Granddad’s pet priorities.
Nowadays the ubiquitous pigeon gets a rather bad rap and is sometimes looked on as an urban scourge, but it deserves a better reputation, having been trained as a messenger for hundreds of years. The entrenched British forces used over 5,000 of them in the First World War and again relied on the homing instincts of many trained pigeons in the second conflict.
But the sport supposedly started in Belgium, where the first race was held in 1881. Its popularity quickly spread around the world, and the bloodlines of those original birds can still be found wherever pigeons are raced. Even royalty got involved. Leopold, King of the Belgians, sent a couple of pairs to Queen Victoria’s family and their progeny has been housed in the grounds of Windsor Castle ever since. Such was the enthusiasm for the little bird that racing pigeon events were even included in the 1900 summer Olympic Games.
Ninety years later, Queen Elizabeth was delighted to learn that an entry from the royal loft had won an important European race. Her birds continue to compete today, under the international rules of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association.
The fraternity of pigeon enthusiasts comes from all walks of life and we are reminded that it’s the only sport with a single starting gate and a thousand finishing lines. And that’s one of the reasons I’m sure that granddad loved his birds and enjoyed the competitive challenge. He had bred most of them from a pair he bought in his teens, and always looked for a combination of speed, endurance and an enhanced homing instinct in the newborn chicks.
After the accident his work mates moved the racers to his backyard, where the family made sure he could handle them often and at least be able to carry on an involvement in the sport. In those days the ringed contenders were shipped by rail to a carefully measured destination perhaps hundreds of kilometres away, and the time taken by each bird to return home and be clocked in, determined the winner’s best speed. Many of them didn’t make it back to their lofts because they were always easy prey for falcons, hawks and other raptors.
Today of course the timing devices are much more sophisticated, because a race can be lost in just a few seconds, and sometimes big money is at stake in wagers and prizes. Way back in those Edwardian days, our pitman neighbours and sometimes their wives, were not averse to putting a few shillings on whatever bird they fancied. I’m sure they still do, because the sport is alive and well.
Placing a regular bet on beating the racing odds wasn’t just confined to pigeons in the old days. Not in the north of England anyway. Many miners in our home county kept a whippet. So did we, and Tex was a family favourite. This ancient breed was known as ‘the poor man’s race horse’ and is still recognized as the fastest accelerating dog in the world.
It was bred to hunt by sight, coursing game like hares and rabbits in open country, and owners always enjoyed showing off their whippets in this savage idea of sport. But the dogs could also win money in a very simple racing arrangement.
Two of them would be separately restrained with a leash through their collars by a designated starter, while the owners positioned themselves on the horizon a good distance away. At their signal, by together waving a towel, a coat or whatever, the leashes were slipped and the eager animals would hurtle over the ground to join their masters. That’s when the money changed hands and the dogs received their treats. Sporting entertainment was largely homemade in those days, but if money was involved, the payout was always taken seriously.
I was assured that though Tex never won a penny for my granddad, that little dog was always a treasured member of the family. When they both passed away in the same year, we apparently switched to border collies. Sure, they make great companions, and in my own time we’ve added dobermans, shepherds and schnauzers, but I’ve always rather fancied a whippet.
» Bill Greenwell prospered in advertising for 40 years in the U.K. and Canada. He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.