John o’ London’s Weekly, December 6, 1924


The Decay of Falconry.


PGW in 1924

It would be idle to deny that the sport of Hawking—or, as the scurvy knaves and varlets used to call it, Jerking The Jer-Falcon—is not what it was in the brave old days. The motto of the present century is: Golf and the world golfs with you; hawk and you hawk alone. A brief explanation of how this change of taste has come about should, I think—when treated, as here, by a master-hand—prove fascinating Christmas reading for the citizenry.

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According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, to which I occasionally turn in order to polish up my information on the few things I do not already know all about, the decay of Falconry was due to the enclosure of waste lands, agricultural improvements, and the introduction of fire-arms into the sporting field. Of these, it was the last that hit the pastime hardest. Thinking men saw in a flash what had always been the chief flaw in Falconry—viz., that the hawk got all the cheers and limelight, while the human being in the background was merely a super, supporting the star. Faced with the alternative of watching a bird amuse itself or having the time of their lives peppering game-keepers with small shot, British sportsmen did not hesitate. Tired of playing second fiddle to a mere bird, they grabbed eagerly at their guns: and from that moment Falconry was doomed.

Another reason why the sport waned in favour was because it was essentially undemocratic. It failed to cater for the man of small means who is the backbone of every national game. “Falcons and hawks,” says one writer, “were allotted to degrees and orders of men according to rank and station—for instance, to the emperor the eagle or vulture, to royalty the jer-falcon, to an earl the peregrine, to a yeoman the goshawk, to a priest the sparrow-hawk, and to a knave or servant the useless kestrel.” One can readily imagine the chagrin of the knave or servant who was compelled to listen to the earl boasting how Percy, his peregrine, had gone round that morning in two under bogey, conscious as he was all the time that the handicap of Kenneth, his own kestrel, still stuck steadily in the upper twenties and, in spite of tuition from the local pro., showed absolutely no signs of improvement.

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Modern civilization has grown too complex for this sort of thing. The curate could still be allotted his sparrow-hawk (which would probably bite him and tend to embitter the tone of his sermons), but how could the committee who looked after these matters possibly satisfy everybody nowadays? There would not be enough species to go round. What sort of bird would you assign to a walking delegate of the Bricklayers’ Union, to a manufacturer of poppet-valves for radio receivers, to a trainer of performing seals, to a bespoke tailor, to the assistant under-shopwalker in the hosiery department of Harrod’s—or, for the matter of that, to a man who writes essays on the Decay of Falconry?

It is no use deceiving ourselves. There would be a lot of talk and useless discussion—possibly one or two letters to the papers signed “Patriot” and “Mother of Six”—but, when all the tumult and the shouting had died, you, gentle reader, would find yourself saddled with a futile ass of a kestrel that did nothing but eat and sleep, and so should I. I know these committees—they would lump us all together under the heading of “Knaves,” and there would be nothing to be done about it.

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So it is probably a good thing that Falconry has died out. We should not appreciate it nowadays. Least of all if we happened to be the unfortunate men who had to train the birds. For do not run away with the idea that Falconry consisted simply in sicking a hawk on to perfectly inoffensive birds of other kinds and standing by in a negligent attitude while the party of the first part did unpleasant things to the party of the second part. This stage was reached only after the most careful tuition.

“The following,” says a learned authority, “is an outline of the process of training hawks.” An outline, mind you. And he then proceeds to fill a dozen closely-printed pages. A perusal of his remarks has left me with the impression that the only thing you did not have to do was to teach the bird Algebra and the fox-trot. Everything else has been provided for. A good preparatory school, followed by Eton or Harrow, left the hawk in a condition where four years at the ’Varsity and a final polishing-up at a crammer’s would probably render it equipped with a fair education. Though in some cases, where the bird was particularly backward, a private tutor in the holidays was found necessary. You can see the trouble this would cause in the home. “Yes, I know our sons are being educated at the Board School,” the father of the family would say despairingly to his weeping wife, “but I’m not made of money and you can’t have everything. You would insist on sending George the goshawk to Winchester.”

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And on top of that there was the question of diet. The Hawk, says our author, “will easily be induced to feed by drawing a beef-steak over her feet, brushing her legs at the same time with a wing and now and then, as she snaps, slipping a morsel into her mouth.” To my mind, this is asking too much of a man. I am strongly of the opinion that a bird which is so finicky about its meals does not deserve them. If ever I am allotted a kestrel, I am perfectly willing to bring it its beef-steak on a plate with a little watercress and a few fried potatoes: I am even prepared to take it to Claridge’s or the Ritz on its birthday: but, having conceded that, I submit that I have done my part. I may be foolishly proud and independent, but I will not brush its legs with raw meat.

But it is unlikely that I shall be called upon to perform this degrading task. Falconry is dead. Apart from all the other causes, the vocabulary of the sport must have destroyed it in time. Your enthusiast can put up with a certain amount of slang in connection with his favourite game, but there are limits. A pastime inextricably mixed up with words like cere, brail, bewits, creance, frounce, jonk, imping, mew, pannel, ramage, seeling, tiercel, varvels, and yarak could never hope to live. Sporting writers got sick of the thing and refused to report the big meetings. They pointed out to their editors that poor old Nigel ye Scribe had had his head cut off only last Wednesday for saying that the Earl of Balham’s peregrine had mantled instead of raking out, and claimed that for family men like themselves the job simply wasn’t worth the risk. So, lacking the support of the Press, Falconry drooped and died. And I, for one, do not care a hoot.


A similar article on “The Noble Art of Falconry” had appeared in the US Vanity Fair magazine, October 1914. The present article was adapted into a chapter of Louder and Funnier (1932).

jer-falcon: More commonly spelled gyrfalcon or gerfalcon; a large falcon, especially one employed in hunting herons.
golf and the world golfs with you: A takeoff on Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s dictum “Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone” (from her 1883 poem “Solitude”).
Encyclopædia Brittanica: Wodehouse used the Eleventh Edition of 1911; the text of the article is online at Project Gutenberg; page scans are at Google Books.
super: supernumerary: theatrical jargon for a stage “extra” who fills out a crowd scene with no individual part to play.
gone round in two under bogey: See A Glossary of Golf Terminology on this site.
handicap: See A Glossary of Golf Terminology on this site.
pro.: See A Glossary of Golf Terminology on this site.
poppet valves for radio receivers: A deliberate confusion of technical terms: poppet valves are mechanical devices which open and close off the flow of gases and vapors, most familiar as the intake and exhaust valves of internal-combustion engines; the “valves” in radio receivers of that era were electronic devices, more usually called vacuum tubes in the USA.
Harrod’s: See the note at The Inimitable Jeeves.
a learned authority: the author of the Encyclopædia Brittanica article, Lieut.-Colonel Emilius C. Delmé Radcliffe (1833–1907), author of Falconry: Notes on the Falconidae used in India in Falconry.
a dozen closely-printed pages: an exaggeration; in the original edition, pages 143–146.
crammer: a tutor specializing in preparing students to pass exams, such as university degree exams or military officer qualifying exams.
Board School: one established under the Elementary Education Act of 1870, to provide compulsory public education for children from ages five through thirteen in England and Wales.
Winchester: Along with Eton and Harrow already mentioned, among the top tier of “public” schools in England; here public means organized in the manner of a public nonprofit corporation, with a board of governors, as opposed to a school operated and owned by a private individual for his own profit. Eton, Harrow, and Winchester are not government-subsidized; their prestige and their tuition are high.
Claridge’s: See the notes to Summer Lightning.
the Ritz: See the notes to Ice in the Bedroom.