Ever wondered about the origins of birdkeeping? Here, Rosemary Low enjoys the work of the Rev. Francis Smith, who wrote about keeping and breeding canaries in the 19th century
His vocation took him to some of the poorest homes. Visiting a recently bereaved woman he noticed a canary in what had once been a very handsome cage. He asked how she could afford to keep it when she could barely feed herself. “Ah! Sir, that bird was my poor husband’s – and I keep it for his sake,” she replied.
This fascinating book, full of anecdotes, tells you nearly as much about the social history of the era as it does about canary keeping. With its coloured plates, gilt title and decoration, it is a real gem. In the 1970s I would scour the second-hand bookshops in Charing Cross Road – and this was one of my finds.
The Rev. Smith was “sorry to say” that canary shows were chiefly held in public houses and taverns, due to “lack of support by the upper classes”. The landlord found it in his interest to make a donation so that the show would be held in his pub. For example, the landlord of one gave £4.10 on condition that “a grand annual show of Belgian canaries” on Whit Saturday was held on his premises and that he should appoint the judges! The other condition was that the birds should remain there until the Sunday and that every member spent 6d (2.5p) each monthly meeting night. Regrettably, these meetings were also held on Sundays. “The attractions of the public-house and its attendant evils” were mentioned!
Mr Smith’s favourite variety was the London fancy, so called because it was chiefly bred there. “About their breeding there is much mystery and some peculiarity which fanciers like to keep to themselves,” he noted. “To get into these secrets is almost, if not quite, as difficult as training a racehorse for the Derby or St Leger.” In fact the secret was never revealed and the variety became extinct.
Mr Smith went on to recount the saga of how he acquired his first pair. They were rarely available, so when a shop acquired three, he and his daughter walked through a dark wet afternoon, five miles each way, to purchase them before someone else got there. Two birds were chosen and carried in the usual method – in a paper bag. On the way home, as Mr Smith recalled, “the weather blew a hurricane and the rain poured down incessantly… To secure the birds from the violence of the tempest, I transferred them to my hat, which I pressed firmly on my head. In this way we wended our weary uphill way back, bravely bearing up against the pitiless storm.”
Unfortunately, on arrival home the male London fancy was near to death, rolling about like a drunken man – possibly having suffered from lack of oxygen. A great believer in homeopathic medicine, Rev Smith gave him tincture of belladonna in his water. It took him a couple of days to recover. As a result, his owner suggested: “I would advise everyone to be cautious in putting a bird into their hats for any long distance.” (I would add to this: “Especially if it is not a canary but a parrot!”)
The Rev. Smith and his children keenly followed the breeding season that followed. By then they had eight hens. A total of 80 eggs had been laid but only three young were reared. This, however, “was enough to make us hope for better luck next time, and to keep us from despairing.”
And 140 years later, those words are still frequently uttered by birdkeepers!
Rosemary Low is the author of more than 20 books on parrots.