In Victorian times bird keeping was a popular hobby amongst city communities. Native birds such as thrushes, bullfinches and goldfinches were trapped at night in country villages and sent by train to the suburbs to be sold in markets at
Bullfinches and goldfinches were especially popular, since they could be trained to sing and fetch a high price, several shillings each, whilst larks sold for six to eight pence a piece. There was even a market for dowdy birds such as house sparrows- once they were disguised with paint –sadly when they preened they died of lead poisoning. Even more unpleasant was the craze in the 1890’s for ‘flying’ greenfinches. These birds were sold for half a penny each, with a cotton thread tied to a leg. The idea was to bet on which bird could fly in circles longest before it dropped dead of exhaustion.
Keeping caged birds was widespread, even amongst prisoners held at the
. One prisoner wrote ‘An Epitaph on a Goldfinch,’ on the death of his pet bird, Tower of London
‘Buried June 23, 1794 by a fellow prisoner in the
.’ Tower of London
The Spitalfields weavers of the 1840’s also prized their birds. The breeding of fancy pigeons and canaries; Almond tumblers, Pouting horseman and Nuns, was taken very seriously. Bird shows were highly competitive, matching the fashion amongst wealthier classes for dog shows. It could be a dodgy business - the prize winning pigeons at a show in Islington had had their throats stitched back to improve their appearance – the perpetrators were found out and prosecuted.
One parrot owner was W S Gilbert – who wrote the words to accompany Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music. He owned a particularly fine parrot, reputedly the best talker in
. When a guest commented on the appearance of a second parrot in his hallway, Gilbert replied: England
‘The other parrot, who is a novice, belongs to Doctor Playfair. He is reading up with my bird, who takes pupils.’
However, pet birds were not popular with everyone. George Bernard Shaw was given a caged canary, which he heartily disliked, calling it a ‘little green brute.’ He was delighted when the bird was stolen, and equally disappointed when a friend replaced it. His comment was;
‘I’m a vegetarian and can’t eat it, and it’s too small to eat me.’
If you have enjoyed this blog post then please visit Grace’s blog – a blend of historical trivia, romance and cats!