by Tom Monson; Copyright 2002
published with permission from author
Ancient Roller Origins
The ancient origins of the roller pigeon are shrouded in mystery and conjecture. The roller performs as it does because it has inherited a gene for rolling (the “ro” gene). No, this gene doesn’t make rollers perform perfectly. It causes them to exhibit a tumbling reflex. Certain suspected additive genes, proper type, physique, and a unique mental endowment are required before a pigeon can utilize the “ro” gene to perform like a true Birmingham Roller. No one knows just when the “ro” gene mutated to become a part of the pigeon genetic compendium, or whether it might have mutated in more than one pigeon on more than one originating occasion. There are many breeds of tumbler pigeons around the world, most of which no longer tumble or even fly, because they were later cultivated for their unique show characteristics.
Man has kept pigeons for centuries. A great many of the mutations that led to our different breeds of pigeons originated in the swath of ancient Middle Eastern countries running from Turkey down through Persia (now Iran) and around the Mediterranean Sea to Egypt. Wendell Levi wrote that “…[T]his we do know: that the domestic pigeon accompanied civilization, and that the Eastern countries cradled its domestication. There is no record of fancy domestic pigeons indigenous to the soil of Germany, France, Great Britain, or of America. Most breeds of domestic pigeons of these countries can be traced back to importations from countries of ancient civilizations – Persia, India, and Asia Minor. The present-day Occidental breeds are not creations from wild species but from races previously introduced from the East.” (Levi, The Pigeon, 1941, 1963, Sec. 47.)
Levi calls tumblers “one of the oldest of the known varieties of pigeons.” (Ibid, Sec. 218.) He cites an ancient Persian manuscript from the 1100s which mentions tumbling in pigeons. (Ibid., Sec. 231). Various authorities have postulated that all roller pigeons may have originated from the Oriental Roller, which is known to have been cultivated during the Middle Ages in ancient Turkey and Persia. However, certain marked differences between the Oriental Roller, which has no oil gland and has more than twelve tail feathers, and other varieties of tumblers and rollers, have persuaded other authorities that the “ro” gene may have also mutated among pigeons other than the Oriental Roller. J.C. Lyell’s 1887 book, Fancy Pigeons, asserts that the first Oriental Rollers were introduced into England shortly before 1874 by one H.P. Caridia, the same fancier who introduced the Oriental Frill to England. Flying tumblers were to be found throughout England at least two centuries prior to this.
The type of the Birmingham Roller is dissimilar to either the long-faced or short-faced Show Tumbler, or even the versions of those Tumblers from 150 years ago, depicted in old pigeon books. Instead, because the Birmingham Roller more closely resembles the old Dutch Tumbler, it is generally assumed that the Birmingham must have been based on some infusion of Dutch Tumbler blood or at least the two may have derived from some common ancestor, probably sometime in the 15th through 17th centuries.
The breeding of various forms of tumbler and diver flying pigeons has long been nearly as common among Middle Eastern Muslims as prayer rugs. An Iranian friend of mine assures me that tumbler and diving pigeons (similar to Doneks) were so common in Iran during his youth that at least half the Tehran households kept performing pigeons. The harmless pastime of pigeon flying had been handed down from father to son over hundreds of generations among the Persians and Turks. Because it brought so much pleasure to so many, it was one of the first hobbies outlawed in Afghanistan when the hated Taliban assumed power there. However, within days of the Taliban’s ouster from Kabul by the United States Marines and the Afghan Northern Alliance, Afghan pigeon fanciers emerged, selling pigeons to neighbors who were anxious to resume their previously-forbidden hobby.
It is not difficult to imagine that flying tumbler pigeons, the repositories of the “ro” gene, may have been introduced into Europe during the 300-year reign of the North African Muslim Moors over the Iberian Peninsula we now know as Spain. If not then, tumbler pigeons could have been carried back to Europe during the Crusades, which commenced with Pope Urban’s call to arms in 1095, calling all Christians to retake Palestine from the Muslims, to retrieve the Holy Grail and other Christian relics thought to remain in Jerusalem. The various Crusades lasted for some 250 years. Surely as the pillaging Christians fought their way through the Middle East, there were some knights or vassals who took a liking to the unique tumbler pigeons they found, and brought a few back to Europe, to impress their feudal lords. Most feudal masters kept dovecotes, and enjoyed harvesting young squabs for their dinners. It made little difference to them than their pigeons fed in the grain fields upon which the peasant-serfs depended for daily bread.
In any event, it is known and accepted that flying tumblers were common in England, particularly in the “West Midland” counties of Staffordshire and Worcestershire, for at least two hundred years prior to 1900. What is not commonly known is that the term, “roller” was usually reserved as a description of a pigeon’s performance, and was rarely used to describe a distinct breed. Although references to “Birmingham Rollers” exist as far back as 1879, in Birmingham City and its surrounding Midland hamlets, all performing pigeons were commonly referred to as “flying tumblers.” These were distinguished according to their performances. “Common tumblers” flipped and tumbled several slow somersaults. Some were described as “twizzlers,” their performance consisting of the pigeon horizontally chasing its tail so as to resemble a very fast-spinning plate. “Plate rollers” were those that slowly descended a considerable distance while twizzling. “Rollers” were those which turned rapid backward somersaults while descending several yards from the flock or “kit.”
While flying tumblers were bred in profusion throughout England in the 19th century, the deep “rollers” seemed unique to the cities of Birmingham and Newcastle. So it was that in his 1899 treatise, The Practical Pigeon Keeper, Lewis Wright wrote: “Tumblers often make two, three, or more backward revolutions without stopping; and lastly, there is the true Birmingham Roller, which turns over backwards with inconceivable rapidity through a considerable distance like a spinning ball.”
With the birth of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century in the West Midlands, thousands of Midlanders abandoned their farms to work in the burgeoning iron foundries, steel mills, and factories. During the 19th century, the population of Birmingham grew from 71,000 to 500,000. Nevertheless, the adage that “you can take the boy out of the farm, but you cannot take the farm out of the boy,” held true. These miners and iron workers may have given up their farms, but they didn’t give up their love of livestock breeding. Numerous breeds of terrier dogs were founded by the rough men of the Midlands, including the Staffordshire Pit Bull Terrier, which was bred to fight in the “pits” where the owner of the most powerful dog in the district could expect to amass a small fortune gambling on his dog’s fighting prowess. Similarly, his tumbler-flying neighbor was wont to wager his best pigeon’s “rolling” prowess against the quality of other fanciers’ tumblers in competitions. These competitions were hatched in each district’s local pub, where hard-headed industrial workers and miners resorted after work to consume a pint of the local ale, and brag about their champion tumblers as they sat at tables, their legs stretched out, their feet resting on the floors which were strewn with sawdust to catch the spilled ale and chewing tobacco which missed the spittoons.
Although many tumbler fanciers flew kits of pigeons that tumbled, twizzled, and plated, the “champion” of any kit was the pigeon which rolled deep and solid for many yards. The most highly prized pigeons were those whose velocity of roll or spin was the greatest, and those who could finish off a solid, 10-yard roll with a quick twizzle. Competitions were held frequently in each district in and around Birmingham. A neutral judge was chosen to determine which fancier’s champion put up the best performance on the day. Each competitor’s champion would be flown with a small kit of common tumblers, but only the champion was judged.
In general, the best “rollers” were to be found in the more rural or less built-up neighborhoods of Birmingham, particularly in the mining and smeltering neighborhoods of the “Black Country,” to the west and southwest of Birmingham proper. The Black Country was so named because of the density of smoke and soot which belched from the smelters and industrial smokestacks throughout the area.
Within the built-up neighborhoods of the huge City of Birmingham, the shorter-working tumblers were preferred, since they were less likely to meet with casualties when flying low over the roofs of the tens of thousands of closely built row houses with tiny back yards (typically about 20 feet by 20 feet). Many stories have been told of fanciers who kept small kits of 20 flying tumblers which trapped into a box after flying, after which the box, with the birds inside, was stored in the attic until their next daily exercise.
Although competitions among the best individual rollers of every district and hamlet of the Midlands had been common throughout the 19th century, and probably even before that, along about 1921, the first flying tumbler club, the Perry Barr Club of Birmingham, initiated kit competitions. Each club member flew his flock or kit of twenty pigeons, to be judged for twenty minutes. Scoring was based solely on “turns” or “breaks,” without regard to quality, depth, or velocity of roll. Turns or breaks are when more than five of the kit members perform simultaneously. Well-trained kits can perform together each time they turn or change direction while flying. The more birds tumbling, twizzling, or rolling on each turn, the greater were the number of points awarded. One “full turn” in which all twenty of the kit members perform simultaneously, with no hold-outs, would beat any number of quarter-turns, half-turns, or three-quarter turns. Twizzling was scorable, tumbling was scorable.
High-quality, deep-spinning rollers were at a disadvantage in these competitions, because they performed less frequently and, when they did perform, they required more time to return to the kit than did the common tumblers. So the birds cultivated for these competitions were short workers with a range of tumbling contortions that would qualify for turns under these rules. Many fanciers of good, deep-rolling pigeons gave them up for the short-working “Competition Tumblers” which were bred specially for these competitions. By the 1930s, numerous clubs in the Birmingham area staged their own local flying kit competitions. The largest of these was the Harborne Roller Club, of Harborne, then a suburb of Birmingham, some five to seven miles from the Black Country. Harborne was more residential and commercial than industrial in nature. About the same time, the Midland Roller Society was formed, which was an amalgamation of the various local clubs. The Midland Roller Society staged annual competitions in which the best three kits of each local club were entered in a competition to see which kit was the best of the Midlands.
Rollers in America
The “ro” gene made its way to America in the 1870s, on board the first flying tumblers and rollers which found their way from England to Ontario, Canada. These pigeons’ popularity soon spread to the United States, particularly in New England and Ohio.
Many of the rollers found in Canada and the United States up until about 1930 were referred to as being related to the “Whittingham” strain, which was supposedly cultivated by a fancier of that name in the City of Birmingham.
The Whittingham pigeons came to America mostly between 1890 and 1915. J.V. McAree of Toronto, Ontario, Canada imported many, beginning about 1901-1909. Whittingham himself sent the early exports to America, his son sent the later exports. It has been suggested that McAree imported rollers from three generations of the Whittingham family; I am aware of at least two generations. The Whittinghams were proprietors of a pet shop, or “cage,” where pigeon fanciers sold their surplus pigeons, or pigeons they had strayed or lured in by “catching” them from neighboring flocks. The Whittingham family business was based on acquiring any number of pigeons and re-selling them to anyone who wished to purchase them. Whether the Whittinghams maintained a loft and flew their rollers, we don’t know. It would be logical that the pigeons exported were not a closely-bred family, but represented the diverse types of rollers and flying tumblers which the Whittinghams sold in their pet shop. We may also assume that some of these rollers were of reasonably high quality, or were genetically equipped to produce good rollers. The rollers arriving on Canadian and United States shores were not highly inbred, and a dozen or so pigeons from Birmingham could be expected to breed a wide variety of different performing types. All that would be needed would be to select the offspring exhibiting the desired performance, and closely breed these pigeons.
Most Americans of this period selected their rollers for long-time, high flying, with very deep rolling. Accordingly, up until about 1930, virtually all rollers found in North America were bred to fly very high and very long, sometimes up to three or four hours at over one thousand feet over their lofts. They rolled very deep, forty to one hundred feet. By the 1920s, such Birmingham Rollers were to be found all across North America. Roller shows also became popular by this time, and rollers began being bred to certain standards of type, conformation, and markings. The United Roller Club of America was founded in 1935 to promote both the flying and showing of rollers.
At least passing mention should be made of the Rev. James E. Graham, originally of Ontario, Canada. Graham became interested in McAree’s Whittinghams, about the 1920s or 1930s, then imported other rollers on at least one visit to England. During the course of his visit, Graham offered a considerable sum to purchase William Pensom’s famous 25/521 Red Spangled Cock. Pensom later said, “there wasn’t enough money to buy him.” Graham founded his own strain, which he called the “Fireballs.” They were mostly bull-eyed or odd-eyed badge- and saddle-marked pigeons. They became somewhat popular in North America, but particularly so in Rhode Island, where a few are still maintained.
The Rise of the “Pensoms”
Then in 1932 a Catholic priest who loved pigeons imported rollers from a young man named William H. Pensom, born and reared in Harborne, England, but residing in Smethwick, England, along the borders of the Black Country. Father Schlattmann of St. Louis imported eight Birmingham Roller pigeons from Pensom and began breeding kits of rollers that were the envy of all who saw them. Other importations followed, and the good Father shared his stock with others. The “Pensoms” became a craze. These new English imports represented the best of the bloodlines of the best ten to twenty fanciers Pensom had become acquainted with in Harborne and the Black Country. The Whittinghams and other pre-existing Birmingham Rollers soon became called “American” rollers to distinguish them from the new English imports, which were called “Pensom” rollers. These New English imports distinguished themselves from the traditional “American” rollers by flying lower, usually 200 to 600 feet; by rolling shorter, from 15 to 30 feet; by rolling with much more impressive velocity; and by flying as kits for only twenty minutes to a maximum of about one hour. Little did Father Schlattmann know, he had dropped a snowball that would trigger an avalanche of change in the North American roller fancy.
Despite the notoriety of the Whittingham strain, which also originated in Birmingham, Pensom claimed never to have heard of any member of the Whittingham family flying a kit of rollers. Pensom repeatedly declared that the highest-velocity spinning rollers all originated in the Black Country, and were developed to their high standard in the decades following World War I.
Soon many other fanciers imported pigeons from Pensom. These importers included J. Leroy Smith of Patchogue, Long Island, New York; Raymond Perkins, of Middlebury Connecticut; Chandler Grover of Moorestown, New Jersey; Ciro Valenti, of Kansas City, Missouri; Al Walker, of Detroit, Michigan; Francis Buckley, of Utica, New York; and two fanciers named Riches and Teesdale. Scores of other fanciers obtained stock from these original importers. So taken were they with this new roller that these fanciers combined to form the “Pensom Roller Club,” devoted to retaining the family “purity” of this new strain of roller. This was somewhat ironic, since the pigeons Pensom exported, though mostly from his or Jim Skidmore’s lofts, claimed parentage from as many as twenty different Midland roller strains or families. Club rules forbade crossing the Pensoms onto any other strain of roller, or housing the Pensom’s among any other strain. Pensom himself objected to the Club’s name; he preferred the designation, “Black Country Roller Club.” His wishes were ignored and he was made an honorary lifetime member of the Pensom Roller Club.
Pensom himself immigrated to the United States about 1952, taking up residence in the Los Angeles area. The “English style” of roller became so popular that, over a period of some thirty years, it overtook the old “American” rollers all across North America, with a few islands of exception around St. Paul, Minnesota, parts of Ohio, and of Ontario, Canada. Showing of these rollers became common, and by the early 1960s, some fanciers were breeding more for type than for performance. Bob Evans, of San Mateo, California, was President of the PRC during this era. He frequently preached that only quality performers should be entered in shows.
Evans’ pronouncements fell largely upon deaf ears, and the PRC eventually became known more for showing rollers than for flying rollers. A rift arose between Evans and his former friend, Pensom. When Pensom imported two pair of Competition Flying Tumblers from his friend Ken Payne, of Harborne, Evans feigned outrage and demanded that Pensom dispose of these pigeons, even though Pensom already had been breeding Flying Tipplers and Modenas at the same site. Rather than bow to Evans’ demands, Pensom resigned his “honorary lifetime membership” in the roller club that bore his name. Pensom immediately organized the National Birmingham Roller Club, which soon gained a strong following among those fanciers more dedicated to the performing type than the show type of roller. The NBRC gradually discouraged the showing of rollers and promoted roller flying competitions in which rollers, not mere tumblers, are flown. In these flying competitions, depth and quality factors are multiplied against the number of “turns” or “breaks” scored, to encourage the breeding and flying of quality, high-velocity spinners for competition.
Pensom died of a heart attack at his home in Canoga Park, California, in 1968. Today, 33 years after his death, it is fair to say that virtually every Birmingham Roller pigeon in existence, in the United Kingdom, North America, Europe, Australia, and South Africa, can trace some line of its pedigree back to pigeons originally bred in Pensom’s loft. This remarkable achievement never will be duplicated.
We’ll never know whether that precious little “ro” gene that is the hallmark of the Birmingham Roller pigeon first mutated in pre-10th century Persia or Turkey, or whether it mutated a second time, in the Dutch Tumbler or the Flying Tumbler of England, between the 15th and 17th centuries. What we do know is that this minuscule gene is being preserved today by thousands of roller fanciers in North America, Europe, South Africa, and Australia. It is being preserved in pigeons selected and bred for their aerial performance, without regard to color or show standards. The club Pensom founded to promote the breed, the National Birmingham Roller Club, now boasts over 1,750 members. A great number of the club’s members actively compete in flying competitions, scores of which are being held across North America, Britain, and Australia on any given weekend in the Spring or Autumn of the year. There is probably a competition scheduled not far from where you live, in the coming weeks.