A fisherman saw something resting on the surface for three or four minutes before it did a surface roll underwater and disappeared. It was described as almost black in colour and close to a seal in size.
What was this mysterious creature? The obvious answer is that it was a seal, but let’s not jump to conclusions. I have withheld a key piece of information: this encounter took place at Loch Ness in 2003. That changes everything. We are no longer dealing with aquatic wildlife, but with a legend. Could it have been a sighting of the Monster? That’s what some people claim (1).
It just goes to show the power of legends: they are so enticing that people want to believe them regardless of the facts; the tiniest corroboration is more persuasive than the mass of evidence to the contrary; the preposterous becomes plausible. So it is with the London Fancy.
Have a look at the photo at the head of this article. It is a stuffed canary that I bought many years ago. It sits on top of a cabinet in my birdhouse, and I’ve lost count of the number of visitors who have asked me if it is a London Fancy. They were all canary breeders with some knowledge of the London Fancy, so there must be something about the bird and its setting that triggers this question. I can think of three possible factors: firstly, it looks old; secondly, when viewed from below, it appears to be a clear bodied canary with dark wings; thirdly, people know of my interest in the London Fancy . . . and jump to conclusions.
Now look at the same bird from a different angle. You can see that it has dark feathers on the head and on its back. More importantly, its primary flight feathers and tail are white. This bird is simply a variegated canary with symmetrical markings. Just because a canary has clear underparts and (some) dark feathers in each wing does not mean it is a London Fancy, any more than a seal in Loch Ness is a monster. I call it the London Folly canary.
My London Folly canary has an interesting background. On the underside of the base is a label which tells us that it was sold by Bambridge & Co of Eton, established 1790. Now 1790 is close to the zenith of the London Fancy era, but don’t raise your hopes. The telephone number proves this bird must have been stuffed much later than that, certainly no earlier than 1894 and probably sometime in the first half of twentieth century (2).
Apart from taxidermy, the label shows that Bambridge & Co were also involved in country sports, and it is for angling equipment that the firm is best known today. Its fishing tackle is very collectible: The Kelson, a fly-tier’s compendium in an oak-lined box concealed in a leather travel case, by Bambridge of Eton-on-Thames, sold for £1900 at auction in 2008 (3). During the 1880s the firm was known as B. R. Bambridge ‘manufacturer of rods and tackle . . . to the Royal Family’, and there was still a Mr. Bambridge in charge. He was evidently a character:
Bambridge I remember as a short, bustling, rather bald little man with very bright eyes, who seemed always pleased to see the most unprofitable of customers, and explained the virtues of particular rods, reels and landing nets as if they actually belonged to those to whom he showed them. He would tell you what luck he had on Saturday or Sunday; he gave the fullest directions for using all kinds of tackle, tying different kinds of knots, catching various sorts of fish. He would instruct you in the selection of the roundest and strongest gut. He would display to you a batch of a thousand lob-worms from Nottingham, pink and enwreathed in milk and moss. He once had an otter, which he somehow converted from a wild into a tame creature in a few days; he kept it in a box at the side of a tank, into which he threw live fish which the otter dived after, caught and ate as we watched it. Life was always “after twelve” with Bambridge and the Eton High Street surely became a different place when he ceased to preside single-handed over those rods and reels, and when, in after years, B.R Bambridge, fishing tackle maker, became Bambridge and Co. Limited.’ (4)
Bambridge traded from 71 High Street, Eton, as you can see from this photograph taken in 1936 (5). There is an obvious connection between fishing and taxidermy: an awful lot of anglers liked to stuff their catches and place them on display. The shop sign and the label suggest that Bambridge was the actual taxidermist, but it seems likely that the taxidermy service was subcontracted to a ‘fisherman and bird preserver’ nearby (6).
By a remarkable coincidence, a similar stuffed canary, came up for sale recently (7). Described as an ‘Edwardian Taxidermy Crested Canary’, the bird is almost identical, with a dark cap but much less dark feathering on its back. It could almost be a ‘spangle back’ if you want to believe in legends. Those who prefer hard evidence will note the white primaries and the completely white tail. This bird is yet another evenly marked canary.
If the London Folly canary was not a London Fancy, what was it?
Finding the answer is trickier than you might think because most canary breeds (with the notable exception of the Lizard) evolved continuously throughout the twentieth century, and you can’t compare early examples to current specimens of the same breed. My London Folly does not match the early show standard of any breed, but its length, shape and symmetrical markings suggest it could be a sub-standard Yorkshire canary, or a Yorkshire cross-bred sold a songster (8).
It was not uncommon for a pet bird to be stuffed (9), but if there is a stuffed example of the London Fancy in existence, it is still waiting to be discovered. That will not prevent future visitors wanting to believe that my London Folly is really a London Fancy. The best legends never die.
- The Legend of Nessie, the Ultimate and Official Loch Ness Monster site ( www.nessie.co.uk/ ) The site provides a long list of sightings, many of which were recorded on film, yet mysteriously much of this evidence has been ‘lost’, ‘hidden somewhere in a London bank vault’, or even ‘sent to NASA for a thorough investigation’ . . . and never seen again.
- The first telephone exchange in Windsor was built in 1894. Source: The Royal Windsor Forum ( http://theroyalwindsorforum.yuku.com/topic/1540/ )
- Antiques Trade Gazette, 12 April 2008. The auction was of a private collection that had been seized under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
- Eton in the Eighties by Eric Parker (1914) p41. Source: the University of British Columbia Library.
- The Royal Windsor Forum ( http://theroyalwindsorforum.yuku.com/topic/1359/?page=1# ).
- Possibly E. Edmonds & Son. ‘Taxidermists to the Queen’ at 64 High Street, Eton. Bambridge was not recorded as a taxidermist in trade directories going back to the 1890s.
- Sold by Pyatt and Hesbrook via the Antiques Atlas website.
- Claude St.John, Our Canaries (1911, chapter on the Yorkshire canary, p.359), tells us ‘do not be tempted to buy a bird with a mark on the top of its head, even if it possesses all the other good points. Once you get that mark it never fails to be reproduced’.
- There is a long history of pets being stuffed for the benefit of their grieving owners. Probably the most famous was Trigger, the horse ridden by Roy Rogers in the 1950s TV series.