Wonderful news. A specimen of a London Fancy canary dated to circa 1850 has come to light; the holy grail for canary historians. We can thank Hein van Grouw for the discovery; he seems to have made a speciality of investigating birds that became extinct. (1)
Hein’s photograph of the bird was first published in the August 2020 edition of De Witte Spreeuwen (the magazine of the KBOF, the Flemish bird keepers’ federation) to accompany a pair of articles written by Didier Mervilde. I only became aware of the bird because Didier kindly sent me copies of the magazines. I considered it a major discovery and Rob Innes, editor of Cage & Aviary Birds, agreed. You can find the news report in this week’s issue (September 2).
Inevitably people will want to know more: are we sure it is a genuine London Fancy; how can we be so confident about its age; what do we know about the owner of the bird; and how does it compare to the modern London Fancy? This article will try to answer these questions.
First and foremost, it is evident that the bird is an over-year jonque (2) London Fancy canary.
All the contemporary reports tell us that the London Fancy looked similar to a young Lizard in juvenile feather. It was only after the first moult that the best specimens displayed the classic combination of clear yellow head and body contrasting against black wings and tail. At the second and subsequent moults there was a further loss of melanin causing a deterioration of the wings and tail. That is what we see here.
The wing feathers are mostly black with a light wing bar, a pattern you sometimes see in over-year Lizards. The tail feathers display a greater loss of melanin, but every feather retains some black as you can see from this close-up. This is entirely consistent with the phenomenon known as ‘progressive greying’; there is no doubt that these feathers were originally black.
The contour feathers look clear yellow but it is possible to detect some melanin from the underflue ‘grinning through’ the surface. This is most evident on the neck and head, as shown in another detail. It is another affirmation of the ‘progressive greying’ factor.
For all the positive evidence, the bird displays an unexpected fault: the beak, legs and claws are very pale.
Before I look at the likely explanation, we need to understand that the ideal London Fancy was based on an inherent contradiction: minimum melanin on the head and body while at the same time displaying maximum melanin everywhere else. Something had to give.
Blakston (1878-81), while insisting that the London Fancy should have dark legs, also made an interesting observation when discussing the recommended pairing of ‘strong’ to ‘soft’ feathered birds:
“The ‘strong’ are those in which there is much grizzled feather and dark flue, and ‘fine’ or ‘soft’ birds those in which the ticks are pale and indistinct, consisting for the most part of little more than a dark or grey stalk with only an occasional grey tinge in the web. A ‘soft’ bird will also show less dark flue on being blown, and an additional ‘soft’ feature is a white leg.” (3)
Clearly, the ‘soft’ type had an advantage in producing a clear bodied bird, simply because it displayed less melanin (4). The inevitable consequence was that the beak, legs and claws also lacked melanin and appeared pale, as we see in this bird. Given the choice of dark legs and beak on a spangle-backed bird, or pale legs and beak on a clear bird, it would seem that Victorian fanciers had no hesitation in opting for the latter.
The second question is how can we be so confident about the age of this bird? Anyone who knows anything about taxidermy will be aware that dating specimens can be very tricky unless it comes with a dated cage label or a reliable provenance.
We are lucky. The case label states “J.Cooper, 29 Radnor Street, London”; it may be just a name and an address, but it tells us a great deal. He was John Cooper, originally a watch maker who started work as a taxidermist in 1825. He is best known for his cased fish, but he also preserved birds. The address tells us that the bird must have been mounted before 1853 because that is when he moved next door to 28 Radnor Street (5).
There are other details such as the colour of the background and the dried grass display that indicate the bird was stuffed sometime between 1845 and 1852, with ‘circa 1850’ being as close to the actual date as we can get (6). Don’t forget that the bird itself would have been a show specimen a couple of years before that, i.e. 1848 or thereabouts.
The third question concerns the owner of the bird. Alas there is nothing on the case to tell us, but I have found some potential candidates.
The timeframe fits closely with the celebrated article on London Fancy canary societies published in the Illustrated London News on 12 December 1846. It could even be the same jonque illustrated in the article, but I doubt it. If the unnamed owner wanted a momento of the bird, why would he (they were all men) go to the expense of having the bird preserved when he could simply buy a copy of the ILN for sixpence?
Nevertheless it is likely that the John Cooper specimen had been a major prize winner. There were several societies for ‘Fancy birds’ in London in the first half of the nineteenth century; the top two shows being widely regarded as those held by the ‘Hand-in-Hand’ at the British Coffee House on Cockspur Street, and the ‘Friendly’ at the Grey’s Inn Coffee House in Holborn. Records of their activities are patchy, but I have found one show report from 1848 that could fit:
“The show of the Friendly Fancy Canary Club took place at the Grey’s Inn Coffee House, Holborn, on Wednesday last, when the following prizes were awarded:- Jonques, first Mr. Gossett £5.5s [5 guineas]; second Mr. Russell £4.4s [4 guineas]; third Mr. Boakes £3.3s [3 guineas], fourth Mr. Willmere £2.10s [ £2.50], fifth Sir B.R. Graham, Bart £2 . . .This was the choicest show of the season, all the best birds came together. They are unusually good this season.” (7)
Here we have a top show in a year when the quality of the birds was considered ‘unusually good’. Might that victory have been sufficient to persuade Mr. Gossett, the owner of the Best Jonque, to commemorate his famous win by having his bird stuffed when it died a couple of years later? Possibly, but if so, why didn’t he have his name and the bird’s victories inscribed on the case, as so many anglers did with their fish?
I have another candidate, but he would have wanted the specimen for a very different reason.
He is by far the best known of the mid-Victorian breeders; his name keeps recurring in show reports, advertisements, and in the works of Wallace and Blakston, the leading canary authors of their day. Wallace selected his birds to illustrate the first and second editions of The Canary Book. He was even mentioned in a letter to Charles Darwin, where he was described as “a great authority on the subject of the London Fancy” (8).
He is James Waller, a hairdresser by profession (9), who developed a sideline as a bird dealer specialising in Fancy canaries during the late 1840s and throughout the 1850s. He became a renowned breeder and exhibitor of London Fancies in his own right. The earliest record I have found of him dealing with canaries is an advertisement from January 1849:
“FANCY CANARY BIRDS for SALE, bred from the strains of those celebrated breeders Sir Bellingham Graham Boakes, Gossett, Willmore, Russell etc, etc – to be seen at J. Waller’s Hair Cutting Rooms, 49 Tabernacle Walk, near Finsbury Square.” (10)
He evidently knew the members of the Friendly Fancy Canary Club personally, and had come to an arrangement to sell their surplus stock. His advertisements not only exploited their status as ‘celebrated breeders’ to promote sales, but also gave enticing descriptions of the birds themselves. Here is an example from 1850:
“Fancy Canary Birds for Sale – an opportunity which seldom offers. The remaining STOCK of FANCY CANARY BIRDS, from the strains of the most celebrated breeders, which in addition to their rich colour and beautiful plumage, have the usual properties of dark wings and tail; also very choice in song . . .” (11)
At first glance that seems a fair description of a London Fancy, but there is an important omission. Waller never claimed in any of his advertisements that the plumage of the birds was a clear yellow. These sale birds were almost certainly spangle-backs. Those ‘celebrated breeders’ would have had no trouble selling a top quality bird themselves; only their leftover stock would have gone to a dealer.
Now place yourself in James Waller’s shoes. To sell the spangle-backs at a good price, he needed to convince customers that the birds had the breeding potential to produce the classic London Fancy. What better way than to show his customers a stuffed specimen of a top show bird as an exemplar? Yes, with stock from those ‘celebrated breeders’, you too could breed a bird like that! (12)
The bird might even have been Mr. Gossett’s winner that had died suddenly; a sad loss turned into a marketing opportunity for Waller. John Cooper’s taxidermy shop was only a ten minute walk away . . .
Now we come to the final question: how does this specimen from circa 1850 compare to the modern London Fancy?
There are inevitable differences because the colour canary used by Piet Renders in his breeding experiments possessed recessive genes for brown (cinnamon) and white, which never existed in the original breed. The modern version also has dark legs and claws, thanks to Lizard blood. Nevertheless it is the similarities that are most striking: the classic phenotype in the top specimens; the transformation from dark to light; the progressive greying in subsequent moults; these characteristics are all present in the modern London Fancy.
Is the modern version exactly the same as the original? No. Do we have enough evidence to demonstrate that both versions share the same genetic foundation? In my opinion, yes.
In the John Cooper specimen of the London Fancy canary, we really have found the holy grail.
My thanks to Hein van Grouw for not only for permitting me to use his photograph of the John Cooper specimen, but also for assisting me in obtaining more information about the bird. My thanks also to Didier Mervilde who alerted me to Hein’s discovery.
- Hein van Grouw is Senior Curator of the Bird Group at the Natural History Museum. He discovered the specimen in a private collection in 2011, but the photograph was only published recently. Hein has also shed new light on other famous birds such as the Liverpool Pigeon/Green Spotted Pigeon (Caloenas maculata) and the White Swamp Hen/Lord Howe Gallinule (Porphyrio albus) known only from a few surviving skins. The latter shared a similarity with the London Fancy in exhibiting a loss of melanin at each moult, a process known as ’progressive greying’.
- ‘Jonque’ is the traditional term used for the intensive type of feather in the London Fancy. It is the equivalent of ‘gold’ in the Lizard, and ‘yellow’ in type canaries. The name is derived from jonquille, French for the narcissus or daffodil.
- Blakston et al, The Illustrated Book of Canaries and Cage Birds, (1878-81) p.184.
- It invites conjecture that the ‘soft’ type of London Fancy was actually an agate mutation.
- The firm passed through a couple of generations of the Cooper family before being acquired by W. B. Griggs in 1933 who continued under the Cooper name up to around 1960.
- I rely on information from the owner here, but I have no reason to doubt his knowledge of John Cooper and his work.
- Bell’s Life in London, 10 December 1848. A prize of 5 guineas was a considerable sum. It would have been the equivalent of a month’s wages for a skilled building tradesman.
- The letter was from John Jenner Weir, a naturalist and, in his own words, an ‘ornithophilist’ (ornithologist) who corresponded with both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace during their works on the theory of evolution. His brother was the bird artist Harrison Weir. He had his hair cut by Waller and spent the entire time talking to him about the London Fancy canary (DCP-LETT-6226, 3 June 1868).
- He had been operating at the same address at 49 Tabernacle Walk (Now Tabernacle Street), London, since at least 1832. He appears as ‘Walker J. hair-dresser’ in Robson’s Directory of that year.
- Bell’s Life in London, 21 January 1849, advertisement.
- Bell’s Life in London, 15 March 1850, advertisement.
- It would also explain why there are no details of the breeder on the case; it probably was not Waller.