1859; History of Weymouth’s Swannery.

 Growing up in Weymouth, feeding the Backwater swans was a big part of my childhood.

Off we’d toddle, me and my Mum, bag of stale bread firmly clasped in my grubby little mitts. The walk down the Backwater road seemed to go on for ever, my short, stubby legs would start to tire…and I’m sure I must have whinged and wined about “how much further.”

But when we reached the swannery where they were gathered, I would forget all that…those majestic white birds would gracefully sail across the water, haughty look in their eyes as they enquired of any treats to come.

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But not until I became an adult did I realise quite what a history Weymouth Backwater and its swans could boast.

Radipole manor lower fields looking towards Portland CCO

Radipole Lake as is now, was once referred to as the Backwater (as opposed to the seafront). For a long period of time Weymouth Corporation attempted to gentrify it by changing its name from the latter to the former.

rocks album radipole lake

Up until the late 19th century it was an extensive, thriving tidal estuary as far as Radipole village. On it’s sandy shores once stood jetty’s, brickworks, limekilns, ponds for storing wood, even a pair of long-forgotten bulwarks stood guard beneath where Alexander bridge now stands. Boats sailed to and fro filled with good and passengers.

Weymouth backwater pre 1900

During the Victorian period, some of the swans belonging to the Earl of Ilchester, (which  estate still owns at the famous Abbotsbury Swannery) kept migrating to Weymouth’s Backwater (or Radipole Lake as it is now better known). The Earl became upset because Victorian man was very partial to a bit of wild fowl shooting, and despite the fact swans were owned by the Queen and protected,  they were seen by some avid hunters as fair game.

In 1859 the Earl decided he would make a present of any swans that landed in Weymouth’s estuary and made their homes here. They would legally then come under  protection of the town’s Corporation, who were tasked to do all within their power to protect them. (A fair few people were taken to court thereafter for peppering them with lead shot!)

By 1882 the flock had grown to 150 odd birds, so successful were they living and breeding in the vast reed beds of Radipole lake. They led a life of luxury compared to most birds those days, who seeing as the Backwater was a tidal estuary at that time was a very popular place for hunting. Men in flat bottomed punts armed with fowling guns was a regular sight on the waters.

Weymouth swans on the Backwater pre 1900 weymouth booklet

A charming article in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette 31st August 1882 describes their lives so eloquently.

Every morning at 9 0’clock sharp Mr Brewer, also known as Snatchy,  a Corporation ‘servant’,  would come to the same place near the old Melcombe Regis railway station with a pail of dried peas to feed the birds

‘and having dived their heads under the water until the last pea has been obtained, they dispersed like a lot of school boys let out for a holiday to amuse them selves in various ways. Vulgarly speaking, they always have an eye for the main chance, and while many remain close to the place where they are fed in order to hold receptions and cajole crumbs from visitors, others float lower down to pick up delicate morsels which may have fallen from vessels, or go in the opposite direction to share in the spoils of some swans belonging to a private gentleman.

During the day they are allowed to amuse and support themselves in such manner as they please, but in the evening they gradually converge to the spot from which they started in the morning, and then have their evening meal of peas. It is a charming sight to see them gracefully sailing, with a dignity that scorns perceptible movement, to join in this meal. sometimes, having doubtless had a “good day,” batches of them dawdle on the way, and then those that are waiting, impatiently as it seems, for their supper, go out to meet them sailing almost invariably in single file, and return with them. Brewer frequently has to take a boat and drive before him those which have associated with other swans. Graceful as they are in their movements they are extremely selfish in eating, and bite each other in a most vicious style in order to gain the best position{…} Upon the conclusion of the evening meal, they all retire to a small island in the Backwater, where they pass the night.’

The article ended with an interesting point, one that Weymouth Corporation had many a discussion about at their meetings.

‘A proposal has recently been made for building-what is much wanted-a new pier, and bringing the swans into the bay, so that they may be seen from the esplanade and the beach. If this could be done it would be satisfactory to the visitors, many of whom do not wander to the haunts of the swans in the Backwater.’

These swans were quite literally one of Weymouth’s famous tourist attractions, but despite the corporation trying hard to promote the Backwater and its feathered inhabitants as such, it was a scheme doomed to failure .

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By the end of the century their numbers had increased to 200 odd. Weymouth would sell pairs of breeding swans to other towns, partly to help keep the numbers down, but also to gain an income. Not having achieved quite the popularity with visitors they’d envisaged, they were becoming an expense that the council wasn’t overly keen on!

In 1907 a cultural exchange of the feathered variety was arranged.

‘WEYMOUTH SWANS FOR AUSTRALIA

Most travellers between Jersey and England via Weymouth are familiar with the flocks of swans which make the backwater look so picturesque. In this connection, it is interesting to record that the Town council of Adelaide, south Australia, some months since communicated with Weymouth corporation suggesting an exchange of white for black swans and a mutual agreement was agreed upon. Last week ten of the dozen sent from Australia arrived at Weymouth, the other two having dies on the way. the birds which showed traces of their enforced confinement during their long travel, were not to be released for some days, during which it is hoped they would become acclimatised and accustomed to the swankeeper. In the same cages which brought the birds to England, a dozen Weymouth swans will be packed for Adelaide ornamental waters.’

(Jersey Independent and Daily Telegraph 27th July 1907)

Those Australian swans were non other than Cygnus atratus, Black swans.

Black swan 1792 Mulgo Port Jackson Painter

It was popular at the time for these to be exported to other countries as ornamental birds.

They were now being looked after by Sam Brewer, Weymouth’s swankeeper.Sam’s father, Snatchy had died in 1899, after having tendered his feathered flock for 22 years.

National headlines shook Weymouth’s community in March 1916

‘WEYMOUTH SWANS TO DIE’

Of course, this was well into WWI and food rationing was biting hard.

‘We imagine that not a few of our readers will feel a sharp pang of surprise and regret on reading that Weymouth town Council on Thursday resolved to sacrifice no fewer than fifty swans on the new national alters of economy which are being set up in Weymouth as everywhere else. the swan gliding gracefully on the water vies the proud peacock on the greensward for the honour of being the premier beauty among birds; and time out of mind”the Swans” in the harbour and up Radipole Lake have figured so prominently among the attractions of the English Naples in the eyes of the visitors, and have been so admired and petted that many will grieve at this drastic depletion of their numbers by 25%.’

The culled birds didn’t go to waste, they were

‘offered to the Belgian Refugees Association to be eaten. […] In the old days, as is well known, a certain number of cygnets from the swannery at Abbotsbury were fattened every year for use at the King’s table; and the Weymouth swans would be a regal delicacy for the hungry Belgians.’

Over the following years the town’s swans were cared for and fed, until the Second World War, when once again a stark choice had to be made between providing for people and maintaining the swan herd. In 1940 it was being suggested that the 200 strong flock should be halved.

Thankfully, in the end a decision was taken to stop feeding the swans (due to food shortages) and let them fend for themselves.

 

They now come under the care of Radipole Lake Nature Reserve run by the RSPB.

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This last couple of years a fierce debate has been raging over whether it’s bad to to feed swans with bread, which then led to swans, so used to receiving human intervention,  dying from hunger and so the pendulum swung back.

swannery Weymouth feeding swans 1950s

However Radipole’s Bird Reserve with it’s little thatched hut sells the right food for birds to feast upon and my grandkids still enjoy going along, brown bag in hand much as I once did, to feed the swans.

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