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Thomas Bewick’s Birds of Spitalfields

April 28, 2017
by the gentle author

Coming across an early copy of Thomas Bewick’s ‘History of British Birds’ from 1832 in the Spitalfields Market inspired me to publish this ornithological survey with illustrations courtesy of the great engraver.

I have always known these pictures – especially the cuts of the robin and the blackbird – yet they never cease to startle me with their vivid life, each time I return to marvel at the genius of Bewick in capturing the essence of these familiar creatures so superlatively.

The book reminded me of all the birds that once inhabited these fields and now are gone, yet it is remarkable how many varieties have persisted in spite of urbanisation. I have seen all of these birds in Spitalfields, even the woodpecker that I once spied from my desk, coming eye to eye with it while looking into a tree from a first floor window to discern the source of an unexpected tapping outside.

The Sparrow

The Starling

The Blue Tit

The Great Tit

The Pigeon

The Collared Dove

The Blackbird

The Crow

The Magpie

The Robin

The Thrush

The Wren

The Chaffinch

The Goldfinch

The House Swallow

The Jay

The Woodpecker

Pied Wagtail – spotted by Ash on the Holland Estate, Petticoat Lane

Rose-ringed Parrakeet – an occasional visitor to Allen GardensHeron – occasionally spotted flying overhead

Buzzard – spotted over Holland Estate, Petticoat Lane

Swift – spotted by Ian Harper around Christ Church

Raven – spotted by Ian Harper & Jim Howett around Christ Church

Kite – spotted by Ian Harper & Jim Howett around Christ Church

Long-tailed Tit – spotted in Wapping

Willow Warbler – spotted by Tony Valsamidis in Whitechapel

If any readers can add to my list with sightings of other birds in Spitalfields, please drop me a line

You may also like to take a look at

Luke Clennell’s London Melodies

15 Responses leave one →
  1. April 28, 2017

    I’m so glad (though not surprised) that you love Bewick! You probably already know his biography, ‘Nature’s Engraver’, by Jenny Uglow – a wonderful book.

  2. richard permalink
    April 28, 2017

    Spied a Peregrine Falcon outside our first floor workroom window here in Vyner St Bethnal Green a few years ago. Beautiful!!

  3. Paul Loften permalink
    April 28, 2017

    There are quite a few of these birds that you no longer see hanging around my way but my question is where have all the Sparrows gone?

  4. April 28, 2017

    Thank you. I love these engravings, so full of life. I’ve seen many of these birds in my garden in Bow nd in Victoria Park… but from now on will be on the look-out for willow warblers.

  5. April 28, 2017

    I’m very happy to get a mention amongst the sighters of these wonderful birds in Spitalfields and as it happens I’m painting a mural in another part of London with some of the very same birds – see :

    The Ravens were tumbling from the top of Spitalfields church spire to the ground and then flying back up in classic spring display pattern , perhaps they escaped for the day from the Tower of London – it has been known

  6. Adele permalink
    April 28, 2017

    As a youngster growing up in Whitechapel and going to school in Spitalfields I was only aware of the sparrow and pigeon, fascinating to see so many species. There were so many parks and squares they must have been out in full force this time of year. A shame our schools didn’t make us more aware of our local wildlife.

  7. April 28, 2017

    Applause and gratitude! Not only to see these amazing, charismatic examples of Bewick’s work, large and in charge, but to hear from a mural artist-at-work (in the comments) — and to have a gaggle of birds just outside my studio claiming their spots in the various bird houses.
    Happy spring to all, from the Hudson River Valley.

  8. pauline taylor permalink
    April 28, 2017

    When these illustrations were first published they would have been much sharper and better defined than later reproductions due to the effect of the printing process on the wood blocks blurring the images, nevertheless they are works of art and I much admire them. Long ago I wrote my thesis on bird illustrators and Bewick was one of those that I included together with Audubon and several others.

  9. Donald Parsnips permalink
    April 28, 2017

    I spotted a woodcock at Rochelle canteen .
    ( under the steamed spinach ) yum !

  10. Ros permalink
    April 28, 2017

    Answer to Paul Loften – the sparrows have gone to Heathrow Terminal 5. Check it out!

  11. Greg Tingey permalink
    April 29, 2017

    Fascinating, especially the change in nomenclature, even in English, never mind the Latin “proper” names.
    The plate labelled “The Pigeon” is the London feral one ( Or the Rock-Dove?) & “The Collared Dove” is what we would call a Wood-Pigeon.
    What is now called the Collared Dove is a n other bird entirely. [ And not illustrated, because they only became common here after about 1960. ]

  12. Chris Honer permalink
    April 29, 2017

    Fascinating but I’m pretty sure that the bird you identify as a Collared Dove is actually a Woodpigeon. Collared Doves didn’t arrive in the UK till the 1950s and they don’t look like the engraving. Woodpigeons used to be known as Ring Doves – hence the possible confusion?

  13. Greg Tingey permalink
    April 30, 2017

    Excepting the Buzzard (The nearest I know of live withing sight of the M11/M25 junction) all the others can be seen at some time or another on my allotment plots area, even if just flying over – like the Herons going to & from Walthamstow reservoirs.

  14. Mary Moulder permalink
    May 1, 2017

    I know where all the sparrows are. There are English sparrows happily clowning in Tucson. We have heard that the first sparrows arrived with English immigrants on the east coast of the USA, and escaped their cage to populate the States. We also have purple house finches (red heads-not truly purple) who came in cages as a living memory of England. One caged pair escaped in San Francisco, and another from New England. Each group expands about 18 to 20 miles, and seem to think the interstate highways are like rivers to follow. I don’t know when or if the two populations have met mid-country yet, the the idea delights me.

  15. Brian Roy Rosen permalink
    July 28, 2021

    Bewick’s genius is widely recognised by many who know about his work, and yet paradoxically he still seems under-recognised in the wider sphere. Enlarging his pictures as here (thank you), brings out the sheer quality of his observation, and the instantly recognisable life-like capturing of his subjects, not to mention the fascinating backgrounds and the details of the birds’ perches – all in tiny wood cuts. Unbelievable!

    As for the birds of Spitalfields, one of my sons lives not far away with his family on the 17th floor of one the apartment blocks of the De Beauvoir Estate in Haggerston, and they regularly watch the peregrines face-to-face perching on their balcony rail, and preying on the pigeons and rats round about. They’ve seen more of peregrines in the last year or so than I’ve ever seen on all of my country walks over a lifetime.

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