Judge Done and his notebooks

Source: Sturt, Nick. “Judge Done and his notebooks.” Sussex Botanical Recording Society Newsletter, no. 47 (January 1999). http://www.sussexflora.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Newsletter_jan_1999.pdf.


Near the end of his life, while he was peacefully ensconced in his house a field away from Chichester Harbour, Judge Done was anxious that his botanical notebooks should not be lost to posterity. He made enquiries at Woods Mill regarding how the data therein might be made  available to future botanists, and this is how two hardback exercise books came into the possession of the Society.

Before going any further it would be as well to be definitive on the matter of the pronunciation of the name. Done rhymes with bone and not with bun. I can imagine the second Mrs Done – well known in her day to the inhabitants of West Wittering as an avid gardener – bristling with indignation if anyone had shown ignorance about the vowel sound in her husband’s name. (History does not, alas, record his preferred rendering of the word ‘scone’). But now the ashes of the good Judge rest in West Wittering churchyard, close to the stile in the western wall, not far from the clumps of Iris foetidissima and the rosettes of Salvia verbenaca which he appreciated in their season.

W.E.P. Done was born on 10th March 1883 in Groombridge. After education at Elizabeth College Guernsey and Pembroke College Oxford he proceeded to a career in the law, being called to the bar in 1910. Legal battles were laid temporarily aside in September 1914, however, with the outbreak of the Great War when Done joined the Royal Sussex Regiment as an officer. He also put aside the personal diary in which he had been collecting records of the flora of the Groombridge area since 1904; no further data were added to this, the first of the two notebooks now in the keeping of the Society.

With the second notebook history moves forward to 1935 and the scene moves westwards from v.c. 14 to v.c. 13. A property on the edge of West Wittering was purchased as a holiday home. It was on the new Roman Landing estate, whose developers were pressing buyers to give suitably Roman names to their houses. The Judge was not to be won over: preferring our Saxon ancestors for their character if not their plumbing, he chose ‘Westringes’, the Saxon name for the settlement. And it was in ‘Westringes’ – suitably extended – that Judge Don eventually took up permanent residence.

Not that botany was the Judge’s only interest, for I should mention his very readable history of the Selsey peninsula, Looking Back in Sussex (‘The Story of the Manhood and West Wittering down to Domesday’), published in 1953, and the less easily come-by Chichester as The Romans Called It which followed some four years later. There was also a monograph on the parish church of St Peter and St Paul, West Wittering.

Judge Done’s second notebook is more familiar to me than the first, by reason of its assemblage of records for the Chichester area which beg to be refound. The format uses a double page with columns giving for each species the botanical name, the English name, the habitat, months of flowering, an assessment of frequency (apparently) within the geographical bounds of the project, and finally locations. One entry will exemplify the layout: “Trifolium suffocatum / Dense-flowered Trefoil / gravelly places by the seas / 5-6 / v. rare / coast path, Snow Hill, W. Wittering.” More common plants lack locations; the rarest attract the year of discovery.

The title page of this notebook, Flora of Chichester and District, suggests the geographical scope of the project without actually being precise. In fact the Judge ranges west as far as Thorney (Polypogon monspeliensis, for example), north to Stansted (Epipactis violacea), and in an eastward sweep connecting Racton (Petasites hybridus), Harting Hill (Campanula trachelium), Cocking (Viscus album), Bignor (Sambucus ebulus), and Bury Hill (Atropa belladonna) but then retreating westwards past Rewell Wood (Lithospermum officinale) and Halnaker Hill (Marrubium vulgare) without apparently returning to the coast until, after leaping Aldingbourne Rife (Lythrum salicaria), he reaches Pagham sandhills (Filago minima). (The above examples, including Trifolium suffocatum, all have very recent sighting in these places, though there are fears that the Polypogon may have disappeared from Thorney).

Although it would be fair to observe that there are few records gathered in the notebooks to excite the botanist with a craving for the sensational (perhaps the undated Melampyrum arvense at West Wittering might quicken his or her pulse!), there is much here to thrill more subtly – and much, inevitably, to dismay when the losses to building, drainage and agriculture are calculated. Yet in contrast to the untiring South-westerly gales, perhaps the wind of change has blown less violently across the Selsey peninsula than elsewhere. For a very large proportion of the species of this piece of coast and countryside well worked by Done remain. Even on the Judge’s old lawn I saw, some five years ago, the Spiranthes spiralis which he had recorded there; the bald entry ‘lawn at Westringes’ does not do justice to the excitement that surely accompanied the first sighting?

The last addition to the Wittering notebook is 1972; Judge Done died in 1976. He was correct in his assumption that the notebooks contained material of value. Looking through their pages, it is striking how much of interest there is for the local observer of plants. Should we not each be keeping careful notebooks for the pleasure and education of future generations? Even a small piece of research such as this tends to raise many more questions than it answers. For instance I am unable to account for the gap of twenty-one years between the two extant notebooks. Was there another list of records begun after military service? Was all botanical activity suspended because of commitment to career? There was one daughter by his first marriage – did family life absorb those years? Was it the floristic richness of West Wittering and area which re-awakened a dormant enthusiasm? For me even more tantalising is the possibility of a tenuous Arnold connection. E.C. Arnold, an energetic naturalist, taught at Elizabeth College Guernsey until 1899 (before bringing both natural history and rugby to Eastbourne College): could the young Done’s interest in plants really have been fostered or even sparked by the Rev Frederick Arnold’s nephew?


Our president has many talents but one of the happiest  is that of sifting thoughtfully the many and varied items which come into her hands and ensuring that each gem reaches an individual who will appreciate it. That is how I have had the pleasure of coming to know, through his notebooks, William Edward Pears Done.