Throughout the 20th century most Cheshire towns boasted a flourishing pigeon racing fraternity. Local people, from all walks of life, sharing their passion for a hobby offering opportunities to socialise and exchange useful tips and sharing many of the skills associated with training successful race horses.
As the number of people taking up the hobby fell over the years, club memberships declined dramatically forcing some clubs to merge and others to disband.
At ninety years of age, Frank Lockwood is one of just two remaining members of the former Knutsford Flying Club still putting their pigeons to the test in competitive racing. Here, Frank tells Peter Pickering about his continuing love for a hobby he has enjoyed for almost seventy years.
Frank Lockwood grew up in a pigeon racing family. His father, William, was an avid pigeon fancier prior to, and throughout, the Second World War period.
“Some local fanciers loaned birds to the armed forces. Those birds carried important messages back from our forces in Europe. Many were lost as enemy forces, aware of their vital role, targeted them with heavy small arms fire.”The inscription under the photograph reads ‘Mealy Cock’ – 14th September 1944 – Arnhem – NPS 42 NS 15125’ followed by the bird’s name ‘William of Orange’.
Often suffering severe injuries, ‘carrier’ pigeons flew through the barrages to successfully complete their missions. Occasionally, some fell dead almost immediately upon reaching their home lofts.
Among the large photographs of prize birds that hang proudly on Frank’s walls is a framed photograph of a pigeon that joined the ranks of Knutsford’s war heroes.
The inscription under the photograph reads ‘Mealy Cock’ – 14th September 1944 – Arnhem – NPS 42 NS 15125’ followed by the bird’s name ‘William of Orange’.
“That pigeon was loaned to the services by William Proctor-Smith, a club member who lived at Bexton in Knutsford in what later became the Masonic Hall. It was awarded the Dicken’s Medal for bravery after bringing the first message back about the successful landing of allied parachutists at Arnhem.”
During the Second World War many parachute regiments, including the Americans, regularly used Tatton Park for training jumps. “I think it was very appropriate that a Knutsford pigeon was first back with the message”
When Frank left the RAF in 1948 he wasted no time in sharing his father’s enjoyment of the hobby they both loved.
Lockwood & Son became a formidable partnership within Knutsford’s then thriving flying club. Frank still has the club’s membership booklet for that year “There were thirty-three members then, training pigeons to compete in races and shows.”
For many years Knutsford Flying Club was based at The Lord Eldon public house. “We had been meeting there for years when, totally out of the blue, the landlord asked the club to pay 10 shillings per week for the privilege. That was a lot of money in those days, and a very short-sighted move on his part considering the quantity of his beer we were consuming” recalls Frank wearing his trademark smile.
Roy Shepherd, landlord of The White Lion, saw the potential for additional beer sales and welcomed them with open arms. “Membership continued to grow for many years. Then we started to organise social events which The White Lion didn’t have the room to host. When we booked a function room at the Conservative Club for our annual prize-giving evening Roy really ‘took the huff’ and said we might as well go there for good.”
Knutsford Conservative Club remained the club’s headquarters until membership declined to a point it became unviable to continue. “Around six years ago we had no choice other than to disband the club.”
Frank is now in a partnership with former Knutsford Flying Club member, Ann Curbishley (nee Aspin). They are participating in a full year’s racing programme with Rudheath Flying Club “Ann’s family, ‘the Aspins’, are longstanding stalwarts of the club. Her grandfather was a club member in 1900. We now share the work; the cost of the corn and the racing fees”
Frank and Ann spend hours each day at their allotment-based lofts. Are either of them considering retiring from the pigeon racing set? “Not a chance” Frank replied “It keeps us busy and active and I can’t think of anything else I would rather be doing.”
The racing season stretches from April through to September, with weekly ‘old bird’ races from April to July followed by a series of races enabling this year’s young pigeons to be put through their paces. Racing distances range from relative ‘sprints’ from Worcester (77 miles) through to a ‘marathon’ from Niort in France (500+ miles).
“We race the widowhood system” Frank explained.
To save the blushes of any discerning readers, suffice to say the ‘widowhood system’ involves keeping cock and hen birds apart for most of the week.
On days they are to be sent off to race they are allowed to get together to continue their romances. Their activities are closely monitored until, at the point of ‘no return’ so to speak, either the amorous cock or hen bird is promptly removed and despatched to go racing.
The theory being that the bird’s last memory of home will focus strongly on ‘what might have been’ had Frank or Ann not intervened so inconveniently.
It is hoped those pent-up emotions remain with the bird until the point of release when it will not want to waste any time in swiftly returning home to ‘carry on where it left off’.
Lockwood & Curbishley are proving to be a formidable partnership in their new club “We took third place from Niort a few weeks ago” said Frank proudly.
Frank and Ann have more stories to tell about a lifelong hobby for which their passion today is as strong ever. I hope to catch up with them both again very soon.
Photographs: Deborah Law