On the 28th March 1896 there was a meeting of 'pigeon keepers' at the White Swan, Call Lane, Leeds for the purpose of forming a Homing Union and this led to the formation of what was then called the National Homing Union. Although this meeting took place in 1896, the first Annual General Meeting of the Union was held on 27th February 1897 at The Spread Eagle Hotel, Manchester. The title 'Royal' was not added until much later but, even in the early days of the Union, there was a close affinity with the Royal family.
Both the Prince of Wales and Duke of York maintained teams of racing pigeons at Sandringham and raced them successfully in both local and national events and this continued when the Duke of York became King. The family tradition is maintained by our present monarch, Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Lofts are now well established at Sandringham under the supervision of a loft manager, where a number of respectable racing performances have been recorded.
In many respects the sport has changed dramatically from the early days but in some areas there has been little advancement. Timing clocks, designed at the turn of the century, are still in use in many clubs, whilst other members use modern, electronic and Quartz regulated timers. It is a credit to our administrators that our rules have evolved so that the pensioner with a 1920's Toulet clock can compete on equal terms with the modern fancier having the latest in computer based technology.
The first pigeon races were conducted over relatively short distances using motor transport but serious, long distance racing was made possible by use of the railway system. This allowed for cheap and effective transport of birds to the racepoint and led to the establishment of the type of racing that we enjoy today. It was only when the Beeching 'axe' fell on the railway system that an alternative had to be found and the modern road transporter became the norm for race transport. Whether this was an actual improvement or not is open to debate and there are many who would love to revert to the former system. Unfortunately, cost and practicalities make this impossible. There have been occasions where the tentative use of air transport has been broached but, at the present time, the cost is proving too great for general usage.
During those years, the sport grew in membership and popularity, particularly after the end of the last war and early fifties. The National Homing Union received official, Royal patronage and became the Royal National Homing Union, later to become the present Royal Pigeon Racing Association (RPRA). Strangely, until quite recently, it was impossible to calculate the actual number of members in the Association. Members belonged to clubs which were affiliated to the Association but each member paid a subscription to the RPRA for each club of which he was a member. Only one subscription was payable per loft irrespective of the numbers of members in a partnership and the total number of individual members was incalculable. In 1987 this was changed by the introduction of single member subscriptions and the total number of members became known.
Despite all of the tribulations of pigeon racing in the 20th century, our members have risen to the call during two periods of national emergency, many giving the ultimate sacrifice for their country, with many thousands more maimed for life during active service. Over these periods, thousands of pigeons were bred by our members and used for communication purposes during the periods of conflict, carrying important and secret information or conveying messages that actually saved the lives of servicemen. During the last war, of the 53 Dickin Medals presented for animal bravery, 32 of them were presented to pigeons and this speaks volumes for the role played by our humble racing pigeons at a time of national emergency.
The head office has been based in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, for the last 40 years. In fact, pigeons had a major part in the town's history far before that: in 1715 the astute birds were seen to be pecking at soil with great interest in Bayshill Road where it was noted that they were partial to the minerals in the earth. Digging commenced, a well was sunk, and the famous Cheltenham Spa waters were discovered. At the height of its popularity there were 26 spa water sites around the town, built to cope with the vast influx of visitors, greatly encouraged by the visit of King George III in 1788. The pigeon has pride of place on Cheltenham's coat of arms, and atop all of the public information signposts around the town.
It has been estimated that in 1989 the total membership of the RPRA was 60,000 and that this total has since been declining steadily. Certainly the past eight years have witnessed a drop in membership of approximately 7.5% over the total period. Hopefully, during the next few years, this fall will be arrested and stabilise. Today the Royal Pigeon Racing Association is a thriving business with over thirty employees, an annual turnover of over £1.2 million per year and assets which include office buildings at Cheltenham and Welshpool.
For many fanciers our annual Show in Blackpool is the highlight of their year and draws fanciers from all parts of both this country and abroad. Friendships formed in Blackpool one year are rekindled at every subsequent event, with the result that the Show itself is almost ancillary to the gigantic bond of friendship and goodwill that encompasses all those attending.
We can look back with the satisfaction of knowing that our sport has stood the test of a century of time and look forward with the knowledge and confidence that the fanciers who follow us will enjoy the sport of pigeon racing into the next millennium.