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Albert Stratton, Pigeon Racer

March 19, 2016
by the gentle author

With the pigeon racing season commencing in April, I took the opportunity of an introduction to the sport kindly extended to me by Albert Stratton, Secretary & Clock setter of the Kingsland Racing Pigeon Club, which has been established for over a century. Ever since I read Dickens’ description of the pigeon lofts in Spitalfields in 1851, I have been curious to discover whether anyone keeps pigeons here today. So I was delighted to find Albert in the garden of his house beside Weavers Fields in Bethnal Green, where he has two sheds filled with pigeons, and learn that the venerable East End culture of keeping homing pigeons is alive, nurtured by a small group of fanciers.

Albert is a powerfully built man with a generous spirit, who becomes lyrical in his enthusiasm when talking about these familiar birds that are as mysterious as they are mundane. Commonly considered pests, pigeons are so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible, yet if they were rare maybe we would prize them for their fine plumage and astounding navigational abilities – just as Albert does.

“When I was fourteen, growing up in Shoreditch, I was walking through the flats one day and there was a pigeon on the floor, as skinny as you can get. He had a ring round his foot, so I took him home and my dad said, ‘It’s a racing pigeon, you’ve got to let it go because it belongs to someone.’ Then we found it couldn’t fly, so he said, ‘We’ll keep it on the balcony and build it up until it can fly.’ But when we did let it go, it flew up in the air and back into the box – and after that I became fascinated with pigeons and how they will stay with you.

We moved to the Delta Estate and had a flat on the top floor with a big balcony, and when I found four Tippler pigeons (which are fancy pigeons not racers) abandoned, I took them home and kept them on the balcony in crates with wire netting on the front. I used to let them go out and fly, and they’d come back. Then, when we bought the house in Bethnal Green, we decided to keep racing pigeons. We built two sheds and had six babies delivered by courier from the Maserella stud in Leicester.

In 1983, I joined the Kingsland Pigeon Racing Club and my first year’s racing with them was 1985 and I won fourth place in the club which gets you into the prize money. And you think to yourself, anyone can do this – but you find out later, it’s hard. You’ve got to keep your pigeons healthy and fit – spot on. Sick pigeons can’t race. You’ve got to train them to build up the muscle and the fitness. Pigeon racing is like horse racing – the money is in the breeding not the racing. You pay to breed from the winners, studs buy up the winning pigeons and then sell off their young ones.

We start the season on 10th April at Peterborough, from there to my house is seventy-one and half miles. After that first race, we carry on in stages of thirty miles between each race point, moving up the country. Newark at one hundred and twelve and a half miles is the second race point, and after fifteen weeks we end up in Thurso at five hundred and seven miles North of here.

Before the race, we all go round to the club headquarters in Mr Hamilton’s garden, where we mark each pigeon with a numbered rubber band. Then we synchronise our clocks. Once the pigeon arrives home, you take the number off the leg and put it in the clock which stops the timer. The timing runs from the moment when the pigeons are liberated.

Pigeons fly at fifty miles per hour with no wind. So, if they are liberating the pigeons at nine o ‘clock in Peterborough, you check the weather and, if the wind forecast is thirty-five miles per hour from the North, then you estimate it should take approximately two hours, which means the pigeons will arrive in Bethnal Green at eleven. Once you’ve worked out a time of arrival, you are waiting for them. I’ve stood at the back door looking to the North and everything that moves in the sky you go, “Come on, come on!” – if it’s yours or not. You look at your watch and then back at the sky.

There’s nothing better than seeing one of your birds come out of the sky, when it folds to make itself small to become as fast as possible, because it wants to get home. As soon as it arrives, you go in the garden with peanuts to get his attention, so you can get the rubber band off and put it in the clock.

Then you go round to the club, where the rubber bands are collected and all the clocks are struck off against the master timer to confirm they are all the same. We know the exact time they left and the exact time they arrived, so we divide the distance by the time to get velocity and the bird that has the greatest velocity wins. We record our first ten birds which means everyone gets their name published in The Racing Pigeon, which covers all the East End clubs.”

I followed Albert into the shed to take pictures while he cleaned out the shelves and tenderly checking on those birds hatching eggs or nursing chicks, even holding up a tiny blind newborn chick in his large hand to show me, replacing it gently under its mother’s breast before it got cold, and then chasing the other pigeons outside to get some exercise.

When Albert joined the Kingsland Club in 1983 there were thirty members but now there are eight, the others have died or moved East towards Clacton, Albert says, and Kingsland itself is the only proper club left in Hackney where there once four or five. Today, there is one in Stepney Green and another in Wood Green, that is distinguished by its multiracialism. “Polish people might be the only lifeblood to save pigeon racing in this country,” commented Albert absent-mindedly from within the shadows of the pigeon shed, “If people don’t mix there’ll be no peace in this world.”

It is truly remarkable how these modest birds can navigate over great distances, and I was touched to observe the passion they draw from Albert, whenever the miracle is repeated, each time they fly home to him. Through pigeons, Albert in his small garden in Bethnal Green is connected to the wide landscape that the pigeons traverse to fly home and through pigeons Albert also is connected to the intense social life of the Federation of Racing Clubs, as the average for every pigeon accumulates through the season to arrive at a prize bird that can deliver a substantial reward.

While we were talking in the living room, our conversation was interrupted when we saw a cat appear on the roof of the pigeon shed and Albert rolled his eyes, “Look at that creature! Where’s my rifle?” he growled.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. March 19, 2016

    Glad to see that the pigeon lovers are still there. They are really amazing birds. Valerie

  2. March 19, 2016

    Yes I liked this blog; I believe pigeon fanciers are gentle people they look after their birds and in their way are interested in nature. Sometimes in a long distance race there are casualties they are caught in a freak storm many get lost, they scatter but some return to their lofts weeks later. Pigeon people look after these strays I hope they will still be your friends and good little earners. Years ago during a big race a large flock scattered over the Bristol Channel a few crashed onto Steep Holm island near Weston S M, some had Irish leg rings. Some liked the island so much they stayed for the summer season.
    During WW2 pigeons contributed to the war effort; they were officially recognized and lofts were set up. They accompanied aircrews in their little boxes and released when aircrews needed rescuing. The army used the pigeon service so did SOE ops. To sum up the pigeons that went on active service saved lives.

  3. March 19, 2016

    A couple of years ago I found a racing pidgeon on Cowes beach dehydrated and unable to fly.I found the owner from the number on it’s ring through Google.Home was in South Wales and after a two weeks rest a box was sent and we delivered the pidgeon to the hovercraft where it was allowed to travel free,apparently pidgeons have free travel accross the Solent according to an old act.Then pidgeon was put in a special front compartment of a delivery lorry to South Wales where it was re named Hovercraft Boy

  4. Debra Matheney permalink
    March 19, 2016

    Thank you so much for this post. I have wondered how pigeon racing works and now I know. Lovely how they want to come home, but I would want to be home, too, with that lovely care they receive.

  5. Corvin permalink
    March 19, 2016

    Hopefully not Mr Pussy appearing on the roof!

  6. March 19, 2016

    Wooh – that last picture! Great story & very informative, thanks both

  7. Clive murphy permalink
    March 20, 2016

    Fascinating. Surely worthy of a full book?

  8. Patricia Peters permalink
    April 4, 2016

    PIGEON ENGLISH

    ‘Shoo. Clear off. This is my spot.’
    ‘Stop flapping. There’s room for both of us.’
    ‘I always sit here,’ the female said.
    ‘My profound apologies, I am just getting my bearings, refuelling, and then I’ll be on my way. No need to get ruffled.’ He put his head on one side as if to smile.
    ‘Where you from then?’
    ‘The East End of London.’ He smiled again. ‘Heard of it?’ he said.
    ‘Of course. You one of those cockney sparrows?’
    ‘Hardly, my little Turtle Dove. Do I sound like a Cockney? As you will
    observe I am much bigger than a sparrow. Want to see my pectorals?
    ‘Your what?’
    He took a deep breath and expanded his chest. ‘Pectorals,
    Darling. Chest muscles.’
    ‘I know that. My Belgian had bigger ones than you.’
    ‘Was he a homer?
    ‘Certainly not.’ That remark seem to upset her and she shifted her weight from one
    foot to the other several times. ‘He was a real fella,’ she said, ‘cock-sure, always
    chasing the birds when they gave him the come-on.’
    He glanced up at the open window above them. ‘Have you always lived
    here?’
    My family has been here for years. This is our home. We was all born here.’
    ‘Not flown the nest yet? Not interested in horizons new?
    ‘Never been further than Lowestoft. We keep on this side of the river. Anyway
    who’s asking?’
    ‘My name is Voyager.’ His chest rose again.
    ‘Coo. That’s posh.’
    ‘It’s aristocratic, my dear. I work for Mr Bond. Bond Birds of Stratford East.
    I travel for Mr Bond. We arrived on the train this morning. Mr Bond likes
    Lowestoft. He loves the music of Benjamin Britten.’
    ‘Who’s he?’
    ‘My dear, he was a world famous musician and a composer. He was born in that house opposite. Mr Bond remembers coming here as a boy. He reckons he saw the great man once. He often recalls having afternoon tea at the Thatch Restaurant and Fish and Chips at Pakefield Plaice.’
    ‘There’s still plenty to eat at them places. Me and the family often make a
    flying visit. Pick up a crumb or two,’ she said.
    ‘Mr Bond remembers doing his courting underneath the Claremont Pier.’
    ‘Coo-ey. It’s still a great place for a bit of cooing and billing. Went there a few
    times with my Belgian.’
    ‘What happened to him?’
    ‘He disappeared. I waited but he didn’t come back to me.’ Her eyes
    moistened.
    ‘Please don’t cry,’
    ‘He was a bit posh like you. Just flew in from somewhere and sat where
    you’re sitting. For me it was love at first sight. He used to crow about his
    ancestors.’
    ‘I can trace my blood line back 2000 years.’ He spoke quickly as if he had
    said these lines many times before. ‘My fore bearers started a postal service and
    others pioneered aerial photography. My great, great, great, great grand father was
    a spy in the First World War.’ Even when she turned her good ear towards him she
    could not follow him. Finally he said, ‘A distant uncle worked for
    Reuters. You heard of Reuters?’
    ‘I‘ve heard of Rooters, the garden centre at Pakefiled.’
    Bird-brain, he thought, but did not say so. ‘Do you know, I think I might be
    related to your dearly departed. My parents came from Belgium.’ He glanced
    again at the open window.
    ‘Coo-ey, listen to you. You’re worse than that show-off peacock at Petit’s
    Farm. Isn’t it about time you were going back to Stratford East with your Mr
    Bond?’
    ‘We’re not travelling back together.’
    ‘Don’t tell me, you’re flying all the way.’
    ‘Hopefully I’ll be following the A12 straight into Stratford and back to Mr
    Bond’s.’
    ‘Do you live with him?’
    ‘Yes, I’ve got a loft conversion at his place.’
    She took a step towards him. ‘On your way, then. There’s a tail wind. Need
    a push?’
    ‘Not so fast.’ He took two steps away from her. ‘If you don’t mind, I’ll linger
    a little longer here. In case something else drops out of this window again.
    ‘What you on about?’ She tilted her head and looked at him with one eye.
    ‘I was sitting here a while ago, before you arrived, my Feral Beauty,
    catching my breath and contemplating my route home when a wonderful delicacy
    dropped at my feet.’
    She looked at his feet. ‘What was it?’ she asked.
    ‘It was still warm, crisp on the outside and mouth wateringly soft in the
    inside. Such a scrumptious change from my usual diet. The food at Mr Bond’s is
    bland, dry and strictly vegetarian. It is a rare delight to eat a morsel of meat.’
    ‘What was it?
    ‘A flying creature with an iridescent body. Mr Bond is very careful to keep
    them out of my loft. Says they carry diseases. I say, they may be dirty but they‘re
    very delicious.’
    ‘Do you mean a bluebottle? My Belgian was partial to a bluebottle. They always
    give me indigestion.’

    Someone inside the building slammed shut the window. The pigeons shot into the air, collided, wobbled, adjusted their flights, circled Benjamin Britten House, then flew off together in the direction of the A12 and Stratford east. A few miles down the road at the Beccles junction the feral pigeon turned tail and headed back to Lowestoft. Later, confused and exhausted she dropped into the sea near Kesingland.

    Everyone knows that pigeon’s can’t swim. However homing pigeons can fly over a hundred miles in one day; the distance between Lowestoft and Stratford East.
    A Lowestoft Writer

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