Above: The unusual statue standing on the pavement, just a few feet from the entrance to the church of St James, Garlickhythe.
The unusual bronze statue is just a short distance from the church of St James, Garlickhythe. It was unveiled on 11 July 2007 and made by Vivien Mallock. The statue shows the figure of the Barge Master and Swan Marker, accompanied by a very realistic figure of a swan.
In earlier times it was only the Vintners, the Dyers and the Crown who were permitted to own swans on the River Thames. Each year all three organisations still take part in an ancient tradition known as ’Swan Upping’. The ceremony extends over several days during July each year and is now conducted on the Thames between Sunbury and Abingdon. In the early part of the 20th century swans found on the Thames in London were also marked. The process then started at Victoria Embankment and the Swan Uppers gradually moved upriver.
The Swan Marker is in charge of the Vintners’ Swan Uppers for the event but he wears the uniform of Barge Master, dating back to the time when the Company owned a ceremonial state barge on the Thames. In the 17th century, many of the City Companies had their own highly decorated barges. They can be seen on Canaletto’s famous painting of the Lord Mayor’s Procession on the Thames. These days the marking of the swans takes place using more modest vessels, including rowing boats and small launches.
The tradition was that swans owned by the Dyers had one ‘nick’ filed into their beaks. Swans owned by the Vintners had two nicks and swans owned by the sovereign had no marking at all. At the annual search for the swans on the Thames, if the male a female swans have a nick, then the cygnets are similarly marked. Where one bird in the pair has a different mark from the other, there is a formula for how to mark their cygnets. The tradition of actually marking each swan with a nick has been replaced these days by adding a ring to the bird’s leg.
So why is the statue situated outside a City church and not somewhere near the Thames? It would certainly be more appropriate to have the statue beside the Thames because not many swans are to be seen beside the busy dual-carriageway of Upper Thames Street. The answer is that the Vintners’ Hall is not far away and, each year, they walk ceremonially to the church of St James, Garlickhythe, where they hold their official service.