The Penwith Papers

Homing in on Pigeons: Culver houses or Cornish Dovecotes

In the past as pigeons provided a valuable source of fresh meat for the gentry during the winter months and a good number of culver houses, possibly as many as 85, existed in Cornwall. A culver house is the old word for a dovecote where pigeons were farmed for food so any field or road names such as ‘culver’, clummyer’, clummier, or clumber can indicate the site of an old culver house. A few of these curious buildings, built between the 14th and 17th centuries, can still be seen at:

Trevanion, Wadebridge

Lower Halwyn, St Issey

Antony House, Rame

Trevena (modern -day Tintagel)

Cotehele House, St Dominick

Crafthole, Portwrinkle, Torpoint

Bussow, Towednack.

The rock dove or domesticated pigeon, descended from Columba livia, the usual inhabitant of a culverhouse or dovecote. Via  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rock_pigeon_(columba_livia)_in_iaÈ%C2%99i.jpg

This is the bird in question: the rock or domesticated pigeon, descended from Columba livia. To their downfall, these birds are not afraid of humans and allow themselves, their eggs and their young to be handled.

  • Here are a few facts about the pigeon, that has lived alongside man for thousands of years:
  • their total length is approximately 13”, weight less than 1lb; life span 3-5 years
  • they mostly mate for life, and can produce a clutch of 2-3 eggs eight times a year depending on the food available
  • the young birds are called squabs and can be killed and eaten at 4 weeks old, before they fledge and fly the nest after 2 months
  • the squabs are fed for their 1st week on ‘pigeon milk’ regurgitated by both parents
  • the birds are cheap to raise as they forage for their own seeds and grains [but will be more fertile if fed]

Crafthole dovecote nr Portwrinkle, kind permission of Cornwall Guide https://www.intocornwall.com/engine/azabout.asp?guide=CraftholeBefore the early 18th century, the scarcity of winter fodder meant cattle were slaughtered every autumn and their meat preserved - so fresh pigeon meat provided welcome variety for the upper classes and the clergy. Small farmers were allowed simple apertures in barn walls to allow pigeons entry, and these can still found in old farm buildings.

However, with the introduction of root crops (such as swede and turnip), cattle could be fed in winter and slaughtered when necessary, and so the need for pigeon meat declined.

The theory that a crafty landowner would site this dovecote on the edge of his own property, and close to his neighbour’s, in the hope that the birds would forage in his neighbour’s fields rather than his own, is an engaging story that has not (as yet) been satisfactorily proven.

While the principal purpose of a culver house was to provide food, the birds were also used for sport - and their dung was used both for manure, and in the early manufacture of gunpowder. Early culver houses were free-standing tower-like structures with an open skylight acting as the only flight entrance. Cornish houses could contain 300 or more nest-holes or boles, averaging half a metre deep.

A possibly medieval dovecote at Cotehele St. Dominick,  - The Dovecote,  - © Neil Kennedy - geograph.org.uk/p/224963cc-by-sa/2.0Roger Penhallurick counted 156 boles at Bussow culver house, enough to produce up to 42 squabs a week. The walls there are 1.27m thick and the low doorway is less than 1 metre; the height is nearly 5m and the internal diameter just over 3m.

Later dovecots were built with an open-sided cupola, and were often ornamental.

Haggerston culver house interior showing nesting boxes, potence and ladder. cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Russel Wills - geograph.org.uk/p/5319953The larger culver houses had a central potence, a kind of rotating scaffolding on a central pole with several arms. A ladder could be leaned on the arms of this potence, allowing access to the nests so that eggs and squabs could be collected.

The pigeons were fed ‘saltcat’ which was guaranteed to make them return home after a day’s foraging. Recipes for this delicacy vary, but most include gravel, brickmakers’ loam, lime, cumin seed and saltpetre.

Pigeon eggs are comparable to bantam eggs in size and their meat is prized for roasting, one bird being served to each diner. In 1747 Hanna Glasse published The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.

Pigeons in a bole from The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse, 1747

A bestseller for a century, it dominated the English-speaking market for recipes, making the writer one of the most famous cookbook authors of her time. Glasse included recipes for pigeon roasted, dressed cold, stewed, stuffed and in a pie. Her ‘Pigeons in a Bole’ bears a strong resemblance to that modern-day favourite, Toad in the Hole!

Dovecote at Anthony House, Rame. 18th century Grade II* listed building with wooden cupola. By kind permission of Britain Express - https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/cornwall/houses/anthony.htm

Dovecote at Anthony House, Rame.

It is wonderful that some of these fascinating structures remain in Cornwall - and who knows when we may again experience lean times, and be delighted at the appearance of roast pigeon on the menu?

References:

Henderson, Charles, Essays in Cornish History, Cornish Culver-Houses, ed AL Rowse and MI Henderson, OUP, 1935;, pp 211-214

Cornwall Heritage Trust (accessed 20 1 2019)

Cooke, Arthur Owens, Book of Dovecotes, 1920 annotated by Bresler, Chapter 16 (accessed 20 1 2019)

Robinson, R and Gilbert, G Some Aspects of the Domestic Archeology of Cornwall, Special Report No 6,

Institute of Cornish Studies and Cornwall Committee for Rescue Archeology, 1979

Penhallurick, Roger Birds of Cornwall and Isles of Scilly, Headland Press 1969

 




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