Swan Upping brings 900 years of royal tradition to the River and Rowing Museum

By Culture24 Reporter | 13 June 2013

Exhibition preview: Swan Upping, River and Rowing Museum, Henley-on-Thames, until May 18 2014

A black and white photo of three men in rowing uniforms holding a swan near a river
Uppers mark cygnets at Mortlake (July 20 1931)
Since starting about 900 years, the tradition of Swan Upping has played a vital part in caring for the Mute swan along the Thames.

For the uninitiated, Upping involves the inimitable Royal Swan Uppers – a group of rowers travelling in traditional skiffs, clad in the scarlet uniform of the Queen – joining their comrades from the Vintners’ Company and the Worshipful Company of Dyers’ livery companies.

Their quest allows them to monitor cygnets at close quarters, shadowed by schoolchildren keen to pose questions about swans, the boats and the part of the Queen, who ultimately has ownership of the swans.

“Rivers form part of our heritage,” says David Barber, The Queen’s Swan Marker who has worked closely with curators on this collection of original Pathé news footage, oars, photos, original uniforms, audio recordings, art and more.

“Their conservation is of paramount importance not only to the creatures which live on or near them, but to the population at large.

“The museum is a wonderful resource, and it is vitally important to teach people about rivers and the wildlife they support.

“Swan Upping provides an opportunity to raise the profile of conservation on the river. It brings us much pleasure and increases the knowledge of the children we encounter during the week.”

This year’s survey, collaborated on by Oxford University Zoology Department in the third week of July, will sweep through Middlesex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire, although its beginnings are rooted in an era when swans were regarded as a delicious dish at banquets and feasts.

These are happier times for the birds, whose life expectancies have risen from three to eight years since the 1980s thanks to measures taken against dangerous electrical cables, plastic waste and lead poisoning from fishing along the river.

The Uppers will be in Henley on July 17. Six boats will be used during the five-day, 79-mile journey, when broods of cygnets will be greeted with the cry of “all up” before being weighed, measured, checked and ringed.

  • Open 10am-5.30pm (5pm from September 1). Admission £8.50/£6.50 (family ticket £22.50-£34). Follow the museum on Twitter @river_rowing.

Swan facts:

  • A male swan is called a Cob. A female is called a Pen.
  • Swan Uppers could be fined 8 old pennies for not having their swan hooks.
  • Swans used to be widely eaten and often roasted over an open fire.
  • The collective noun for swans is a bevy (on the ground) and a wedge (in the air).

More pictures:

A black and white photo of a man in a suit carrying a swan while riding a bike
Herbert Turk Chiswick (March 25 1939)
A black and white photo of a group of sailors handling a swan on a riverbank
Just below Richmond Lock (July 1928)
A photo of a group of people in uniforms standing in boats on a canal
Swan Uppers toast Her Majesty The Queen© Sue Milton
A photo of a group of people in uniforms on boats circling swans on a canal
Skiffs encircling a family of swans to be marked
A photo of a man in an admiral-style red navy uniform holding up a swan with a long neck
The Queen's Swan Marker, David Barber
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