25 July 2010

"Swan-upping" and the "Swan With Two Nicks"

There is an annual event on the River Thames called "swan-upping," which consists of taking the mute swans and cygnets from the river and marking them.
The census — it takes five days — is operated by the Swan Marker and the Swan Uppers of two of the ancient trade guilds of London, the Vintners’ and Dyers’ livery companies. The census is said to date from the twelfth century, at a time when the sovereign claimed ownership of all swans (they were valuable birds that were served up at banquets and feasts).

These days, royal ownership is claimed only on the Thames and some tributaries and — you may be pleased to learn — the Queen doesn’t actually eat any of her swans. The birds used to be tagged by nicks on their beaks — which is why the Swan Marker has that name — but these days are ringed on their legs.

Two nicks put on a swan’s bill at the time of swan-upping signified that it was owned by the Vintners, hence the connection with pubs. The link has often puzzled people. Down the centuries several such pubs changed their names to Swan With Two Necks, in the toponymic equivalent of popular etymology.
Photo credit.


  1. Interestingly I got well acquainted with the Thames and old fashioned English tradition when I rowed in the Henley Royal Regatta in college. I don't think its related to the swan upping but there is a "swanning day" (if I remember the name correctly) before the regatta. They go out in boats and capture the swans in swan straight jackets and move them a couple days (for a swan) journey downstream. The point is that this clears the Henley-on-Thames section of the river so swans don't get killed by moving oars during the race. During our practice a week or so before the swans were moved we did see a couple boats whack the swans with oars. It did not seem deadly for them, just unpleasant. We also hastily avoided a couple ourselves. During the race it was clear though.

  2. "Provided they are wild and unmarked, the property in all white swans swimming in open and common rivers belongs to the Crown by prerogative right. However, a private property in swans in a particular river may be claimed by a subject by grant or prescription, or when they are tame, or by grant of a swan-mark from the Crown. If so marked, they belong to the owner of the mark wherever they may fly.

    The Dyers' Company and the Vintner's Company each have a one-third interest in swans on the River Thames, the remaining third being the property of the Crown. The interests of the two companies were acquired by swan-marks granted by the Crown. The companies take a close interest in the welfare of the swans on the Thames. There are annual swan-upping excursions during which the young birds are marked." - Law Commission 'Legal Curiosities'


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