587 (1961). Direction 27 (1955).

Publications on non-marine mollusca and obituaries of conchologists

JC=Journal of Conchology. PMS=Proceedings of the Malacological Society (Lond.)
1924 Mollusca of Flamborough. JC 17: 149–153
1924 Notes on some British Helicidae.JC 17: 162–167
1924 Land Mollusca on the Mewstone.JC 17: 187–188
1924 Mollusca in the neighbourhood of Market Harborough.JC 17: 188–192, 212–219; 18:8
1925 Experimental acclimatisation of Sabinea ulvae (Pennant) to fresh-water. Ann. & Mag. Nat. Hist. 15: 96–7
1925 The invalidity of Sabinea Sowerby. ibid. 16: 48–49
1926 Planorbis (Gyraulus) acronicus Férussac at Oxford. JC 18: 52–53
1926 British Snails. Clarendon Press (2nd edition, 1969).
1926 Helix draparnaudi Sheppard, and Planorbis draparnaldi Jeffreys. JC 18: 54
1926 Notes on some land Molluscs from Land’s End. PMS 17: 123–6
1927 Variation in Trichia liberta (Westerlund).JC 18: 118
1927 Additional notes on the Molluscs of the Oxford district. JC 18: 137–8
1927 An abnormality in Limnaea stagnalis (Linn.).JC 18: 139
1927 The snail as a zoological type, School Science Review No. 34: 102–110
1928 Vertigo moulinsiana (Dupuy) near Norwich. JC 18: 208
1928 Planorbis vorticulus Troschel in West Sussex. PMS 18: 127
1929 A garden fauna. JC 18: 312
1930 Mollusca on Gateholm. JC 19: 61
1931 A reclaimed salt-marsh. PMS 19: 278–9
1931 Molluscs of Wicken Fen [note]. JC 19: 170
1931 Notes on some Norfolk Molluscs. JC 19: 177–8
1931 (with D. Aubertin & G. C. Robson) The natural history and variation of the Pointed Snail, Cochlicella acuta (Müll.). Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond. for 1930: 1027–1055, pl. 1
1932 The habitats of Hydrobiidae in the Adur estuary. PMS 20: 11–18
1932 Further localities for Planorbis vorticulus Troschel. JC 19: 258–9
1939 A Surrey Bronze Age interment. JC 21: 90
1939 A discussion on the variation of Lymnaea, etc. PMS 23: 313
1940 The identification of the British species of Pisidium. PMS 24: 44–88, pl. 3–6
1940 Some Devon land snails. JC 21: 190
1941 The Mollusca of a Norfolk broad (presidential address). JC 21: 224–243
1941 Ecological notes. JC 21: 258–9
1941 Anodonta minima Millet in Norfolk. JC 21: 280
1942 Milax gracilis (Leydig) in woodland. JC 21: 325–6
1945 Limax flavus L. in a ‘wild’ habitat. JC 22: 135
1946 Milax sowerbyi (Fér.) in woodland. JC 22: 177
1946 On Potomida Swainson. PMS 27: 105–8, pl. 7
1946 Freshwater bivalves (Mollusca). Corbicula,Sphaerium, Dreissena. Linn. Soc. Synopses of the British Fauna, No. 4
1947 Freshwater bivalves (Mollusca). Unionacea. ibid. No. 5
1947 Retinella nitidula (Drap.) monstr. sinistrorsum. JC 22: 271
1947 Dimensions of Anodonta minima Millet. JC 22: 271
1948 The survey of Bookham Common. Land Mollusca of Bookham Common. London Naturalist for 1947: 56–59
1949 A Broadland slug [Agriolimax agrestis L.] Trans. Norf. & Norw. Nat. Soc. 16: 388
1950 Succinea putris (L.) parasitized by Leucochloridium. JC 23: 107
1950 The type species of Testacella. JC 23: 115
1951 R. Winckworth, obituary. JC 23: 157–62
1954 Volvulus Oken. JC 23: 394
1959 E. W. Swanton, obituary. JC 24: 326
1961 Land and freshwater Mollusca in Norwich and its region, p. 73. British Association. Jarrold, Norwich
1961 H. H. Bloomer, obituary. Proc. Linn. Soc. Lond. 172nd session:part 1.
1962 British freshwater bivalve Molluscs. Linn. Soc. Synopses of Brit.fauna, No. 13
1964 L. W. Grensted, obituary. JC 25: 291–3, pl. 20
1964 Arion lusitanicus Mabille in Cornwall. JC 25: 285–287
1964 Milax budapestensis (Hazay) in woodland. JC 25: 298
1965 Arion lusitanicus Mabille in Devon. JC 25: 345–347
1967 Agriolimax agrestis (L.): some observations. JC 25: 345–7
1978 British freshwater bivalve Molluscs, Linn. Soc. Synopses of British Fauna (New Series) No. 11

Conchological Society; Papers for Students

No. 3 (1964). Key to land shells of Great Britain.
No. 3 (2nd edition, 1974). Key to the land snails of the British Isles.
No. 12 (1969). Key to British slugs

Publications in the Conchologists' Newsletter

1961 Land and freshwater snails, additions to the British list, 3:12–13
1962 Biographical note, 4:16
1964 Some etymology, 9:50–51
1964 Sinistrosity, 9:53–54
1964 Snails extinct in England, but living abroad, 11:68–69
1964 Posting living molluscs, 11:68–69
1966 and Turk, S. M., Cornish localities for Arion lusitanicus 16:108
1967 Conkers and conchology, 20:138–139
1967 Nesovitrea hammonis and N. petronella, 21:6
1967 Unorthodox orthography, 22:15–16
1967 Poems on Conchology, 22:24–25
1968 Arion lusitanicus in Ireland, 25:40–41
1968 Metamerism, 25:47
1968 Pronunciation, 27:65–66
1969 Snail-eating dragons, 31:13 122
1970 Slugs and the poets, 35:185–186
1971 Names of British marine Molluscs, 37:205–206
1971 Slugs and the poets, 39:233–234
1972 Blue print for peace, 43:289
1972 Such numbers of snails, 43:289
1973 Who is Brittannia? What is She? 4.44:302
1973 Perils of the deep, 44:310
1973 Footnote to, Who is Britannia, 44:313
1973 An Old English Riddle, 45:316–317
1973 Hooper’s hypothesis, 45:323
1973 Biographical and historical footnotes, 45:323
1973 Cochlea liberum, the snail in old nursery rhymes, 47:346–348
1974 Paradise lost? 49:373
1974 First record of Arion lusitanicus in Ireland, 49:384
1974 Review, From the diary of a snail, Günter Grass, 50:393–394
1974 First record of Arion lusitanicus in Ireland, 50:395
1974 Excelsior: the snail ascending, 51:398–399
1975 Place names with a molluscan flavour, 52:412–414
1975 Why collect shells? 53:434–435
1975 Pestalozzian conchology, a note, 54:449–450
1975 Shells as musical instruments, 55:460–461
1975 The snail in 19th century verse, 55:464–466
1975 Pestalozzian conchology, 55:469
1976 L’escargot, 58:519-520
1976 Molluscan place names: supplement, 58:520–521
1976 Correction to an Old English Riddle, 58:521
1977 Shells murmurs, 71:189-190. 62:33–34
1977 The mollusc in fables, 63:44–46
1978 Shakespeare and sea shells, 67:105–106
1979 Adventure of a snail hunter, 69:153–154
1979 Poem on the limpet, 71:182–183
1979 Snails and slugs in Shakespeare, 71:189–190
1981 Cassel’s Natural History, 76:309–310.
1982 Celebrities in shells, 81:9
1982 Concerning Captain Thomas Brown, 82:35–36
1982 Sue Wells, international trade in ornamental shells, 83:56