THIS article was written before Ian passed away and it is his family's wish that we continue with this series of articles that he wrote for Smallholder.
In my series of articles on True Bantams I have left until last the breed of Sebright, which is definitely "Made in England" and has a reputation of being possibly the most perfectly marked in any breed of poultry. When in an exhibition the birds are always admired by fanciers and visitors alike and this has been their esteem for more than 150 years. During this period the style of the birds was constant until more recent times when the introduction of foreign blood helped to increase vitality but altered the bird's conformation.
Creating a different breed
The creation of the breed commenced around 1800 with the ambition of perfecting a bird that was different to anything previously seen. This was done by interbreeding different breeds and varieties until their ambitions were finally achieved some forty years later. A group of fanciers were involved with the project and was a great advantage over a single person attempting such a task as it developed so many different blood lines and therefore possible permutations for the next years breeding. It has been reported that some if not all of these original gentlemen were Quakers, which bears no connection to their ability to be good poultry fanciers but may have helped to bond a good working relationship.
At what stage Sir John Sebright became involved I am not quite sure. Sir John was Member of Parliament for Hertfordshire and had built for himself a reputation for being an excellent stockman in several different species of livestock including Longhorn cattle.
The Sebright Club was formed in 1815 and must have been the first breed club in Britain. Membership to it was not simple; the subscriptions were two guineas for each colour-once you had been nominated and approved by the senior members. The idea of this annual get together was to compare the stock that each member had bred in that year and each exhibit had to be offered for sale, but the breeder was allowed to buy back his own stock if he so wished. In 1847 a trio of them was sold for fifty pounds and one shilling. No over year birds were allowed and they had to weigh in at under the standard weight of 22 ounces for cockerels and 18 ounces for pullets, which is exactly the same as at present time. There have been different accounts of this event but I have never heard of any form of competitive judging taking place, which surprises me. An amusing incident was told of one of the first 'shows'. A hen was disqualified as being overweight. Ten minutes after she had been judged she laid an egg, which brought her within the rule, but unfortunately her turn had passed.
Gold for first
It has always been recorded that Golds were the first colour to be made, with the Silvers following later, which possibly explains why there was a subscription for each colour. The exact breeds and crosses that were used in developing the Sebright will never be known, but the ones that have been recorded by Sir John include a Buff coloured hen with clean legs that he bought at Norwich, and was almost certainly a type of Nankin, then there was a Gold Pencilled hen that came from Watford, and a male bird that was nearly hen feathered and again came from Norfolk, but the years in which these birds were bought are not recorded.
I have often wondered why it took the group forty years to develop the birds before they were shown to the general fanciers and an article by the Reverend Saul Dixon in 1848 says that the final product was imported from the far East, other people both here and in the USA were quick to endorse this statement, in fact a Mrs Williams goes so far as to give the name of the importer. I think that there may be a little innocent truth in these claims because Sir John also mentions getting a male bird from a Zoological gardens without declaring where it had originated before having been put on display, so obviously it could have been imported from possibly Japan and carried some form of lacing without the crest of the Polish, which has often been suggested as being the breed from where he obtained the perfect lacing.
The breed of Japanese was originally called the Chabo and was imported into Japan from either Southern China or the Singapore area, and some of the earlier reports do mention a laced colouring as well as the Greys and Black tailed Whites etc. It does not really matter where they obtained the finishing touches to the breed, what was achieved is unique in that not only are the body feathers laced but also the main tail feathers. Silver Laced Polish have this feature that could be a pointer to them being part of the Sebrights origin.
Several unique features
There are several features about Sebrights that are different to most other breeds, whether they were deliberately included in the first vision of the breed or were included as they occurred in the breed's development we will probably never know. One point is that the male birds do not have long flowing side hangers and sickle feathers and are known as being "Hen feathered"; this presumably came from the Campine blood, rather than Henny Game Fowl that also have this feature. This lack of sickle feather in the cock bird was blamed for the breed's reputations being poor on fertility; consequently a small amount of extended feather in the sickles became more acceptable than previously condoned.
Until more recent times Sebrights had a mulberry colouring to their combs and faces, this has gradually faded away, especially in the male birds and again it is reluctantly becoming half acceptable, but if one appears with a dark colouring it is immediately proudly shown as being the old fashioned original colour. This Mulberry colouring has often been assumed to come from the introduction of Silkie blood, which are the only breed with such a colouring, however, I have another theory, certain strains of Old English Game Fowl, in both Brown Red and self Blacks, even at the present time have what is usually called "Gypsy Faces" and I would guess that some of the Black Bantams used in the breeds early origin had this feature and it has been recurring ever since, especially in the females.
In most of the old books it is thought that the lacing on a Sebright came directly from Polish blood, but other writers dispute this by saying that you have never seen a Sebright show any sign of a crest, nor have I ever seen one with five toes, which again casts doubt on the Silkie blood being involved, but during the 1940s it was not uncommon to hatch a Sebright that was rumples, a feature almost proving that the Manx Bantam had at one time been involved, it was also quite usual to hatch a few chicks with single combs that was only to be expected with all the different birds that had been introduced into the breed. Another feature that is always shown in the early paintings of Sebrights is their "Fan Tail" that was fully spread and showing the correct lacing to each feather. This point is hard to achieve and many of todays birds do not have a fully spread tail. Maybe it is not too serious a fault providing that they are good in other features and they still look very attractive and acceptable.
A question of colour
Until recent times if you were to ask a fancier to name the colours of Sebright Bantams the expected reply would be "Golds and Silvers" but interestingly William Flamank Entwistle mentions that during the 1890 period there was also an in-between colour called the 'Creamy' which never proved to be popular, and was not standardised. Different colours are now being bred on the European continent but as usual I am not convinced that this is beneficial to the breed, I still think that if a breed consists of only a small number of colours then the resulting standard of perfection is higher than if they are spread over a larger number of variations. Whether to recommend Sebrights as a breed that is suitable to be kept as family pets rather than as show quality is debatable, and I would say that the answer lies in the environment where the stock you are proposing to buy were reared and kept in. I can remember a neighbour called John Needham who had a theory that all breeds could be hardy if they were reared from an early age in conditions that acclimatised them to be tough and he proved it with Silver Sebrights. The chicks were hatched and reared under broody hens and almost from the time that they were feathered and old enough to perch they were put into wire sided pheasant rearing pens with the only protection being a sheet of ply boarding over their perches, which protected them from direct rainfall. The sides were open to all the elements and I can assure you that they were fit and healthy when fully mature.
It has always been a north country saying that you have never seen a Game bird that had been roosting in the trees or bushes having a cold, and in some of their conditions it was not unusual for the birds to fly down on a winters morning with snow frozen to their backs and looking as fit as fire, consequently I have no hesitation in recommending them as being very attractive and responsive pets, providing that they have been correctly reared and not in over cautious conditions that have resulted in the birds looking like a good wind will blow them over or become easy victims for any of the many diseases that are around at the present time.
In the photographs accompanying this article there is a pullet shown by Balmer Bros, that won Best Variety Bantam at the Dairy Show in 1922 and she is typical of the birds that were winning in my younger days. She looks as though she can live an active life and be capable of producing sound and vigorous chickens. One big objection I have about some of the birds at the present time is that in attempting to obtain very small birds many of them are now very delicate with very fine leg bone and in certain cases even "Knock Kneed", this is a fault that I object to and results in the birds loosing their balance. If this trend continues there is a danger of the breed altering style to the original concept of being a "cheeky looking little character" with what J D Kay describes as having "presence".
During the period some sixty years since, great emphasis was placed on the feather shape, especially on the females. This is described in the standard as being "Almond Shaped" and birds with body feathers ending in a point were frowned upon as were the ones where the feathers were "Square Ended". The thickness of lacing around the feather has always been debated with a narrow width being the correct one, but if the lacing was slightly wider the appearance could be more striking and these birds often proved successful at the summer agricultural shows where the sunshine had tended to fade the original colour on the fine laced birds. The ground colour in Silvers never seems to be a problem, but in Golds it can be. A debate on the correct depth of colour has been discussed for close on a hundred years with writers expressing concern that they were getting too light in colour. I know that during the 1940s if you did not have a good depth of colour you might as well leave your birds at home and save the entry fee, as they would not win anything. Another very important feature was with birds having a pale shaft to their feathers. I know that the standard says that shaftiness is undesirable, but in my young days it was unacceptable and certainly the birds look better if the feather is one even colour without the distraction of a pale coloured shaft.
To close with I will say that no other breed of poultry has ever been so frequently painted and in almost all cases shown to the originators concept of perfection, may this type continue to be bred and exhibited for many more centuries.