Pigeon racing was once understood as a pastime of the elite, but in the twentieth century it established firm roots in Britain’s mining communities – and the bird became known as ‘the poor man’s racehorse’.

A pigeon fancier with racing pigeons in Wigan, Lancashire, November 1939. Original Publication: Picture Post 228. (Kurt Hutton / Picture Post / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

History has seen the pigeon fancier take many forms. From Robespierre to Elizabeth II, Pablo Picasso to Mike Tyson, the diversity of those known to favour the animal suggests an appeal that transcends specificities.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the breeding and aesthetic appreciation—or ‘fancying’—of these birds was considered a pursuit of the upper classes. At least, this is the impression offered by ‘The sportsman’s dictionary; or, the gentleman’s companion for town and country’, published in 1880. The book describes at length the attraction of the creatures: ‘The beautiful varieties of the tame pigeon are so numerous that it would be a fruitless attempt to describe them all; for human art has so much altered the colour and figure of this bird, that pigeon fanciers, by pairing a male and female of different sorts, can, as they express it, breed them to a feather.’

The guide also lists the penalties set out by the ‘pigeon acts’—laws designed to curb the malicious destruction of tame pigeons by those who considered them to be pests. Rather tellingly, the author notes that the threat of a fine or three months in gaol should dissuade the ‘vulgar error so prevalent among the lower class of people, that pigeons are a nuisance, that they destroy a great deal of feed in the fields, grain in rick-yards, or loosen the tiles on top of buildings’.

It’s true that many of those of the ‘lower class’ at that time might have seen pigeons as unwanted visitors in their fields and yards, interfering with their work. But at the same time, the practice of pigeon racing was developing deep roots in working-class communities, and in some of Britain’s mining villages, it’s a tie that survives.

This was a period when the popularisation of electric telegraph was creating a decline in the use of pigeons to deliver messages, and a concurrent rise in pigeons sold to private enthusiasts to race for sport. The format of the sport is simple: pigeons are tagged with an identification number on their legs before being transported away from their homes, or ‘lofts’, to the starting point of the race, a distance that can be as little as 100 kilometres or as much as several hundred miles. The bird’s number is recorded by its trainer and traditionally, a specially designed pigeon clock is set before the birds are released.

When the first bird returns to the loft, its trainer removes the number and places it in a slot in the clock. The time is recorded, after which an average speed over the distance is measured and the winner announced. For contemporary racers, the process is made simpler and more accurate with an electronic tagging system.

A man releases a racing pigeon, circa 1956. (Three Lions / Getty Images)

So when—and why—did the link between miners and pigeon racing begin to emerge? Alan Metcalfe, one of the few historians to examine the popularity of the sport in the UK’s pit villages, suggests it was the tight-knit culture of social clubs combined with the excitement of short-distance racing that led to a boom for the sport. Its popularity was made evident by the establishment of Bedlington Colliery Homing Club in 1878, the first sporting club of any kind to be established in the Northumberland coalfield. Other collieries would soon follow suit and form their own clubs, some of which remain in force today.

Metcalfe describes how miners’ clubs would hold community-wide ‘sports days’ that would run parallel to more middle-class amateur sporting events held by private athletic clubs. Pigeon racing, quoits, and clog dancing replaced the traditional competitive sports and, unlike other sports events, there was usually a cash prize for the winners. This promise of prize money was a potential draw for those struggling to make ends meet. Lisa Archibald recalls how she and her sister felt when her grandfather Archibald, a former miner in the Lady Victoria Colliery in Dalkeith, won money with his pigeons.

‘We were able to name the pigeons. We would feed them, clean them out, and go with him to race them,’ she explains. ‘We felt very involved in this hobby. We spent many a day out taking pigeons in the basket to different places in the UK, then releasing them, sometimes winning cash prizes too. We were a low-income family so that was always really exciting… the prizes brought a source of income during the mining strikes when I remember money being really tight.’

But according to modern-day fancier Nigel Brookes, pigeon racing has always been much more costly than it is lucrative. ‘There’s certainly no money in it,’ he says. ‘Some people will go to sales and pay two or three thousand for a pigeon. It’s the price of it that puts a lot of people off. It’s like football—following a team around is just as time-consuming or expensive.’

From Dinnington, a mining village in South Yorkshire, Nigel grew up around fanciers. He was given his first pair of pigeons by a family friend when he was just six years old and continued to race them until he was 16. The hobby would later re-enter his life as a way of bonding with his daughter. Thinking back to the old days, Nigel believes that the social aspect was the biggest draw of the sport for people in communities like his.

‘There are a lot of things that have stuck with me,’ he says. ‘My dad was one of nine and they all worked down the pits. So did everyone in the village, most of the lads at school and their families. What I was always told was that people spent so long in the dark that the last thing they wanted to do with their free time was sit in the sitting room of a dark terrace.

Nigel with his pigeons in Dinnington. (Emily Ingram)

‘That’s why there were so many allotments—a lot of the miners had pigeons, some had hens, and all sorts of stuff. When I was younger, I used to sit on the allotments with the old timers. That was their relaxation, to sit there, watch their pigeons fly about, have a chat and a laugh… it was their social media of the day really.’

As well as a sense of community brought about by allotments and racing clubs, keeping pigeons also allowed the miners of yesteryear to steal some hours of solitude. For those who had back yards, a pigeon loft was often a welcome escape from the outside world. Many were all too happy to immerse themselves in the pursuit—as a time-consuming and methodical process, rearing and training pigeons allowed patient and skillful people to shine. As historian Martin Johnes puts it:

‘It was not just the end result or the races that people enjoyed but the actual process of rearing and training the birds… The breeder both controlled and empathized with the lives of his birds, from matching their parents, to experiencing the emotions of their races, to telling stories about their feats.’

Today, pigeon racing is in a process of decline. Conditions for pigeons are increasingly treacherous, with fourteen percent of homing pigeon deaths attributed to an increase in birds of prey and nineteen percent to collision with buildings and structures. The devastation causes some seasoned fanciers to pack it in altogether.

‘There’s only half a dozen people that keep them around here [now], and it’s mostly ex-miners,’ Nigel continues. ‘A few years back there were more, but a lot of them have sadly passed.’

Nigel’s pigeons on the windowsill of his home. (Emily Ingram)

This decline, as those with experience in the pits pass away and their descendants move to look for work and lose track of the traditions and ties pit communities maintained, is just one of the ways pigeon racing reflects the communities in which it was once popular. There are others, that were perhaps more evident at the height of both: specialist knowledge passed from one generation to another; a culture of camaraderie and shared experience between among those who took part; a sport that required routine and care to such an extent that it was, for many, less a sport and more a way of life.

But on the personal scale, for Nigel, it’s the tie between pigeon and carrier that makes it worthwhile, and that brings him back to it even as others give it up. ‘It’s one of the daftest sports in the world—all you see of the race is the last ten seconds when they drop into the loft,’ he sums up. ‘But the enjoyment of seeing them come back is all I need. I love the fact that you can let them out, watch them fly for about half an hour, then all you have to do is shake your tin and they come back to you. You create that bond.’

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