Martin Venables: A man of art and nature

Martin Venables
Martin Venables

This week I will take a look at the life and works of a man for whom the time before the 1700s was of particular interest.

I first met him when I joined the Bognor Regis Local History Society in 1979. His name was Martin Venables and he was nationally known as an amateur geologist and natural historian.

Martin Venables drawing of the Salt House, Pagham

Martin Venables drawing of the Salt House, Pagham

Born Edmond Martin Venables in 1901 in Sutton, Surrey, he was the youngest of three sisters and a brother. His parents moved to Bognor when he was one and lived at the ‘red house’ in a cul-de-sac off Victoria Road. In 1904, his father purchased No 3 Marine Parade for the sum of £1,320. He also bought the garden for £170 and the stable at the rear for a further £185.

The house overlooked the seashore, where Edmond lived until aged 33. He became known as Martin Venables, the self-taught geologist, who was fascinated by the natural history of Sussex. Martin was to produce in excess of 2,500 articles on natural history in the local press. I can remember the Selbourne Notes, which he wrote for the West Sussex Gazette for over 50 years.

During his teenage years his mentor was a the natural historian Harry Guermonprez, who died in 1924 but to whom Martin became a protégé. This association was no doubt a great influence on many aspects of Martin’s life. Harry was a taxidermist and had a collection of well over 100,000 specimens of natural history and some 2,000 books. With the influence of Guermonprez and a copy of Geology of Sussex, printed in 1850, Martin realised his own collection of fossils and his knowledge were worth looking after.

By 1928 he was elected to the fellowship of the Geology Society, which paved the way for his first paper on the London Clay of Bognor Regis, which described the foreshore area of Bognor Regis. He was still only 27 years of age.

The entrance to the cemetery which contains stone which may have come from the beach

The entrance to the cemetery which contains stone which may have come from the beach

In 1934 he married Alice May Portnall and they worked on the area of the Aldwick Beds. This is a group of strata which yielded a rich fossil assemblage of fauna and flora, including many new species and genera. Among the genera are the fossil plant, Bognoria, another is Aldwickia and a third genus Portnallia, named after his wife, because of her work for Palaeobotany. Martin also had a genus named after him, Venablesia, an anobid beetle. The most outstanding aspect of his work was the discovery of, at that time, the only known fossil insect fauna of the London Clay of 60 million years ago.

He decided his collection should be re-housed; also around this time his collection was conditionally gifted to the town. It was found temporary accommodation in an unused wing of Lyon Street School in 1947. Martin Venables became curator of the Bognor Regis Museum, formed around the collection of Guermonprez.

In 1969 Martin wrote a publication with AF Outen called Building Stones of Old Bognor. The booklet was published by the Bognor Regis Natural Science Society and gave an informative view of the materials used to build many of the town’s constructions.

Martin was also a self-taught artist a skill that was to prove useful when he was recording his finds along the coast, while all the people who were lucky enough to receive one of his Christmas cards also enjoyed his sketches.

Edmond Martin Venables died in 1990, leaving so much information for those who are interested in natural history and geology. One such person is David Bone, who grew up knowing Martin Venables and from whom he gained his enthusiasm. David now continues much of Martin’s work.

Within one year of Martin’s death a small island in Pagham Harbour was raised and was to be used as a breeding ground for a rare tern. In 1981 Martin became the 1st honorary member of the Bognor Regis Local History Society in recognition of his valuable work within the area.

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