Jenni Bowley reports from this years Swan Upping
Wednesday 16th July was a busy day for the City livery companies! While Footprints of London guide Jill Finch was enjoying the Cart Marking Ceremony in Guildhall yard, other Footprints guides (Anne Tickell, Kathryn Prevezer, Elaine Wein and myself) were entranced by the Swan Upping taking place on the Thames.
Swan Upping dates back to the twelfth century and is an annual census of the swans on the Thames. The name may derive from the cry of “All-Up” on the sighting of a brood of cygnets (young swans). Swans were highly prized at great banquets and the Crown claimed ownership of all swans on open water. Over the centuries the Crown granted right of ownership to some aristocratic families, to institutions and to guilds (livery companies).
These rights were maintained and asserted by the annual ceremony of Swan Upping – adult swans were caught by the monarch’s swan warden, beaks inspected for ownership marks and then the same marks would be cut on the beaks of the cygnets. (You may have noticed pubs on the Thames called “The Swan with the Two Necks” and with appropriate pictures of two-headed swans. This is probably a corruption of “the swan with two nicks” i.e. two notches cut in its beak.)
Last year I visited the excellent Royal River exhibition at the National Maritime Museum and was intrigued by the Register of Gylde Haule of Windesore – a seventeenth century copy of a swan roll from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. Surprisingly, over 900 different marks are recorded, some complex and based on the owner’s coat of arms, some simple nicks. Severe punishments were meted out to those caught falsely marking birds, or stealing eggs – or even for simply carrying a swan hook!
As the importance of swans as a food declined during the nineteenth century, and domestic poultry became plentiful, many people let their rights to swan ownership lapse. Today only the Vintners and Dyers livery companies maintain their rights to own swans on the Thames alongside the Queen. The annual ceremony is an important annual census for conservation and welfare; thankfully, the practice of notching beaks is no longer carried out – instead the swans are ringed on their legs with ownership tags.
Swan Upping takes place in the third week of July each year and the anticipated timetable is published on the royal website www.royal.gov.uk and on the Vintners website www.vintnershall.co.uk. This year the programme started at 9.00 am on Monday 14th July and finished on Friday lunchtime at Clifton Hampden Bridge. My friends and I decided to watch on the beautiful stretch of river just downstream of Hambledon Lock at lunchtime on Wednesday. We were very lucky to find a peaceful place to sit on the riverbank and watch the ducks and one family of swans.
The first boat to approach the swans appeared to be an advance guard of conservationists – having fed the swans and seen the cygnets they returned downstream with the news of another family found. We then watched as the six skiffs (rowing boats) of the swan uppers arrived – two flying the Dyers Royalty flag, two with the Vintners Royalty flag and two royal skiffs which each had a flag front (bow) and back (stern). They quickly manoevered their boats to pen the swans in against the river bank and efficiently caught the birds and tied their legs together. Once their legs were tied the swans were very quiet – apparently they are caught at this time of year as they are unable to fly – the adults are moulting and the cygnets do not yet have flight feathers.
Once caught, the swans were brought up onto the riverbank where their numbers were recorded and they were weighed and checked for injury before the cygnets were ringed. Then all the birds were released back into the river. We were delighted to have watched this all happen in a peaceful place as just upstream at the lock lots of people were waiting to watch the swan uppers – not to mention the liverymen and their guests who followed the progress from larger boats and were all moored at the lock, adding to the crowds.
One final detail – one of the Dyers’ catchers commented that all the catchers were Watermen – but that the Vintners catchers were all winners of the Doggetts Coat and Badge race. I had seen a small part of this year’s race while crossing Hungerford Bridge on Tuesday!
Jenni’s next walk is a City Safari on 24th August