Pigeon fanciers in Birmingham have provided the inspiration for a new play, which the team behind it plan to stage at a city pigeon loft.

The play is written by Mandy Ross and based on an idea by Alex Lockett.

Artist and curator Alex Lockett said the play has developed from a project to chronicle the lives and stories behind a hidden passion in the city.

She said she had become “hooked” herself a little more than four years ago.

“Project Pigeon started as an arts event. I went along to a pigeon club and all these guys were telling me some amazing stories,” she said.

“I went from knowing nothing to keeping about 50 or 60 birds in a loft in Digbeth.”

Pigeons on trains

In January of this year Project Pigeon was awarded a £43,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to compile an archive of pigeon fancying in the city.

More than 30 audio interviews and a dozen videos later the archive is almost complete.

It is due to be handed over to Birmingham Library next year, with some of the stories also going to Bletchley Park’s Animals at War exhibition.

Ms Lockett said pigeon fancying had become more popular in the West Midlands than any other region in the country, with its popularity in Birmingham driven by industrialisation and the development of the railways.

“People would take their pigeons down to New Street Station or Snow Hill and let them travel north or south.

“The railway stationmaster would later release them and the baskets would be sent back with the time of release attached to them. That happened right up until the 1960s.”

Today some of the best racing birds can be worth thousands of pounds.

Birmingham Roller

Ms Lockett said people were still passionate about the sport in the city but she had feared some of its social history might be lost.

“One guy had tables of every club race result from the last 30 years. You could see sons following fathers and the same names appearing at the bottom of the results.”

The city has even given its name to a breed of pigeon, known as the Birmingham Roller, bred not for speed but for its ability to perform somersaults in the air.

Fans of the bird include ex heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson, who has in the past bought birds from Birmingham and Wolverhampton breeders, in a bid to find a genuine Roller, Ms Lockett said.

Stories unearthed by Project Pigeon include that of Betty and Bernard Hemming who met and later married after Bernard struck up a friendship with her brother, a fellow pigeon fancier.

A murkier world was also revealed when one contributor revealed he had stolen a bird from a neighbour as a child and dyed it purple to prevent it being recognised.

The play, performed by Rogue Play Theatre, is due to be staged at Project Pigeon’s loft in Digbeth in April. A book is also being written and a series of radio plays, based on the interviews, are expected to be broadcast in February.


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