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Swan Upping on the Thames

July 20, 2011
by the gentle author

Since before records began, Swan Upping has taken place on the River Thames in the third week of July – chosen as the ideal moment to make a census of the swans, while the cob (as the male swan is known) is moulting and flightless, and before the cygnets of Spring take flight at the end of Summer. This ancient custom stems from a world when the ownership and husbandry of swans was a matter of consequence, and they were prized as roasting birds for special occasions.

Rights to the swans were granted as privileges by the sovereign and the annual Swan Upping was the opportunity to mark the bills of cygnets with a pattern of lines that indicated their provenance. It is a rare practice from medieval times that has survived into the modern era and I have always been keen to see it for myself – as a vision of an earlier world when the inter-relationship of man and beast was central to society and the handling of our fellow creatures was a important skill. So it was my good fortune this week to join the Swan Uppers of the Worshipful Company of Vintners’ for a day on the river from Cookham to Marlow, just one leg of their seventy-nine mile course from Sunbury to Abingdon over five days. The Vintners Company were granted their charter in 1363 and a document of 1509 records the payment of four shillings to James the under-swanherd “for upping the Master’s swans” at the time of the “great frost” - which means the Vintners have been Swan Upping for at least five hundred years.

Swan Upping would have once been a familiar sight in London itself, but the embankment of the Thames makes it an unsympathetic place for breeding swans these days and so the Swan Uppers have moved upriver. Apart from the Crown, today only the Dyers’ and Vintners’ Companies retain the ownership of swans on the Thames and each year they both send a team of Swan Uppers to join Her Majesty’s Swan Keeper for a week in pursuit of their quarry.

It was a heart-stopping moment when I saw the Swan Uppers for the first time, coming round the bend in the river, pulling swiftly upon their oars and with coloured flags flying, as their wooden skiffs slid across the surface of the water toward me. Attended by a flotilla of vessels and with a great backdrop of willow framing the dark water surrounding them, it was as if they had materialized from a dream. Yet as soon as I shook hands with the Swan Uppers at The Ferry in Cookham, I discovered they were men of this world, hardy, practical and experienced on the water. All but one made their living by working on the Thames as captains of pleasure boats and barges – and the one exception was a trader at the Billingsgate Fish Market.

There were seven in each of the teams, consisting of six rowers spread over two boats, and a Swan Marker. Some had begun on the water at seven or eight years old as coxswain, most had distinguished careers as competitive rowers as high as Olympic level, and all had won their Doggett’s coat and badge, earning the right to call themselves Watermen. But I would call them Rivermen, and they were the first of this proud breed that I had met, with weathered skin and eager brightly-coloured eyes, men who had spent their lives on the Thames and were experts in the culture and the nature of the river.

They were a tight knit crew – almost a family – with two pairs of brothers and a pair of cousins among them, but they welcomed me to their lunch table where, in between hungry mouthfuls, Bobby Prentice, the foreman of the uppers, told me tales of his attempts to row the Atlantic Ocean, which succeeded on the third try. “I felt I had to go back and do it,” he confessed to me, shaking his head in determination, “But, the third time, I couldn’t even tell my wife until I was on my way.” Bobby’s brother Paul told me he was apprenticed to his father, as a lighterman on the Thames at fifteen, and Roger Spencer revealed that after a night’s trading at Billingsgate, there was nothing he liked so much as to snatch an hour’s rowing on the river before going home for an hour’s nap. After such admissions, I realised that rowing up the river to count swans was a modest recreation for these noble gentlemen.

There is a certain strategy that is adopted when swans with cygnets are spotted by the uppers. The pattern of the “swan voyage” is well established, of rowing until the cry of “Aaall up!” is given by the first to spot a family of swans, instructing the crews to lift their oars and halt the boats. They move in to surround the swans and then, with expert swiftness, the birds are caught and their feet are tethered. Where once the bills were marked, now the cygnets are ringed. Then they are weighed and their health is checked, and any that need treatment are removed to a swan sanctuary. Today, the purpose of the operation is conservation, to ensure well being of the birds and keep close eye upon their numbers – which have been increasing on the Thames since the lead fishing weights that were lethal to swans were banned, rising from just seven pairs between London and Henley in 1985 to twenty-eight pairs upon this stretch today.

Swan Upping is a popular spectator sport as, all along the route, local people turn out to line the banks. In these river communities of the upper Thames, it has been witnessed for generations, marking the climax of Summer when children are allowed out of school in their last week before the holidays to watch the annual ritual.

Travelling up river from Cookham, between banks heavy with deep green foliage and fields of tall golden corn, it was a sublime way to pass a Summer’s afternoon. Yet before long, we  passed  through the lock to arrive in Marlow where the Mayor welcomed us by distributing tickets that we could redeem for pints of beer at the Two Brewers. It was timely gesture because – as you can imagine – after a day’s rowing up the Thames, the Swan Uppers had a mighty thirst.

Martin Spencer, Swan Marker

Foreman of the Uppers, Bobby Prentice

The Swan Uppers of the Worshipful Company of Vintners, 2011

The Swan Uppers of 1900

The Swan Uppers of the nineteen twenties.

In the nineteen thirties.

The Swan Uppers of the nineteen forties.

In the nineteen fifties.

Archive photographs copyright © Vintners’ Company

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    July 20, 2011

    Forgive my frivolity, but don’t the swanuppers of the 1940s bear more than a passing resemblance to Wally of ‘Where’s Wally?’ fame?

  2. Joan permalink
    July 20, 2011

    Impossible to see this without thinking of Stanley Spencer’s painting of this scene:

    http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?workid=13700&tabview=image

    Best wishes,

    Joan

  3. Jill permalink
    July 20, 2011

    My thoughts exactly Joan! Fantastic photos – what a great day out. Bet that beer was welcome.

  4. Steve Marcham permalink
    July 21, 2011

    Well done Gentle Author, worth the effort of looking after you!

    Regards

    Steve

  5. July 21, 2011

    wow!!!!! i love english traditions! and the photos, they are amazing. thanks for posting this.

  6. jeannette permalink
    July 22, 2011

    joan, whenever i think of cookham i think of spencer — thank you for the link.

    GA, i never thought of rowers as giving a rat’s **** for their fellow waterbirds, and am so happy to think the swans are replicating safely and in good hands now.

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