You may not recall the name of Sir Peter Viggers – but you will, very probably, know about his duck house.
Sir Peter was, until he stepped down in 2010, the Member of Parliament for Gosport. His duck house became one of the most famous examples of MPs claiming on their expenses for things that were not, perhaps, central to their parliamentary work.
The house in question was placed on a floating platform in the middle of the lake at Sir Peter’s home. It apparently cost £1,645 and was modelled on an 18th-century building at Skansen, the museum of buildings in Stockholm.
Spending public money on an elegant home for waterfowl at the public expense may not have been the wisest move, but caring for – or at least keeping – birds of various sorts has been around for thousands of years.
Dovecotes, in particular, have a very long history; there are existing dovecotes from the ancient Persian and Egyptian empires. In Rome at the time of the Caesars dovecotes were, apparently, a craze among the better off. Described by the historian Pliny the Elder, these ‘columbaria’ had nesting places for thousands of birds – usually pigeons.
The Romans took the idea to France, where ‘pigeonniers’ or ‘colombiers’ were built. Around the time of the Norman invasion, the idea came to Britain. In the Middle Ages it was a mark of high status to have your own dovecote; there were laws that regulated their construction and use, and it was only members of the nobility who had what was called ‘droit de colombier’. Unlike ornamental dovecotes today, these early dovecotes were important for practical purposes. The pigeons provided meat during the winter, as well as eggs and a regular supply of guano for use as a fertiliser.
Many medieval dovecotes survive; they are often circular and have hundreds of rectangular openings in the interior walls where the pigeons and doves could nest. To enable the keepers of the dovecotes to take the birds for meat and to collect the eggs there was usually a central post with a horizontal piece against which a ladder could be rested; the post rotated so that all the pigeon holes could be accessed.
There were, of course, other ways of obtaining birds as food. Shooting (with arrows and, later, with firearms – ‘fowling pieces’) was one way, but it could be easier to trap unsuspecting birds. One way to catch small birds was to coat twigs in ‘bird lime’, a sticky substance that made them adhere when they landed on it, so they could be easily taken. This is probably the method that Papageno the Bird Catcher used in Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’. The practice is banned today in most countries.
For larger birds there was the duck decoy. Dating from at least medieval times, the decoy was made by digging a narrowing channel from a pond; over it was constructed a tunnel of wicker or netting. A dog herded the ducks into the mouth of the tunnel; when they reached the enclosed end they could be taken by the decoyman. The National Trust has preserved a duck decoy at Borstall in Buckinghamshire; it is used today for demonstrations of the technique and for capturing birds to ring for study, not to eat.
Once birds were caught they would be taken for cooking. In larger country houses birds were often hung in a game larder. It was usual for this to be a separate building, often in a courtyard, conveniently near the door of the kitchen. There is a good example at Hampton Court Palace.
It wasn’t just wild birds that were eaten, of course; hens were kept, too. Usually they were housed in humble sheds, but sometimes landowners did more for their birds. At a farm near Tong in Shropshire the landowner built an elegant brick pyramid for his hens, known locally as ‘The Egyptian Aviary’. It once had texts on it with exhortations to the hens such as ‘Scratch before you peck’.
Another grand ‘fowl house’ is to be found at Leighton Hall near Welshpool in mid-Wales. As part of an extensive ‘model farm’ – an example of best agricultural practice of the mid-19th century – the Naylor family constructed a grand house for poultry, with a half-timbered exterior. The inside has arched wooden nesting places and stained-glass windows.
The Naylors’ structure was as much about showing off as about animal husbandry, and many of their fowl were exotic species. This was fashionable in the later 18th and the 19th centuries, and there was a trend towards displaying the birds for their plumage rather than keeping them for food. There are 18th-century designs for aviaries – notably by Thomas Wright of Durham, who came up with many ideas for Gothic and rustic structures in which to show off ornamental birds.
In the early 19th century Joseph Badger designed an octagonal Gothic aviary at Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, and one of the most specular was erected for the Rothschild family at Waddesdon Manor in 1889. Built from cast iron, it is based on examples from Versailles. Slightly earlier is the timber-framed aviary at Tyntesfield in Somerset. Built to house the family’s exotic birds, it later became a children’s playhouse, but was often known as the ‘Guano House’ because the Gibbs family, who built it, made their money from bird droppings – an interesting link back to the medieval dovecotes.
Perhaps the most famous of modern aviaries is the Snowdon Aviary at London Zoo – though it’s now more than half a century old. Designed in 1962 by Lord Snowdon, it was the first walk-though aviary, the birds kept in place under a wide-spread net held by towering steelwork. We may say that it was a better use of available funds than a parliamentary duck house . . .