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Gone to the Birds

Assisted Immigrants
Bird like surname
Court case

It all began long, long ago in the land of the ancestors. A present day encounter, sent me flitting back into history, searching books, world wide web, films of old documents and talking with colleagues.  What was this thing that encompassed by every living hour?  The delightful record of the Churchwardens accounts for the parish of Wissett, Suffolk, filmed by the LDS.


1829, parish of Wissett, Suffolk, listed in the Churchwardens’ accounts are payments for:

Sparrows              £2.3.7  (two pounds, three shillings and seven pence)

Mr Button for sparrows  four shillings and eleven pence.

Mr Carman 4 ½ doz sparrows two shillings and threepence

Mrs Nichols 6 doz sparrows  three shillings

The ‘going rate’ was usually 2d per dozen birds.  To prevent possible abuse by people bring the same corpses time and time again for the churchwardens to inspect, and so claiming the bounty repeatedly, the law stipulated that bodies of birds (and animals like foxes, otters, badgers and hedgehogs, also deemed to be vermin) were to be ‘cut in sunder or otherwise destroyed’.


It was in the mid sixteenth century (1532) that the first of a series of ‘Tudor Vermin Acts’ entered the statute book requiring every parish to raise a levy out of which payments would be made for the heads of different species of designated vermin classified as “noyful [annoying] fowles annd vermyn”.   Until the 1870s, monies from church rates, set aside for ‘pious and charitable uses’, were dispensed in exchange for sparrow heads.   The churchwardens’ accounts, parish by parish, give a glimpse of the wealth of wildlife in some parts of the country in the past centuries.  The Welsh records are little better than fragmentary and very few data exist.  (Roger Lovegrove, would greatly welcome information ranging from the existence and accessibility of estate vermin records in England or Wales to pre-nineteenth-century. Email as given or by post to: Roger Lovegrove, Upper Ffinnant, Llandinam, Powys SY17 5AA Wales.

Read the full transcript of The History and Scale of Vermin Killing by Roger Lovegrove, on line a:
A hundred years ago, the now romanticized attributes of ‘humble but hardy’ more often gave rise to charges of moral and biological profligacy.  Newspapers then duly noted prizes for the greatest number of sparrows killed by individual vanquishers of these ‘avian’vermin.

Dec 1855 - A news item was published in The Times titled The Sparrow Club.  Reported in this item is: The first prize was given to Mr. Plumber, the sum of 10 shillings for 5,812 unfortunate sparrows.

Sparrow clubs, as private initiatives, continued to offer prizes well into the twentieth century.  In 1908, leaflet no. 84 of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries provided the necessary details for organizing such a club.  Continuing traditions established over the previous two centuries, sparrow clubs usually held annual meetings that were ‘inaugurated by a dinner, consisting chiefly of sparrows, served up in every imaginable variety of sauce’

When house sparrows invaded that glass temple to progress, the Great Exhibition of 1851, Queen Victoria suggested that the nuisance be extirpated through the strategic introduction of a sparrow hawk or two.

‘Gainst poor cock-sparrow man’s hate to loosen,

Ten shillings prize they offer;

A shappy prize egad to proffer,

‘Tis not a groat per dozen.

Nov 1844 – Shooting Extraordinary.  Two men of colour, who from their dress it would appear were Lascars, were amusing themselves shooting sparrows.  Each man, was furnished with a bamboo cane, measuring about three feet in length also with a bag of clay pellets, much resembling marbles.  When one of them perceived a sparrow settle on the ground he would approach it within 14 or 15 paces, and applying the tube to his mouth in a line with the bird, would propel by the force of his breath one of these pellets through the former at the sparrow, with sure and fatal effect.

Dec 1930 – On Monday a young man named James Weston, residing at Peckham, went out with some of his acquaintances into the fields Peckham-rye sparrow-shooting.  While in the act of priming his gun, his finger by accident touched the trigger, and the gun being heavily charged, burst and shattered his hand in a dreadful manner. It was necessary to amputate the injured part just above the wrist and it is also feared the he will lose the sight of one eye.
The Times 1794 – Arts and Entertainment.  On a popular dramatist having the rage for shooting small birds.

The Sparrow Pudding

 My Friend shoot Folly as the flies;

And dip in gall your arrows –

But ere alas poor Folly dies,

Pray shoot me, Sir, some Sparrows!                 
If not enlisted in a sparrow war, children might have parted with a penny or halfpenny to purchase a sparrow-on-a-string, a living kite.

Written in favour of the sparrows. They are birds possessed of a very kindly nature, living in great habits of sociability with each other.  They are of the greatest utility to the farmer, devouring myriads of insects which would otherwise do him infinite injury.  The number of caterpillars a pair of sparrows will destroy in feeding their young amounts to about 3,360  weekly.  Advice to the farmer whose concern was the feeding on the ripe corn and peas by the sparrows, was that this may be in a great measure prevented by setting boys to watch during the short space corn is ripe.

  Some ‘special’ sparrows that made it into print.

1834 – A gentleman named Young, residing at Main, Elgin, has in his possession a sparrow perfectly white.  He secured it when going to roost one evening, and it is now quite tame.

1829 – A sparrow has, during the last week, very unceremoniously taken possession of a most conspicuous place in the United Secession meeting-house, Kennoway, having built its nest in the middle of the thistle which decorates the top of the cupola above the pulpit.  It has found free ingress and egress by means of the windows, which are left open for airing the chapel.  This circumstance reminds us of the following beautiful verse of the Hebrew bard, recorded in the 84th Psalm – “The sparrow hath found an house where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O Lord!” – Fife Herald.
To a sparrow, the human voice sounds something like the low rumbling of distant thunder, and the low notes produced by a bass singer may well be completely inaudible.

A sparrow tattoo is symbolic for sailors who have logged 50,000 nautical miles at sea.

The life span of a sparrow is 12 years.

Assisted immigrants.

The sparrow was generally unwilling to migrate beyond two miles of their breeding grounds.  However, many people in the new lands of America and the Colonies, eagerly sought the introduction of the sparrow to assist in the controlling of caterpillars which were causing many problems.  The sparrow was first introduced to North America in 1851 in the hope that it would combat harmful insects.  By the 1880s, previous kindly thoughts had begun to turn against the ‘English ‘ sparrow, and seven of the states that had eagerly introduced the birds had enacted laws against them.

1859 – Sparrows for New Zealand.  It appears from the papers that in New Zealand the country, at particular seasons is invaded by armies of caterpillars, which clear off the grain crops as completely as if mowed down by a scythe.  With the view of counteracting this plaque a novel importation has been made.  “Mr Brodie has shipped 380 sparrows on board the Swordfish, carefully selected from the best hedgerows of England.  The cost of food for the sparrows whilst on the trip cost 18 pounds. Mr Brodie has already acclimatized the pheasant, which is abundant in the north.  The descent from the pheasant to sparrows is somewhat of an anti-climax; but should the latter multiply the greatest benefit will have been conferred on the country.” Australian Mail.

Indeed the rapid reproduction of the sparrow, in North America was declared morally repugnant: fears grew that this unfettered, fecund foreigner would soon swamp American humanity.

1870 – The report from Melbourne, Australia, mentions The ill-considered introductions of European animals – namely the rabbit and sparrow.


A Bird like surname

Showed signs of: Bird name which could be applied
Homeliness Sparrow
Votary of Song Nightingale or Lark
Jauntiness Cock or Cockerell
Tenderness Pigeon or Dove

The hedge-sparrow still lives represented by our ‘Pinnocks’ or Pinnicks’

Thus in the pinnick’s nest the cuckoo lays,

Then, easy as a Frenchman, takes her flight.
Old English: spearwa ‘sparrow’ , lit. ‘flutterer’

Sept 1838 – The Times – Court item

Mrs. Daw, a brothel-keeper in Crown Street, Westminster, charge a nymph of the pave named Angelina Nightingale, with having in conjunction with a man named Sparrow the companion of the latter, stolen a parrot which it was stated was intended as a present to Her Majesty in the consequence of the bird’s proficiency in whistling the national air, which Miss Nightingale had taught it during the time it was in her possession.  The latter lady, however during the tuition fell into distressed circumstances, and a distraint for rent was levied upon her by Mrs. Daw.  Under the distraint the broker took possession of what she termed ‘the most valuable article she had upon earth’ thereby meaning the parrot, upon whom she said ‘her greatest hopes depended’. The defendant Sparrow upon the bird being detained for arrears of rent, contrived to insert a pitchfork into the window of Mrs. Daw, and the parrot recognizing him flew into his arms, and he was about bearing the bird off in triumph when Mrs. Daw gave Sparrow and Nightingale (who was close by) into the custody of the police upon a charge of felony.  The magistrates after some consultation said they would not entertain the charge.  The prosecutrix must seek a remedy before some other tribunal.  Nightingale and Sparrow were then discharged, evidently to the annoyance of Mrs. Daw.

(pondering thought, was she Mrs. Jack Daw!)


The Hearth Tax Returns in Suffolk 1674 in the parish of Stowmarket have a flock of bird names, the number of hearths in (). Just a selection from one parish, though on reading films of parish records for Suffolk, I have noted a great number of Sparrow surnames, perhaps these were applied to people who were also prolific at the killing of sparrows for monetary gain, apart from the previous applied, homeliness and flutterer.


Mr Bird (4),  Mr Crane (7), Jo. Crane (1), Fr. Bird (1), Widow Birds (1),  Widow Sparowe (1), Thomas Bird (2), William Crowe (1), Ellen Bird with Widow Kemp (2) Jo. Bird with Widow Rumsey (2), Jo Page with Widow Bird (2).

And the last twitter on Sparrows goes to:           (British author: Charlotte M Yonge. 1823-1901)

The Irishmen of birds, with their noise and their squabbles, their boldness and ubiquity.



              The Times of London

              Churchwardens’ accounts



              Strange Stories – Amazing Facts, Readers Digest

              English Surnames – Their Source and Signification

    A Dictionary of British Surnames, P.H. Reaney

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Gone to the Birds
Last Updated 23 June, 2006
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