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Flights of Fancies

T hink of a 1930's British movie.

One of the fellows is 6 foot 2 slim build, suit, bowler hat and a voice cultured to the extent it threatens to strangle him, 'Now my good man, if you would not mind awfully...'

He is addressing a fellow about 5 foot 4 inches with rather an elastic looking face, suggesting he has not quite the mental power to control all his body at once. He appears shorter than he is because of a slight stoop. The bowler hatted fellow is therefore addressing the flat cloth cap the shorter man is wearing. Between that flat cap and his hobnailed boots the man is every inch working class. 'Eye guv' that I can.' He will say, never looking the 'right proper gent' in the eye.

the duffers being eliminated

The toff (Charles) will come from Surrey and the scruff will come from Yorkshire.

To save you watching this rather grim film, the gent will go watch an opera and be very cultivated until he goes home and chops up his housekeeper (Mrs P). He is a gay bachelor dontchyaknow.

The scruff (Jack) will go home look after his pigeons and be adored by his children and hard working wife.

For the life of me I do not know why Britain does not have a film industry.

Still as this page is part of the series about peerless cards it is not going to be about film star cards but what it is going to be about is Jack's beloved racing pigeons.

There should have been more card sets dedicated to pigeons. A good many won medals in the wars for carrying life saving messages. Pigeon fanciers managed to create any number of peculiar looking variations of the breed and a thoroughbred racing pigeon is worth a small fortune. Combine this with the fact a good many people kept pigeons then and now it is a subject which deserved bigger coverage.

Fly my pretties
Ogdens, Racing

The few cards we do have are pretty much courtesy of Ogdens. They issued Fowls, Pigeons and Dogs [1904] but more importantly, Ogdens, Racing Pigeons [1931] a 50 card series dedicated to our feathered friends. There are also pigeons to be found in the seemingly endless Guinea Gold and Tabs series issued by this company (but you can also find pictures of almost anything in those thousands of cards if you care to try to find it.) And no I have not forgotten the Cope, Pigeons [1926] set of 25 cards, but cut me some slack please.

Thankfully Ogdens did a first rate job of this set, although the first ten cards do not give much clue as to the variety on offer in the remaining 40. Card 2 shows a chap in a flat cap standing next to his pigeon loft. This is described as a typical Woking-man's loft but it holds a secret.

Within its confines is the pigeon that won the London North Road Combine's Fraserburgh race (first raced in 1894 but with 3000 entrants by the early 1930's).

Prize money was not inconsiderable, the Liverpool Championship Club giving something like 5000 UK (8500 US) per race in the late 1920's, well worth winning now and certainly well worth it then. This is revealed to us on card 3 and by card 4 it is estimated a quarter of a million pounds in prize money is on offer on an annual basis for things pigeon. The bird illustrated 'Dark Japan' owned by Mr J Cheetham won £800 ($1200) in the previous year.

Pigeon's were not the exclusive preserve of the working class, card 6 shows us Lord Dewar's Favourite. He bought 14 pigeons at the retirement sale of the late JW Logan for a total of 627 UK ($1000 US). Among this number 'was the famous stock red chequer cock No. 69 for which he gave £160 [UK]'

You might think Lord Dewar was pretty high up in the British social pecking order but before you know it King Edward VII had set up a Royal pigeon loft after King Leopold of the Belgians presented him with pigeons as a gift.

It is all taken very seriously and Mr Collins contention 'Blood will tell' (card 5) ensures pigeon blood lines are kept with a determination to ensure the breeding is just right. A champion bird being a product of breeding and not chance. Card 17 gives a hint of all this when it says, 'The racing pigeon is an aristocrat with a pedigree, and is bred from a long line of long-distance racers, the duffers being eliminated.'

Ogdens, Racing Pigeons

Duffer is a most delightful word and rather under-used in the world of cigarette cards. Other examples can be found in Copes, Golfers [1900].

Many of the pigeons in the set have tales of bravery to tell and were a very serious part of the communications network for the allies during the First World War.

So brave and gallant were the British pigeons that after the War when the USA Army was establishing its pigeon lofts British racing pigeons were used as the breeding foundation. This is the same card which illustrates a pigeon gas mask (they were put in rather like babies were) which gives you an idea of how serious it all really was.

Keeping pigeons safe and sound before they are needed takes up a number of the cards. RAF pigeon lofts are shown on card 16 and card 25 explains aircraft employed pigeons to get the messages back to the airbase, it is worth giving the entire text of this card.

Card 25:
The Only Survivor.
During the Great War pigeons were extensively used by aircraft to get messages back to their stations. on one occasion a squadron of Short seaplanes left Westgate to go on patrol. They were attacked by a German Albatross squadron, and all that was left of them was the carrier-pigeon which is shown in the picture. It arrived home bearing a bloodstained message 'Attacked'. This message is now in the Imperial War Museum.


Thankfully though a lot of the messages that got through were a little more useful than that. Card 12 shows the stuff remains of a pigeon (apparently at the museum of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution) that despite being badly injured managed to get a message through which ensured the crew of the trawler Nelson was saved after being caught up in an enemy engagement in 1917.

Getting a pigeon and message off a trawler is one thing but you must have been wondering how this trick was done from a World War One aircraft. Card 36 helpfully tells us special training was needed. The card even claims a crew a week was saved by of feathered heroes and were often more trusted than wireless in many instances. This being because wireless messages were easier to intercept than pigeons (it is what it says).

It even sites pigeons were very useful in getting messages back concerning submarine hunting, although you would think the time taken to get the messages back might make some of the information a bit limited.

Even more surreal this same card explains pigeons were dropped in Belgium behind enemy lines (via parachute, the birds were in baskets). The idea was the locals would write messages and send the birds back to the allies and thus valuable information was obtained.

Perhaps the most unlikely though is card 40, releasing a pigeon from a submarine (the submarine surfaces first thankfully), again the logic was wireless could be intercepted.

In a world where we are losing the last survivors of the Great War card 18, 'Little Hope' represented one of the last pigeon survivors from the Great War by the time the set was issued in 1931. A veteran of 150 faultless War missions once back in civvy street this pigeon won many a race.

I have been making a bit of mischief with some of these feathered endeavours but that is not fair as they really were useful, did save lives and did provide a very useful service.

There will always be a special place in cricket history for one of the little fellows. The well known cricketer Mr A Harold Gilligan (Sussex) was shot down over the Kiel Canal and all were flung into the sea. The companion aeroplane rescued them but this turned out to be a mixed blessing as the extra weight meant it broke a wing so now they were downed as well.

For three days they were at the mercy of the elements whilst the four pigeons they sent out tried to get the message through. Of the four three died during the journey but the fourth got to Yarmouth before dropping dead of exhaustion. Thus the six men were saved and the pigeon was stuffed and mounted given pride of place on the Wardroom mantelpiece at Yarmouth.