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Crying fowl! Camden History Review sheds light on ‘Hen mania’

40th edition is out in time for Christmas

05 December, 2016 — By Gerald Isaaman

Illustration: PUNCH, 1853

DID you know that Bonnie Prince Charlie made a secret visit to London after his abortive invasion of Britain in 1745, spending his time based in Holborn?

And that Charles Blondin, the great Niagara tightrope walker, came to London and lived in St John’s Wood and Hampstead, naming every house he occupied in England “Niagara”? These are two of the fascinating subjects in 40th edition of Camden History Review now out in time for Christmas.

But what I found even more interesting was the “poultry mania” that Queen Victoria caused when she started her Home Farm at Windsor. That had its own impact in Hampstead when the young Queen was gifted a pair of Brahma chickens, a new Oriental breed that laid brown eggs then unknown in Europe. And in particular it helped to bring fame to Elizabeth Watts, the poultry maid of Hampstead, who in 1854 had her own egg-producing business at Monk Barnes, a now lost property on the corner of Haversack Hill and England’s Lane.

The life of Elizabeth Watts is the subject of a seven-page compelling detailed account in Camden History Review, written by its editor David Hayes, which gives a remarkable description of life in Hampstead halfway through the 19th century.

“Neither a speculator nor a hobbyist, Elizabeth Watts was a serious fancier and breeder, who became a much-respected figure in poultry circles,” he writes. “She was also a shrewd businesswoman – at a guinea a dozen, her eggs were not cheap.

“She exhibited in shows as far apart as Plymouth and King’s Lynn. One American writer has asserted that Elizabeth and Prince Albert were ‘friends’, and although this is surely an exaggeration, they were quite possibly acquainted.

“The Prince was the patron of the Birmingham show, which Miss Watts attended. And at the Windsor show in 1855, Albert and Elizabeth were fellow competitors, though she won two prizes, his entry was only ‘highly recommended’.”

The hen fever at the time resulted in people keeping poultry whether as a fashionable pursuit or to make money. The introduction of Cochin Chinas birds with long necks and vibrant auburn plumage caused a sensation resulting in exotic poultry becoming a lucrative investment.

“Birds and eggs were sold at exorbitant prices,” adds Hayes. “In 1853 a single fowl reportedly changed hands for £2,587 – which, incredibly, might equate to £233,800 today… Variously known as ‘Poultry Mania’, ‘Hen Mania’ or ‘Hen Fever’, the phenomenon was much mocked and lampooned by cartoonists in Punch.”

Meanwhile, using a pseudonym, Elizabeth Watts began writing magazine articles on keeping poultry and edited Poultry Chronicle, priced tuppence, from Monk Barnes. This was followed by an illustrated book entitled Poultry Yard, which established her as an authority on the subject especially when unusual Sultans, birds said to have wandered in the Sultan’s Palace in Constantinople, were introduced.

By 1891, Elizabeth Watts had left Hampstead, the grand old lady of the poultry world moving to St Helier in Jersey, where she died, aged 83, in 1895.

Her love of poultry had not made her rich, her effects being valued at just £130, but her work had been praised by both Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin. A new edition of the Poultry Yard was reissued in America, in hardback and paperback, in 2012 as her 21st century legacy.

The Camden History Review, £5.95, from local libraries and bookshops.

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