The Royal Family and Racing Pigeons

The Royal Lofts

Almost 130 years after the King of the Belgians gave racing pigeons to

royal-loftsthe 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.’

pr-cover-1As 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’.

ppw-cover-1It 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.

hm-queen-carlo-napolitano_0The 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.

royal-loft-manager-len-rushDuring 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.

hm-queen-2aFrom 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

Grand National.

‘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.

racing-pigeon-21-02-25a

King George V and Queen Mary outside York Cottage with Walter Jones in February 1925

majestymagazine.com 29

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.

corporal-randall

ABOVE: Corporal Randall holds Royal Blue after the King’s pigeon was invested with the Dickin Medal.

 

racing-pigeon-15-05-37a

Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret and their parents visit the Sandringham lofts in the 1930s

 

 

 

 

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

queen1

The sibling Girl Guides in 1943 with a carrier pigeon destined for Lady Baden-Powell

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).

queen

The Queen reviews an avian fly-past at the Royal Army Veterinary Corps in Melton Mowbray in 1996

 

 

len-rush

Len Rush, an earlier manager of the royal lofts, with one of Her Majesty’s prize-winning pigeons in 1963

 


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