Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

"Wretched Sparrows": Protectionists, Suffragettes and the Irish

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

"Wretched Sparrows": Protectionists, Suffragettes and the Irish

Article excerpt

Although Edward Lear's "Mr and Mrs Spikky Sparrow" return from their visit to London "galloobious and genteel" in their newly-acquired headwear and apparel, from the mid-sixteenth century onwards England's towns, cities and countryside had been, in reality, rather less welcoming of Passer domesticus. Widely condemned as a verminous pest that ravaged cornfields, gardens and grain supplies, the house sparrow's alleged predilection for strident, unruly and even murderous behavior was also held against it, and this longstanding notoriety is enshrined, for example, in the opening stanza of "Who Killed Cock Robin?":

   Who killed Cock Robin?
   I, said the Sparrow,
   with my bow and arrow,
   I killed Cock Robin.

In turn, it was the sparrow's status as a despised outcast that led to it being championed by the likes of Clare and Keats, yet even Thomas Bewick, another of its Romantic supporters, had to concede that "it follows society, and lives at its expence; granaries, barns, court-yards, pigeon-houses, and in short all places where grain is scattered, are its favourite resorts." Nevertheless, Bewick goes on to observe without pause, "It is surely saying too much of this poor proscribed species to sum up its character in the words of the Count de Buffon:--'It is extremely destructive, its plumage is entirely useless, its flesh indifferent food, its notes grating to the ear, and its familiarity and petulance disgusting'" ("The House Sparrow" 155).

Bewick proceeds to draw attention to the benefits arising from the sparrow's insatiable appetite for caterpillars and to locate the bird within a less anthropocentric scheme of abundance, but this more exalted view of the sparrow did not hold sway in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when "most parishes had sparrow clubs, which dispensed money for dead birds and eggs" (Clark, "Irishmen of Birds," 16). Millions of sparrows were killed in Britain during this period, and the number of sparrow clubs increased rapidly in the 1880s and 1890s as the nation's burgeoning demand for food only intensified calls for the bird's extermination, while Ian Blyth, as part of his analysis of connections between Night and Day and the various Defence of the Realm Acts of 1914-18, notes the revival of such clubs during the First World War (Blyth 281-282). One late- Victorian proponent of eradication, a Colonel C. Russell, in his guise as "A Friend of the Farmers," argued that "we can do as well without sparrows as without rats and cockroaches" (Gurney, Russell and Coues 44), while the same volume in which his comments were published also contains an essay entitled "A Ruffian in Feathers" by Olive Thorne Miller, offering an American perspective on a bird that had been deliberately introduced into the United States from the United Kingdom with disastrous consequences. "The harshest cries of our native American birds, if not always musical in themselves, seem at least to accord in some way with sounds of nature," Miller begins. "The house-sparrow alone is entirely discordant--the one bird without a pleasing note, whose very love-song is an unmusical squeak. Nor is his appearance more interesting than his voice, and on looking into his manners and customs we discover most unlovely characteristics" (Gurney, Russell and Coues 63). Miller goes on to "chronicle the ruffian's monstrous deeds," accusing the sparrow, among other things, of brawling, "forcible divorce, and persecution of the unfortunate," infanticide, spousal brutality, disreputable morals, impudence, theft, autocracy and inveterate criminality (Gurney, Russell and Coues 63). But it was also around this time that the sparrow began to acquire a dedicated band of supporters, and this led to the so-called "Sparrow Question" (Gurney, Russell and Coues vi) being debated with no little rancor between those who advocated the bird's complete annihilation, and protectionists, often of a religious persuasion, who condemned its slaughter as both unnecessary and ungodly. …

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