When London Had No Sea Gulls

M@
By M@
When London Had No Sea Gulls

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Sea gulls next to the Thames
Image: Matt Brown

The above photo would have been almost impossible for much of the 19th century (and not just because of the architecture and colour). London simply did not do sea gulls*.

Until the 1890s, glimpsing a gull in London was something to write home about. Indeed, it was something to write to the editor of the Evening Standard about, as this letter from 20 Jan 1881 attests:

Sea Gulls at London bridge astonish person
Image via the British Newspaper Archive

The correspondent thinks nothing of "large masses of ice then coming up stream", but is "astonished" to see a pair of birds — so astonished that he's capitalised his Sea Gulls.

By 1888, another correspondent notes that the birds are now occasionally seen among the mercantile shipping of the East End, but are still a rare sight in central London. The Serpentine in Hyde Park in the spring afforded the best opportunity to glimpse this rarity, though a few hardy specimens had been known to reach Putney. The correspondent then dashes his credibility by claiming that: "Gulls make excellent pets... having an illimitable appetite for slugs and a general aptitude for devouring obnoxious insects."

Most accounts from the 1880s and 90s show a strong correlation of gull sightings with the worst of the winter weather. Snow, strong winds and icy conditions drove the birds inland. Londoners were quick to turn this into a quasi-superstition: if you see a flock of sea gulls, then bad weather is coming.

The fierce winter of 1894-95 seems to have been a tipping point. Press reports of gulls in London peak in this year, with some accounts suggesting that thousands made their way to the central Thames.

Feed the birds

A young gull by Tower Bridge
Image: Matt Brown

By 1897, the gulls had become an annual fixture, flocking into the capital every winter. A favoured destination was the lake in St James's Park, especially after one enterprising man started selling sprats to visitors who wanted to feed the winged fugitives. An account from 1899 describes a gathering of hundreds of birds, mostly black-headed gulls, who would "take scraps and morsels from many a charitably extended hand". Common gulls and herring gulls were also noted.

The same correspondent, one Percy Clark, was keen to see more of the birds. In his opinion, gulls were far more entertaining than the park's ducks. "The next step may be (dare we express the hope?) that they will remain and breed! Image, Sir, a real breeding colony of wild gulls in the heart of overbuilt London. The prospect seems too good to be possible. Yet it is just on the cards... Let them all come." Be careful what you wish for, we might observe in retrospect.

In contrast to Clark's admiration, younger Londoners treated the birds with contempt. "... As might be expected," ran one report, "the youngsters made every endeavour to seize one of the unsuspecting gulls. A boy managed to secure one, but after being severely pecked and scratched by the bird, was compelled, amid loud laughter, to let go of his prize." This happened on Blackfriars Bridge, which crops up in several reports as the go-to place for gull feeding in the 1890s, along with the Embankment at Cleopatra's Needle.

A capital sculpted to look like a sea gull
It's curious that gulls would congregate around Blackfriars Bridge, as the bridge itself contains a series of sculptures depicting sea birds. These can be seen along the eastern (sea-facing) side of the bridge, while the birds on the west are all freshwater. Image: Matt Brown

From "astonishing" to "menace"

As the years moved on, the birds increasingly stayed put. They thrived in the city, and eventually bred here. By 1901, we find reports of them foraging in the pools of Wimbledon Common, a couple of miles from the river. In 1907, the birds were noted in town as early as August, perhaps having remained all summer for the first time. In 1930, a little auk — the first ever noted in central London — sought refuge in the Round Pond of Kensington Gardens (it was pecked to death by herring gulls). By the 1940s, London's gulls were truly ubiquitous. "It is odd to think of so graceful a bird as a gull we associated with the sea spending its days foraging in such prosaic places as Clapham Junction or Camden Town," mused one report form 1944.

Today, we can expect to see gulls any time, any place. The birds have adapted to city living, feeding off landfill, probing bins and still attracting morsels from the "charitable hands" of Royal Park visitors. The profligacy of the city supports their scavenger lifestyle better than the dwindling fish stocks of the sea. Natural England reckons that 75% of herring gulls now live permanently in towns and cities. Whereas once they were seen as near-miraculous, elegant birds, they are now more often regarded as a menace. A quick google will find endless press reports of aggressive behaviour and food theft.

A black-headed gull by the thames
A black-headed gull in winter plumage (hence the lack of black head). Image: Matt Brown

We might see much more of them than our ancestors did, but their numbers are falling. Climate change and loss of traditional feeding grounds are no doubt part of the equation, but bird flu has also taken a devastating toll across the country. Black-headed gulls, like the one shown above, are now on the Amber List of Birds of Conservation Concern.

The London sea gull has been on a remarkable journey these past 150 years, from almost non-existent, to newsworthy spectacle, to commonplace, to public menace, to mildly endangered. It's easy to curse at a gull when it's after your chips, but let's remember that their presence in London was once "astonishing". Let's hope it never is again.

*Note for pedants: Yes, we know that it should properly be just "gulls", and that "sea gulls" is a colloquialism. We're going to call them sea gulls because (a) it sounds nice, (b) most of the sources we quote call them sea gulls, and (c) it's fun to bait pedants.

Last Updated 12 January 2024

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