Hen fever, British breeding, and royal rescues: How chickens became “royal” birds

In March 2021, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were interviewed by Oprah Winfrey about their decision to step down as working members of the British Royal Family as a result of racism in the monarchy and the media. This had taken a toll on both of their mental health and following stepping down, they have settled in California with their children. During this interview, Oprah (and more than 49 million viewers) were treated to a brief look into their backyard.

There, as reported in Architectural Digest:

They invited Winfrey into a sizable chicken coop, adorably named “Archie’s Chick Inn” after their 22-month-old son. “She’s always wanted chickens,” Harry told Winfrey of his wife as the trio knelt down in the coop to feed the flock of hens, which they recently rescued from a factory farm. “I just love rescuing,” Meghan added.

For most viewers, the significance of these chickens as part of the fabric of The Sussexes’ new life was likely largely unnoticed, although the tradition of royal chickens was document by both Tatler and The Telegraph. Considering the other revelations made in the interview, it is no surprise that this small flock of birds were hardly making headlines. However, these birds did make some waves in the online chicken-keeping community, as well as on poultry forums in Britain. As a historical geographer with a long-standing interest in chickens, I couldn’t help but compare these (post-)royal birds with a much longer lineage of royal chickens, starting in the mid-19th Century.

Victoria and Albert: The Original Royal Chicken-Keepers

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were fascinated by chickens and many breeds of chicken now living in Britain can be traced back to Queen Victoria’s love of exotic birds. Prince Albert and his brother had grown up with their own aviary and Albert had brought ornamental birds with him to England when he married Victoria in 1840. Two years later, he remodelled the royal aviary at Home Park, east of Windsor Castle, to house chickens, doves, bustards, storks and pheasants, including a sitting room for Victoria.

CALEB ROBERT STANLEY (1795-1868) Windsor Home Park: the Aviary and Poultry Farm C Royal Collection Trust

The Queen’s fascination with chickens grew over the following years and began to attract public attention. As Emelyn Rude wrote for National Geographic:

… the young monarch was incredibly fond of her royal menagerie, a collection of exotic birds and beasts that was constantly being refilled by her brave British explorers returning from their adventures abroad. In 1842, her biological assemblage was blessed with a gift of seven exotic chickens from the Far East known as Cochin China Fowl.

Victoria’s menagerie led to an explosion in breeding and exchanging birds, a so-called ‘hen fever’, which was mirrored across the Atlantic in the USA (see George P. Burnham’s 1855 book The History of the Hen Fever).

Victorian English cities were home to a menagerie of animals, both exotic and domestic. Elephants, tigers, lions and hippopotamuses were regular captive animals in circuses and cities like London still had free-roaming cattle, pigs and sheep, while chickens were homed in backyards. London was home to the world’s largest livestock trade and, as Tom Almeroth Williams writes in the introduction to his book City of Beasts: “No other city in Europe or North America has ever accommodated so many large four-legged animals or felt their influence so profoundly.” The Victorian middle classes were enamoured with chickens following Victoria and Albert’s remodelling of the Aviary at Windsor Park. Importing, breeding and exchanging exotic chickens, valued for their beauty over their meat or eggs, became a past-time of the wealthy. When this middle-class bubble burst in the mid-1850s, the beauty of chickens quickly became worthless, ushering in chicken and eggs as a cheap food source.

Breeding British Chickens

Queen Victoria was gifted fowl from across the world (see Burnham 1885) and the middle classes across the country were swept up in the craze for importing fowl from China and India. However, many of these breeds did not fare particularly well in the British climate but, in their crossbreeding with more established breeds, the legacy of hen fever persists today in some of the most well-loved ‘British’ breeds of chicken.

Orpington chickens, for example, were bred by William Cook of Orpington, Kent in 1886. Cook cross bred a Dorking, a traditional British breed, with a Hamburg chicken, a hardy European bird, and with a Cochin, a large domestic chicken native to China which had arrived in England during hen fever (Percy, 2006). Cook intended for these birds to be a dual-purpose bird, that was good for both meat and eggs, and thus suitable for a range of backyard breeders. The impressive crossbreeding experiment actually led to Orpingtons quickly becoming show-only birds and used for neither meat nor eggs (Poultry Club of Great Britain, n.p.). The breed have continued to be a favoured “British” bird, notably being the favourite bird of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (Poultry Keeper, n.p.), indicative of the persistence of the breed, and its associations with British aristocracy.

Smudger94, 2009, Buff Orpington, Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Victoria and Albert’s love of exotic fowl, and the subsequent importing and trading of birds from Asia and the popping of the ‘hen fever’ bubble, aligned with the ‘meatification of the British diet. It also, as evidenced in the Orpington had a lasting impact on the genetic pool of chickens, with these new chicken breeds being marketed as British breeds with aristocratic roots.

One place that these aristocratic roots are celebrated and upheld is in The Poultry Club of Great Britain. Founded in 1877 in the wake of hen fever, the PCGB is a registered charity aiming ‘to safeguard the interests of all pure and traditional breeds of poultry including chickens, bantams, ducks, geese and turkeys.’ The PGCB maintains the British Poultry Standard for exhibitions and oversees “breed clubs” in Britain and Northern Ireland. One of the PCGB’s largest roles is in administering and regulating poultry show systems, including their own prestigious ‘National Championship Show,’ and the Royal Shows held in nine areas of Great Britain an Northern Ireland[i].

Arnout88, 2006, Buff Orpington, Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Since 2003, the PCGB has had Prince Charles as its patron, who keeps his own large flock of birds at his private residence, Highgrove House, in the Cotswolds. Introduced to chicken-keeping by his grandmother, the Queen Mother, Charles also has an affinity for the Orpington breed, which he wrote about in the preface for Celia Lewis’ 2011 book The Illustrated Guide to Chicken-Keeping:

My family’s interest in chicken-keeping goes all the way back to my Great Great Great Grandmother, Queen Victoria, who was presented with a flock of the first Brahmas ever seen in this country. My grandmother, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, kept Buff Orpingtons and was enormously proud of her Patronage of the Buff Orpington Society. In my own case, ever since I was a child and used to collect eggs from the farm at Windsor, I have had an interest in chickens and have continued the family tradition.

Highgrove House, where Charles’ flock lives, has according to The Telegraph been nicknamed ‘Cluckingham Palace.’ As one chicken enthusiast, Cath Andrews, documents on her website, Highgrove House has in the past offered courses in poultry husbandry ran by the Poultry Club of Great Britain, offering people a ‘once-in-a-lifetime experience’ to meet the royal flock. Charles’ flock are free ranging birds, including Marans and Welsummers, and the course emphasised Charles’ enthusiasm for bird welfare, organic farming, and protecting endangered breeds of chickens.

Robin Webster, 2012, Highgrove House, Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Hen fever saw a rush to crossbreed new (and giant) imported Asiatic chicken breeds with hardier birds who had been in Britain for centuries in the mid-nineteenth century. These new breeds of chicken were not only being bred to survive harsher British climates, but also in response to the tastes of the young royals at the time. Today, breeds such as the Orpington are widely celebrated not only by the royals, who include this breed in their royal story, but also by the Poultry Club of Great Britain. The aristocracy have writ into these galline bodies not only their tastes and desire for exotic objects, but also a story of the global trade and production of chickens (see Andrew Lawler’s 2016 book How the Chicken Crossed the World).

Chickens in the Royal Parks

In July 2021, I began scouting locations in London for my fieldwork on my Urban Ecologies project, which takes up questions of galline life in the city. As part of my research, I had mapped various places where chickens were being kept: allotments, community gardens, and city farms. Amongst these places, one stood out: The Allotment at Kensington Gardens. Kensington Gardens is one of eight Royal Parks in London, covering 265 acres, located directly west of Hyde Park[ii]. At the westernmost point of Kensington Gardens is Kensington Palace, overlooking the ‘Green Lung’ of London.

Kensington Gardens, The Italian Gardens C Catherine Oliver, 2021

Having walked from Kings Cross St Pancras across London to Kensington, as any geographer would after eighteen months away from the city, my mind (and feet) were overwhelmed when I reached Hyde Park. Walking down Tottenham Court Road, through the heart of the Oxford Street shopping district, on the first day of the school summer holidays was not the most empathetic activity I have ever offered my pandemic-sensitised body. As I entered Hyde Park, the city began to fade behind me, although the road still rushed along to my right. After crossing the main vehicle thoroughfare of the park, North Carriage Drive, and entering Kensington Gardens, the landscape subtly shifted from mowed lawns to shaped and manicured explosions of wildflower meadows.

In the middle of Kensington Gardens, the palace’s heights just visible over the summer trees in full bloom, is a small allotment. A disinterested park walker could easily miss the unassuming plot, which is bordered by wooden fences. I walked into the allotment and directly in front of me, welcoming me, was the chicken coop.

The Allotment in Kensington Gardens C Catherine Oliver 2021

The Allotment in Kensington Gardens is open to the public daily, aside from the lunch hours when volunteers are working. To the left of the entrance was the garden, resplendent with leaves, flowers, and fruit in the height of summer. There were a few volunteers pottering around, chatting and working. I don’t disturb them but instead squat to meet the chickens. There are three plush black and white speckled hens, Barred Plymouth Rocks, two white birds, potentially White Leghorns, and three red/orange birds towards the back of the run in the shade, too far away for me to speculate on their breed.

The chicken coop in The Allotment, Kensington Gardens C Catherine Oliver 2021

The birds were pecking and chattering. As I watch, a bird heads into their coop, potentially to lay an egg, although I don’t hear any tell-tale sounds emerge. On one of the fences, pictures of the hens are pinned up with their names underneath. As I’m reading the information board, a volunteer plucks a handful of leaves and slips them through the chicken wire to the hens.

In the middle of this Royal Park, eight hens are seemingly contentedly living. Like the food grown at the allotment, any eggs the hens lay are shared between volunteers. After sharing a picture of the allotment, someone shared with me that some of the chickens in the allotment had previously been birds rehomed by the British Hen Welfare Trust. In 2017, the Royal Parks actually rehomed the BHWT’s 600,000th bird in the Allotment in Kensington Gardens. As reported at the time by MyLondon:

Andrew Williams, park manager at Kensington Gardens, said: “We’re looking forward to giving these six hens the home that they haven’t had so far. They’ll join our small but perfectly-formed existing coop of hens”.

The infrastructures of royal chicken-keeping are imbued in London’s parks, much as royal memory is written into the very biology of their favoured British breeds.

Harry, Meghan, and rescue hens: Returning to “the good life”?

In a recent paper for Animal Studies Journal, I explored the phenomenon of “lockdown chickens,” trying to understand why rehoming organisations had seen unprecedented levels of interest and chicken sellers had “run out” of birds. I contended that a major reason for the surge in chicken-keeping in Britain was a desire for people to return to “the good life,” to connect with their food and distance themselves from environmental and zoonotic crises. Rehoming organisations saw increasing demand for hens from novice domestic chicken-keepers who had been shocked by the supermarket shortages and empty shelves when the pandemic hit Britain. Chicken-keeping has been on the rise far longer than since the pandemic, however, with many people turning to chicken-keeping in cities to act as a bridge between city and country, bringing a little piece of nature into their urban lives. In Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s backyard, this same vision of ‘the good life’ is playing out, albeit at a much grander and more luxurious scale.

Meghan Markle, Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry, CREDIT: CBS

The day after The Sussexes’ interview with Oprah Winfrey, I woke up to messages from friends asking me if I had been watching, and what I thought of the chickens. Of course, I hadn’t been watching, but I have since watched clips of the family with Oprah and their small flock of chickens. In their coop, with their ex-commercial chickens, there is a very different vision of chicken-human relationship present. They are not trading or importing exotic birds from across the world. Instead, they have rescued laying hens who were destined for the slaughterhouse.

As reported in media outlets at the time, the fascination with chickens has long been a royal past-time. Articles in outlets such as Tatler and the Telegraph, who are sympathetic to the aristocracy, positioned Harry and Meghan’s flock of rescued birds kept in ‘Archie’s Chick-Inn’ as part of this long aristocratic lineage of collecting and keeping chickens. However, these rescue hens, and the royals getting their hands dirty with the chickens, seems not to be a continuation but as a symbiotic and symbolic break from the chicken-keeping habits of the other royals, both past and present.

As Meghan, Harry and their son Archie build a new life away from the British media and monarchy, they chose to present themselves in not only a state of the idyllic “good life” with their domestic barnyard, but also to emphasise the importance of rescuing animals to them. In doing so, they broke with the royal tradition of importing exotic birds and the high standards of poultry breeding that have become so important to the British monarchy. Sitting in their backyard run, with their rescued hens, there is a nod from the family to their desire for a simpler life, of which a return to ‘nature’ and animals is an important part. This back-to-basics aesthetic is in stark contrast to the excesses of the monarchy.

In this brief scene, the young family’s cultivation of their simpler life away from the monarchy is captured, signalling a break from the past and their intention to embark on their own path. Whilst Harry, Meghan and Oprah might not have had the history of royal chickens in their mind when they rescued the birds, or when they set up the scene, for this historical chicken geographer, on learning about their rescued hens, I was immediately fascinated by the set-up and the significance of this galline space.

Conclusion: A Very Royal Bird

The British monarchy have long had a particular relationship with poultry, the roots of which can be traced back to Queen Victoria’s love for collecting exotic birds. The royal affection for chickens has left an indelible mark on the galline gene pool, as chicken importers, traders, and breeders in the nineteenth century rushed to impress not only Victoria, but also capitalise on a middle class swept up in ‘hen fever.’ Even after the chicken bubble burst, chickens continued to be meddled with by people wanting to incorporate Asiatic fowl’s large size, better for meat and egg production, with the hardiness of birds who had been in England for centuries.

The crossbreeding of hens never strayed far from the royal connection, with one of them, the Orpington, becoming a firm favourite of The Queen Mother and passed down through the lineage to Charles. Protecting the diversity of breeds of bird, especially those ‘made’ in Britain through crossbreeding, has also been the subject of royal patronage down the royal line through close relationships with chicken prestige societies, such as the Poultry Club of Great Britain. In these royal chicken affections and experiments, the monarchy’s imprint has been written into the cells of ‘British’ chickens, as well as their associated political ideologies.

Photo by Kim Gorga on Unsplash

The royal relationship with chickens also has traces in the urban fabric of London; in Kensington Gardens, a Royal Park in the heart of London, a small flock of chickens lives in view of Kensington Palace. Notably, the Allotment in 2017 took in six rehomed hens from the British Hen Welfare Trust to celebrate the charity rescuing 600,000 birds from slaughter. This might be read as a nod towards these royal galline histories in a friendlier, more relatable mode. However, it received little attention outside of a small community at the time.

Four years later, Meghan and Harry’s own rescuing of chickens was screened to millions across the world in their interview with Oprah. Having chosen to rescue hens, rather than buying an elite or “royal” breed, could be seen as a signal of the family’s commitment to doing things differently and breaking away from royal tradition. These rescue chickens are entangled with the history of the monarchy over the last two centuries, having become the latest actors in a royal galline affection.

Notes


[i] For those unfamiliar with the world of poultry shows, the film Chicken People (directed by Nicole Louis Haimes, 2016) follows three contenders in the USA show circuit. The film portrays, according to Haimes, ‘the very intimate dance between the subject and what they’re willing to reveal about themselves to the filmmaker.’

[ii] Kensington Gardens used to be part of Hyde Park, being separated in 1728 at the request of Queen Caroline; the gardens are more formal and fenced off from the rest of Hyde Park.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s