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Lecture Report – The Queen’s Swan Marker

David Barber, the Queen’s Swan Marker

On Tuesday 1 February 2022, the Henley Archaeological Group held its first lecture this year in the Kings Arms Barn in Henley. The January lecture had been cancelled due to a Covid scare.

The speaker was David Barber, the Queen’s Swan Marker – not Swan Upper as David pointed out.  Swans have been kept by royalty and the nobility for hundreds of years, as far back as the 11th century, partly as a status symbol but also for consumption.  Royalty laid claim to all mute swans, the ones we see on the Thames – migrants such as Hooper and Berwick were not marked.

Today, apart from the Crown, only three bodies have retained the right to own swans.  These are the Ilchester family, which owns swans breeding at Abbotsbury in Dorset, and two Livery Companies, the Vintners and the Dyers.  The Abbotsbury colony has existed since the mid-1300s. The Vintners received their rights to own swans on or about 1472, and the Dyers shortly after that. These two Livery Companies, together with the Crown, maintain the tradition of Swan Upping on the Thames – although today the emphasis is on conservation in that the birds are no longer eaten!

Swan Upping takes place in the third week of July each year.  Dressed in their appropriately coloured uniforms, the Swan Uppers travel in six traditional skiffs, two each for the Crown and two each for the Vintners and Dyers, with each boat flying their flags and pennants.  Starting at Sunbury and ending at Abingdon, a total of 79 miles, it takes five days.

On locating a family of swans, the Uppers give the cry “All-Up!” and then converge on the brood surrounding them with a circle of boats prior to lifting them, one by one, from the water.  At this point, the swans are checked for any health problems and the Vintners’ and Dyers’ birds are ringed – the Crown’s birds are left unmarked.  The birds are returned to the water after being logged by the Queens’ Swan Warden, ensuring the families are kept together.

The swan population declined quite dramatically and between 1960 and 1985 there were only seven pairs on the London to Henley reach.  Swallowing lead fishing weights and getting tied up with tackle were major causes of poisoning and injury, plus predation by dogs, shooting and pollution – all caused the decline.  After the banning of lead in angling weights in 1980, the numbers steadily rose.

Educating the public, especially young school children, the Swan Markers with the Queen’s backing is seen as an important strategy in raising swan numbers.

With the increasing use of the Thames as a playground, extra care must be taken so that we do not ruin the environment for the well-being of its natural inhabitants.  The lecture closed after many questions from the audience to David, whose fee was paid to the Swan Support organization.

John Whiting, HA&HG Chair