Black Swans on Pittville Lake

In 1891 four swans, a white pair and a black pair, were donated to Cheltenham Town Council to grace Pittville Lake by ‘Mr and Mrs Bingham’.1  W. Baring Bingham was a wealthy sportsman and benefactor of social causes who had lived in the vicinity of Cheltenham for some years.  His interest in birds was recreational and exploitative.  While he was renowned for his ‘wonderful collection of homing pigeons’, for which he won many prizes, he was also an ‘excellent shot, especially at snipe, wild duck, and pigeons’.2  Mrs Anne Elizabeth Bingham was noted for charitable works and was also an amateur singer.3

Swans on the lake at Pittville (postcard: 1906)
For some promenaders in Pittville Gardens in the 1890s, the pair of black swans gliding on the lake conveyed more than a pleasant contrast with the pair of white swans.  Black swans were unknown to Europeans until first seen by European seamen on the western coast of Australia in the seventeenth century.  The only swans Europeans had ever seen before the modern era were white, leading to the conclusion that all swans were necessarily white.  But the concept of a black swan, as a metaphor of the non-existent, dates from classical antiquity, when the Roman satirist Juvenal coined the expression rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno (‘a rare bird in the lands and very like a black swan’).4  This classical reference would have been familiar to many Pittville residents, especially in its summary form ‘rara avis’.5

How did the Binghams acquire the pair of black swans?  The answer is uncertain. The first black swans were brought to England some time after British settlement at Port Jackson (now Sydney Harbour) on the east coast of Australia in 1788, and the species was added to the tally of scientific nomenclature by John Latham in 1790.6  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the desire of museums and collections to possess preserved specimens including bird skins was increasingly supplemented by the acquisition of living examples of exotic animals for public zoos and private menageries.  Living black swans were sent to England on several occasions in the nineteenth century and the breeding of captive birds built up the small numbers in captivity.  This led on occasion to surplus birds which could be sold.  For example, the Acclimatisation and Ornithological Society of London in the mid 1860s sold five black swans (and other birds) to members.7  The Binghams acquired the black swans from some menagerie, no doubt for a handsome price.8

Whatever their source, the motive for donating the swans is probably related to Pittville Gardens (including the Pump Room) coming into the possession of Cheltenham Borough Council the previous year.9  This led to various improvements, including the development of flower beds near the main entrance.  The renewed attention to the character and upkeep of the Gardens may have stimulated a desire to increase the variety of waterfowl on the lake.  By the 1880s, the Zoological Gardens in London were not the only pleasure grounds in England where black swans could be seen.10  They were recorded among the exotic waterfowl on the lake of the Corporation Park in Blackburn, Lancashire.11  It must have seemed to the Binghams that the lack of black swans on Pittville Lake was a distinct deficiency which they were pleased to make good.  Or was their donation solicited?

The swans on Pittville Lake were ‘objects of considerable interest’, appreciated by the residents and seasonal visitors alike.  They continued their tranquil lives for some years, perhaps harried from time to time by boisterous dogs and eager children, no doubt defending themselves with noise and vigour.  But then, at the beginning of 1898, came a fatal incident.  A large and unrestrained dog ‘singled out the male bird for his afternoon meal’ and seized and killed it.  ‘The lady who was supposed to be in charge of the dog is reported to have looked the other way with lamb-like innocence, and to have walked calmly off without expressing any regret.’  What regret or outrage there was among the habitués of Pittville Gardens is unreported.  The journalist noted that the male black swan’s body was recovered from the dog and suggested that it could be stuffed and placed in the library.  ‘If we also catch and stuff the dog, society would not be much the worse off,’ the reporter dryly concluded.12

Soon a replacement was provided by James Agg-Gardner, a brewer and intermittent Conservative MP for Cheltenham.  This was one modest example of Agg-Gardner’s generosity towards public and private charities in Cheltenham.13  Black swans pair for life and if the original two were indeed a pair, then the question arises, did they breed?  According to a standard authority, there is no record of black swans breeding in the wild in England before 1902.14  But anecdotal evidence suggests they did sometimes breed.15  The new pairing was evidently a success as the observational ornithologist Edmund Selous recorded nesting behaviour in 1902.  Black swans can live up to 40 years, but the age of the swans that the Binghams originally donated and of Agg-Gardner’s replacement is unrecorded.  It seems likely there were no black swans left in Pittville Gardens beyond the early years of the new century.

From “Edmund Selous: ‘Pittville’s first bird-watcher’”
Pittville History Works

With the passage of time, the absence of black swans was again felt to be a deficiency which, in 1926, Mrs Littledale remedied.  Isabel Littledale, the wife of retired army colonel Herbert Littledale, was well placed to note the absence of such a striking bird as a black swan and to enjoy the presence of the waterfowl dwelling on Pittville Lake.  The Littledales lived in Ravenhurst, a handsome dwelling at the turn of the road known as Pittville Lawn, immediately overlooking what is now known as the Upper or East Lake.16

In April 1926, Isabel Littledale offered to donate a pair of black swans ‘when the necessary arrangements have been made’.17  What these arrangements were is not stated, but presumably included some sort of housing for the birds which must have been ready when the swans were reported as received in June.18  Apart from a report on various recent donations of birds to Pittville Park later that year, most of them by Mrs Littledale, we hear no more on the fate of the black swans.19

The fragmentary nature of the evidence for black swans on Pittville Lake – and water birds, generally – is tantalising, but such evidence as there is reflects a changing attitude to the value of birds at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.  Pittville Lake was described in early guidebooks as ‘a spacious sheet of water’, but with no mention of any waterfowl, swans or otherwise.20  However, Rowe’s Illustrated Cheltenham Guide, published only a few years later, gives a more detailed picture, presenting the visitor with a view of ‘the spacious lake, reflecting in its placid breast the changeful hues of the summer sky, its surface scarcely ruffled by the stately swans that sail majestically across it, its bank overhung with weeping willows, and a gravel path winding along its margin’.21  These white swans were clearly part of the aesthetic and recreational experience of visiting Pittville Gardens.22

Julian Holland, January 2017

Rowe’s Illustrated Cheltenham Guide (1850 ed., p. 59):
white swans on Pittville Lake


1 Cheltenham Chronicle, 9 May 1891.
2‘ Death of Mr W. Baring Bingham’, Cheltenham Chronicle, 16 January 1915.  William Alexander Baring Bingham of Rosehill, Cheltenham, died aged 56 on 8 January 1915.
3 ‘Death of Mrs. Bingham’, Cheltenham Chronicle, 20 December 1930.
4 Black swan emblem and culture – Wikipedia.
5 The expression ‘black swan’ has been used in recent times – in a slightly weakened sense – to apply to a sequence of unusual events causing a highly improbable but very significant occurrence:  Nassim Nicholas Talib, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007).
6 John Latham (1740-1837) gave the black swan the scientific name Anas atrata which was subsequently revised to Cygnus atratus.
7 Christopher Lever, They Dined on Eland, The Story of the Acclimatisation Societies (London, 1992), p. 90.
8 When a black swan was shot at sea off Exmouth in 1855 it was at first thought never to have been in captivity but to have gone astray from its Pacific habitat, but it was soon surmised that it had in fact been stolen from the menagerie of Lady Rolle at Bicton in Devon.  The value of the bird is indicated by the offer of a reward of £25 for the discovery of the thieves.  ‘Rara Avis’, Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 27 October and 3 November 1855.  An account of Bicton Park a decade or so earlier indicates that swans were not the only Australian inmates of the menagerie – there were also kangaroos; J.C. Loudon, ‘Notices of some Gardens and Country Seats in Somersetshire, Devonshire, and part of Cornwall’, The Gardener’s Magazine, November 1842, p. 54.
9 Historic England – Pittville Park – List entry Number: 1000196
10 Black swans were reported among the ‘arrivals at the Zoological Gardens’ by The Sporting Gazette, 7 April and 28 July 1877.
11 Astur, ‘Notes on the Water-fowl in Blackburn Corporation Park’, The Blackburn Standard, 2 September 1882.
12 Cheltenham Chronicle, 15 January 1898.
13 Cheltenham Chronicle, 12 March 1898.  Richard Davenport-Hines, ‘Gardner, Sir James Tynte Agg- (1846–1928)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [online version].
14 Christopher Lever, Naturalised Birds of the World (London, 2005), p. 74.
15 Astur (note 11) claimed ‘It has been imported in such abundance, breeds so freely, and so frequently makes its escape, that it will doubtless become a denizen in Europe’.
16 Ravenhurst, now 93 Pittville Lawn, is directly opposite the slope leading up to the Pittville Pump Room.
17 Gloucestershire Echo, 3 April 1926.  Mrs Littledale had previously given Mandarin ducks.
18 Gloucestershire Echo, 5 June 1926.
19 ‘Ornamental Waterfowl at Pittville’, Gloucestershire Echo, 18 September 1926.
20 The Visitor’s Hand Book for Cheltenham (Cheltenham, 1840), pp. 17-18; repeated in A Guide to the Watering Places (London, 1841), p. 48.
21 Rowe’s Illustrated Cheltenham Guide (Cheltenham, 1845), p. 57.
22 Whether white swans were deliberately placed on the lake or spontaneously arrived to take advantage of a new and convenient body of water has yet to be determined.  Norman’s History of Cheltenham of 1863 includes a engraved plate showing the lake with swans gliding on it and the Pump Room in the background, suggesting white swans were an established feature of the lake.
23 When a black swan was seen in Scotland in 1846, it was ‘stalked in a sportsman-like manner’ and was believed to be ‘the first black swan shot in a wild state in Great Britain, if not in Europe’; Bath Chronicle, 23 July 1846.