|Both house and tree sparrows are now on the list of endangered British species but it was not always so.
For centuries the huge population of sparrows caused the birds to be considered pests because of the grain
they ate. With the change of farming practices and reduced nesting sites the current population is a
fraction of what it once was. Gone are the days when birds could feast on fallen grain in the processes of
threshing, sacking and moving it around. In the harvested fields and farm yards, there would be huge flocks
of sparrows taking to the air after being disturbed before settling on the loose grain again.
It has been estimated that each single sparrow ate over 4 pounds of grain each year and because food was at
a premium a 'bounty' was put on the sparrow's head. In some parts of the country, Churchwardens' accounts
exist, as far back as the seventeenth century, itemising payments to villagers for the sparrows they caught.
In the twentieth century, a leaflet published by the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries in 1903 states:
"While no one wishes to exterminate the sparrow, it is generally agreed that any good it may do in destroying harmful insects is so greatly outweighed by the damage done to crops that a reduction is as necessary as in the case for rats, or any other destructive pest".
By WW1 when German ships and submarines were taking a heavy toll of merchant ships transporting food, growing our own food became very important. To prevent waste, it was decided any pests had to be culled. The Home Office and Board of Agriculture set up a scheme which was to be monitored by the police. The official letter said:
"In view of the importance of taking all practical measures at the present time for protecting the national food supply, the Board of Agriculture has recommended that certain measures be taken for the destruction of rats and house sparrows."
A bounty of one shilling (5p) for every dozen of rats' tails, two pence a dozen for heads of unfledged house sparrows, three pence a dozen for heads of fully-fledged sparrows and one pence a dozen for sparrows' eggs would be paid upon receipt of the evidence.
For a countryside population who saw little meat on their dinner plates the sparrows provided another sort of bounty.
In his book Birds of Essex, Simon Wood relates that the nocturnal pursuit of collecting roosting House
Sparrows in batfouling nets persisted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These birds were
then cooked in a pie.
It is thought this practice died out after The Great War but it was reported in the Independent Online that on 16 January 1967 at The Peldon Rose a sparrow pie containing 100 sparrows was served, the reporter surmising that it was brought about by remaining members of the once-common 'sparrow clubs'.
I am reliably informed by Pat Wyncoll, a former Peldon resident, that this occasion was master-minded by a Peldon resident called 'Custard' Ponder [Percy Augustus Ponder] who caught the sparrows and arranged the event, harking back to the not too distant past when this dish was served. Farmer, Robert Davidson, of Brickhouse Farm, Peldon, where his grandparents moved in 1946, relates he used to catch the sparrows for the landlady of the Peldon Rose as a boy in the late 1950s and early sixties. When questioned about how they were cooked he thinks just the breasts were used.
At Mersea Museum, in an oral history from Mr Pip Simmonds, a keen wildfowler, we are told the ivy-clad walls of St Mary's Church, Peldon were a roosting place where sparrows were taken for pies. Indeed, early photographs of Peldon Church show the tower covered in ivy. Another story tells of 'Custard' Ponder catching the sparrows from the ivy on his outbuildings (he lived in the, now much-altered, house called 'Sunnyside' on the main road between Mersea and Colchester). There was also a barn close to the Rose where House Sparrows used to roost. At night a fine net would be put across the open door and the sides of the barn banged to make the birds fly into the net.
Jack Hargreaves wrote about the custom in The Old Country
"You may still find in a country pub an ancient who will talk with relish about the days of 'sparrow-pie'. This really means little bird pie'. When protein was short, large numbers of little birds were eaten and they were not particular about the species. Dozens of them would be boiled until their flesh could be picked off and made into a pie. Long ago when we moved to our first farm there stood in the corner of the barn an old clap-net. Two very long poles were tied together at their thin tips so that, if you held the butts under your arms, they formed themselves into an arch. This arch was covered with a thin soft net of cotton. In the dusk of evening this was lightly beaten against the ivy of the house, the high hedges, and the sides of the hay and corn ricks. As soon as there came a flutter, the net was closed by 'clapping' the two poles together."
'The Old Country' by Jack Hargreaves, 1st edn. 1988, pp. 62/63. publ Dovecote Press,Ltd, Stanbridge,
Wimborne, Dorset. BH21 4JD
My father, who farmed with my grandfather and uncles in north-east Essex recalls the days at the beginning of the century when men with nets used to go round the harvest fields catching and killing sparrows and selling them. Sparrow pudding was a favourite seasonal dish and my grandmother was given a plateful of the plump little 'spadgers' by the visiting netsmen so that the family could enjoy this culinary treat.
The sparrows were skinned and their breasts went into the pudding, which was prepared with a suet crust...
The main technique of sparrow catching was to raid the roosts at night with lanterns on poles and large nets. Startled and dazzled by the light, the sparrows were enmeshed as they flew out of cover. Essex Countryside article Essex Nature Notes Granny's sparrow pudding by Joe Firmin January 1980 Vol 28 No 276 Page 67
In answer to Joe's article in a subsequent issue of Essex Countryside Mrs Wenn recalls
This was most interesting to my son and and my grandfather as I had recently told them of my recollection of sparrow dumplings in my very early childhood - about 1898!
The method of cooking them mentioned by Mr Firmin was certainly more presentable at table or on one's plate than that which my memory recalls, as the sparrows' legs were protruding through the suet crust of the dumplings! Essex Countryside Letters Page April 1980 Vol 28 No 279 Page 72
Two other accounts from the start of the twentieth century appear in a book published by the Essex Federation of WIs
'Other meat was obtained by poaching rabbits. Little boys had catapults and killed sparrows in thatched roofs at night. The birds were skinned and put into puddings with vegetables which had grown in the garden'
My mother grew up in the early years of the century in North West Essex. ...The boys ..had to catch sparrows in the thatched roof of the cottage and their mother made sparrow pie.
Essex Within Living Memory Federation of Essex WIs published 1995 Countryside Books, 3, Catherine Road,
Eating small birds in pies, while offending many of us in the twenty first century, was a valuable source of protein for the rural poor. In the nineteenth century, most of the men in our village would be agricultural labourers and would often have large families who would eat very little meat, existing barely at subsistence level. There were laws to prevent them from snaring rabbits, hares, deer and game birds unless they wished to risk draconian punishments including transportation to Australia and Tasmania.
In the nineteenth century Rat and Sparrow Clubs - there was even a Rat and Wasp club - were formed expressly to cull these creatures. In Essex, (arable areas were most likely to form these clubs), there are many local newspaper references to Sparrow Clubs, places named include Kelvedon, Ongar, Terling, Burnham, and Halstead where it is reported tens of thousands of birds were killed by their members. It would seem that often the evidence required by the club was simply the bird's head, so presumably the rest of the bird was used in Sparrow Pie.
Here in Peldon in 1843
WAR AGAINST THE SPARROWS - A sparrow club, we understand, has lately been formed at Peldon, in this county, which
numbers about twenty members, each of whom is subject to a penalty in default of bringing ten sparrows per week
to the appointed depot. [Rather a formidable combination against the feathered tribe].
10 February 1843 Essex Standard
Peldon History Project