Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Francis Downes Ommanney

Francis Downes Ommanney by Bassano Ltd.
half-plate film negative, 25 May 1939
Given to the National Portrait Gallery by Bassano & Vandyk Studios, 1974

Francis Downes Ommanney was born in 1903 to a prosperous branch of the family that was just passing the zenith of its fortunes. He became a writer, and was later to portray himself as a sensitive child driven by circumstances into a scientific career. It was this career however that later took him around the world and gave the impulse to his travel writing. His books, taken in order, constitute a detailed biography. 

Francis was forever alone. Even in the furthest reaches of a declining Empire he seems neither to have sought out the company of his countrymen nor to have resisted them sufficiently vigorously to have avoided those uncomfortable social occasions  which he records with an unflattering pen.

Ommanney's mother was the granddaughter of the distinguished Victorian naturalist, Sir Richard Owen. He has plenty to say of his father, makes a brief mention of his distinguished grandfather Sir Montagu, but it is not clear how much he knew of earlier generations or of other branches of the family.

On the death of Ommanney’s grandmother the family was obliged to quit the house it had been granted by Queen Victoria in Richmond Park (it is no longer standing) and to fall back on its own means, which were by this period dwindling rapidly. This alarming downward slide accelerated when Ommanney’s father resigned his partnership of a successful firm of solicitors at the outbreak of the First World War, and attempted to obtain a commission, in the face of a surprising reluctance on the part of the authorities that was perhaps not entirely due to his age. The episode is entertainingly recalled in The House in the Park. After some months his efforts were finally met with success and he departed, jubilantly, for France, leaving his family more ill-served than ever.

The young Ommanney’s outdated notions of the British class structure were by now crumbling. As he was later to write in The House in the Park:

At one time, I think I might have been called a snob with some truth. I seem to remember getting a kick out of knowing the right people in the suburb where we lived and by that, of course, I meant the rich people those who lived aloofly in the big houses behind high walls overtopped by cedar-trees as opposed to those who lived in small houses surrounded by low railings overtopped by privet hedges or by nothing at all, unashamedly open to the street. I also had intellectual pretensions, I think – especially at college where, failing to shine in the athletic sphere, I cast about for some less exhausting, more easily attainable sphere to shine in. But nowadays I realize that I am an average moderately but certainly not exceptionally, well-educated middle-brow, I think I must be that elusive individual "the man in the street." My tastes and opinions – I hardly know them. As with most people, I suspect, they are mainly a collection of attractions and repulsions, At any rate at nearly forty I have no pretensions. The balloon of my youthful self-conceit has long ago lost all its gas, as indeed It should have done by now and floated gently down to earth. I have no particular social position, no wish to fill my address-book with high-sounding names or to frequent fine houses that do not belong to me. No mantelpiece of mine has ever been a gallery of invitation cards. I have a fair number of friends with all sorts of tastes and inclinations who earn their living-or did before the war-in all sorts of ways. I have a little money, but only a little, and have earned it all.

 So there I am. I can say with truth that I do not pretend to be anything that I am not. On the other hand I do not affect to despise all these things that I do not possess, like the fox gazing at the grapes, for inverted snobbishness is the silliest variety of this harmless laughable vice. I should like to be better read and better educated than I am but from now on I expect I shall gain experience but not culture. And it must be fun to be rich, to move about in expensive and gilded circles, to be surrounded by beautiful things and decorative gay people. I enjoy lunching at the Ritz. I love the delights and graces of this world and sometimes sigh, as we all do, for a fuller, richer life than has been granted to me. But I know that, having got thus far with much but without a good deal, I am not now likely to add very much to myself. I might find a nugget lying in the street or someone might suddenly leave me a million pounds, but I am afraid I should find these benefits less useful now than I should have, say, twenty years ago. So I must make do with what I have been given, as we all must in the long run, and not pretend to have gone further or climbed higher than in fact I have lest I be one day compelled, publicly and with shame, to take a lower place.

After the Great War, from which Ommanney's father returned enthused and relatively unscathed, the family settled on a terraced house in Kent - a turn of fortune which mortified the young Ommanney and his sister Mary.

In his second autobiographical volume, The River Bank, Ommanney recounts how he moved on from a series of undistinguished boarding schools to begin his scientific career at Imperial College in London. It comes as something of a surprise that the sensitive boy with artistic pretentions is now to follow the path of his great-grandfather, but the family’s expectations of what might be done with ‘this wretched boy’ would permit nothing less. He stumbles on, despite a weakness in mathematics, and in 1926 obtains an appointment as Assistant Lecturer in Zoology at East London (now Queen Mary) College. Other episodes described in The River Bank include his bewilderment at the ravings of an anti-semitic colleague whom he couldn’t quite bring himself to dislike, his unlikely role as a blackleg worker in the London dockyards during the General Strike of 1926, and his struggles with his inconvenient sexuality. His self-portrait is somewhere between feckless and cowardly, but there is something almost heroic about his blank refusal to paper over his own lack of heroism, and he possesses at least a sense of self-awareness that his fellows lack. As he wrote of his actions in the General Strike:

We all felt a bit self-conscious about this episode when we got back to the college Union. The boasting of those who had volunteered soon became boring and was thought to be rather bad form. I think we most of us felt we had panicked like a flock of sheep and I do not believe I would have acted in a similar way had such an emergency arisen again.

Such frankness lies at the heart of much of the attraction of his writing.

From The River Bank. Back L to R: Francis Downes Ommanney, Francis Frederick Ommanney, Rupert John Ommanney, Theoroda Ommanney. Front L to R:  Olive Ommanney (nee Owen), Olive Mary Ommanney and Lorne Currie. The wedding was that of Olive and Lorne (2 September 1904 – 29 May 1941) on 29 August 1929. FDO had just heard of the success of his application to join the Discovery II. ‘I went down to Mary's wedding with excitement and adventure before me and new a joy and hope almost as great as, though different from, hers.’
Ommanney was to do his growing up late – and rapidly – at the turn of the decade. In 1929 he joined the staff of the ‘Discovery’ Committee, setting sail from Cardiff in September on the Norwegian whaling vessel Antarctic. In October he arrived at the Committee's biological laboratory at South Georgia, where he spent a season examining carcasses at the whaling station. This grisly period is covered in his most successful book, South Latitude, and is revisited several decades later from a more technical point of view in Lost Leviathan – Whales and Whaling. There is much to disturb the sensitive modern reader, though his account of the butchering of whales (‘torn limb from limb’, as Ommanney wryly remarks), remains dispassionate for the most part.

Indeed he appears to have been remarkably content (‘I was happier, though a great deal smellier, doing this than I have ever been before in my life and probably than I have ever been since.’) Although he is still prone to overturn small boats or to cause uproar by slipping over on the severed tongues of whales, and although he seems to linger helplessly in the background through every crisis, he is now a far more resilient figure than we might have expected from his earlier history.

In April 1930 Ommanney travelled to South Africa and worked at a whaling station at Durban, Natal, from June to September. He returned to South Georgia for the summer whaling season of 1930-31, before sailing for England in May 1931.

He was to make two further trips to the Antarctic with Discovery II. The first (1932) was an oceanographic survey involving a circumnavigation of the Antarctic continent, during which the ship came perilously close to becoming trapped in ice in the Weddell Sea. During his second trip (1936) he was present (we can hardly say he assisted) in the rescue of the American polar explorer, Lincoln Ellsworth, and was himself cast away on an island in the South Shetlands. His account of this period is impressively vivid, and is probably the prime cause of the book’s success.

In September 1938 he signed on at Grimsby to go to Iceland in a deep sea trawler, the Lincoln Star. His next book, North Cape, is an account of this experience.

On the outbreak of the Second World War Ommanney went south again as whaling inspector in a factory ship, returning in May 1940, ‘just as things were hotting up’. His partial colour-blindness at first prevented him from going to sea, but he finally joined the RNVR Naval Weather Service, and thereby saw active service in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. There is a pungent flavour of his experiences on the Atlantic convoys supplying armaments to the Eastern Front in his short book Flat Top – the Story of an Escort Carrier, but it takes an impressionistic rather than autobiographical tone, almost as if he is embarrassed to intrude himself into an account of great deeds.

According to a brief comment in Fragrant Harbour, Ommanney found himself in Hong Kong as part of the British naval force on the surrender of Japan in 1945, although it is not clear what he was doing there. In 1947 he joined the Colonial Service and took part in fishery research under the Colonial Development and Welfare Fund. The remaining fifteen years of his career were spent in a series of former colonies. Out of each location a book emerged. These were intended as travelogue but as always, with Ommanney, recounted with a distinct voice and informed by an inevitable autobiographical element.

His first task during this period was to undertake a survey of the banks of the Indian Ocean between Mauritius and the Seychelles, as recounted in The Shoals of Capricorn (published 1952).

In the autumn of 1950 he made a three-week trip in the Bay of Biscay aboard a fishing vessel, with the intention of learning something of a fishing method that he thought might be adopted for use off the East coast of Africa. In 1951 he travelled to Zanzibar to see what could be done; the full account can be found in Isle of Cloves, published in 1955.

In June 1952 he transferred to Singapore, where he was Director of a Fishery Research unit funded by a number of governments in the region. An account is given in Eastern Windows (1961). Following the withdrawal of funding he was appointed Reader in Marine Biology at the University of Hong Kong, a post he took up in September 1957.  Fragrant Harbour (1962) is Ommanney’s account of his Hong Kong period.

He went on to be adviser to the Korean Government on fishery research, although there is no autobiography after his departure from Hong Kong.  On his retirement, Ommanney settled in Somerset, publishing The River Bank in 1966. There are a few scientific books for a general audience from this period, including The Fishes, a copy of which can briefly been seen in the hands of Brody in the film Jaws. His last book, published in 1971, was Lost Leviathan: Whales and Whaling. It was a technical account intended for those interested in the subject, but as usual Ommanney did not quite manage to keep himself out of the picture, revisiting some of the experiences recounted in South Latitude. He died in 1980.

His books can be purchased cheaply online. The House in the Park and The River Bank are highly recommended for anyone with an interest in his biography or in the first decades of the twentieth century generally; South Latitude and North Cape contain the best of his travel writing, with Flat Top an interesting if brief outlier. His later travel writing was not as successful.


  1. I have just posted this at Flickr -https://www.flickr.com/photos/54522149@N02/28682507976/in/dateposted-public
    My father was Flight Lieutenant Eric Douglas - Francis Downes Ommanney is on the right

  2. Having lived in Hong Kong from 1959 - 1962 I think his book "Fragrant harbour" is a very good record of life there at that time. Hong Kong was nearing the end of the Colonial period and going into the lead up to the decision to return the colony to China.