A sport in which the (predominantly male) enthusiast (or ‘fancier’) combines the roles of owner, breeder, trainer, and gambler, in preparing to release ‘homing’ pigeons from a specified racepoint from which they then fly back to the owner, who presents the verifiable pigeon at the agreed reporting centre. The winner is the bird covering the journey—which can be hundreds of miles—from the point of release or ‘liberation’ at the highest average speed. The sport became popular in Belgium and the United Kingdom: the Royal Fédération Colombophile Belge was formed in the 1890s, and the (British) National Homing Union in 1896, in Leeds and Manchester in the north of England (this later became the Royal Pigeon Racing Association or RPRA). The emergence of the railways in the 19th century allowed working-class people access to points from which races could start, and in the late 1950s the Midland region of British railways reported that it carried over three million pigeons to races every week. Ron Bisset (Pigeon Racing and Fancying, 1963) observed that ‘pigeon racing is the only sport in which a man can compete in his own home and in which his family can take part’, in a ‘wonderful competitive yet cooperative spirit’ with husband and wife racing pigeons against each other.
Homing pigeons have been vital means of communication in wartime in the 20th century, and the British monarch Edward VII (1841–1910) raced pigeons, a tradition maintained by Queen Elizabeth II's Royal Lofts at her Sandringham residence. The RPRA estimates that in the late 1980s it had 60,000 members, since when the membership has been ‘declining steadily’, though the sport stays faithful to its northern English roots with an annual show at the coastal resort of Blackpool. One of the attractions of the sport is the lack of firm knowledge about what actually enables the pigeon to fly ‘home’: in this sense, the appeal of the sport can be seen to combine instinct with analysis, empowering the working man and woman with a sense of creative cultural accomplishment of their own making.
Subjects: Sport and Leisure.