HISTORY, ROMANCE AND...CATS!
Grace Elliot leads a double life as a vet by day and author of intelligent historical fiction by night. Grace is an avid reader and believes that smart people need to read romance - as an antidote to the modern world!
Grace is also obsessed by all things feline.
According to a recent RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) survey, many ofBritain’s native birds are in decline. Changes in farming and horticulture have deprived birds such as the song-thrush of its favourite foods – slugs and snails, leading to a decline in numbers. However this is not the first time that native birds have had a lean time. 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.
Nowadays, birds that interact and be part of a family, like parrots, are popular. An African Grey, Sunny, was the mascot of HMS Lancaster. The ship’s crew taught him an impressive vocabulary including an armoury of expletives so extensive he has to be hidden in a broom cupboard when dignitaries visit. His catch phrases included –
‘You ain’t seen me, right?’ and ‘Zulus, thousands of ‘em!’
Another 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 necessarily 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 its too small to eat me.’