Obituary: Retired teacher Harold Hems, who discovered the West Runton elephant

A walk along a north Norfolk beach following a storm 22 years ago propelled retired teacher Harold Hems, who has died aged 90, into the international spotlight and changed our knowledge of pre-history.

Mr Hems and his wife Margaret, both keen naturalists, hoped the rough weather might uncover some fossils in the eroding cliffs of their home village, West Runton, and they were not disappointed.

Their discovery that December day of a partly-exposed large pelvic bone in a freshwater bed led to the later archaeological excavation of the world-famous West Runton elephant.

In the five years between the find and the full excavation of the skeleton, scientific investigation of the site gave the most complete picture to date of what Britain was like before the last Ice Age,

The 10-tonne beast, which roamed the area some 600,000-700,000 years ago, was four meters high: twice the size of an African elephant. Its 85 per cent complete skeleton is the most entire example of its species ever found in the world, according to Martin Warren, former curator of Cromer Museum who joined the Hems on the beach that day and helped to excavate the bone.

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The skeleton is now preserved by the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service at Gressenhall, although Mr and Mrs Hems would have preferred it to be more accessible to children and, ideally, in a museum at West Runton.

A lifelong learner and educator, Mr Hems took great pleasure in sharing his extensive knowledge on the subject with audiences ranging from schoolchildren to world experts. But he was already a well-known and respected figure in his local community at the time of the 1990 find.

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The Sheffield-born son of a first world war amputee, he spent his childhood living just above the poverty line, gaining a place at grammar school aged 10. His family couldn't afford to send him to university and he initially worked for the Post Office until he was conscripted in 1941.

A multi-linguist, Mr Hems spent several years overseas as a wireless operator with the 113th Special Wireless Section of the Royal Corps of Signals. His unit was stationed directly under the artillery guns at Monte Cassino and it was the first intelligence unit ashore during Operation Avalanche, at Salerno.

After the war Mr Hems trained as a teacher at university and later had further specialist training in biology. The family moved to Norfolk in 1961 when he took up the post of head of maths at Cromer Secondary Modern School, which he held until retirement in 1981. His children are still stopped today by former pupils with fond memories of a much-loved teacher.

Mr Hems was also widely regarded as one of the great natural history photographers of his day and in 1956 gained a prestigious Exhibition Medal from the Royal Photographic Society. He went on to spend 25 years as a member of the society's associateship and fellowship award panel.

As well as his wife, he leaves three children and six grandchildren. A funeral service and burial is taking place at 11am today, January 19, at the Church of the Holy Trinity, West Runton.

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