HARRISON WILLIAM WEIR (1824-1906)
THE SEBRIGHT INFLUENCE
Harrison goes on to explain how this grew from their experiences at the Fletcher farm and beyond, into their later childhood:
"Here it was that I first saw the Kent and Sussex white-shanked five-toed black-and-red poultry, though kept and known at "Fletchers" and some adjacent farms beyond time of remembrance. Years afterward I learned that the whole of the housekeeping expenses were paid out of the profits derived from the small dairy and - the poultry. From this time my love of animal life so increased that some fowls were got to please my brother and myself. Three Nankeen Bantams, and then some partridge-coloured and 'booted,' were given to our father by Sir John Sebright for "the boys." Then Aylesbury Ducks, pigeons, rabbits, dogs, Guinea-pigs, piebald rats, fawn-coloured, black and white mice, and a tame but very young squirrel were purchased; and thus it was with my brother and myself no time was more enjoyable than that spent in attending to the wants and welfare of our various, somewhat incongruous animal and bird belongings; but the farmyard, with its poultry, was ever the first and our most restful pleasure. Growing older and stronger, we wandered wide in search of variety in this our chief delight."2
The social connection between Sir John Sebright and John Weir was not insignificant. Sebright was an elected member of Parliament for Hertsfordshire, but more importantly he was a landed country squire and a gifted practical agriculturalist, who took a significant interest in poultry and pigeons. I have no doubt that this interest in pigeons would have rubbed off on the boys, who both raised pigeons throughout their life and became specialists in their knowledge of them. Over 20 years later, Charles Darwin would connect with both of them on the breeding habits of pigeons, entering into lengthy correspondence on them with John Jenner Weir and personally visiting Harrison Weir in order to obtain specimens and advice. In the mid 1870's Darwin, who had previously shown no particular interest in cats, would jointly sponsor a cat show with Lady Dorothy Nevill.
In his famous work "On the Origin of Species" Darwin would also refer to Sebright's experiments in pigeon breeding in the following terms:
"That most skillful breeder, Sir John Sebright, used to say, with respect to pigeons, that 'he would produce, any given feather in three years, but it would take him six years to obtain head and beak."6
He also cited Sebright extensively regarding the Sebright bantam, as well as pigeon and dog breeding in his 1868 work, Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication:
It is therefore interesting to note his gift of three Nankeen bantams "for the boys". And it would seem likely that this gifting took place somewhere between 1832 and 1836, when Harrison was between 8 and 12 years old. It was in December 1832 that Sebright was returned to Parliament at the head of his poll.
This connection with Sebright would have invested "the boys" with concept and the practical knowledge of how breeds of domestic animals could be manipulated by selective breeding. Although today we would consider this manipulation to come under the title of "genetic engineering", in terms of the era, it was down to the skill and observation of breeders themselves. Where there was success, there was respect and natural curiosity, and always uppermost in mind, the perceived "improvement" of the breed
Sebright authored a number of pamphlets, notable among them being "The Art of Improving the Breeds of Domestic Animals" (1809) and "Observations upon the instincts of Animals", both of which were referred to by Darwin, and both which appear to have influenced Harrisons burgeoning interest in animal production and welfare.
There is no doubt from our knowledge of Harrison's own developing attitude towards breeding, that he quickly differentiated between the type of breeding that took place to produce elegant show specimens (an ornamental breed) and the type of breeding which centred on improving "production". He was very much a supporter of the latter, while respecting some of the achievements of the former, so long as it did not result in a reduction in overall performance.
In his own publication some seventy years later Weir refers to Sebright's aims in developing the Sebright Bantam, and in his inimitable style proffers as much evidenciary material as he can to support his statements, including proffering the probable mix of breeds used to create the Sebright Bantam. He also refers to Sebright's successes in creating new and interesting colour varieties in Pigeons.
"It is seventy year, if not more, since Sir John Sebright, of Beechwood, conceived the idea of producing a bantam, hen-tailed, without the pointed hackle, back, or saddle feathers, which should have instead those of an obovate form, gold colour, with a complete black lacing throughout.
"Not a few of his pigeons were rare colour combinations, especially his Archangels, all black, with the exception of the whole of the wings, which were a bright, metallic, orange red. As far as I know, this variation from the ordinary Archangel is now lost." (Editor: Harrisons disappointment is almost tactile...and his respect for Sebright's ability very evident).
"Various statements have been made as to how Sir John evolved the new Bantam breed. The following from the 'Poultry Chronicle' (1854), seems at once possible and truthful. It is written by Mr Hobbs, who was with the late Sir John Sebright upwards of forty-five years, and, therefore, may be relied upon:
"The last object that Sir John Sebright aimed at was to improve the Bantam to a clear, blue legged (shanked), pencilled (laced) bird, with proud, erect carriage. To effect this, Sir John, about forty-five years ago (circa 1809, author), obtained a buff-coloured Bantam hen, (possibly that which was known then as a Nankin) at Norwich.; she was very small indeed, with clear slate-coloured legs (shanks). On the same journey he purchased a cockerel rather inclined to red in colour, destitute of sickle feathers, with a hen-like hackle (this bird, an aged friend of mine told me, was a henny Game, for he knew the person from whom it was bought. This, no doubt, had the permanent effect of making 'the Sebright' hen- tailed. And (at Watford), a small hen resembling a golden Hamburgh. After this, by drafting for five or six years, he gained the very pencilled (laced) feather he so anxiously sought, by 'in-and-in" breeding for about 20 years. He afterward had a white cockerel from the Zoological Gardens from which he developed the Silvers."2
One can see now, how important, that single gift of three Nankeen Bantams from Sebright to Weir, "for the boys" helped to fertilise their burgeoning interest in, and desire to become, knowledgeable and successful breeders themselves. The fact that Sebright was also focused on the "Instincts of Animals" is also significant, as this appears to be a course followed closely by Harrison, whose observations of their habits is recorded in all his publications, and for which he gained, over time, a not insignificant notoriety.
In the years to come, both Harrison and John Jenner Weir would become two of the most highly respected and sought after judges of Poultry and Pigeons in Great Britain, with Harrison judging at The Birmingham Poultry Show for seventeen consecutive years. The seeds for this, were sown in these formative years and no doubt enhanced by their invaluable and direct contact with Sir John Sebright.
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