The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Hysterical Hystorian

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Tuesday, October 06, 2020

The Massacre of the Urchins and Caddows: Farmers vs Sparrows

It is horrifying to see that Sparrows (Caddows) and Hedgehogs (Urchins) once had a price on their heads. The reason why farmers paid good money to have these poor creatures massacred by children is rather lost to history, though there was fantastic talk that hedgehogs used to steal the milk from cows.

I can do no better to quote the source, A Mr D. Calver writing in East Anglian Collecteana in 1872.: 

"The antipathy which farmers of the old school had, and have, towards sparrows and small birds is well known to residents in agricultural districts, but that whole parishes were involved in the war of destruction may be doubted in future times, unless some record of that fact be made before those concerned are all departed. We have written evidence in the parish account book of Pulham St. Mary the Virgin, in Norfolk, which discloses the wholesale slaughter of the feathered tribes ; provided we can entirely credit that the sums mentioned in the book as paid for destroying them, do not include a few items not convenient to appear separately.

"The first item I found was in the churchwardens' account for 1760.
"Paid for 393 dozen and hf. of Sparrows £4. 18s. 4 1/2d."
"With this reduction of 4722 birds one would naturally suppose the parish would be almost free from songsters and chirpers for at least a year or two; but no, the item once m became an "institution" in the parish, and nearly the same amount is charged every year until 1808, when £6. 6s. 8d, was paid. The amount fluctuated between five and six pounds till 1818, when £7. 8s. was paid. This sum little varied till 1826, when it amounted to £8. 78. 5d., and it remained annually about the same until 1838, when it reached the sum of £9. 5s. l0d. This is the highest amount I noticed, but I must add that in one year the "hedgehogs" were included in the entry with sparrows. The payments by the parish appear to have ceased in 1841. Taking the highest number of birds killed in one year at 8920, and the lowest at 4722, and striking an average, there appear to have been destroyed in one village alone during eighty-one years in round numbers about 460,000, at a cost to the parish of about £480, it appearing by the first entry that one farthing per head was the price allowed. Very many tales are current as to the manner in which sparrows' heads were, in the dark nights, dug up from the pit where the parish officers deposited them, after they had been counted and recorded, and made to do duty a second or may be a third time ; but perhaps it was
a "village scandal". I am, however, assured by a worthy gentleman resident in an adjoining parish, that it was a common trick in his young days amongst the boys to sharpen up and reduce the beaks of the larger birds, to make them more resemble sparrows, and deceive the churchwardens, who either could not, or cared not to, observe the difference. The parish officers who received the birds generally wrung off the heads and retained them, throwing the bodies into the road. Some of the village lads were sharp enough to sew the heads of other birds on the sparrows' bodies, and thus turn a few pence in a sly fashion. I have observed similar entries in churchwardens' accounts of other parishes in Norfolk and Suffolk, of about the same period. ' 'Caddows"as well as "Urchins" were destroyed at the expense of the parish, it being believed that the latter sucked the cows. It is rather startling to read in the old books, " Paid for destroying 2 urchins 6d", the animal intended having long ceased to be called by that name.

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