“Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,
Oh wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?”
We don’t often come across nursery rhymes in Cage and Aviary Birds, but Graham Wellstead mentioned one in his recent series on British thrushes. It appeared in his chapter on the blackbird and, yes, the rhyme was Sing a song of sixpence. Graham’s interest was ornithological: were they really blackbirds in the pie or something else, members of the crow family perhaps? I didn’t know the answer, but I knew where I might find it: in an account of the annual feast of the Bird-Fanciers Club written over 300 years ago by Ned Ward, the self-styled “London spy” (1).
Ned Ward (1667-1731) is generally referred to as a ‘satirical writer’, but he typified the free thinking spirit of Eighteenth century London. Life in London was quite different from other European capitals where autocratic rule prevailed and the sans culottes were expected to know their place. A freeborn Englishman enjoyed constitutional freedoms that were denied to his European counterparts. He was independent of mind, regarded himself the equal of his social superiors, and wasn’t afraid to express his opinions publicly (2). Foreign visitors were shocked by what they regarded as the impudent behaviour of ordinary Londoners. Ward relished them.
He was a prolific writer, best known for his London Spy (3), in which he played the part of an experienced man-about-town introducing an innocent newcomer to the vices, deceptions and delights of the capital. Ward’s great talent was his vivid portrayal of London life. His writing is colourful and bawdy. He had no time for the refinements of polite society, preferring to describe people as he found them: some coarse, others pretentious, and all fond of “the delights of the bottle” (4).
The same qualities are to be found in his A Compleat and Humorous Account of all the Remarkable Clubs and Societies in the Cities of London and Westminster (5). All but one of the clubs is fictitious (6), but while his portrayals may be overblown, they are clearly based on people and activities that he had encountered and observed.
Take the chapter on the Bawds Initiating Club for example. It was a club for procuresses who were on the look-out for girls who might be “decoy’d by their own sex” and initiated into “the dark Mysteries of Harlotry” (7). William Hogarth depicted the tale of one of their victims in a series of paintings entitled A Harlot’s Progress (8).
The first painting in the series shows Moll Hackabout, a naïve country girl, arriving in London and being befriended by an older woman. Alas Moll was about to be ensnared into a life of prostitution (9). The woman was none other than Mother Needham, a “notorious lewd prostitute and procuress” according to a contemporary newspaper report, who kept a brothel in St. James’ frequented by the aristocracy. No doubt those influential customers may explain how she had “many years escaped the lash of the law”. She was eventually convicted in 1731 and was sentenced to two days in the pillory. The crowd was merciless and she died from her injuries.
Many of Hogarth’s pictures have a moral purpose. Ward had no such scruples; the more his essays ridiculed, titillated and shocked, the more popular they became. Amongst the other clubs he describes are the No-Nose Club (10), the Farting Club (11), and the Mollies Club (12). You can understand why his English readers were fascinated, and why foreign visitors were aghast.
I suspect they would have been shocked by the annual feast of the Bird-Fanciers Club too.
Ward’s introduction is double-edged. Bird fanciers, he tells us are “a select Company of gentle and simple Tag, Rag, and Bobtail, who have a weekly Meeting at a little Ale-House in Rosemary Lane, and are pleas’d to call themselves the Bird-Fanciers Club, none being admitted Members thereof, but such, whose Affection to the Feathered-Kind render them fitter company for Jack-Daws and Magpies, than for their own Fellow-Creatures”. In other words, bird fanciers might be simple and affectionate but they were also hoarders, rogues and thieves.
They were a mixed bunch, encompassing all strata of society: “a well dress’d Gentleman, though with no more Brains in his Skull than there are in an Owl’s-Nest, shall sit wedg’d in between a Couple of lousy Bird-Catchers whose Cloaths on their Backs scarce good enough to be removed from the Dunghill into a Rag-Merchant’s Warehouse.”
There were characters aplenty: a “cuckoldy Shop-keeper out of Cheapside”; a “couple of Newgate-look’d scoundrels (13) that cry Singing-Birds about the Streets, and make it their Business to cheat barren Wives, and fanciful old Maids, with twittering Green-Birds, sick Sky-Larks, and Hen Linnets”.
There was also a “maggoty Ale-House keeper, who, to pleasure himself more than his Customers, has turn’d his publick Room into a great Avery”; a “famous Bird Doctor, who, after twenty Years Experience, by the Blessing of Providence, can infallibly cure Canary-Birds of Hoarseness”; a “Journeyman Flute-maker with his Pocket full of Bird pipes” (14); and a “famous Projector of Wire-Goals, otherwise call’d a Bird-Cage-Maker”.
The ale-house in Rosemary Lane was packed: “every Room in the Coney-Borough Mansion, upon this solemn occasion, is stuff’d so full of Seats and Tables, for the Victuals and the Company, that when they are crowded into their Places, they fit as closely wedg’d as a Firkin of Figs or a Barrel of Red-Herrings”.
Another of Hogarth’s engravings, A Midnight Modern Conversation, was used as the frontispiece for the first edition of A Compleat and Humorous Account. It shows a group of ‘gentlemen’ in a state of drunken disorder. The man on the left has passed out and lost his wig; it is only a matter of time before his wine glass teetering on the edge of the table spills onto his lap. Opposite him a gentleman in a dark wig has set his sleeve alight with a candle, while the fellow behind him is about to vomit The man in the foreground collapses to the ground having been hit on the head with a candlestick by his inebriated neighbour whose hose (stockings) have sagged below his knees.
The drunken scenes at the annual feast of the Bird-Fanciers Club were hardly any better.
It was not an evening of fine dining and elegant manners. The guests, who had each paid 12 pence admission, tucked into beef, pork and mutton, and wiped “their greasy Fingers betwixt their Legs upon their patch’d Breeches”. Their sanitary decorum was no better: “the greatest Guzzlers, when Nature is so opprest that they want Leakage, they may turn their Conduit-Pipes into the Tap-Holes of the Casks they sit upon, without giving themselves the Trouble of a remove to the Chamber-pot”. Cripes.
We now come to the highlight of the evening, and the reason why Sing a song of sixpence had brought this bizarre event to mind: “the last Dish, which is brought up two Pairs of Stairs to the principal Table, is a live bird Pye” (15). It contained “such a Variety of feather’d songsters, that no sooner is the lid cut up, and little Prisoners set at Liberty . . . the Room, in an instant, is turned into an Avery”.
Mayhem ensues. “The Company like wild cats tumble into Confusion and madly leaping over one another’s Heads, claw, fight, and scramble, in their Hair-brain’d Pursuit of their poor frighted Quarry . . . that they may carry them Home as Tokens of their Affections to their Wives and their Daughters”.
“Upon the Dispatch of this Ceremony, which is commonly attended with broken Shins, much Laughter, and an abundance of Disorder, the Dinner is concluded, and then the Plate is handed about for the Relief of the poor Widow of some deceas’d Bird-Fancier”.
You may recall that I set out hoping to answer Graham’s question: what birds did the pie really contain? Ward tells us only that they were “a Variety of feather’d songsters”. That doesn’t sound like members of the crow family. On the other hand, the assembly would have been so drunk by the time the pie was opened that they probably didn’t care; they just wanted to carry a bird home “as Tokens of their Affections to their Wives and their Daughters”.
My guess, based on what I know of the bird catchers and sellers of Georgian London, is that the pie was probably filled with their leftover stock, the sort of birds that only the most gullible customer would buy if they were sober. In other words, the birds that Ward typified as “twittering Green-Birds, sick Sky-Larks, and Hen Linnets”.
For those of you who prefer the romance of Sing a song of sixpence, I can offer some comfort. A royal occasion would have demanded much higher standards. No nobleman wishing to gain the king’s favour would have dared insult him with reject stock. It is quite possible that the pie really did contain four and twenty blackbirds.
- This is by far the earliest account of a society of bird fanciers in London. Putting aside Ward’s purple prose, it tells us a great deal about the people and their “Affection to the Feathered-Kind” in the early years of the eighteenth century. Note that canaries are mentioned only in connection with their song; the cultivation of canaries for their fancy plumage had barely begun when Ward wrote this account.
- Quotations from Ward’s books use the original spellings and punctuation, although I have spared you the use of the ‘long S’.
- My apologies to readers whose first language is not English; the archaic vocabulary and spellings will be difficult to understand.
- The book was originally published as The Secret History of Clubs in 1709.
- See my article on Voltaire.
- London Spy was first published in 18 monthly parts from 1698 to 1700. It was an immediate success and the collection was republished as The London Spy Compleat in 1703. It went through many reprints in his lifetime.
- Ward was, at various times, a landlord of an ale house and proprietor of a coffee house, which almost certainly brought him into contact with the people whose backgrounds, personalities and slang he portrayed in his writings.
- The first edition of A Compleat and Humorous Account was a reprint of The Secret History of Clubs. It appeared in 1745, 14 years after Ward’s death. The date probably coincides with the expiry of the original copyright.
- The Kit-cat Club, so named after their meetings at Christopher Cat’s tavern near Temple Bar. It was a political gathering of influential Whig (Liberal) supporters.
- “Whenever any She-member could convert a Proselite, and bring her over from a vertuous Life to be willing to embrace that earthly Tabernacle, Man, for such excellent Service done to the Church of Venus, she was to receive ten shillings of the Mother of the Maids.”
- The set of six paintings was acquired by William Beckford, an eccentric millionaire, around 1731. The paintings were later destroyed by fire, but fortunately the copper plates, which Hogarth had engraved for his prints, survived.
- The Harlot’s Progress has a strong moral message. Moll enjoyed a brief life of luxury sponsored by her sugar daddies, but she fell into poverty when they tired of her. Her health and looks deteriorated, imprisonment followed, and she succumbed to an early death from venereal disease.
- The loss of the bridge of the nose is a classic symptom of advanced syphilis. Ward had no hesitation in exposing the licentious past of the club’s members: “it must prove a comical Sight for so many maim’d Leachers, sniffling old Stallions, young unfortunate Whoremasters, poor sacrificed Bawds; & salivated Whetstones, to shew their scandalous Vizards in one Nose-less Society”.
- They used to meet once a Week to poison the neighbouring Air with their unsavoury Crepitations . . .”
- An early reference to what we would now call a private gay club, but which Ward described as a “particular Gang of Sodomitical Wretches, in this Town, who call themselves the Mollies, and are so far degenerated from all masculine Deportment, or manly Exercises, that they rather fancy themselves Women”.
- Newgate was the most notorious prison in London.
- The flageolet, a musical instrument similar to a flute, was used to cultivate the canary’s song. Music was written specifically for this purpose.
- Releasing live song birds to commemorate an important occasion, such as a coronation, has a long history (see Oiseleurs). The trick of releasing them from a pastry pie was recorded in Italy in 1549, and translated into English in 1598.