Born in London on 19 November 1899, Cecily Niven was the only daughter of Sir Percy and Lady Lilian FitzPatrick. She died on Sunday, 31 May 1992 at “Amanzi”, her home in the Eastern Cape.
She received her schooling at Roedean in Johannesburg, the foundation stone of which was laid by her mother. Cecily’s childhood was spent in the company of many great personalities of the day - diplomats, businessmen and famous people like Cecil Rhodes, Alfred Beit and Rudyard Kipling - and much pioneering fun: she tells of a trip to the Transvaal lowveld with her father and Edward Caldwell, the illustrator of Jock of the bushveld (the book for which Sir Percy FitzPatrick is best known), in the following terms: “. . . we set off in three mule-drawn tent wagons with a party of about fifteen. My parents and all three brothers and a few of their friends were there . . . We camped in what is now called the Kruger National Park for several weeks and had a most wonderful time.” To this day the original illustrations by Caldwell can be seen on the walls of the “Amanzi” homestead.
In 1923 she married Jack Niven, the only son of the Rand Pioneer A. Mackie Niven, and settled on the FitzPatrick family farm “Amanzi” in the Sundays River Valley between Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage. Cecily put her considerable energy to work for the citrus enterprise started by her famous father; in 1925 she founded and edited for many years the monthly journal of the Citrus Exchange, The Cirrus Grower (as it was known until 1962, later becoming the Citrus and Tropical Fruit Journal which lasted until 1990), as a public service to the citrus industry of South Africa.
Cecily developed over the years an abiding interest in ornithology, an interest which she shared with her husband and her three sons Patrick, Desmond and Dan. “Amanzi” was the scene of many memorable gatherings of birders from all over South Africa and the world. Whenever the Southern African Ornithological Society had its Annual General Meeting in Port Elizabeth, an outing to “Amanzi” was an essential part of the proceedings. The last such outing was in 1990; Cecily had just come out of hospital after major surgery, but still had enough energy and charm to chat to the delegates on the wide veranda of her magnificent home.
Cecily Niven was a great lady. To some she might have appeared a little daunting, but this perception of her character merely reflects the great directedness with which she did everything.
She knew where she was going and she knew how to get there. She did not suffer fools gladly, but was at all times gracious to everyone she met, without being condescending. She was essentially a “people” person: small children loved her for her kindness (she would patiently help them to thread a worm on a pin or to ride a horse), and she was a champion of young aspiring scientists.
Her drive no doubt stemmed partly from her vibrant FitzPatrick genes, but must have been reinforced by her having been raised with three older brothers and then raising three sons of her own. There could not have been much opportunity for female weakness in any of her homes!
Nor in her later years did she succumb to the leisure of a rocking chair. Well into her eighties Cecily was still attending courses at the annual Summer School of the University of Cape Town; she never thought of herself as too old to learn. Her activities during the Second World War also reflect her drive: she served in the South African Women’s Auxiliary Services, first as an assistant and later as Provincial Commandant, Eastern Cape. Her services were recognized in the gazetting of her name in October 1947. She was also a keen horsewoman who trained polo ponies for her husband and sons, at one time serving as Vice-President of the Orange Free State and Basutoland Polo Association.
On 27 March 1935 Cecily Niven joined the South (later Southern) African Ornithological Society and became a Council member of the Society in 1950. She was made an Honorary Life Member in 1961. She became increasingly involved in matters ornithological during the 1950s, assisting Jack Skead with his monographs on the Fringillidae and the Nectariniidae among other projects. She was elected President of the SAOS in 1955, a position which she held until 1961. She served a second term of presidential office for the Society from 1963 to 1968.
In the meantime she became a trustee of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, an office she held for 30 years, resigning in 1987 for reasons of ill health. The Bird Book Fund’s main task is the publication of Roberts’ bird of southern Africa, though it assists also in the publication of other works of natural history (mainly ornithological).
As her interest in professional ornithology grew, Cecily Niven envisaged the establishment of an institute of ornithology at a South African university.
In 1960 her dream came true with the founding of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town with Professor Jack Winterbottom as its first Director. The University of Cape Town recognized her academic contribution when it awarded her a D.Sc. (honoris causa) in 1968.
Not only did Cecily Niven give her wholehearted support to the SAOS and the FitzPatrick Institute, but she conceived the idea of regular congresses of ornithologists involved in African bird research; this idea culminated in the First Pan-African Ornithological Congress in Livingstone (in what was then Northern Rhodesia) in 1957. The concept gained momentum and subsequent PAOCs have been held in 1964 (Pietermaritzburg), 1969 (Pretorius Kop, Kruger National Park), 1976 (Seychelles), 1980 (Lilongwe, Malawi), 1984 (Francistown, Botswana) and 1988 (Nairobi, Kenya). This year the 8th PAOC is to be held in Bujumbura, Burundi.
Cecily Niven was a fluent writer, though she wrote little that was published. One of her most fascinating accounts is a small booklet of 24 pages entitled Recollections of Sir Percy FitzPatrick published in about 1960 by the SABC. It conveys her sense of delight in life and living and her feeling for South Africa and the events that have shaped the country. She also wrote an account of the First Pan-African Ornithological Congress (1969, Bokmakierie 21, Supplement: i-iii), in which she recounts her experiences of the events and personalities involved in that memorable occasion. Such eminent overseas guests as Wetmore, Delacour, Landsborough Thomson, Berlioz, Amadon, Mackworth-Praed, Moreau, Peterson, Ripley, Schuz and Voous were there - all household names in ornithology. Cecily Niven was part of these historical times in southern Africa. She gave presence to every occasion and it was a privilege to have known her.
In a world run largely by men, and that includes most of the office bearers of the Southern African
Ornithological Society, the staff of the FitzPatrick Institute and other ornithologically influential people in southern Africa, it is well to remember that it has been in great measure a result of the dreams and aspirations of one woman, Cecily Niven, that southern African ornithology is where it is today. The Southern African Ornithological Society is proud to acknowledge the significant role that she has played in its development, and extends its condolences to the Niven family.
Gordon Linhay Maclean