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:
£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, firstname.lastname@example.org 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
Read the full transcript of The History and Scale of Vermin Killing by
Roger Lovegrove, on line a: http://www.ruralhistory.org/news)
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
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.
My Friend shoot Folly as the flies;
And dip in gall your arrows –
But ere alas poor Folly dies,
Pray shoot me, Sir, some
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.
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
A Bird like surname
|Showed signs of:
||Bird name which could be applied
|Votary of Song
||Nightingale or Lark
||Cock or Cockerell
||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
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
(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
Strange Stories – Amazing Facts, Readers Digest
English Surnames – Their Source and Signification
A Dictionary of British Surnames, P.H. Reaney
Return to Articles
Gone to the Birds
Last Updated 23 June, 2006
Web Page by Val C Gregory