1859; The history of Weymouth’s swannery.

Growing up in Weymouth as a child, feeding the swans in the Backwater was a regular occurance.

Off we’d toddle, me and with my Mum, a bag of stale bread firmly clasped in my grubby little mitts. The walk down the Backwater road seemed to go on for ever, my short, stubby legs would start to tire…and I’m sure that I would have whinged and wined about “how much further.”

But when we reached the swannery where they would gather, I would forget all that…those majestic white birds would gracefully sail across the water with a haughty look in their eyes as they searched for any signs of a treat to come.

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Not until I became an adult did I realise quite what a history those swans had with Weymouth.

During the Victorian period, some of the swans that belonged to the Earl of Ilchester (which the estate still owns at the famous Abbotsbury Swannery) kept migrating to the backwater in Weymouth. The Earl became upset because Victorian man was very partial to a bit of wild fowl shooting, and the swans were seen as fair game. In 1859 It was decided that the Earl would make a present of any swans that landed on the Radipole lake and made their homes here, that way, they would come under the protection of the Corporation, and that they should do all in their power to protect them. (A fair few people were taken to court thereafter for peppering them with lead shot!)

By 1882 the flock had grown to 150 odd birds, so sucessful were they living and breeding in the vast reed beds of the Radipole lake. They led a life of luxury compared to most birds those days. Every morning at 9 0’clock sharp Mr Brewer, also known as Snatchy,  a Corporation ‘servant’,  would come to the same place near the old Melcombe Regis railway station with a pail of dried peas to feed the birds, and was back again in the evening for their tea. after their supper time feast, the birds would retire onto the reed island in the middle of the lake.Image

By the end of the century their numbers had increased to 200 odd. Weymouth would sell pairs of swans to other towns, partly to help keep the numbers down, but also to gain a bit of imcome from them, feeding them was becoming an expense that the council wasn’t overly keen on!

Snatchy Brewer died in 1899, after tending his flock for 22 years, but his job as keeper of the birds was taken over by his son Sam. They were fed and cared for for the following years until the Second World War, when a decision was taken to stop feeding the swans (due to food shortages) and let them fend for themselves.

These days it’s frowned upon to feed the birds with bread, but a new Bird Reserve on Radipole Lake with it’s little thatched hut sells the right food for the birds to devour, and kids still enjoy going along with their brown bag to feed the swans.

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I have a huge collection that cover illustrations from numerous Victorian articles about travel, prisons, children’s homes, poverty, philanthropy…
Check out my Etsy site for Victorian illustrations, many more, including local ones being added all the time from my own personal collection.
https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/VictorianGraphics?ref=l2-shopheader-name

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