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  • Philip Howell

Pigeons and Other Strangers in Post-War London

Philip Howell

University of Cambridge


Extract from “1960s London, Tourists Feed Pigeons in Trafalgar Square, Colour Home

Movies”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRQTOAKKrpo.

Source: reproduced with kind permission of Kinolibrary, London.



Pigeons had a good war, with more Dickin medals awarded for gallantry than all the other animals combined.[1] Its culturally distinctive but zoologically indistinguishable cousin, the dove, subsequently became a symbol of all that was hoped for in the long peace.[2] Yet the pigeon has fluttered down from the heights of post-war popularity, its decades-long descent in social status culminating in recent high-profile campaigns against these ‘rats with wings’.[3] Sites like London’s Trafalgar Square, once famous and celebrated for its pigeons, have become ‘hostile environments’ for these officially unloved birds.[4] The symbol of peace has become no more than a nuisance and a ‘pest’.[5]


I invoke the term ‘hostile environment’ deliberately, of course. The same concern over unwanted ‘strangers’ can be traced in the history of post-war migration, the arrival from the former Empire of large numbers of migrants, the Windrush generation and their successors.[6] Citizens of the British Commonwealth of nations can also be said to have had a good war, and gratefully admired, as long as they stayed where they were. Yet, when large numbers of non-white Commonwealth citizens took up their right to live, work, and settle in the home country, the response of the British state was to remap the boundaries of Britishness, tailoring citizenship to the business of ‘managed migration’ or ‘immigration control’, depending on how harsh politicians want to sound. Black Britons found themselves on a similarly downward trajectory, slipping down the scale from citizens to migrants, then to ‘immigrants’, and finally (for some at least) ‘illegal immigrants’.[7]


Is the link between the pigeon and the Windrush generation anything more than a tendentious comparison?[8] The first thing we should note is that the urban pigeon is a migrant too. The rock dove, columba livia, abandoned its natural habitats many generations ago, domesticated ancestors escaping into urban environments where buildings provide perfect substitutes for seacliffs. The supply of food from human society was also perfectly ample for their relatively small populations. But these ‘feral’ pigeons have become so established that it takes a certain effort of will to recognise them as newcomers.[9] There are layers of irony, for instance, in Banksy’s 2014 Clacton-on-Sea mural depicting a drab handful of pigeons instructing a colourful parakeet to ‘go back to Africa’ and to ‘keep off our worms’.[10]


Fig. 1 Banksy, untitled mural, Clacton-on-Sea, 2014

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/01/banksy-mural-clacton-racist


In this regard, we need to resist the idea that Britain is a ‘nation-state’ whose ‘indigenous’ subjects have only recently been supplemented by immigrants; Engin Isin’s term ‘empire-state’ is much more useful when thinking about Britain’s global history and its legacy.[11] Whilst the pigeons hardly cared whether they arrived in a nation-state or an empire-state, it is vital to underscore the fact that Britain was an imperial metropole, and London an imperial metropolis. Trafalgar Square was the heart of this heart of Empire – or its ‘hub’, as the Illustrated London News called it in 1927, wrapped around a painting by Charles Turner.[12] London’s pigeons play their part in this theatre of empire, but feeding the pigeons is hardly more than a pleasant diversion, the children at least oblivious to the pomp and circumstance of this iconic site.[13]


Fig. 2 Charles E. Turner, “The hub of the British Empire: feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square”

Source: Illustrated London News, 12 March 1927, pp. 442-443.


There is no hint of the horrors of war to come, nor the imminent influx of visitors and strangers and the permanent settlement of hundreds of thousands of migrants after the war. Nor are the capital’s pigeons (yet) portrayed as ‘pests’.[14] The homely theme is continued after the war, and the reassurance of normality and peaceful coexistence is surely the reason why a generation of artists returned to the business of feeding the pigeons in the heart of London. There are numerous examples, but I would single out Harold Blackburn’s 1947 work, Trafalgar Square, where Christ walks amongst the crowd, though attracting less attention than the pigeons.[15] Landseer’s imperial lion is equally domesticated, so that the lion lies down with the lamb, pigeons and citizens live and flourish alongside each other, and all is well with the world.


Fig. 3 Harold Blackburn, Trafalgar Square. Oil on board, 1947

Source: Kirklees Museum and Galleries, 1990.508


Blackburn’s painting predates the arrival of the Empire Windrush, by a single year, and London’s citizens are a pretty monochrome bunch. But another artist, Harold Dearden, did recognise the changing realities of post-war London, in a pair of paintings portraying non-white visitors or citizens engaged in the same iconic pursuit.[16] And whilst the Trafalgar Square theme is much the same, there is a new racial narrative: the theme remains the domestic idyll in the heart of London, but it is not just birds and humans living in harmony, but black and white citizen too. I may be overreading, but the pigeon at the bottom of Dearden’s Caribbean Family frame has its head enclosed by the diamond pattern of the central figure’s dress, in what looks to me like the orthodox icon of the Holy Spirit. Here, again, the pigeon surely stands in for the dove, its grey and grimy mundanity bleached out by the Christian symbolism.[17]


Fig. 4 Harold Dearden, Caribbean Family in Trafalgar Square. Oil on canvas, 1950-62. Museum of London, 99.115/1.

Source: https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/london-open-and-always-has-been


Of course, this is all heavily romanticised. I don’t want to concentrate here on the racism directed at the Windrush generation, and all the non-white migrants who followed them, significant as it is, but rather to look at the relations between human beings and birds at this particular conjuncture, when the empire (if you’ll forgive me) comes home to roost. Consider an episode from Sam Selvon’s landmark novel The Lonely Londoners (1956).[18] Selvon’s postcolonial perspective on the migrant experience in post-war London is well-known, but what is less appreciated are his asides on the experience of migrant men and women living amongst their animal neighbours as well as the variously curious or hostile white ones. In The Lonely Londoners, the young Trinidadian Henry Oliver, aka ‘Sir Galahad’, newly-arrived to London, finds his sunny optimism challenged by the hard winters of London. He is so straightened by hunger that he conceives a plan to shift a pigeon from the local park into the cooking pot. Galahad doesn’t think of the pigeons as fellow migrants, but he does still wonder where they come from, and he notes that the animals in Britain, even the dusky pigeons, are treated better than people like him:


It does have a lot of them flying about, and the people does feed them with bits of bread. Sometimes they get so much bread that they pick and choosing, and Galahad watching them with envy. In this country, people prefer to see man starve than a cat or dog want something to eat. Watching these fat pigeons strut about the park, the idea come to Galahad to snatch one and take it home and roast it.


This plan, unremarkable in Port of Spain but nefarious in London, has to be carried out with careful ornithological observation, and a military precision bordering on espionage: ‘he wasn’t so much frighten of the idea of the snatch as what would happen if one of them animal-loving people see him’. Predictably, of course, Galahad attracts precisely this attention:


Galahad eye a fat fellar who edging up to the rail. He start to drop bread a little nearer, until the bird was close. He make the snatch so quietly that the other pigeons only flutter around a little and went on eating. He start to swing the pigeon around, holding it by the head, for he want to kill it quick and push it in his pocket. As aforesaid, that particular season it was as if the gods against the boys, and just as Galahad swinging the pigeon one of them old geezers who does always wear furcoat come through the entrance with little Flossie on a lead, to give the little dear a morning constitution, and as soon as Flossie spot the spade she start a sharp barking. ‘Oh you cruel, cruel beast!’ the woman say, and Galahad head fly back from where he kneeling on the ground to handle the situation better. ‘You cruel monster! You killer!’ Galahad blood run cold: he see the gallows before him right away and he push the pigeon in his jacket pocket and stand up, and the pigeon still fluttering in the pocket. ‘I must find a policeman!’ the woman screech, throwing her hands up in the air, and she turn back to the road.


Selvon mines this business for all its comic worth, and there is obviously a pointed contrast between the mores of Trinidad and those of Britain.[19] But the point is not that British people – white British people – are stupidly sentimental, and Caribbean people – Trinidadians in this case – are straightforwardly pragmatic in how animals should be treated and how they should be cooked. Rather, we are guided to an incipiently multicultural London where human-animal relations are the source of friction.[20] Migration brings people together, then, but it doesn’t automatically produce a pleasing picture of human/human and human/animal harmony. Ecologists speak of ‘commensality’ – literally, animals and humans eating from the same table – but instead of ‘commensal’ pigeons being happily fed by human hosts we have the pigeon ending up as food for the hungry migrant, as long as he can smuggle it past the animal lovers and his own guilty conscience.[21]


Now, this is obviously fiction, but that it is not just fiction is confirmed by this Times story from 1953: ‘Man killed pigeons in Trafalgar Square: £5 fine for cruelty’. The key details followed: Eric McKenzie, aged 47, stoker, native of British Guiana, fined for causing unnecessary suffering to two pigeons in Trafalgar Square. Inspector W. Grant reflected: ‘I think he must have fed them and then seized them. McKenzie said he was out of work and hungry’.[22] In its own way, this sparse information offers a poignant counterpart to Selvon’s comic brio. But it also raises the question of why eating pigeon is considered wrong.


There are several objections, certainly. In the 1990s, Londoners would be warned off gastronomic pigeon on grounds of public health, their flesh being ‘so polluted that it was poisonous’.[23] This advice was advanced in response to the possibility that restaurants (Greek, apparently) were unscrupulously relying on the ‘scrawny London feral pigeon’ rather than the ‘plump Norfolk woodpigeon’.[24] A mysterious figure, the ‘phantom birdnapper of Trafalgar Square’, was their apparent accomplice, sometimes brazenly nabbing the poor birds in broad daylight.[25] As the Times editorialised:


For pigeons to be fed on tourist-trap grain and Soho black bin bags, and then to be recycled through the Soho restaurants might seem a virtuous cycle. But urban pigeons can be unhealthy immigrants, and infect their eater with diarrhoea or even terminal belly-ache. Demand from restaurants for suspiciously cheap pigeons is not likely to last.[26]


Before the 1990s, however, these ‘unhealthy immigrants’ were off the menu because the public simply wouldn’t stand for it. There was no sale for them, and their numbers could only be ‘thinned’ surreptitiously, for fear of offending popular sensibilities:


The London pigeon is alternately pampered and persecuted. Local authorities and other public bodies seem almost without exception to be in favour of thinning out pigeons if it can be done successfully. On the other hand, any serious attempts to reduce their numbers are met with anguished protests from the public … But the biggest difficulty of all, perhaps, is that London pigeons are so hard to catch in any quantity that the gaps created by removing a few are filled up immediately from neighbouring areas. The Ministry of Works had this experience when they tried a few years ago to thin out the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, using large cages in the early morning. The meagreness of the results and the attendant public outcry put an end to that effort.[27]


By and large, the British public were relatively relaxed about these animal denizens, and in an earlier blog for Winged Geographies, Shawn Bodden has remarked on the relative rarity of ‘pigeon problems’, for all the cultural denigration: he has rightly pointed to the negotiations of shared urban space in which pigeons play a part.[28] But in London the tide turned decisively against the pigeon lovers in the early 2000s, dire warnings of disease in their ‘deadly droppings’ proving more effective than the birdnapper in reducing their numbers.[29] Moreover, as we have seen, not everyone shared the same pigeon-friendly values. Here, as elsewhere, attitudes to other animals could be a point of contention for one community against another, and migrants and non-white citizens could bear the brunt of the animosity that resulted. And I can’t help but wonder whether the terms in which pigeons were increasingly treated carried over into the characterisation of migrants and other strangers in the city. These ‘greedy, dirty and streetwise’ pigeons, ‘shabby grey unemployables of city life’, are portrayed as the avian equivalent of Emma Lazarus’s huddled masses ‘yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore’, but found themselves – in a mockery of Lazarus’s sentiments – increasingly unwelcome.[30]


Lest this sound all too gloomy a note, let me end with a more hopeful anecdote from 1962: Roger Gleaves, the founder of the far right ‘Greater Britain Campaign’, organised a ‘Keep-Out Rally’ in Trafalgar Square, the ‘Keep-Out’ directed at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, who hoped to use the Square for a demonstration against the bomb. But ‘Keep-Out’ might just as easily have been intended to send a signal to the migrants of the Windrush generation, and 1962 was the year of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, the first move in the ending of the UK’s open door policy.[31] In this context, it is a pleasure to record that the right-wingers’ rally was more or less ignored by the public, making no noticeable difference to either the capital’s pigeons or its politics:


From the point of view of the Trafalgar Square pigeons, the rally of the Greater Britain Campaign yesterday must have been a resounding success. There were plenty of peanuts, and since no one could hear the speakers because of a breakdown in the loudspeaker system, there were plenty of unoccupied holiday-makers willing to distribute them.

‘My friends”, said the chairman, in one of the audible moments, ‘You are here to keep Britain great.”

‘We are here to feed the pigeons’, said a disgruntled voice from the crowd.[32]



[1] See Hansard, 9 April 1954: Mr H. Fraser: the whole House is aware of the use to which these birds were put in time of war. I shall have great pleasure after this debate in presenting to the Library copies of this excellent volume which I hold in my hand, "Pigeons in World War II". I have had considerable experience of pigeons in the war. They frequently carried rude messages, but they frequently also got through when the wireless failed to do so. Mr. Jack Jones: Did the hon. Gentleman send rude ones back?

[2] ‘The pigeon symbolizes who we are, whereas the dove represents the “other”, who we would like to be’: Allen, Barbara. 2009. Pigeon. London: Reaktion, 2009, 12-13.

[3] Colin Jerolmack, ‘How pigeons became rats: the cultural-spatial logic of problem animals’, Social Problems 55, 1 (2008): 72-94.

[4] See Maria Paula Escobar, ‘The power of (dis)placement: pigeons and urban regeneration in Trafalgar Square’ cultural geographies 21, 3 (2014): 363-387.

[5] For other “anti-social” birds, see Sarah Trotter, ‘Birds behaving badly: the regulation of seagulls and the construction of public space’, Journal of Law and Society 46, 1 (2019): 1-28.

[6] For a wonderful general history, see Clair Wills, Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain, London: Penguin, 2017.

[7] For the politics of migration, Kathleen Paul, Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Post-War Era, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997, still cannot be bettered.

[8] For support, see Gary Alan Fine and Lazaros Christoforides, Lazaros, ‘Dirty birds, filthy immigrants, and the English Sparrow war: metaphorical linkage in constructing social problems’, Symbolic Interaction 14, 4 (1991): 375-393.

[9] Note the terminological discussion in the reading of the Protection of Birds Bill, classifying urban pigeons as not-wild, and therefore killable: Viscount Templewood argued that the terminology was unsatisfactory, but ‘The rather strange wording “gone feral” was meant to cover tame pigeons which had gone native. (Laughter.)’ (Times, 11 December 1953, p.3).

[10] The ‘migrants not welcome’ message, laughably taken literally, led the Clacton council to remove this mural: see ‘Council removes Banksy artwork after complaints of racism’, Guardian 1 October 2014: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/01/banksy-mural-clacton-racist;

[11] See Engin Isin’s ‘Decolonising Citizenship’ lecture, 23 October 2020, CRASSH, Cambridge, available at http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/gallery/video/decolonising-citizenship.

[12] ‘The hub of the British Empire: feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square’, Illustrated London News, 12 March 1927, pp. 442-443.

[13] See Rodney Mace, Trafalgar Square: Emblem of Empire, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976).

[14] Though in certain circles the damage they cause was already being discussed, and there were complaints about maize being wasted as pigeon food in Trafalgar Square, the overall tone is indulgent towards both pigeons and their feeders: ‘The public like the pigeons, and, knowing how sketchy their meals have been since motors now fill the streets, they feed them whenever they can. In fine weather the birds do fairly well, but on Sundays and all through the winter they suffer a good deal from hunger. The love and sympathy of the public for birds and beasts will never be eradicated’: E.A. Wallis Budge, letter to editor, Times 18 August 1933, p. 6.

[15] Harold Blackburn, Trafalgar Square, Oil on board, 1947. Kirklees Museum and Galleries, 1990.508.

[16] The precise date of the paintings – Caribbean Family in Trafalgar Square and Indian women in Trafalgar Square – is unknown, but these were likely painted in the early or mid-1950s: the Indian women’s saris are difficult to date, but the Caribbean family’s clothes look like the kind of Sunday best that we see in the photographs of the new arrivals from the empire. They might be visitors, but they are, like as not, Windrush citizens.

[17]Harold Dearden, Caribbean Family in Trafalgar Square. Oil on canvas, 1950-62. Museum of London, 99.115/1.

[18] Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners, Penguin, 2006. Originally published in 1956, and in the US titled The Lonely Ones.

[19] Selvon returns to this episode in the radio plays collected as Eldorado West One, Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2008.

[20] On this theme, see, for instance, Claire-Jean Kim, Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species and Nature in a Multicultural Age, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

[21] For more on commensality, see Philip Howell, ‘The trouble with liminanimals’, Parallax 25, 4 (2019): 395-411.

[22] Times, 16 October 1953, p.5.

[23]Times 18 November 1997, p.83

[24] Dr Thomas Stuttaford, ‘Unsavoury risks for pigeon fancier’, Times 11 March 1996, p. 7. See also this exchange in the House of Lords, Hansard, 12 June 2000: Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, although I am entirely in favour of private enterprise, does the noble Lord agree that a health risk could be posed from the practice carried out by some who trap the pigeons with nets and then flog them to restaurants? I do not believe that eating Trafalgar Square pigeons can be good for one's health, or at least not for mine. Lord. McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, is the noble Baroness suggesting that restaurants serve pigeons from Trafalgar Square? Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, yes. Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am appalled at that suggestion. I should have thought that they would be too tough and taste too unpleasant.

[25] Richard S. Lane Fox, letter, Times 13 March 1996, p. 19.

[26] Editorial, ‘The pigeon pie man cometh’, editorial, Times 9 March 1996, p. 21.

[27]Times, 8 March 1957, p. 12.

[28] Shawn Bodden, ‘Pigeon problems: sharing space in the multispecies city’, blog for Cambridge University, Winged Geographies, 4 Jan 2021: https://www.wingedgeographies.co.uk/post/pigeon-problems-sharing-space-in-the-multispecies-city.

[29] Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London prosecuted a war against pigeons by revoking the licence of the last pigeon food seller, Bernard Rayner, despite the supporters and defenders of ‘the gentle London pigeon’ (MP Tony Banks, Times 20 January 2001, p. 9).

[30]Times 18 November 1997, p.83.

[31] On Gleaves, see Graham Macklin, Failed Fuhrers: A History of Britain’s Extreme Right, Abingdon: Routledge, 2020, note 309.

[32]Times 24 April 1962, p.6.





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