This week, Memories recounts the adventures of arguably the region’s most famous homing pigeon and revisits the day Tudhoe received a less welcome airborne visitor.
LADIES and gentlemen, it gives us great pleasure to present to you today the one, and the only, the legendary, the recordbreaking, the weather-defying, the cross-continent-flying Prince of Rome.
He’s only a small bird for such a big build-up, but we’ve been on his tail for several weeks. At first we wondered whether he ever existed, but now we know his story right down to the last wing-flap. We’ve even been sent a picture, and we feel proud to hold it aloft and claim that this is the most famous homing pigeon ever bred in the North-East.
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The Prince of Rome was bred by Messrs Vester, Scurr Snr and Scurr Jnr, of Tudhoe Colliery. They were so proud of their success that they dressed up in their Sunday best – shiny watchchains hanging from their waistcoats – for the photographer.
The picture appears today in The Northern Echo probably for the first time.
The Prince of Rome first made a flap in 1909 when, in his third competitive year, he won a race over 202 miles from Oxford. After more long-distance victories in England, his owners judged him ready to fly the Channel.
Known by the number J5093, he won his first 456-mile race from Rennes in Brittany, France, in 1910.
In 1911, he was first home over 475 miles from Arlon, in south Belgium and, the next year, he repeated his Rennes triumph.
Now he was ready for something greater – the big one from Rome.
At 4.15am, on June 29, 1913, 1,653 of the Continent’s best and bravest birds were liberated in the Eternal City. The avian daredevils flew straight into a terrible snowstorm over the Alps. Some were blown fatally off course; others were forced into snowy demises in the deep drifts.
A hardy few just kept going.
Of 1,200 pigeons released from Belgium – then the capital of pigeon racing – only 62 straggled home.
Of 106 English birds released, only one appeared to have made it.
When he turned up on July 29 – a full month later – his arrival was greeted with astonishment. He was a blue cock belonging to Charlie Hudson, of Derby. Taking 31 days to cover 1,002 miles, he won £12 for his owner and was crowned the King of Rome.
All the others were thought to be lost.
But then, on August 18, a blue chequer owned by Messrs Vester and Scurr arrived home in Tudhoe Colliery. He had covered 1,093 miles and 1,186 yards in 51 days. He won £8 for his owners and was hailed as the Prince of Rome.
“No other English pigeons have ever flown such long distances, and their achievements are only excelled by those of American birds,” crows the Homing Pigeon Annual of 1914.
It is this magnificent tome, looked out by Brenda and David Simpson, of Shotton Colliery, that contains the pictures of the Prince of Rome and his owners. The annual was among the possessions of their late father, Maurice, who himself bred cross-Channel winners.
After the 1913 International Rome Race, offers came from American fanciers to buy the Prince, but instead he was retired to stud in Tudhoe. “Vester and Scurr will have a limited number of youngsters for disposal in 1914 from £1 each,” advertises the annual.
The one hole in this story is that no one knows when the Prince of Rome died, but surely no bird can knock him off his proud perch as the most famous homing pigeon in the North-East.
■ With thanks to Colin Urwin of Tudhoe Local History Society who set us on this wild pigeon chase, to Brenda and David Simpson and all who have assisted.
STILL in Tudhoe, there’s been great interest in the most northerly doodlebug to fall on the British Isles. It tumbled onto poor old Tudhoe on Christmas Eve, 1944.
By chance last week, the Echo Memories roadshow rolled into Tudhoe Cricket Club to appear before Spennymoor Probus; by even greater chance, the Echo Memories’ Ford Mondeo parked on top of the old lawn tennis court where the doodlebug had landed.
As the Second World War dragged to an end, the Allies’ sweep across Europe deprived the Germans of the ground launchpads for their V1 bombs, nicknamed by the British doodlebugs because they were as pesky and irritating as flying insects.
So, on the night in question, the Germans tied their doodlebugs to the wings of Heinkel bombers and fired 40 or so from the North Sea in the general direction of Manchester.
Most were wayward. (A full list of where they fell is on the Memories blog on the Echo website.) The most wayward came ashore over Flamborough Head and buzzed over Guisborough.
“My father, Tom, saw it from Norton Junction Cottages, near Stockton where he lived,” reports Martin Birtle, in Billingham. “He said he couldn’t mistake its noise and he saw the flame.”
The doodlebug kept going over Teesside until its fuel ran out over Tudhoe. Then it fell from the sky.
Harry Spence, in Tudhoe Colliery, was 12 at the time and hiding with his family under the stairs in Front Street. He points to Peter Smith’s book Flying Bombs Over the Pennines, where it says: “Something of a mystery surrounds this incident. One report states that the bomb came down at a shallow angle, struck frozen ground, skidded some distance and ended up at the tennis courts where it exploded.
“Another report says that it didn’t explode, but was defused and the remains taken to Durham police station.”
Cecil Lowes remembers precisely what happened. He was six and living in 254 Back Row.
“The sirens went and everybody was told to go under the stairs as it was always the safest place,” he says. “My mam got three of us under, and she knew then you had to black out.
“As she went to the curtains so the window blew and the glass came in, and then the front door blew open and she suddenly remembered Trevor – he was only one or so and couldn’t walk and he’d been left upstairs.
“She rushed up and found the ceiling had come down on top of his bed. He was underneath, black with all the soot, but all right.”
Cecil continues: “It was fantastic for a six-year-old. It was mayhem outside. Everyone wanted to see what had happened.
“We lived about 500 yards away from where it had landed, so we came across the cricket field and saw it.
“It was sitting on top of the grass tennis courts, but the crater was only 1ft or 2ft deep, very black all around, but only about the size of that table.” He points to the quarter-size snooker table in the cricket clubhouse.
It would seem, therefore, that the Tudhoe doodlebug exploded in midair, damaging 390 houses. From Cecil’s evidence, only the nose cone survived. It may well have skidded across the field and come to rest on the tennis court where it burned itself out.
But does no one have a picture of this extraordinary incident?
BRUCE CRAWFORD was another hiding under the stairs as the doodlebug landed. He was only two at the time, and living in Attwood Terrace.
In later life, he ran his own garage in Tudhoe. It was in premises converted from Nesbitt Gray’s pickle factory where they pickled onions and cabbage and bottled ginger beers. Still, though, we can’t find any information on the Old Pickle House, in Bedale, North Yorkshire. Just off the main street, it has been converted into many residences. But what was pickled in such a big concern?
BACK to air raids on Tudhoe.
Harry Spence remembers Friday, August 30, 1940, when a lone plane dropped incendiary bombs, setting the Co-op store alight.
“You said that that night there were two hams liberated, but there were more than that,” he says.
“Lots of families enjoyed more than their normal rations. Only one man was taken to court for stealing.”
A few nights earlier, Harry was caught in the open during Tudhoe’s only other raid. Stray planes (probably more than one) dropped bombs in the York Hill area of Spennymoor.
Harry and a friend were running home from a Scout meeting at Spennymoor Settlement when an air raid warden directed them to a shelter at the five lane ends.
“When we got there, it was shut,”
says Harry. “Running further along the road, bombs started to fall. The two of us dived under bushes and waited until the planes passed over and then we ran home.”