Wight Life

Beaneath Our Feet


STUDYING THE NATURAL LITTER on the ground under the stereoscopic microscope with the microscopy section of the Natural History & Archaeological Society, a whole new and enchanting world opened up before my eyes. Tiny red mites scurried about everywhere. A beetle larva clambered rapidly over a piece of bark where minute fungi swayed gently to and fro. Strange creatures completely circular in shape and bright amber in colour moved rapidly around reminding me of the queer inhabitants with which science fiction writers populate Mars. A beautiful snail glided slowly into view. It had a perfect elongated spiral shell and its body was a delicate shade of pale violet. Spiders darted about spinning long silken threads to catch the unwary. Minute orange and green creatures swung round in a circle. For a moment the scene was almost like a ballet. No wonder Walt Disney was moved to set insect life to music.

A man who is familiar with this strangely beautiful and yet little known world is Mr Francis Edward Neat. All his life he has been interested in natural history ever since, as a boy of 10, he bought his first natural history book from a second-hand book shop on the Island for 2d. For Francis Neat is an Islander born and bred. He still has this beautifully bound gilt edged book. He went to school at Portland House Academy in Newport. The school has long since disappeared and its site is now occupied by Morey's timber yard in West Street. His father had an ironmonger's shop not very far away but Francis hated living in a town. Fortunately he had relations in Brook and Brighstone, for his mother had been born in the neighbouring village of Mottistone at Mottistone Mill. So as soon as holiday time came around he took the first opportunity to hitch a lift on the carrier's horse and cart to visit his aunt and uncle and enjoy the beautiful country-side of West Wight.

Picture of Edward Neat

Mr Francis Edward Neat

At Brook, he became interested in geology, and over the years collected 2,000 fossils, many of which have now been handed over to the geological section of the Natural History Society or found a home at the geological museum in Sandown, but he showed me the fossil molar of an elephant of the Tertiary age. No botany or biology had been taught at Portland House Academy school, where learning the three 'Rs' had formed the bulk of the curriculum, so Francis made up his mind to join the local Natural History Society which Mr Frank Morey, the naturalist, had just formed. But he was told that at the age of 15 he was too young. However in 1920, the following year, when the Society really got going, he was officially accepted as a member. To his surprise and delight Mr Morey presented him with a copy of his book which is now recognised as a standard work on the natural history of the Isle of Wight. This book is one of Francis Neat's most treasured possessions among quite a collection of natural history books.

Yet it was not easy for Francis to enjoy his hobby, for when he was a boy it was taken for granted that the sons should follow their father's business whatever their natural bent might be. They were also expected to learn the business thoroughly, so Francis was apprenticed to a tin and copper smith to give him a betterunderstanding of the trade. It was hard and often dirty work with long hours, and at 4/- a week, almost neglible pay even for those days. Yet he liked it for he had the natural ability to make things. Once he had served his apprenticeship he worked in his father's shop from 7'o clock in the morning until nine at night.

The hours are incredibly long by to-day's standards, but he escaped from the shop when he was sent out to do the round, delivering goods and the big drums of oil, for nearly every household was dependent upon paraffin oil for lighting and heating. Sitting in the cart as the old horse ambled along, Francis had time to observe the country around him, but the oil had to be delivered. Sometimes in the depth of the country he had to stagger through the mud nearly up to his knees carrying a 4-gallon can of oil in each hand. Back home again, his father would sometimes demand a dozen tin chimneys for lamps that had been ordered and these had to be made with home-made tools before he could call it a day.

It was Capt Damant, an active member of the Natural History Society and twice its president, who first introduced him to the miscroscope, bringing before his eyes the wonders of both the hidden world in the soil and in the water, where he saw such fascinating creatures as the one-eyed Cyclops and the transparent shelled daphnias. Under a higher lens he studied the structure of the hairs on the paddle-like legs of the water boatman and became thrilled with the idea of trying to photograph what he saw through the microscope. He started taking photographs 45 years ago using an oil lamp to light up the slides.

Picture of The proboscis of a blow-fly taken in 1933 with a home-made camera.

The proboscis of a blow-fly taken in 1933 with a home-made camera.

In 1933 he made his own half-plate camera and using a glass plate took one of his first successful pictures of the proboscis of a blowfly. Since then he has had a variety of cameras including a Russian one, and all the time he was devising means of fixing the camera so that it could be held rigidly in place while a time exposure was being taken. It was about this time that he became interested in beetles. For years, accompanied by a fellow enthusiast, he set out every Sunday, the only free day he had, for the happy hunting ground of the New Forest. They cycled from Newport to Cowes, caught the ferry to Southampton (3/3 return plus bicycle), and then cycled another 10 to 15 miles to the district around Lyndhurst. Here they started their search for beetles, and over the years collected not only some fine stag beetles, then comparatively common, but also some very rare specimens. These also provided subjects for Francis Neat's camera.

Now he has a beautiful collection of detailed coloured microscope transparencies; each one carefully labelled and boxed to fit into neat little drawers or on shelves behind sliding panels. All of these he made himself and fixed around the walls of a wooden shed in the garden which he calls his 'bug house'. Here are housed his collection of beetles, his various microscopes, photographic paraphernalia, fossils, geological specimens including polished stones and rocks. He made his own 'tumbler' for polishing the stones. He showed me one highly polished fragment of pale cream rock delicately patterned with lemon coloured markings. He told me the rock came from Cheddar caves. I had a vision of him surreptitiously breaking off a piece of stalactite. But it hadn't happened like that. An excited party of children had swept into the cave and literally swept him off his feet and in falling he broke off the rock fragment.

In due course Francis' father retired and the name on the shop front in St James Street was altered to Neat Brothers, Ironmongers. Francis Neat was not a partner in the firm. Then came the war and Francis joined up in the Royal Air Force as a flight mechanic, but towards the end of the war he was struck by a propeller and badly disabled. He spent two years in hospital in plaster. When he came out the doctors told him he would always have to walk with two sticks. 'But', said Francis Neat to me with an impish grin, 'first one stick went over the hedge and then the other'. Only his keen interest in his natural history pursuits together with his determination and courage kept him going through the difficult years ahead. No longer able to work in the shop he lived for a time on a disablement pension but he eventually set up on his own as a tin and copper smith. For twenty years he worked in a small shop at the foot of Node Hill. Here he made a variety of tin and copper ware including 'feeders' of galvanised steel which he supplied to poultry farms all over the Island; until in 1968 he was forced to retire, the very last tin and copper smith in Newport, for shops were now full of plastic goods.

Picture of The hairs of a water boatman.

The hairs of a water boatman.

Now at 70 years of age, he is as keen as ever on his hobbies and as young at heart in spite of increasing deafness. He showed me boxes of slides which he had mounted himself and he is busy experimenting with taking photographs through the microscope by using a top light above the slide instead of the more usual light underneath. For this purpose he uses a new and sophisticated high powered microscope, the Laten Vickers M 10 with a variety of lenses giving a magnification of 40 up to 1000.

At the moment he is making slides of flower seeds, some of which have the most intricate patterns. He is always willing to help and instruct beginners and obtain material for them, and is now thinking of writing a short book for children with simple instructions in the use of the microscope, giving details of what can be examined month by month. In this way he hopes to awaken a child's awareness of the beauty of that hidden world to which only the microscope holds the golden key.