First One To Stanley Street Bridge
It was love at first sight. There he was, Bonzer Bill, sat all hunched up on the guttering of a pre-fabricated house. White as white can be in the gathering darkness. I let the darkness gather a bit more. Then came back and pinched him off the roof! For a boy aged 10 that was a not inconsiderable risk. Peter Ferguson, for that was his owners name, was older than me. Bigger than me. And enjoyed a reputation amongst his friends as a right handful!
Running home with Bonzer up my jumper I instantly fell out of love with my rabbits. Which were pretty smartly evicted from their hutch. This was quickly converted into a place for Bonzer. Next thing was a hen for him. Purchased within days for the princely sum of half a crown. From Terry Sandburg who kept his pigeons in a converted washhouse on the doctor’s premises where his mother worked as a cleaner. Not yards from where Herbie Elliott lives and flies at present. I now know that the mealy pied hen was half tippler/ half racer but I didn’t at the time. Bonzer couldn’t have cared less!
Lesson number one. Bonzer went home. Homing pigeons do. And I had a problem. How to get him back without admitting that I’d stolen him in the first place? Peter Ferguson himself solved that problem. Peter you see knew the score. He knew Bonzer had been sleeping out on the gutter that night. He knew that I’d bought a hen off Terry. And that I had sold my rabbits. Two plus two!
Bonzer had been sitting out because his hen had died. Peter didn’t need him anymore. Peter also knew that I got more pocket money than he did. Was pretty sure that I had his pigeon. And that I wouldn’t dare to come back for him. So showing all the instincts of a modern-day Shylock he set me up via a mutual acquaintance. Would I like to buy a cock? White. Called Bonzer Bill. A snip at seven shillings and sixpence. Three weeks pocket money! So Bonzer came back to his hen. And I learned lesson number two. There is more than one way to skin a cat!
I hadn’t known it when I “lifted” Bonzer, but I’d gained entry into a completely new world. The world of pigeons. One which has obsessed me ever since. One which I have never left. And never will. Tay Street. Hope Street. Egerton Square. Ryknield Way. School Loaning. Run down pre-war council estates and post-war, pre-fabricated dwellings. Small houses. Big families! Kids by the score. Running loose most of the time. Always a game of some kind going on. Outdoors! Bread and butter sandwiches. With sugar on. Dripping sandwiches. “Police” boots. Food parcels. Free school meal tickets. Cardboard covering up the holes in your shoes. Margarine to keep your hair in place. Different coloured patches on the seat of your pants. You get the picture? Money was short. But what a time and place to grow up in! You came home only to eat. Or to sleep. And if you could get some bread and jam somewhere else you only came home to sleep. That way your mother couldn’t keep you in. We knew it. And they knew it!
Harton School. Stanhope Road School. And the “High School.” For those able to pass the 11 plus exams. And everywhere you looked there was livestock. Pigeons. Rabbits. Dogs. There wasn’t a kid in the street who didn’t have at least one scruffy mongrel running by his side. All day. Mine was Rex. Known locally as “The Bin-Men’s Dog.”A lean, unwashed, long-haired, black and tan, streetwise mutt of an animal. He became mine when I fed him one night as he stood sentry duty on next doors bitch. Which was in heat. He never left me after that! Technically Rex belonged to a woman in the next street, but in reality he was a free spirit. Living off the land and running loose all day. The one place he could be guaranteed to be found was at the bottom of our street on the day that the Corporation bin men were due. He would then follow them around until their shift finished. Partly because they fed him the leftovers from their bait, but mainly because Rex knew there was easy pickings to be had from the bins!
When I eventually asked the woman if I could have him she was delighted. “He’s never really been mine you know.” Everyone knew that! Rex got on well with little Ringo, Geordie Watson, the one-legged miner’s dog, because she was a bitch, and tolerated her by my side. But he hated old Mr Bengston’s dog Prince. And was forever challenging him. Always coming off second best! Prince was the top dog in the area. Big and heavily muscled, he had a fine technique for maintaining his dominance. He would nip every dog in the area when it was a puppy. Thereafter they would give him a wide berth. Even when he was old and toothless. This performance was not wasted on me. You can learn a thing or two by watching dogs!
We bought, sold, swapped, stole, and lived pigeons. Eventually getting around to racing them against each other. For money. We played football. For money. And we raced for whatever money we had in our pockets at the particular time that we fancied a race. A shilling usually. Or thereabouts. That was enough to get you into the “dog-end” of the local fleapit to see “Deadwood Dick” or his like. We kept our birds in pigeon shanties, for that is what they were, were made out of whatever you could get your hands on. Fencing posts. Old doors. Internal or external. It made no difference. Packing cases. Conveyor belting from the pit heap. Demolition timber. And brand new stuff obtained, after dark, from any convenient, inadequately policed, building site. Already primed with council- pink undercoat! Most of the houses on the council estates where we lived had completely unfenced rear gardens. “Backs” we called them. Unfenced because we’d used the fencing that had originally been there to build our pigeon lofts! Our pigeon palaces sat in splendid, if unsafe, isolation. Security was no big deal really. Not when our birds spent most of their lives up on the ridge tiles!
Lesson number three was given to me by old Peter Bengston. Up North Combine winner. Pigeon club secretary. A man who was badly affected with arthritis, he was in the habit of going to bed after dinner. He was Mr Bengston to us boys! And greatly feared! I was just about to heave yet another stone at my mealy cock sat up on his roof, when the crook of a walking stick encircled my neck from behind. And I was reeled in like a fish. These never to be forgotten words reverberated menacingly in my ears. “You’ve kept me awake all bloody afternoon! Bouncing those stones off my roof. Use potatoes!” The kick up the pants that followed had no real venom in it. The elder of the tribe was simply passing down the wisdom of his years. Pigeon man to pigeon man. Thereafter his gutters flourished. With a bounteous annual crop of potatoes.
“Baskets” were built. Not bought. And required a boy at each corner to carry them down to the station! Concessionary British Rail labels, entitling you to half-price transport on any train, were acquired from Betty, the middle-aged spinster in the station parcels office. We ran messages for her. The older fanciers buttered her up. The end result was the same. We saved up our pocket money and were soon in business. As miniature, unlicensed, pigeon fanciers.
In my case it all began modestly enough. A race from Jarrow. One mile. Walk there. Release the birds. Walk back. And wait. Sometimes for a day or two. We had no speed merchants in those days! Often entries had to be retrieved from “The Colliery Hotel.” Or from the coal staithes down by the river. In time we got as far as Sunderland. Six miles. A private race. Christmas day. Just me and Davie Barras. My chequer & white cock, a Scottish stray that I had patched up, against Davie’s “black’un.” A true-bred, red-eyed, red-legged, out and out “docker.” Released at 9 am into a snowstorm. Both birds last seen landing on a nearby church. Won by the “black’un.” On New Year’s Day! Truly a milestone in both our careers in the sport.
On to Newcastle. Double or quits. Both birds carried in brown paper bags. Released from the train whilst going over the High Level Bridge. Over the River Tyne. Thrown out and down towards the river, whilst the train was moving. Still in their bags!100% returns. And I got my money back. Convoying was very simple then. No rubbish such as checking the weather forecast. I felt ready for the big time. Racing from Stockton. All of 30 miles. Attempted many times before by my cronies. But never flown on the day!
By this time I had the red hen. Another Scottish stray picked up off the washer at Westoe Pit by Geordie Watson. The one-legged miner who lived on the next path to me. I loved that pigeon. Thought she was the business. Even though she flew about with her legs hanging down. This didn’t bother me one little bit. She was a racer you see. We collected together what pocket money we had. Saw Betty at the station. Got a concessionary label. And amended the wording on it. From “Please liberate, weather permitting” to “Wind, rain or snow let these buggers go!”And on to the early morning train went the cream of the “pudding club” birds.
Stanley Street Bridge, a footbridge over what was then the South Shields to Sunderland railway line, was roughly in the centre of our stamping grounds. So the winner was to be the first one to that bridge. Standing in the middle of it. Carrying his pigeon. No rubber rings for us. Proof was the pigeon. And only the pigeon! No clocks. No watches. And most certainly no bikes. You had to run there. Bikes were not allowed. Because some of us had them and some hadn’t. I used one once. Was threatened with grievous bodily harm. And disqualification. Even though I was well over on the other side of the bridge when I met Herbie. Running towards me with his bird up his jersey. I distinctly remember that I was wearing a watch that day. I also distinctly remember where Herbie told me I could put it! I should never have attempted to use it as proof of the time that my pigeon had arrived! Never again. The winner that day was on to all of three shillings. Enough to treat Bob Smith’s sister, Paula, to the pictures. If she condescended to go. The winner always asked her out. As a matter of principle. Etiquette demanded it. Paula was one of the boys. Only different. And it showed!!
For the Stockton race we had blue skies. Sunshine. And a tail wind. Naturally, no day birds were expected! After all it was 30 miles away. An enormous distance to us kids. So a game of “gates” was organised. A shilling a man. Three goals against you and you were out. Right in the middle of play the unthinkable happened. It would have been about 4 pm. Peter Ferguson’s “Chocolate Cock” came right over our heads. Landed on his pre-fab. And peered down at it’s closed-up little home. You have never seen ten kids move so quickly. Peter well in the lead. It was incredible. Stockton on the day. A first ever in our young lives. The “Chocolate Cock” became famous. Immortalised. Almost a tourist attraction! Remembered to this day. What a race that was. What a pigeon! The only bird on the day! Peter didn’t even have to run to Stanley Street Bridge. We’d all seen the bird come.
Racing thereafter took off. If Stockton was possible, anything was. By now we all had our “stars.” Notable. And noted pigeons. Some were not always noted for their racing ability. Mark Chatton’s grizzle cock became well known because a partition door fell on it and killed it. Leather hinges. Heavy doors. It was an accident waiting to happen! Duncan Mason had the only “proper racer.” The only non-stray in the area. A blue Logan cock gifted to him by a local fancier. Notable for its singular lack of speed. And erratic sense of direction. It could always be picked off the loft front. Easily. By anyone. Not because it was tame. But because when it came back, from wherever it had been sent, no matter how short a distance, it was far too tired to bother moving away!
Herbie Elliott, “Stubbins” to his mates, had an uncle who flew pigeons. Little Geordie Odix. He had the “Seagull” breed. Mainly whites and chequers with “soapy beaks.” So that is what Herbie eventually got. And kept them in a hut together with his rabbits! Besides my red hen I had been given two “proper” racers as well. A heavily wattled chequer cock and a mealy pied hen. Matty White gave them to me. Both four year old ex-racers. They became the new loves of my life. And bred me some bonny mealies. Bob Smith had a good chequer cock. Raymond Sparks a red cock. Brian “Korky” Kirkwood had an excellent red as well. Which, in time, went on to fly Peterborough. 172 miles. On the day! More than once. And was always in the frame.
Then there was Lennie Arnold, younger brother of the infamous “Black Ned”, who kept his birds in with his ducks. Ray Wilson whose sister went on to marry a pigeon man. Danny Mackins with his strays. Other lads came into the area. All raced. All had their champions. But the daddy of them all was Gibby’s mealy cock. Come Selby. Come Gibby’s mealy cock. It always won from Selby. It never missed. It had us sick. Herbie and I held a council of war. What to do? It obvious to us that it had to go. We had a straight choice to make. Either we stole it or we murdered it. Not many thirteen year olds have scruples. And we had absolutely none!
Sportsmanship? Morality? I couldn’t even spell those words. Let alone know what they meant. But I knew what losing my pocket money was all about. That was for sure! We watched. And we waited. All that was needed was a dark night. And the mealy cock too well fed to come in. That was arranged. And up the drainpipe I went. I never got near the pigeon. The bathroom light went on as I drew level with the window, and that was me off. Running. Closely followed by my mate. A few days later Herbie had a try. Mistimed his grab. And that was that.
Plan B. And we had murder on our minds. An ingenious plot was hatched. Foolproof. No risk at all. To us. But lethal for Gibby’s mealy. All we needed was to be sure that he was in his little shed on the appointed night. Instead of on the house roof. We’d done our homework. Staked the place out for days. Geography was the key. Knew how and when the dirty deed was to be done. And like all good skullduggery it was not to be a hands-on affair. But done from a safe working distance.
The plan hinged on the fact that the mealy’s little shed, a rabbit hutch of a place really, was sited at the bottom of the garden. Against the fence. Which was made out of a double row of railway sleepers. Set vertically on end and fixed together. Our starting point was Herbie’s back garden. Just a few houses away. Our chosen weapon? A steel post set in a cone of concrete. Which used to support the washing line before we uprooted it. It took a full day to construct a makeshift ramp and manhandle the post onto the fence. And to position it so that we could roll it along to Gibby’s place from the other side of the sleepers. Which, well after dark, we did. Until the concrete cone was poised above the mealy’s little abode. One good push and that would be it. No more mealy! We pushed. And ran. It bounced. Where it should have crushed. It bounced. And the mealy lived to fly another day. And take even more money from us!
Lesson number four. Sportsmanship is not something you are born with. It has to be acquired! Herbie and I started acquiring it that very night. I guess. I wouldn’t say that we were ashamed of ourselves. Or that we suffered at all from guilty consciences. Neither really. Not then. To be perfectly honest, as I remember it, we were mightily disappointed. For days! Kids can be cruel. Gibby never really figured out how that post came to be in his garden. And neither could we. Not when he asked us!
Our pigeons got better. As we got better. And all too soon we entered the grown-up world. Of girls. Beer. And work. In that order. But the pigeons remained. Most of us drifting into partnerships with older fanciers before setting up on our own. And attempting to compete against such established, and quite frankly, terrifying men, such as “Tarzan” Brown. Tommy Burke. “Ginger” Scott. Jimmy Gallagher. Billy Kinghorn. And Ned Davis. What a struggle that was. But we got there. Most of us. Looking back I now know that only the sublime ignorance and boundless confidence of youth kept me going. I never once realised the true stacking of the odds against me. I could walk on water you see.
I often think of those days. And of where the lads are now. The only one I have completely lost track of is Duncan Mason. Of the rest, time has taken its toll. Peter Ferguson, of the “Chocolate Cock” fame, died in South Africa. A racing fancier to the end. Still with the descendants of the birds that he took with him when he left England. Brian Kirkwood and Mark Chatton, who never went on to become adult fanciers, are both gone. Lennie Arnold, who raced for a number of years in the Whiteleas HS, is no longer with us. Andy Frost came briefly back into the sport shortly before he died. By then Councillor Frost. Twice married. Labour party activist. Barred from the Perseverance Social Club because, as he once told me, of some “advice” that he gave the committee. He had, in fact, “advised” them that they were “all a bunch of thieving illegitimates.” Or words to that effect! Andy was a “fixer.” And some man!
Davie Barras has only just given up the birds due to ill health. He and I used to regularly do the rounds of the local shops on a horse and cart. I used to love it. Collecting anything that could be boiled up into pig-swill. For his uncle Billy Hunter’s pigs. The man who picked up the injured Scottish chequer and white cock that I patched up. The very first in a lifetime of fixing up injured pigeons. The man whose pigs Davie and I used to secretly ride at weekends. Competitively. For money. To see who could stay on the longest. It made a change from racing our birds. And, as anyone who has ever tried it will tell you, it isn’t an easy pastime. Or a clean one!
The majority of the rest of lads who are left no longer keep pigeons. Though many of them still retain a strong interest in the sport. And are willing to talk pigeons at the drop of a hat. There’s Alfie “The Cobra” Coverdale, who always wants to know who has won that weekend. As does first-class leek grower and show gardener Chris Gosling. And Raymond “Fatty” Sparks, now retired. Plus a few others. All of us the survivors of a generation who enjoyed a childhood that sadly no longer exists.
My lifelong friend from that era, George Davison, still races the pigeons. As does Jimmy Barras who lived on the same path as me when we were boys. Also flying in my club are Stan Reay and Bennie Curtis. Who kept pigeons and lived in the same area as me when they were kids. And of course there is me. And my main rival in those far-off days for the privilege of taking Paula Smith to the pictures. Herbie “Lord” Elliott. And he has just won the Up North Combine for the second time. Some things never change!
Tommy Burke Part 2
Tommy Burke, pigeon man extraordinaire, was no leek grower, and in a land of leek growers, this irked him. If they couldn’t beat him with the pigeons his leek-growing contemporaries lorded it over him with their alleged superiority in growing show leeks. He was a determined and stubborn little man so this had to change. At the time nearly all of his allotment was concreted over and hosed down weekly. He never let his birds peck around the place. They were either in the air or in the loft, except on Sundays when they were let out for a bath.
Tommy set to, ripped up some of the concrete path just outside of his pecking square, constructed a leek trench and spent a year getting it right. In due course he entered the leek club, in the social club that we then used as our headquarters, and duly won the Perseverance CIU Club Leek Show at his first attempt. The winning leeks (nobody knew where Tommy had got them from, but they hadn’t been obtained locally) went into the pot together with those left in the trench, which was dismantled and concreted over. And that was it. He never showed again. Once more, he’d made his point.
By then I was his disciple and he had found himself a young helper. On our visits to the station for his regular training tosses he always gave me the same instructions. “I’ll cuddle up to Betty” he’d say, Betty being the unattached woman who ran the parcels office, “and you lift up the basket a bit whilst she’s weighing it.” You would never believe how little a 25-bird pannier can weigh! As I grew older my interests changed and I attempted to change the system. “Mr Burke” I asked, “why can’t I cuddle up to Betty while you lift the basket?”His response was brief, to the point, and accompanied by a clip around my ears. The words “too young” were all I could faintly make out through the ringing noise in my head.
Tommy Burke had two “Loft Managers” in the years that he raced from the allotment in front of mine, who did the birds when he was at work, he himself did early mornings and evenings; both men lived quite close to me and I lived quite close to the lofts. They were Andra Joyce, who was quite badly physically handicapped and Charlie Gribble. This wasn’t his real name, as I had seen letters addressed to his house under different ones, and rumour had it that he was a deserter from the army.
Nora, his hard working wife, (Charlie never went to work but spent all his time at the loft for, which he was undoubtedly paid a small sum of money) left him some money every day to buy her cat some fish pieces. Charlie considered this an absolute waste of money and religiously donated it to the local bookie and that cat lived to a ripe old age on a diet comprising solely of milk and bread and whatever it could catch! I never bothered watching or shadowing either of the “Loft Managers.” The organ grinder had me hooked-not the monkeys, they were just part of the furniture, so to speak.
I watched Wilfie closely though, as did Tommy. You had to! Wilfie lived in the Workhouse attached to the local hospital, the same Workhouse where the late Catherine Cookson once worked in the laundry as a young woman. Workhouse isn’t a word you hear much these days, but that is what we called it then and that is what it was. Uniformed men not nurses were in control, and their charges were called inmates not patients who, every Sunday, were walked out around the streets Crocodile-file wearing their “Sunday Best”.
Tommy and I called Wilfie “Bishop Auckland” because of his obsession with the well-know amateur football team and town of that name and he was a fixture around our lofts. Being a “trusty” he wandered about most of the time running errands for the staff of the Workhouse and putting their bets on for them, but to the pigeon men on the gardens Wilfie was the source of high quality, white- enamelled hospital watering cans with hinged lids!
We both had them, all you had to do was ask and one would turn up, there wasn’t much wrong with Wilfie’s memory even if he was a touch simple. The only trouble was his delivery method, you see only a six foot high boundary wall separated our lofts from Harton Hospital and the can would always come sailing over this wall. At varying heights and speeds and at any time of the day or night!
Not a problem should you find it lying amongst the vegetables when you got there in the morning, but if you haven’t seen thirty or forty youngster react to a white watering can suddenly thumping into their midst, right out of the blue, well, you haven’t lived! I was in his cabin when Tommy’s youngsters went their forty different ways as one of Wilfie’s cans came over the wall, and was well impressed. I didn’t know that language like Tommy used then even existed!
Wifie might have been a bit simple but he wasn’t that simple, he heard Tommy all right, and got the message and we never saw him for days! I always wore a tie then and whenever I talked to Wilfie he would say in his rapid, nervous way, “I wish I had a tie like that, oh I would love a tie I would, I wish I had a tie like that” so one day I took it off and gave it to him, and in return he insisted on giving me a silver tassel from off his Albert, which I still have. I can picture him now scuttling away up the street clutching my tie to his body and talking delightedly to himself. When I next saw that tie it was holding up his trousers!
Tommy was very aware of the world around him. It was probably fostered by the dangerous environment in which he worked, red hot rivets are no joke, and besides he was naturally curious as to what was happening, to whom, when and for why. Nothing escaped his notice as regards his birds and little else other besides. To help him in this he had a large mirror fixed high up inside the front of his sitting cabin through which he could watch me and my Uncle Tom, who flew behind him, and what was happening in the hospital yard.
He could also see right into the hospital mortuary if the doors were open. I was in his cabin the day they brought in this man who had been overcome by fumes and fallen through an inspection hatch into a riverside tank of Benzene, and been in there for several days before being found. Apart from being dead he was also a fire risk, so he was brought in to the morgue with the doors open on an un-covered, rubber-sheeted stretcher. I can still hear Tommy’s words, “by” he said, “he’s got a bad look Rod”. They don’t come any worse!
Perhaps, in view of all this, I should not have taken to spending most Sunday afternoons in my own cabin doing a spot of serious courting with my then girlfriend, but I did. I most certainly should have had the cabin door secured by something more solid than a hook and eye! It happened to be a windy day you see, most of the action was taking place on the carpeted floor, and neither of us was what you would have called adequately dressed. In fact we weren’t dressed at all when the catch gave way, and the door blew open.
Tommy was on the roof of his loft tarring it over. He heard the door slam back and looked across, leaned on his brush, beamed at us both, and said, in a very pleasant manner, “good day for it, eh?” And he wasn’t referring to repairing his roof. I never did manage to shut that door with my foot and couldn’t get Betty near the place during daylight hours until I had fitted a bolt big enough have secured Fort Knox. Thereafter, in pigeon circles, I was greeted with knowing smiles and winks every time I went to the club. Word had spread. Tommy had seen to that!
My one-time near neighbour, the late Peter Bengston, who flew as P. Bengston & Son, won the Up North Combine Young Bird National, from Welwyn Garden City, in 1948. Tommy Burke, who flew as Burke Bros., also of South Shields, won the same race in 1949. I was 10 years old at the time of Mr Bengston’s win. And I had never heard of Tommy Burke.
His name began to surface about five years later as I was serving my time in the sport, hanging about the allotment sites, helping out some of the old established fanciers in the hope of getting birds or eggs off them, but it wasn’t until 1959 that I got to meet Tommy on a proper footing and began to realise just how good a fancier he was.
He had to move his lofts from the edge of the old Daisy Field and had obtained the allotment immediately in front of mine on the Texas gardens. Being on an upstanding wage at the time I “pulled a sickie” and took the day off to help. As we stripped down the nest-boxes I found a nest-pan containing two newly hatched youngsters and drew Tommy’s attention to them. “Throw them in the field” he said, “unless you want them. The father has four wins and the mother with two wins is off “The Little Docker” which I knew, as did everybody in the pigeon club, was his foundation stock hen. A survivor of a disastrous young bird season who pretty much won the young bird averages that year on her own.
I was very young then, but not stupid. I ran back to my loft and killed the only two youngsters of a similar age that I had. They were off the one and only winner I had at that time, but I never hesitated. That was the turning point in my youthful pursuit of better birds and of breaking into the ranks of those fanciers considered to be always in with a chance at the inland races.
Tommy was having a break when I got back, red-faced and out of breath, standing there looking at his watch. “Not bad son” he said, “all that you need is the right food and a bit of training.”I had no idea what he was talking about!
A stout little man, with a tendency to go red in the face when he became excited, and an odd staccato way of speaking, Tommy worked in the local shipyards as part of a riveting squad. He was the “holder-on.” Big Joe, the gentle giant who often turned up at Tommy’s loft was also part of that squad. Both pedalled their ancient bikes everywhere, solid sit-up-and-beg jobs lacking even three-speed gears, sporting old-fashioned brake systems and with seats like tractors. All training of the birds was done via British Rail, the birds being transported to the local station on an old hand-built wooden two-wheeled barrow which frequently collapsed.
“Give me a hand to the station will you Rod” said Tommy as the barrow collapsed yet again. He and I carried the pannier between us and as we waited for the train Tommy saw me looking at the birds, about 25 of them, “11 Fed winners in their Rod” he said. He said it almost as an aside, as a statement of fact, not a boast. It was yet another pointer to the calibre of man and birds, a statement which, after all these years, still impresses me.
And so Tommy Burke came to move into the allotment in front of mine and my education into the arcane sport of pigeon racing began in earnest. There were no deep and meaningful conversations between us, no apprentice sitting at the feet of his master situations, Tommy wasn’t that kind of man, not a natural speaker, but he led by example and I learned by watching him, and how I watched him. He knew that he was being watched, I knew that he knew, and he knew that I knew that he knew. And so I learned. And copied every move he made at the loft.
It was enough to make a grown man weep but Tommy never complained about being shadowed. If he let his birds out, once, twice or three times a day, mine went out. If his flew for an hour, mine flew for an hour. If he trained, I trained. I knew what he fed to his birds, so I fed it to mine. The big and obvious drawback was that I hadn’t got birds as good as his and I really needed them. I only had two of his and they were both hens. There was no point in beating about the bush, so with the brazenness of youth I asked him to sell me a pair of silvers, as silvers I had been told, were always good stock pigeons.
“£5 the pair” said Tommy, “I’ll tell you when they’re ready.”I was earning £4.10s. a week at that time My mother allowed me to keep the ten shillings, 50p in modern money, so I began saving up what I had left after buying my pigeon corn etc. When Tommy told me they were ready I had about half of the necessary money and my father “loaned” me the rest. Two beautiful silvers. Tommy took the money from me and put the birds in a cardboard box. As I was leaving he called me back, and with the words “you’ll need to feed them son” put half of the money back in my hand. My father saw none of that!
The following year, with a small team of youngsters, largely of Tommy’s blood, I was ready to break eggs with a stick, as they say, but so was Tommy. He won 11 club races (56 members), six of them Federation wins, but I won the young bird averages despite Tommy winning six of the seven young bird races. How come? The old time and distance proper system was still in operation in our club and I beat Tommy by one hour in a very strange first race, which advantage he steadily whittled down to ten minutes by the last young bird race when I was a close second to him.
I was embarrassed. Tommy wasn’t. “Rules are rules son” he said and he made a point of sitting at my table at the annual presentation, applauding enthusiastically as I got up to receive the trophy. That was the kind of man he was. The same man who, in his declining years in the sport, also made a point of coming to our presentation to receive his one and only red card of a very, very poor season. They don’t make them like him anymore.
He made his name at the inland races, not because he couldn’t fly the long distance but because he didn’t want to. Let me tell you about the two seasons that he did fly the longest race on the race programme. To this day I still think that he was giving a metaphorical two-fingered gesture to the sniping of jealous certain nonentities in the club who used to whisper, behind his back, that yes Tommy was a good pigeon man, but he couldn’t compete at the distance. He could. And he did.
The story goes roughly like this. He borrowed a pair of good five or six year old recently retired channel birds from a friend of his in the West Durham Amalgamation and settled them to his loft, no mean feat when you realise he hadn’t a car and had to travel the twelve miles or so to collect them by bus whenever they went home in the early stages of this process. The cheq.hen was the only bird on the day in our club from Bourges, 570 miles, in her first season with Tommy. The cock returned the next day.
The following year both went to Bourges again. There were no day pigeons and Tommy had to work a half shift on the Sunday so he asked me to time in for him if anything came before dinnertime. The dark cock dropped in at 9.30 am with no rubber on. I was aghast, what would he think if I got one after the Dark cock and won the race? I needn’t have worried about this as I clocked the cheq hen in about half an hour later, to win the race for him. Tommy promptly gave both birds back to his friend and never flew another Bourges race in his life!
His family of Vandeveldes originally came from James Lucas and H. Crabtree of Blackpool and maybe Tom Askew of Workington, but I’m not certain about him. Mealies, blue pieds, red pieds, yellows and silvers they were a fantastic cross into any other good family, the Buschaerts of their day, and imposed their colours upon their young. They were bred by Tommy on a best to best basis; he even went as far as pairing race winners to other winners at exactly the same distance.
Their only drawback it seemed was a predisposition to illness and arthritis. The hens stopped laying eggs at about six or seven years of age and the cocks tended to hobble about as they got older. Any good cross ironed these problems out and fanciers soon stopped buying pairs off him but purchased all cocks or more often all hens instead. Tommy had to sell to survive in the sport. He had no choice. That was just how it was.
To summarise, I learned my trade from a fancier who was a man ahead of his time. Who set the standards for sprint racing in my Federation and farther afield? He was a relentless racer and trainer. If they came poorly they got more work, more training and more races.
Let me tell you about a pigeon called "Whiplash." He got his name because of the way he dropped in from exercise and races. He always arrived from races hanging high and vertical above the open door and suddenly swooping down with a loud clap, clap, of his wings. Not unlike a whip being cracked.
"Whiplash" was already a star, having won four or five races, when he went to a 230 mile race and was missing on the night. I let him in mid-morning the next day as his owner had to go to work. Back he went the following week to a 290 mile race and was again missing on the night, appearing about lunchtime on the Sunday.
The following week was the first cross- channel race, about 350 miles. "Whiplash" went back. On the Monday morning, long after his owner had left for the shipyards I saw him on the step. All huddled up and looking thoroughly sick. I let him in yet again.
It was high time, I felt, that Tommy got some advice from me. A complete novice! So I told him, with all the confidence and arrogance of youth, that if he didn’t stop racing the pigeon he would lose it. He simply smiled: the kind of smile adults use when their child says something quite meaningless or does something particularly stupid.
The next Saturday was once more a 290 mile race. We got a stiff one. Of about 8 hours as I remember the race and "Whiplash" murdered our Federation. Oh I knew which pigeon it was when he arrived. There was no doubt about that. He hadn’t got his name for nothing, but there was nowhere for me to hide. My garden wasn’t big enough! Tommy never uttered a word. A hand appeared above the spikes of his racing loft. The gesture, aimed in my direction, said it all!
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