Emma Turner - a pioneering naturalist and photographer

Camera and old photographs

Emma Louisa Turner (1867 -1940) was a woman with sheer passion for nature who followed her cause with deep joy and without hesitation. This is conveyed most clearly (as is her character and her humour), in her writing and in her photography.

We asked Curator, Sarah Woodcock, to look through the archives, so we could reveal more about the story of this truly remarkable woman...

A respected photographer

Imagine coming across this most remarkable woman, camouflaged in the reeds, with a large-format plate camera, taking hours to capture the birdlife of Scolt Head Island in Norfolk. She was dedicated to birds and loved finding them and capturing them in her photographs, the first to be taken in the wild in Norfolk. 

Her photographs of the elusive bittern in 1911 (the first evidence of its return to the UK since its extinction there in the late 1800s) won her the Gold Medal of the Royal Photographic Society, and are still noted for their remarkable quality even now. 

A pioneering job for a woman

Emma L Turner was the first “Watcher” (Warden or Ranger) at Scolt Head Island from 1924-25. The Island, forming part of the distinctive salt marsh fringing the North Norfolk Coast, was acquired by the National Trust in 1923 and is leased to the Nature Conservancy Council (now Natural England) who still manage the site today. 

Her job involved protecting the birds and their eggs, mainly from visitors, to record the birds on the island and to survive island living, which was a challenge to say the least! She describes how precious drinking water was and the lengths they went to, to collect and save it, the laughter experienced when escaping the mud.

She also describes with great fondness the joy of the landscape. It was agreed that she would fly a flag each day to signal that she was still alive, with two flags going up in an emergency, inevitably this didn’t always go to plan!

“I cannot find a watcher for Scolt Head” In a fit of recklessness I replied “Why not have me?”… It was essentially a pioneer job”

Emma Turner, Birdwatching at Scolt Head, 1928

Inspired by nature

She had a boat,“The Water Rail”, fitted up to live on, which she named after the first bird she photographed on the Norfolk Broads. She occupied the boat seasonally for over 20 years. For the few years as a watcher she also had the use of a small hut on the island which became known, in her honour, as Turner’s Island. 

A keen ornithologist 

She worked tirelessly, with a team of supporters, to protect and record bird life on the island. Her findings were duly recorded in the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists Society and still stand as a significant piece of evidence against which to benchmark current findings. 

Often seen in a distinctive, large hat, with her loyal dogs, and well respected by locals and ornithologists, her commitment to birdwatching is beautifully described in her two books, Broadland Birds (1924) and Birdwatching on Scolt Head (1928) which I highly recommend, along with a lovely item about her life on BBC Radio 4.

Turner’s achievements as a naturalist and a woman were recognised, by amongst others the Linnaean Society, British Ornithologists Union and the Federation of British University Women. Her work and life is a true tribute to the tenacity of ornithologists, and to her own personal passion and hard work. 

Her description of a female colleague; “being a woman, she saw what had to be done and did it” can aptly be applied to her own approach to life.