The River & Rowing Museum, Henley on Thames, has created a major exhibition that celebrates and reveals the art of Swan Upping, a 900 year old Thames tradition. Through a comprehensive series of artwork, stories, artefacts and film footage, visitors to the Museum will learn about the intriguing lives of Swan Markers and the yearly swan count – an event steeped in Royal tradition.
Swan Upping is the annual monitoring of the swan population on stretches of the Thames in the counties of Middlesex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. This quintessentially English ceremony was originally a way of marking ownership of swans, at a time when the birds were regarded as a delicious dish at banquets and feasts. Today the primary purpose of the event is conservation. The Swan Uppers work with the Oxford University Zoology Department to monitor the welfare of the birds. Since the 1980s, a Thames swan’s life expectancy has increased from 3 to 8 years, helped by improved awareness of the dangers of electrical cables, plastic waste and lead poisoning by fishermen.
As part of the Museum’s Jubilee celebrations, the exhibition complements an on- going Museum Education project. With funding from the Heritage Lottery Fun, the Vintners’ Company and The Worshipful Company of Dyers, and support from the Queen’s Swan Marker David Barber, the Museum is developing a unique set of learning resources and activities celebrating the traditions and practice of Swan Upping. These including learning packs, a DVD, workshops and loan boxes for primary schools throughout the Thames catchment.
As part of this Swan Upping project, the Museum also hosts the Swan Uppers as they make their way along the Thames, and they will be in Henley this year on 17 July.
Visually striking, with all involved dressed in traditional attire, the annual Swan Upping ceremony takes place every year during the third week of July. The Queen’s Swan Marker, the Royal Swan Uppers and the Swan Uppers of the Vintners’ Company and the Worshipful Company of Dyers’ use six traditional Thames rowing skiffs for their five-day, 79-mile journey up-river. They cry “All up!” whenever a brood of cygnets is sighted and the birds are weighed, measured, checked and ringed.
To amass the collection of unique objects and artefacts that make up this exhibition, the Museum has worked closely with the Queen’s Royal Swan Marker, David Barber, (who is available for interview) The Vintners’ Company, the Worshipful Company of Dyers’ and relatives of former Royal Swan Markers. On display as a collection to the public for the first time are artefacts including: original Pathé news footage, oars used at the annual event, historical photographs, original traditional Swan Upping uniforms, audio recordings, Swan Upping inspired art and much more.
David Barber, The Queen’s Swan Marker, said: “I am delighted to have been involved with the development of the educational project and the exhibition about Swan Upping with the River & Rowing Museum. The museum is a wonderful resource for people of all ages to learn about the river, particularly children, and it is vitally important to teach people about rivers and the wildlife they support. Rivers form part of our heritage and their conservation is of paramount importance not only to the creatures that live on or near them, but to the population at large. I am pleased that Swan Upping provides an opportunity to raise the profile of conservation on the river while bringing much pleasure and increasing the knowledge of the children we encounter during the week.”
Swan Upping plays an important role in the conservation of the Mute swan and involves The Queen’s Swan Warden collecting data, assessing the health of young cygnets and examining them for any injuries. Cygnets are extremely vulnerable at this early stage in their development and Swan Upping affords an opportunity to help both adults and cygnets that might otherwise go untreated.
The Royal Swan Uppers, who wear the scarlet uniform of Her Majesty The Queen, travel in traditional rowing skiffs together with Swan Uppers from the Vintners’ Company and the Worshipful Company of Dyers’ livery companies. Many schools are invited to meet the Swan Uppers on their journey up river. The children involved may have the opportunity to view cygnets at close quarters and ask questions about swans, the boats used and The Queen’s ownership of mute swans. The participation of school children is a positive element of Swan Upping and their enthusiasm for wildlife is always to be encouraged.
From 25 May 2013 – 2014
River & Rowing Museum, Mill Meadows, Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire, RG9 1BF