Swan Upping

– The Annual Taking Up and Marking of Thames Swans

Published in Windlesora 01 (1982)


The mute swan has been a much-prized bird for many years. It appears to have been given Royal status in the 12th century, and thereafter, if a privately owned swan escaped, it became the property of the crown. By 1378 the office of ‘Keeper of the King’s Swans’ was in existence and in a document entitled “The Lawes, Orders, and Customs for Swans”, dated 1482/3, the first law states that all swans owned by those who pay less than 5 marks a year Freehold were forfeited to the King. To own swans was, therefore, a status symbol and also provided a tasty ceremonial dish until superseded by the turkey early this century. It is recorded that in 1874, Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s youngest son, sent one to his Oxford tutor, Dr. Ackland, for his family’s Christmas dinner.

The Swan Upping in the days of Elizabeth I had to be completed in one day by the various gamekeepers along the Thames. The right of marking was subject to a fine of one-third of one pound (6s. 8d., 33p) paid into the Royal Exchequer. Anyone driving away swans at breeding time, or stealing eggs, was liable to one year’s imprisonment plus a fine, at the pleasure of the crown. Any person carrying a swan hook, by which swans might be taken from the river, if not a swan herd nor accompanied by two swan herds was liable to a fine of two-thirds of one pound (13s. 4d., 66p).

The purpose of Swan Upping is to mark all new cygnets with the same mark as their parents. The method is to drive each group of swans into the bank, where the cob and pen have their beaks examined to ascertain ownership, and the cygnets are then similarly marked by making nicks with a sharp knife. The Dyers and the Vintners Companies are now the only owners of private swans on the Thames, the Worshipful Company of Dyers marking theirs with a nick on one side of the beak, and the Worshipful Company of Vintners marking theirs with a nick on each side. The latter is the origin of the inn sign ‘A Swan with Two Necks’. (i.e. two ‘nicks’). Royal swans are now left unmarked.

In the past, when there were a great many private owners there was a rich variety of marks that were granted by the King’s Swan Master and entered into a Registration book.

The Royal Swan’s bill markings in the reign of George III.

This Royal mark was used throughout the reigns of George III, George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria. It is not clear when the marking of royal birds ceased but marks were reduced over 70 years ago at the instigation of Queen Alexandra who was concerned that the birds were hurt by the complex old marks.

Various bill markings from the “Register of the Gylde Haule of Windesore”.

Above are examples of marks made on the Swans’ bills taken from the “register of the Gylde Haule of Windesore” now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and “copied from a Roll in the custody of the Maior and Bailiffs of New Wyndsor”. This seems to date from the reign of Henry VIII (Ashmol. MS., No. 826, fol. 138-9b).

The “Windsor Roll” which formerly belonged to the Mayor and Bailiffs of New Windsor is the earliest known, and was probably compiled in the latter half of the 15th century, and is now only known from a seventeenth-century copy by Ashmole.

140 “Swanmarks of Berkshire” are in the article of that name by N.F. Ticehurst, O.B.E., M.A., F.R.C.S. Eng., Journal of the Berks. Arch. Society, including the first two illustrated above.

All unmarked swans ‘flying at liberty’ belong to the crown, but on rare occasions, the right was granted of taking such swans within a certain area, and for a limited time. In the reign of Edward III, on June 20th, 1356, such a grant was made under privy seal, for seven years, “to the Warden and College of the King’s Free Chapel of Wyndesore of all swans flying, not marked, within the water of Thames between Oxford and London Bridge, as fully as these should pertain to the King by reason of his right and prerogative” (30 Ed.III., pt. II, m. 20)

There was a re-grant for a similar term in 1390, and this appears to have been extended for a further period, for on July 16th, 1398, the right of search was included in a grant to “Thomas Butiller, Dean of the King’s Free Chapel of Wyndesore, and the College of that place … that they may whenever and as often as they please search for swans throughout the said river, and all streams flowing to and from it, between Gravesend and Oxford Bridge” (22 Richard II, pt. I, m. 33).

There was a third renewal in 1400 to Richard Kyngeston, Dean of the King’s Chapel, and William Louency, Keeper of the great wardrobe, jointly, for a period of ten years (Henry IV, pt. VII, m 37).

No record of the marks used under the above grants has been found. Before 1584, swans forfeited to the King were marked on the leg or foot.

In Monday 13th July 1981, a flotilla of six skiffs was towed upstream to Romney Lock by a motor launch. The swan upping had started at Sunbury and the men had taken their lunch at Staines. Two skiffs carried the Queen’s Standard, two carried the flag of the Dyers’ company, and two the flag of the Vintners’ company. The sovereign’s crews wore red blazers or sweaters and were led by the Keeper of the Royal Swans, Capt. John Turk of Cookham, who took over the office from his father in 1963. The Dyers wore navy blue and Vintners white sweaters or dark green blazers.

Additional photo from 1920, courtesy RWWS.

While the level of the water was rising in Romney Lock the men stood (somewhat insecurely) in their boats and drank a toast to the Queen. This is a tradition, as Romney is the nearest lock to the Queen’s Thames home of Windsor Castle. From Romney Lock the party proceeded to the Donkey House public house, where years ago they would have stayed when it was called the Kings Arms, but now they go home at night and return in the morning to continue the journey upstream to Pangbourne.

Foot Marking a Swan
(Reproduced from Bodleian MS, 204, f214, v. circa 1340)

The number of swans marked this year (1981) was the smallest ever, possibly because many birds are poisoned by retaining with the grit in their crops the lead weights used by anglers, or are strangled by their lines. Research is being carried out to resolve this problem, but it must be almost too late. In 1970 about 600 birds were counted, but in 1980 there were only 114.

H.M. Swan Keeper, Capt. F. J. Turk, M.V.O. states that in 1981 there were 14 broods and 54 cygnets. Of this total, there were 3 Dyer’s Company swans and 16 cygnets. The Vintner’s Company had 4 swans and 12 cygnets. The Queen’s cygnets numbered 26.

Datchet Mead and Ferry 1686 (taken from the ‘Annals of Windsor’ by Tighe & Davis)

Pat Marson and Gordon Cullingham