The Royal Family and Racing Pigeons
The Royal Lofts
Almost 130 years after the King of the Belgians gave racing pigeons to
the Queen’s forebears as a gift, Her Majesty maintains a keen interest in the sport, says MATTHEW DENNISON
IN HIS DIARY for 17 August 1949, George V’s official
biographer Harold Nicolson wrote, ‘I fear that I am
getting a down on George V just now. He is all right as
a gay young midshipman. He may be all right as a wise
old King. But the intervening period when he was Duke of
York, just shooting at Sandringham, is hard to manage or
swallow. For seventeen years he did nothing at all but kill
animals and stick in stamps.’
As Nicolson himself was aware, his flippancy contained
only a germ of the truth. Aside from royal engagements, the
future George V nurtured another interest. It was one he
inherited from his father Edward VII and which he in turn
passed to his son, George VI, and his granddaughter, our
present Queen. It remains a little-known aspect of royal
sporting life: the royal family’s interest in pigeon fancying.
King George V spent much of his adult life on the
Sandringham estate. Despite plans hatched by Edward VII
and Lord Esher that he rent neighbouring Houghton Hall
from the Marquess of Cholmondeley, he preferred, both as
Duke of York and afterwards as Prince of Wales, to live in
the relatively cramped confines of York Cottage –
dismissed by his father as ‘hardly… a country house’. It
was at Sandringham that George built his pigeon loft,
described by a newspaper at the time as ‘a pretty, twostoreyed
building, capitally fitted up’.
It is at Sandringham that the royal pigeons continue to
be reared and housed. Today the Queen maintains her
predecessors’ interest in the royal pigeon lofts, which
currently contain some 240 birds: 160 mature birds and 80
younger pigeons. A number of the Queen’s pigeons are
‘stock’ birds used for breeding purposes. The majority are
used for racing, in a tradition that now stretches back more
than a century.
The pigeon-racing season in Britain runs from April to
September. During that period, royal birds are entered into
club races weekly, alongside more prestigious national
races, on each occasion distinguished by their distinctive
leg ring marked with the Queen’s cipher, ER, and the royal
crests on their travelling boxes.
During the course of her reign, the Queen’s birds have
won every major race in Britain and the Queen herself is
patron of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association and the
National Flying Club. By contrast, in his earliest days as a
pigeon fancier George V was required to adopt a more covert
approach to the sport.
From 1893 onwards, George’s birds were raced not in his
own name but that of a schoolmaster from neighbouring
West Newton, Yorkshireman Joseph Walter Jones, known as
Walter. Although the Royal Household never formally
employed Mr Jones as a member of staff, he went on to enjoy
a long and versatile association with the King’s family.
George V’s eldest son, the Duke of Windsor, remembered
childhood nature lessons with Jones and occasions on
which, during the absence of the Princes’ tutor, Jones
stepped into the breach; thrillingly he took them into the
woods or across the Sandringham marshes looking for birds’
nests, a distinctive figure in cap and bulky tweed plus fours.
Jones became the favourite teacher of the King’s second son,
Prince Albert, the future George VI, for whom he continued
to assist at the royal pigeon lofts. Under his supervision,
both monarchs bred and raced a clutch of first-class birds.
The birds themselves were not Norfolk natives. The first
royal pigeons came from Belgium, a present to the royal
family in 1886 from the King of the Belgians, Leopold II.
The future Edward VII responded with enthusiasm to this
unusual gift. On a site at Sandringham a few hundred yards
from where his son George would shortly build his loft,
Edward commissioned a small but handsome loft, whose
inmates were supplemented several years later by a second
gift of birds from Belgium.
From the outset, Edward planned to race competitively;
from the outset – a tribute to the quality of bird dispatched
by Leopold – he did so successfully. By 1899, contemporary
newspapers were able to focus on one particularly
outstanding bird, prosaically called 189, which ‘won for the
King the coveted first prize’ in the National Flying Club’s
‘The good bird… flew from Lerwick to Sandringham, a
distance of 510 miles, 1,705 yards, at an average rate of
1,307 yards per minute… Many a pulse beat strongly with
loyal gladness when it was flashed along the wires that 189
had come in first, and nobody was more pleased than…
King Edward VII himself,’ reported one newspaper.
ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST/© HM QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2014
George V’s pigeons were bred from the same
Belgian breeding stock as those of his father. In
George’s two-storey loft, the ground floor housed
Belgian birds kept for breeding purposes, while
the upper floor housed birds in training for
racing and homing; in time its walls were hung
with certificates and prize citations.
Walter Jones evidently knew his business:
George’s alias was rumbled and his pigeons soon
acquired the same prestige as those of his father,
despite the latter’s seven-year head start. In 1901,
pigeons belonging to Edward VII came first and
third in the Grand National organised by the
National Flying Club. The bird that came in
fourth belonged to the King’s son, George.
George’s interest in pigeons subsequently
embraced the birds’ usefulness in time of war.
The War Office co-opted a number of civilian
pigeon lofts during the First World War to form
the Army Pigeon Service, an initiative that used
carrier pigeons to convey important messages to
and from the front. George himself donated royal
birds to this service, as would George VI during
the following war.
Lieutenant-Colonel A H Osman
became an early recipient of the
newly introduced OBE, when
George invested him with the
honour in acknowledgement of his
wartime work with the Army
Pigeon Service. In 1945, Royal
Blue, a pigeon belonging to
George VI, was awarded a Dickin
Medal for Gallantry for its role in
reporting a lost aircraft.
Happily, Elizabeth II’s reign has
not demanded such endeavours by
inmates of the royal pigeon lofts.
Instead, the Queen has donated a
number of royal birds to charitable
auctions, from causes as diverse as
research into pigeon fancier’s lung
(a condition like asbestosis) to
raising funds for a monument to
animals killed in war.
With thanks to the Royal Pigeon
Racing Association, www.rpra.org, for
their help with the illustrations.
Matthew Dennison is the author
of ‘Queen Victoria: A Life of
Contradictions’ published by Collins
(see page 57).