How Norwich fell in love with canaries

Captain Canary costume from 1960 in the exhibition on Norwich City football club at Bridewell Museum

Captain Canary costume from 1960 in the exhibition on Norwich City football club at Bridewell Museum in Norwich. - Credit: EDP pics © 2004

They are the birds that took the name of Norwich all over the world. In our latest feature to celebrate the exhibition The Wonder of Birds, Trevor Heaton looks at one of the city's most unusual exports - canaries.

A Norwich canary: The distinctive stocky shape of breed can be seen. This example has orange colouri

A Norwich canary: The distinctive stocky shape of breed can be seen. This example has orange colouring - something which has been available to breeders since the late 19th century. - Credit: Archant

On a family holiday to Venice in the 1980s, I had a flavour of what Norwich must have been like for hundreds of years.

April 1, 1905 in the People's Weekly Journal in Norfolk: The first mention of the word Canaries in c

April 1, 1905 in the People's Weekly Journal in Norfolk: The first mention of the word Canaries in connection with Norwich City Football Club. - Credit: Archant

Not in the sights of course - even the Wensum's biggest fans would be hard-pressed to compare it to a Venetian canal - but the sounds.

An inflatable canary on the roof of City Hall for the League Champions celebrations.

An inflatable canary on the roof of City Hall for the League Champions celebrations. - Credit: EDP pics © 2004

For it seemed every narrow alley was bursting with the song of caged canaries, their rich song complementing the colourful sights of canal and wisteria-clad ancient buildings.

October 1907 cutting from Norwich Mercury telling the story about canary exports.

October 1907 cutting from Norwich Mercury telling the story about canary exports.

For centuries, Norwich streets would have echoed with sounds like this, for its weavers kept and bred the birds to keep them company as they worked long hours in their garrets. That interplay of canary song and the clattering of looms must have given Norwich a unique - and rather magical - soundscape.


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It's just one aspect of Norwich's connection with the birds, links which go back hundreds of years and bring in the story of refugees fleeing religious persecution, a once-thriving export business, oh, and a certain football club.

And talking about sounds, long before The Beatles ever burst on the scene, Norwich had its version of a loveable moptop. Not a head-wagging Ringo Starr of a drummer, but a bird - the crested Norwich canary, one of the two main forms of the birds bred in the city over hundreds of years. Mounted specimens of the Norwich Plainhead and the Crested Norwich feature in The Wonder of Birds, the exhibition now running at Norwich Castle Museum.

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Alongside them is a medal by Norwich's 'King of the Canaries' Jacob Mackley (1850-1923). His firm, Mackley Brothers, of Philadelphia Lane, once sent locally-bred canaries all over the world.

The American market was particularly strong - Jacob sent 10,000 birds there every year in the early years of the last century. Sent out in batches of 2,000 to New York, the birds were housed in a specially-constructed room near the boilers to keep the birds warm. One man was sent with them to make sure they were fed and properly looked after on their epic journey across the Atlantic.

And the descendants of those birds have created a strong affinity with the Norwich canary which lingers to this day.

It is hard to overestimate quite how big the trade was. It really was a 'proper' export, worthy of being included alongside the likes of mustard (which, by one of life's happy coincidences, is also yellow). There was huge interest in the city, with thousands of people visiting Mackley's aviaries whenever they held open days.

The city's link with the birds began in the 16th or 17th century, when immigrants fleeing religious persecution in the Low Countries brought their birds (along with their skills in weaving, printing, gardening and architecture) to the city. There is, declared EDP columnist Jonathan Mardle (Eric Fowler) in 1957, 'no prettier story about Norwich than that of the canaries'.

He continued: 'It seems highly probable that (the immigrants') love of flowers helped to earn Norwich its name as the city of gardens, and that also, for the joy of humble men, they brought their song birds.'

The story, of course, started earlier, with the wild birds of the Spanish-speaking archipelago off the African coast. The Atlantic Canary, a type of finch, it was gradually realised, could be easily bred in captivity, was a formidable singer, and - crucially - was easy to feed.

Selective breeding has gradually produced a wide range of colours, including white, green, orange, black, and yellow. The bird may have entered Europe through Italy first, before gradually spread northwards into Germany and then the Low Countries.

So when the Protestant refugees had to leave their homeland, it was natural that they took their beloved birds with them too. And from Norwich love of the birds spread out into the rest of the country.

They were so closely associated with the weaving industry that when the handweavers of Norwich were supplanted by the cities of the North and Midlands in the Industrial Revolution you might have thought 'that's it for the birds too'.

But, as Eric Fowler noted, by then the birds were a fixture in the city. 'When the weaving died out and shoemaking took its place,' he wrote, 'the Norwich canary still cheered the bleak years of the transition, and the Victorian 'snob' carrying his load of uppers home from the factory on a long pole for stitching, had the song of his birds to lighten his toil.'

By then the centres for the birds had shifted from weaving garrets to local pubs. The turn of the 20th century saw 30 or 40 cage bird societies, each based on a pub, and each having a show in October. At their peak there were something like 3,000 breeders in the city and in towns such as Lowestoft, Wymondham and Great Yarmouth - an incredible number.

The shoemakers would breakfast as a society at the pub and then wait in the bar while the birds were judged. After the judging, they would then go on a round of other societies' shows, a thirsty business, naturally.

In November every year, dealers would come down from London, paying from 4s to 7s 6d a pair for the canaries, giving the breeders a very handy cash bonus in time for Christmas.

So big business then, and no wonder passions sometimes got a little heated. In October 1873 there was controversy at a canary show in St Andrew's Hall when a visiting breeder from Derby displayed some Norwich canaries which were - shockingly - orange.

'Cheat!' came the cry from the local breeders, who complained that the birds' plumage must have been dyed. In the end the judges had to call in the County Analyst, Francis Sutton, to check the feathers. He concluded that the breeder, Edward Bemrose, had not cheated.

Two months later Bemrose revealed his secret - he had fed his birds cayenne pepper. This promptly caused another row, as other breeders were worried it would damage the birds' digestive systems. Eventually a less potent (and tasteless) pepper was substituted. Even so, right up to the 1930s some breeders still added a little cayenne to the mix in the belief it made the colour 'hotter'.

And so to the city's 'other' canaries - this time with a capital 'C'. In the first few years after their formation Norwich City were known as the 'Citizens' or the 'Cits'.

The adoption of the nickname 'the Canaries' is often cited as having taken place around 1906 or 1907, but the first inkling was actually on April 1 1905, when the People's Weekly Journal described a Newmarket Road game between the Linnets (of King's Lynn) and the 'canaries' of Norwich.

The nickname didn't stay in quote marks for long - and now it's another sort of Canary that makes Norwich famous.

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