FIVE SPARROWS FOR TWO FARTHINGS
Accounts of a Cornish taxidermist
This article appeared in the 1956 Birds in Cornwall. It was written by Cecil Stevens, a prominent and active member of the Society with whom I used to go birding in the early 1970’s. Cecil lived all his life in Par and was a Fellow of the Royal Zoological Sociey. He was also a train driver who drove the expresses on the London-Paddington line, and I well remember one of his bird evening classses where he came in and said “You’ll never guess the number of birds on Teignmouth Flats today. I had to stop the train and have a look.” He always carried his binoculars in the cab!
After his death in 1974 a hide at Ruan Lanihorne was built and named after him. Access to this hide is at present difficult.
A Note on Old Money
Some readers may not be familiar with the old style of money notation used befor the nation went decimal in 1971. In old money there were 20 shillings to the pound, written as 20/-, thus a shilling in old money is 5 new pence. There were 12 pennies to the shilling, so 5 shillings and six pence, written as 5/6d (d for pence) would today would be 27 and a half new pence, if indeed we had half pence today. A farthing was a quarter of an old penny and a halfpenny not surprisingly was half a penny.
Then we have to take into account the value of money in say 1900 related to todays value. If we consider what £1 in 1900 could buy, today it equates to about £80. But if we relate it to average earnings then the figure is nearer £450.
FIVE SPARROWS FOR TWO FARTHINGS
Accounts of a Cornish Taxidermist
By C.J. STEVENS
[Reprinted from ” The West Briton and Royal Cornwall Gazette,” May 24th, 1956, by kind permission of the Editor]
I should imagine there are few, if any, account books left behind by the professional bird-stuffers of the last century or of the early years of the present one. Several of our Cornish villages and towns boasted their ‘stuffer’ – and sometimes more than one – when taxidermy was a widespread cult, when the trade was sufficient to warrant each artisan having his own label.
It was my good fortune a little while ago to peruse and analyse an account book kept by the still surviving St. Austell taxidermist, Mr Peter Henry Blake, now retired, formerly a plumber, and ‘stuffer’ in his spare time. He began his stuffing in the 1890’s, and ceased about 1918.
The cover of the book is marked ” The Stuffing Account”, and inside the cover is written “Stuffed Birds and Animals”, for mammals too were stuffed and mounted. Then follows twelve and a half pages of superb copper-plate handwriting, such as our forefathers in a more leisurely age excelled in, setting out the transactions – or at least some of them, for all were not recorded – that were made in some 25 years adherence to the practice. One would have thought that the time and effort involved in stuffing would have been sufficient unto the day thereof, let alone the patience in recording.
Certain social customs of the day are revealed in the recording of some 385 wild birds of 53 species, 32 cage birds of 12 species, and 91 mammals of 12 species. Of wild birds, the Barn Owl heads the list with 63 entries, followed by 37 Green Woodpeckers, 34 Brown Owls (sic), 30 Kingfishers, 23 Pheasants and 20 Sparrow-hawks. 18 Gulls, 17 Kestrels, 11 Partridges and 9 Herons follow with other species, including the Chough, in lesser numbers. Of cage birds the Canary is foremost, while at least six Parrots were stuffed. By far the commonest mammal was the Squirrel, 55 being accounted for. Nine Rabbits, six Stoats, three Foxes and three Otters, and a few odd animals added to the stuffer’s specimens and indicate the hunting activities of our fathers and the widespread vogue of taxidermy.
The Owls, both Barn and Brown, you could get stuffed and mounted for from 3/- to 12/6, and generally speaking in this summary of prices there was a tendency for prices to rise by the time the thirteenth page is reached reflecting rising charges. Longeared Owls, which were much scarcer, varied from 8/6 to 11/-, while an Owl’s wings were set up for 8d.
Green Woodpeckers ranged from 2/6 to 13/-, a Great Spotted cost 3 / – and the very rare Wryneck 4 / – . Kingfishers were very popular and ranged from 2/6 to 8/6, with one entry of six birds, ” with fish,” 30/-. A Pheasant was priced at 15/-, its wings 1/-, and Partridges at 3/- to 6/-.
It was in the nature of this profession to place the quarry of the birds of prey, if obtainable, in the same case as the predator. Thus was shown the Sparrow Hawk with Thrush, Blackbird, or Starling 13 / – , or with sparrow 14/-. Single Hawks cost from 3/6 to 8/6. Likewise, the Kestrel with Bunting was from 10/6 to 12/-, with Starling from 18/6 to 20/-, and the lovely Peregrine Falcon with Landrail or Corncrake 14/-, with Blackbird 20/-, and with Partridge 35/-. So, too, the Buzzard with Partridges cost 33/6 to 40 / -.
Gulls ranged from 4 / – to 12/6, with a chick at 2 / – . A Kittiwake was shown at 10/6 and, of course, the glass cases which Mr. Blake made himself were extra. Herons varied from 20/- to 30/-, and a Bittern was recorded at 22/6. Goldfinches, frequently caught for cage birds in those days, cost from 1/- to 2 / – . Two pied Blackbirds— the abnormal, as well as the birds of colour or majestic appearance, were considered prizes—were priced at 2 / – and 2/6, and a pied Jackdaw shot at Tywardreath was recorded. The colourful Jay cost from 6 / – to 8/6, the Corncrake from 2/6to 4/6, its cousin, the Water-rail, 2 / – , and a Hoopoe 3/3. Guillemots ranged from 8/6 to 12/6, yet a near relative, the Razorbill, was priced at 4 / – and 4/6. Two other near relatives, the Puffin and the rarer Little Auk which was blown inland during a storm, were priced at 10/- and 7/-. Magpies were distinctive when set up and cost from 3 / – to 7/6, and the several Choughs that were recorded—Mr. Blake received six in one day!—were from 5 / – to 11/6. Water Hens were 2 / – and 3/6, a Curlew 5 / – , two Sheldrakes 6 / – and 12/-, two Lapwings 3/6 each, and two Bearded Tits—kept as cage birds and not Cornish—were 1/6 and 5/-.
Even the rather ungainly Cormorant was prepared, and ranged from 7/6 to 20/-, and its cousin, the Shag, from 11/6 to 14/-. A Great Northern Diver cost 22/-, a Demoiselle Crane, which had flown out of the grounds at Trewarthenick where rare birds were kept and was shot, was set up for 50/-, and the diminutive Storm Petrel for 5/6. Cases for birds’ eggs, and one supposes the repairing of some eggs at times, complete the multifarious duties of these artisans of an era now past.
Though all members of the Society will be glad the vogue has gone one can be amazed at the patience of these local naturalists working night after night even to the early hours of the morning to finish an ” order,” and often in the light of an oil lamp, and though this technique of collecting is not to be commended the analysing of the ” Stuffer’s ” data has given us more details of our local fauna than are often recorded in literature.