Skinningrove Bonfire 2017 (Images: Simply pictures by Kevin Milner)


Pigeon Fancying in East Cleveland
Before faster means of communication became available, pigeons had a vital job as carriers of important messages. The incredible ability of these birds to find their way home over long distances was used for many purposes. With the arrival of the telegraph about 1840, these useful birds became redundant. Thousands of unemployed pigeons flooded the market, to be picked up cheaply by working men; the utility bird then turned into a sporting bird. However, their role as vital messengers resumed during wartime in the 20th century: homing pigeons were the most reliable way of communicating and they were instrumental in saving many lives.
Pigeon Man sculpture, Beach Road Skinningrove, produced by Steve Iredale.
Mining communities in the North East of England took a particular interest in pigeons. Residents here often had access to allotments to develop lofts and workers were pleased to be in the open air. The Up North Combine organisation was formed in 1905 and Skinningrove & District Homing Society five years later. The society developed into the East Cleveland Federation, formed in 1926; members of the federation were in villages and towns strongly connected to ironstone mining. The industrial bond that held such communities together may have gone but pigeon fancying and racing continues to attract people of all ages, male and female.
There have been major changes in the sport with costs – and potential rewards – rising substantially. Developments in transport have enabled races to take place over longer distances, pigeons regularly crossing the English Channel (by aircraft for many years) to be liberated. Reductions in railway services in this country led to greater reliance on road transport; the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 also had an impact. Technological developments led to an electronic tagging system largely replacing manual clocks to record racing times. Allowances are made for the different locations of lofts and the pigeons’ positions in races are determined by the velocity (speed) at which they have flown.
The homing societies in East Cleveland have enjoyed much racing success: since 1951 there have been nearly one hundred winners of Combine races, some of which had more than 20,000 birds entered. A Combine race involves all the pigeons within a federation being taken to a central point for despatch; in 2018 the location for the East Cleveland Federation is North Skelton Village Hall. The East Cleveland Federation continues to thrive, the number of members and clubs exceeding average participation in the Up North Combine. The federation is very active in helping to raise funds for local charities, mainly by donating birds; it also helps to sustain the sport throughout this district, contributing strongly to its heritage.
The social importance of pigeon fancying in East Cleveland has been recognised in photography, painting and writing. Its significance was demonstrated at the 2017 Skinningrove Bonfire, entitled Pigeongrove! Lofts continue to pepper the local landscape as flocks of pigeons circle above. There may be rivalry between owners but the sport is also important in bringing people together to share their experiences and memories, so contributing to the social fabric of local communities. The sacrifices that are often made to take part in this sport can be compensated by the pleasure and thrills to be enjoyed. The following extract from Village Verses, published in 1982 by East Cleveland Women Live Group, is by Mary Hambley. Mary’s father and brother were dedicated pigeon fanciers in Staithes.

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