A. O. Cooke The Pigeoncote

Chapter 8 Pigeons of the Church

Return to the Dovecote first chapter

pigeon picture About twenty years ago, Mr. George Marshall, the owner of Sarnesfield Court, noticed  while examining the interior surface of the tower walls, a number of holes observable in their upper portion. These he at first took to be niches in which the joists of a former belfry chamber had been inserted, but closer study soon dispelled this first surmise.  The openings were all uniform in size - six inches square; the holes entered the walls at an angle, and they enlarged gradually until a depth of from fifteen to eighteen inches was reached. There are six tiers of holes in each of the four walls, the usual number of the holes in every tier being four, though there are sometimes five; one or two occur also on either side of the lancet windows. Below each tier of holes there is a stone alighting ledge.

There cannot be the slightest doubt that these were nests for pigeons; not adapted to such purpose as an after thought, but planned and executed when the tower was built. As the tower dates from the first half of the thirteenth century this remarkable dovecote must be given rank as perhaps the oldest in the county - older by half a century at least than that which stands by Garway church. That it was not the only pigeon house in the parish seems suggested by the name Pigeon house Meadow in an ancient document; but any traces of the dove-cote there alluded to will now be sought in vain.
Church dovecote Very similar accommodation for pigeons occurs in the church tower at Collingbourne Ducis, Wiltshire, and it is probable that many other instances exist to which attention has not yet been drawn. The real purpose of such holes as those at Sarnesfield might quite easily elude the observer, who would regard them as "putlock-holes," made to receive the ends of horizontal timbers used in scaffolding, temporary or otherwise.

We did not go into the tower of Collingbourne Ducis church, however, there is an opening with a landing perch (now a bit broken) that looks like the pigeons' entrance to the tower. at about mid height. It is the rather large square hole in the main tower. The smaller hole in what appears to be a buttress is a small window for light for the stairs located within the "buttress. Neither a man working in the churchyard, nor a lady who walked by while I was taking photographs, had heard of pigeons having been kept in the church tower. October 4, 1998

In several cases a pigeon-house existed, sometimes still exists, in parts of a church other than the tower. At Hellesdon, near Norwich, there was a wooden pigeon cote placed on the west gable of the church.

Pigeons formerly occupied the tower at Monk's Bretton, Yorkshire; Birlingham, Worcestershire; and Gumfreston in Pembrokeshire; nor do these instances entirely exhaust the list.

We visited Birlingham church, but could find no indication of pigeons having lived in the tower.

Elksonte church Elksonte interior
We know that pigeons nested in the bell-tower at Ensham, Oxfordshire, in former days; for in 1388 a man engaged in catching some of them fell down into the choir and was killed.
During the reign of Henry III. A certain John of Hertford, who "carried Holy Water at Denham (Bucks), when he wished to drive out some pigeons from a certain lantern at the church of Denham, outside the same church, let fall a stone from that lantern upon the head of Agnes, wife of Robert de Denham, who was sitting in the church, so that the third day she died." Again, in 1375 the vicar of Kingston-on-Thames was judged entitled to all pigeons bred in the church and its chapels.

We arrived at Elkstone church during the harvest thanksgiving service on a foggy Sunday morning
Directly across the road was Elkstone Manor, which had a triangular wooden dovecote attached to its front gable. We walked around the churchyard until the service ended, and then went inside, where a kind lady let us look at their columbarium . It is reached by a circular stone stairway in a wall to the left of the chancel. The dovecote itself is in a chamber above the chancel. It has a wooden floor and several nest holes built into the walls shown at right. It is well lit by a lancet window, which was unglazed when the birds lived here. September 27, 1998

Adjoining the west end of the now ruinous church of Portpatrick, Wigtownshire, and slightly encroaching on its western wall, there is a curious small round tower. The walls are over three feet thick, and the internal diameter about nine feet. The lower portion seems much older than the upper part, from which it is divided by a string course. The slated roof, a truncated cone in shape, is topped by a small pigeon cote.

In 1670 a door was placed at the top of the steeple at Wilmslow church, Cheshire, in order to "keepe forth the Piggens from Fowleinge the church." The door seems to have failed in its duty, for five years later a net is bought for the same purpose. This apparently succeeded no better, and finally, in 1688, the drastic step was taken of expending two pence on "shot and powder" to exterminate the birds.

Though it seems certain that Sarnesfield church tower was originally built in such fashion as to include its utility as a dovecote, later arrangements were in some cases made to the same end. At Elkstone, near Cheltenham, a chamber over the chancel shows clear traces of having been so adapted, the forty odd nest-ing-places now seen being evidently a late addition. The birds flew in and out by way of an unglazed lancet window.
Elksonte exterior A like case existed at the church of St. Peter, Marlborough, where the dovecote, a chamber over the chancel, had a groined stone roof. Here pigeons nested until towards the middle of the nineteenth century. To the same recent period extended the custom of allowing pigeons the use of a room above the vaulting of the church at Overbury, Worcestershire. Four centuries ago the pigeons which frequented Yarmouth parish church had their headquarters over one of the chapels.

Overbury church has two very small lancet windows in one end that might have served as the entrance for pigeons using a room above the vaulting of the church. The windows are now glazed. There is a wooden door high on the exterior wall that might have provided human access to the dovecote.

Doubtless the custom would die hard, yielding reluctantly before a growing reverence for the fabric of the place. The cooing of doves above his chancel would have sadly vexed the spirit of a certain cleric who one day exhibit-ed his church to a chance visitor. Quite suddenly his steady flow of information ceased. It was a sunny autumn morning, the church door stood open, and a little robin had flown boldly in, doubtless attracted by the decoration for the coming Harvest Festival. It fluttered happily from place to place, uttering those autumn notes so sadly sweet; and presently it perched upon the very altar, innocent and unafraid.

In utmost consternation the now agitated vicar harried the intruder up and down and here and there; till, seeming to understand a length how very far from welcome was its presence, the discouraged bird departed by the way it came.

The churchman had perhaps never heard the story of the city arms of Glasgow - Robin Red-breast on a silver shield - memorial of the deed of healing wrought by St. Mungo on the bird's behalf; nor might a man who chased away a robin be inclined to take the legend as excuse. For his sake it is perhaps as well that pigeons nest no more above our English chancels, and that the church tower harbours none but owls and jackdaws as its uninvited but still tolerated guests.
image of book
Dovecote: Table of Contents
chapter button chapter number  next button

Return to top  Email the Bookstore