Monday, October 10, 2011

Popular Pidgeons and Slanderous Psittacines

by Grace Elliot

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 Greenwich, Hounslow and Woolwich.

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 Tower of London. One prisoner wrote ‘An Epitaph on a Goldfinch,’ on the death of his pet bird,

‘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.

London’s pigeons are descended from those that escaped from dove cotes in medieval times, to roost amongst the cities ledges and towers. In 1277 a man is recorded as falling from the belfry of St Stephens, Walbrook whilst trying to raid a pigeons nest and in 1385 the Bishop of London complained of ‘malignant persons’ who threw stones at pigeons resting in city churches.

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 England. When a guest commented on the appearance of a second parrot in his hallway, Gilbert replied:

‘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!

Coming...November 2011.


  1. WoW! Thanks you Grace Elliot, author of the Regency Romance Dead Man's Debt for this wonderful article on birds and bird-keeping in Victorian England.

  2. When one considers that a canary was often used to check for the dangerous gases in coal mines, it shows what man will do with some of God's most lovely creatures. Thank you for the information, Grace.

  3. I love the bird pictures as well as the post. They are pulling me back into my childhood. Someone had pictures from perhaps the same source. It is a pleasant memory.

  4. Thank you to everyone who left a comment. This is what I love most about history, the little details of how people lived at the time.
    Debra - the pictures are some free clipart - they remind me of Victorian decoupage pictures and I wouldnt be in the least bit surprised if this isnt where they originated.
    Grace x

  5. This was a nice piece of information that I was mostly ignorant of about the birds. I am not a huge bird lover, but I cringed reading of what uses these birds were put to and you didn't even mention the cockfighting.

  6. Enjoyed this post, very much, Grace. I don't keep caged birds but I do like to watch the colorful finches playing outside my study window. I also have visits from kookaburras and tawny frogmouths. Our pool is their enormous birdbath! Thanks for sharing.

  7. Lovely post. In "Mayhew's London" there are people who sell birds' nests complete with eggs, and others who perform on the street with birds pulling chariots or with trained mice! You'd love that book, Grace and Debra, a real slice of Victorian life.


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