Shot, snared, scoffed or stuffed – the fate of birds in former times

George Swaysland
George Swaysland

Brighton was for long notorious for its treatment of wild birds.

Brighton was for long notorious for its treatment of wild birds. Richard Jefferies, walking up Dyke Road in 1884 and spotting a sign outside the Stanford estate, prohibiting the shooting or netting of birds, observed: “It is to be wished that these notices not to shoot or net small birds were more frequently seen. Brighton is still a bird-catching centre, and acres of ground are covered with the nets of the bird-catchers.”

Grey Phalarope stuffed by Swaysland

Grey Phalarope stuffed by Swaysland

He wished the latter could be “confined a little while in the same manner as they confine their miserable feathery victims”.

Thousands of wheatears were annually snared to be eaten in Brighton’s hotels and restaurants. Traversing Sussex on their way to Africa, these little birds were netted by shepherds and sold to the Brighton poulterers. One shepherd took a hundred dozen in a day.

According to E.V.Lucas, “people visited Brighton solely to eat them”. Even after the shepherds were banned from the practice, “the ordinary birdcatcher of the Brighton slums” continued to take them, says W.H.Hudson, until the “Sussex ortolan” was practically wiped out.

Skylarks, lured with curious spinning mirror devices, were likewise, says Mrs Merrifield, “hung up in bunches at the stalls of the poulterers”. In those days they were so plentiful, claims J.A.Erredge, that at the beginning of winter “the numbers that pass over Brighton are incredible. They sometimes extend to millions a day, as from early light to dusk there is a continued stream, at least a quarter of a mile wide, passing along. On the road to Rottingdean is where the greatest flights may be observed.”

Swaysland's shop at 47 Queen's Road, with his son or grandson (both called Walter) outside

Swaysland's shop at 47 Queen's Road, with his son or grandson (both called Walter) outside

Songbirds, particularly goldfinches and pipits, were taken in equally depressing numbers for caging. In 1860 some 1,154 dozen goldfinches were taken at Worthing. Mrs Merrifield says one birdcatcher once caught 24 dozen pipits in one morning.

Clifford Musgrave records that in Edwardian times 20 or 30 birdcatchers would daily issue from Brighton to net birds for eating or caging, but “the most profitable catches were the examples of rare varieties or species of birds”.

These would fetch 10 shillings or a sovereign from collectors, who would have them stuffed and mounted in display cases.

The three local taxidermists were Robert Brazenor in Lewes Road, Pratt and Sons of Cranbourne Street, and – the one who features most often in the literature – George Swaysland of Queen’s Road.

When a shepherd boy slugged an osprey with his crook at Rottingdean, Swaysland mounted it with its claws around a large fish. In 1844, he stuffed and mounted six hoopoes taken near Brighton. A spotted crake, found on the doorstep of 4 Brunswick Terrace in 1858, fatigued after crossing the Channel, was “stuffed by Mr Swaysland”.

A ruff caught in a snare was “sent alive to Mr Swaysland”. A fork-tailed petrel, caught at Rottingdean in 1848, was “brought alive to Mr Swaysland”.

He himself slaughtered multitudes. He once shot five storm petrels “a mile off Brighton”.

In 1847 he shot two black redstarts near a rubbish dump in Hove, and in 1853 three rare white wagtails. Charles Darwin, in The Descent of Man (1871), attests: “Mr Swaysland of Brighton has been in the habit, during the last 40 years, of catching our migratory birds on their first arrival, and he has never known the females of any species to arrive before their males.  During one spring he shot 39 males of Ray’s wagtail before he saw a single female.”

The stuffed birds of Swaysland, Brazenor and Pratt ingeniously recreated their habit and habitat, every blade of grass delicately fashioned from cloth. Many are preserved in the Booth Museum, located not far from where Jefferies saw that notice.