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Aylesbury Ducks

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Aylesbury was well known for its breed of ducks - the Aylesbury. The Aylesbury duck industry has been long dead. 

No connections have been found of the Stratfull / Stratful families working in this largely domestic industry, but it is quite possible that they did as means of supplementing labouring or farming income. Certainly the industry would have been well known to them during the 19th century.

The following article gives a good overview of the Aylesbury duck industry and is included for general local interest.

THE AYLESBURY DUCK - MADE IN BUCKS

‘The white Aylesbury duck is, and deservedly, a universal favourite. Its snowy plumage and comfortable comportment make it a credit to the poultry-yard, while its broad and deep breast, and its ample back, convey the assurance that your satisfaction will not cease at its death’ So wrote Mrs Beeton in her ‘Book of Household Management’, published in 1861.

Made in Bucks? Well, yes, although bred or reared would perhaps be more appropriate. The Aylesbury duck has pure white plumage, its feet and legs bright orange and the underside of its body parallel to the ground. The breed is thought to have evolved during the early years of the eighteenth century by selective breeding of the common duck, usually brown or grey in colour but occasionally white. Breeders were aware that the London dealers had a preference for white plumage, the feathers being popular on the continent as quilt-filling and the pale pink skin of a plucked white bird is somewhat more attractive than the yellow of coloured ducks.

Duck breeding and rearing in Aylesbury had become very well established by the early nineteenth century when the historian Robert Gibbs wrote that ‘in the early years of the present century almost every householder at the ‘‘Duck End’’ of the town followed the avocation of ducker’. Those employed in the trade can be divided into two distinct groups, breeders and rearers, with very few instances of these two aspects being combined. There were a few breeders in the town but much of the breeding occurred at farms in the immediate area. One such farm on the outskirts of Aylesbury was Prebendal Farm, owned by John Kersley Fowler, an authority on duck breeding and rearing. Fowler relates that ‘the white Aylesbury ducks stand pre-eminent; their reputation is universal; they are well adapted to almost every climate and soil, thriving anywhere and everywhere. They reach maturity sooner than any other kind. They are hardy, attain to a great size, and are remarkably prolific.’

The duck rearers were generally townspeople who bought the eggs from the breeders in order to raise the ducklings in their small cottages. Conditions inside these cottages must have been very grim for there was no sanitation nor adequate ventilation or water supply. A report to the Board of Agriculture in 1810, detailing conditions in one cottage says that ‘in one room belonging to this man (the only room he had to live in), were ducks of three growths, fattening for London market; at one corner about seventeen or eighteen four weeks old; at another corner a brood a fortnight old; at a third corner a brood a week old. In the bed-room were hens brooding ducks’ eggs in boxes’.

It will be noted from the last sentence that hens were used to brood duck eggs. Aylesbury ducks did not sit on their eggs for periods long enough for the eggs to hatch and consequently hens were used. The incubation period was about four weeks and during the last of these the eggs were sprinkled with warm water in order to soften the shells, making hatching easier. The newly hatched ducklings received considerable care during their first few days, being particularly prone to cramp and other ailments.

The rearers’ main aim was to ensure that the new arrivals got as fat as possible before their first moult, at about two months old. They could not be sold as ducklings after this time. They were fed three times a day on a diet high in protein, supplemented by vitamins and minerals in the form of nettles, cabbage and lettuce. At the end of their short lives, the ducklings were plucked, the feathers being sold directly to a merchant in London.

Prior to 1839, the ducklings were transported to London by packhorse or carrier’s wagon, the opening of the branch railway line from Cheddington to Aylesbury in that year providing a strong boost to the industry. J. K. Fowler, writing in 1850, tells us ‘oftentimes in the spring, in one night, a ton weight of ducklings from six to eight weeks old are taken by rail from Aylesbury and the villages round to the metropolis’. Throughout the nineteenth century the main market for duck meat was provided by the wealthy people of London, very little of it being sold locally. Aylesbury ducks start laying eggs in early November, the two month old ducklings coming to market from February whereas the Rouen, its main competitor, began laying in February, coming to market as a six-month old bird in the last three months of the year. Peak season for Aylesburys was therefore late March and early April, the Rouen being geared for autumn and Christmas.

Stock ducks, those used for breeding, were generally selected from those hatched in March and were kept from mating until they were about a year old. They were regularly replaced in order to keep interbreeding to a minimum and thus ensure that the stock remained strong. Each breeder maintained a ratio of three to four ducks per drake, Fowler reporting that a breeder doing an average trade would have a breeding stock of six drakes and twenty ducks. These birds, unlike those destined for the table, were carefully monitored for weight, overfed ducks being poor layers. Each stock duck is said to have laid between sixty and eighty eggs per year.

Until about 1850, the duck industry in the county was almost exclusively carried on in Aylesbury, but within twenty years duck breeding and rearing had been established in nearby towns and villages, the most notable being Weston Turville and Haddenham. Other places include the villages of Dinton, Ford, Bierton, Cheddington. Pitstone and Ivinghoe and the towns of Chesham and Princes Risborough. The number of establishments in Aylesbury began to decline due to a number of factors, including the introduction of sanitary regulations which made duck rearing in cottages difficult. The deterioration in the quality of soil in Aylesbury following many years of duck raising has also been given as a contributory factor.

The latter half of the nineteenth century saw a steady increase in the demand for ducks nationally and this was the period of greatest prosperity for the Buckinghamshire industry. In 1873 another white duck, the Pekin, was introduced into America and Britain. The Pekin had many of the attributes of an Aylesbury and was also a prolific layer and it was greatly favoured by the Americans.

Many breeders discovered that it made an excellent cross with the Aylesbury and J.K. Fowler noted that ‘the infusion of new blood has been very beneficial to the Aylesbury as it was losing vigour through being inbred’. There seems to have been two schools of thought regarding the way forward for the local industry. There were those who favoured the Aylesbury-Pekin cross, arguing that it strengthened the stock and could be brought to market more cheaply than a pure Aylesbury. Others claimed that the taste of the cross breed was inferior and that the practice of cross breeding with the Pekin would eventually see the end of the pure Aylesbury.

The decline of the industry in Buckinghamshire started in the late nineteenth century, chiefly through the negligence of those involved. By this time, through increased demand nationally, the duck industry had been introduced into other parts of the country, notably Lincolnshire and Norfolk. The Buckinghamshire men had failed to keep up with changing methods and had allowed the effects of too much interbreeding to overtake them. The cost of feeding ducks increased dramatically during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and by the end of World War I the small duckers in Aylesbury Vale had almost gone leaving large duck farms alone to carry on. Further setbacks, in the form of increased costs and difficulties in obtaining greaves, an essential part of a ducklings diet, were encountered during the second World War, forcing many of the breeders out of business. The Weston family in Aylesbury continued to raise ducks until the 1950s by which time the pure ,red Aylesbury had nearly disappeared and the duck industry in Buckinghamshire had finished.

Bibliography: The Aylesbury Duck by Alison Ambrose, published 1991.

A History of Aylesbury by R Gibbs, published 1885.

 

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