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Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Swans on the Thames




Living on the banks of this most delightful and far-famed river, I have often had my attention drawn to the swans, those noble birds, that are so ornamental to the river, and so closely associated with its most lovely scenery; and thus I have been led from time to time to gather together many curious facts connected with these birds from really authentic sources.

We find that at a very early date it was a very high privilege, granted only by the sovereign to different companies and individuals, to keep and preserve swans on the different rivers and lakes throughout England. Many different swan-marks adopted by the proprietors, that each might know their own birds, will here be accurately given. They are copied from authentic sources only. This privilege only being granted under certain conditions and to certain persons, shows the degree of value and importance attached to the possession of these birds in old times, as well as the authorised power to protect it. For example, in the twenty-second year of the reign of Edward IV., 1483, it was ordered that no person who did not possess a freehold of a clear yearly value of five marks, should be permitted to keep any swans; and in the eleventh year of Henry VII., 1496, it was ordained that “any one stealing or taking a swan’s egg should have one year’s imprisonment, and make payment of a fine at the king’s will.” And stealing or setting snares for, or driving grey or white swans, was punished still more severely. Even at the present time it is felony “to steal, or injure in any way, a young swan.” There are many curious ordinances respecting swans on the river Witham, in the county of Lincolnshire, together with an original roll of ninety-seven swan-marks, which were communicated by Sir Joseph Banks to a work published by the Society of Antiquaries of London. These ordinances were made the 24th of May, 1524, in the fifteenth year of the reign of our sovereign lord King Henry VIII., by the lord Sir Christopher Willuby, Sir E. Dymoke, and others, justices of the peace, and commissioners appointed by our sovereign lord the king, “for the confirmation and preservation of his highness’s game of swans and signets of his stream of Witham, within his county of Lincoln, from a Breges called Boston Breges, unto the head of the same stream.” A full copy of the parchment roll being too long, I shall only quote a few particulars. No persons having swans could appoint a new swan-herd without the licence of the king’s swan-herd. Every swan-herd on the stream was bound to attend upon the king’s swan-herd upon warning, or to suffer fine. The king’s swan-herd was bound, under heavy penalties for disobedience, to keep a book of swan-marks, and no new marks were permitted to interfere with the old ones. The marking of the signets was generally performed in the presence of all the swan-herds on that stream, and on a particular day, of which all had notice. Cygnets received the mark found on the parent bird, but if the old swans had no mark, the whole were seized for the king and marked accordingly. No swan-herd was allowed to affix a mark but in the presence of the king’s swan-herd or his deputy. Formerly, when the swan made her nest on the banks of the river, rather than on the islands, one young bird was given to the owner of the soil who protected the nest, and this was called the ground bird. A money consideration is now given. It is still felony to steal or injure a swan. The swan-mark, called by Sir E. Coke cigni-nota, was cut in the skin, or on the beak of the swan, with a sharp knife or other instrument. These marks consisted of amulets, chevrons, crescents, crosses, initial letters, and other devices, as may be seen in the annexed specimens.

Swan Marks 1 (OAW).png
Swan Marks 2 (OAW).png

Nos. 1 and 2 are the marks of Henry VIII., No. 3 that of the Abbey of Swinstead, on the Witham, in Lincolnshire; and it is worthy of remark that the crozier or crook is borne by the divine, the shepherd, the swan-herd, and the goose-herd, as emblematical of a pastoral life and the care of a flock. No. 4 is the mark of Sir E. Dymoke, of Lincolnshire; the descendant of this family still exists, and the Championship of England is hereditary in that house, who hold the Manor of Scrivelsby by that tenure. Nos. 5, 6, and 7, are of the time of Elizabeth; they are taken from the Losely manuscripts; 6 is the mark of Lord W. Howard, Lord High Admiral of England; 7 the mark of Lord Buckhurst, the keys bear reference to his office of Chamberlain of the Household. At the present day the appointment of the royal swan-herds is vested in the Lord Chamberlain for the time being. No. 8 is the mark of Sir W. More, who was appointed by Lord Buckhurst to the office of Master of the Swans for Surrey. One of the conditions of the grant or appointment is as follows:—“But this order must be kept, that the upping or marking of the swans near or within the said branches of the Tems, may be upped all in one day, with the upping of the Tems, which is referred to Mr. Mayland, of Hampton Court, who hath the ordering of the Tems; so if it please you from time to time, send and confer with him.”

The following is a copy of a letter from R. Mayland, the Master of the Swans on the Thames, to Sir William More, as Master of the Swans for Surrey:—

May it please you, sir, this morning I received a lettere affirmed to come from you, but no name thereunto, wherein yo request me to come to Penford to conferr wt yo, touching the upping of Swannes, wich I wold most gladly perform, yf I were not throughe very earnest busyness letted of my purpose, for to-morrow being Tuysdae, I take my jorney along the river of Thames at Gravesend, and then uphon the first Mondaie in August, I come westwards to Wyndsor. Wherefore it may please yo to send to my house to Hampton Court word, what daies you meane to pointe for driving the river at Weybridge and Molsey; it shall suffice to the end the gamesters’ men have knowledge thereof, that they may attend accordingly. I do think it wold greatly satisffie them yf yo did appointe the same upon Tuesday the 9th of August, for upon that day they will be at the entrance of the rivers, and so praing you to p’don me for my absence at this time I humbly take my leave. R. Mayland.

Hampton Courte, this Mondaie, July, 1593.
Yor poore frend to comande.

No. 9 is the swan-mark of the Bishop of Norwich, to whose kindness I was indebted for many of the particulars I am now relating, and also for this account of the feeding of the young swans for the table.

The town-clerk sends a note from the town-hall to the public swan-herd, the corporation, and others who have swans and swan rights. On the second Monday in August, when the young swans are collected in a small stew, or pond, the number annually varying from fifty to seventy, and many of them belonging to private individuals, they begin to feed immediately, and being provided with as much barley as they can eat, they are usually ready for killing early in November. They vary in weight, some reaching to 28 lbs. They are all cygnets. If kept beyond November they begin to fall off, losing both flesh and fat, and the meat becomes darker in colour and stronger in flavour. A printed copy of these lines is generally sent with each bird:


Take three pounds of beef, beat fine in a mortar,
Put it into the swan (that is, when you’ve caught her),
Some pepper, salt, mace, some nutmeg, an onion,
Will heighten the flavour in gourmand’s opinion.
Then tie it up tight with a small piece of tape,
That the gravy and other things may not escape.
A meal paste, rather stiff, should be laid on the breast,
And some whited-brown paper should cover the rest,
Fifteen minutes, at least, ere the swan you take down.
Pull the paste off the bird, that the breast may get brown.

In former times the swan was served up at every great feast, and I have occasionally seen a cygnet exposed for sale in a poulterer’s shop in London.

No. 10 is the mark that belongs to Eton College, as they have the privilege of keeping these birds: it represents the armed point and the feathered end of an arrow; this mark is affixed to the door of one of the inner rooms in the College. No. 11 was the mark of the Bishop of Lincoln in old times. Nos. 12 and 13 are the marks belonging to the Dyers’ and Vintners’ Companies in the City of London, as used in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. These two companies have uninterruptedly enjoyed the privilege of keeping swans on the River Thames from London to some miles above Windsor, and they still keep the old custom of going with their friends and acquaintances, accompanied by the royal swan-herdsman and their own swan-herds and assistants, on the first Monday in August, every year, from Lambeth, on what is called their swan voyage, for the purpose of catching and marking all the cygnets of the year, and also renewing any marks on the old birds that may have become obliterated. Mr. Kempe says the struggles of the swans when caught by their pursuers, and the duckings that the men get in the contests, rendered this a diversion much esteemed by our ancestors. The forming of the circles or amulets on the beak, as may be seen in the two ancient marks, caused more severe pain to the bird than making only straight lines; the rings are therefore omitted at the present day, and the lines doubled, as shown in marks 14 and 15, being those now in use for the Dyers’ and Vintners’ Companies. Mr. Kempe appears to discountenance the popular notion that the sign of the Swan with Two Necks had any reference to the two nicks in the swan-mark of this Company (the Vintners’), but the sign has been considered a fair heraldic representation of the term, united as it is with the following considerations, namely: the swan has been for some hundred years identified with the Vintners’ Company and its privileges; that the principal governing officers of the company, for the time being, are a master and three wardens, the junior warden of the year bearing the title of the swan-warden; that models of swans form conspicuous ornaments in their hall, and that the first proprietor of the well-known inn, the Swan with Two Necks, was a member of this very company. No. 16 is the royal swan-mark of our Most Gracious Queen; this mark has been used through the reigns of George III., George IV., and William IV., down to the present time.

The swan, in its wild state, is found in Europe, Asia, and America; it has seldom been seen in England excepting in some singularly severe winters. As spring approaches they leave the warmer regions where they spend the colder months and go northward for the breeding season. In some parts of America, Hudson’s Bay, &c, they assemble in large numbers; many hundreds have been seen together. The strength of this bird in its wild state is very formidable; the stroke of the wings is so powerful that it protects the bird even from the attacks of the eagle. The tame swan that frequents our English lakes and rivers differs in some few particulars from the wild species, but in outward appearance they are nearly similar. The tame bird is larger. The habits of both species are nearly the same. The beauty, graceful motion, and majesty of this bird, when it is sailing along on the clear transparent surface of some lake or river must attract the admiration of every one. It is curious that on the river Trent they are found without any owner at all, also on an inlet of the sea in Dorsetshire, and on some other rivers. No one claims them, they are unmarked, and so they go on from year to year, no one heeding them in any way whatever. The female swan makes her nest among very rough herbage near the edge of the water. She lays from six to eight beautiful large white eggs, and she sits on them six weeks. Many an hour have I found amusement watching the swans with their broods. The care taken of the young ones by the parent birds is very pleasing to see. Where the stream is very strong, I have often seen the swan sink herself low enough to bring her back on a level with the water, when the cygnets would get on it, and in this manner they were conveyed across the river, or into stiller water. Each family of swans on the river has its own district, and if the limits of its domain are encroached upon by any of the other swans a pursuit immediately takes place, and the intruders are driven away. And I have seen fierce battles occur if the intruder has shown any determination to contest the point; but, excepting in instances of this sort, they appeared to live in a state of great harmony. The male is most attentive to the female, assists materially in making the nest, which is no slight labour from the immense quantity of sticks that it requires to raise it sufficiently high to prevent the eggs being chilled by the water. Sometimes a rise in the river takes place so rapidly that the whole nest is destroyed and washed away. It is only when we have passed Richmond Bridge that we approach the spot where the “silver Thames” first becomes purely rural. “We get among the swans; pleasurable sensations of escape come freshly over the buoyant spirit, and the mind participates in the calm and sunshine of external nature.” One of our poets, whose works are not as much read as they ought to be, thus speaks of the river and the swans.

See the fair swans, on Thame’s lovely side,
The which do trim their pinions silver bright;
In shining ranks they down the waters glide,
Oft have mine eyes devoured the gallant sight.

But I must return to my swans, and give a few more particulars relating to them and their habits. Their instinct is often shown in a most surprising manner. I am indebted to the kindness of a friend, who knew the subject on which I am writing, for the following remarkable instance of maternal instinct that occurred in a small stream at Bishop Stortford. The swan of whom the story is told was eighteen or nineteen years old; she had brought up many broods, and was well-known in the neighbourhood. She exhibited nine years ago one of the most singular instances of the power of instinct I ever heard recorded. She was sitting on five eggs, and she was observed to be very busy collecting weeds and grass to raise her nest. A farming man received orders from his master to take down half a load of haulm, a sort of straw or grass mixed with sticks. Thus supplied, she most industriously continued her task till the nest and the eggs were raised full two feet and a half. That very night there came on a tremendous fall of rain, which caused a flood in the neighbourhood of the river; the malt warehouses and other premises suffered considerably. Man made no preparation, but the poor swan did: her instinct guided her aright, and her nest and eggs were completely out of danger.

I have sometimes seen the old swan assist the cygnets to get on her back by means of her leg. It occurred to me that this means of transporting the young ones from one spot to another might only be resorted to when the brood inhabited a river with a rapid stream, to spare them the labour of following against the current, but in the course of the summer I saw the same thing occur with an old swan and her brood, on the piece of water in St. James’s Park, where there is no current; so it must be the ordinary mode of proceeding of the parent bird. The dimensions of an old swan are from four feet eight inches to five feet; the weight about thirty pounds. Marked birds have been known to live over fifty years. Nowhere can one see these beautiful birds in greater perfection than on the river Thames. I remember seeing at one time eighteen of these majestic creatures sailing about, while the hen birds were sitting on their respective nests, either on the banks, or else on the small islands on the river. (The males are most attentive to the females while fulfilling their maternal duties; they never go far from the nest, and are always prompt to defend and guard it against any attack whatsoever.) Some had already brought forth their young brood; curious grey-looking birds the cygnets are during the first few weeks of their lives. Some had as many as eight cygnets, but the more ordinary number is from four to six. One part of the business of the swan-herd is to save the bird the great labour of making its nest, by placing faggots where she can find them.

From the river bank near Teddington I can see the spot where Pope’s villa formerly stood. Now alas! nothing remains of it but his grotto, of which he thus speaks in a letter to his friend, Mr. Digby:

In my garden, on the banks of the lovely river, I found a spring of the cleanest water, that echoes through my grotto day and night. From my seat, within this favourite retreat, which is composed entirely of shells, you look down through a sloping arcade of trees, and see the sails on the river, as through a perspective-glass; but no ideas you could form in the winter can make you imagine what Twickenham is in the summer; our river glitters beneath an unclouded sun at the same time that its banks retain their brilliant verdure; the silver swans sail along its placid bosom, or come close to my garden bank to receive their accustomed food.—Letter of Pope to Digby.

At the time of the last swan voyage, the Queen possessed 180 old swans, and 47 cygnets; 227 birds altogether: the Vintners’ Company had 79 old birds, and 21 cygnets; 100 birds in all: and the Dyers’ had 91 old birds, and 14 young ones; 105 birds in all. The total amounted to 537. The number formerly was much greater. At one period the Vintners’ Company possessed 500 birds. In the language of swan-herds the male bird is called “a lob;” the female, “a pen.” These terms refer to the comparative size and grade of the male bird and the female bird. The tubercle at the base of the beak is called “the berry.” An attempt was once made to introduce the black swan from America amongst our English birds, but wholly without success. It was tried by gentlemen having property on the banks of the Trent, and also by proprietors possessing swans on the Thames, and also in the private grounds of the Duke of Devonshire, at Chatsworth; but in all these instances the white swans drove away the strangers with the utmost fury, and the attempt was abandoned; but they were kept by themselves on a large piece of water at Chatsworth for a considerable time. They are much smaller than the tame white swan, and in my opinion very inferior in beauty.