Swans on the River Thames

The privilege of having the Royalty of a game of Swans on the River Thames dates back to before 1483. Records of the original grant are thought to have been lost in the Great Fire of 1666. In 1860 The Vintners gave the City of New York twelve pairs of swans and the Dyers gave thirteen pairs to populate the lake in Central Park. This is recorded on pages 17 and 18 of the annual report of the Board of Commissioners of the Park published in January 1861. A link to the full report is here.

The tradition, shared with the Vintners Company, of taking part in the Queen's annual Swan-Upping on the Thames is continued to this day. The cygnets are taken up for identification once a year in July under the auspices of the Queen's Swan Marker, David Barber. Ownership of the Dyers and Vintners birds is recorded on a leg ring whilst those of the Queen, the Seigneur of Swans, are unmarked. There's a very attractive brochure prepared in 2007 and available here in PDF format to view or download.

NB: There's a link here to the Queen's Swan Marker's web page 2012.

The non-tidal Thames
A brood of swans - Cob, Pen and cygnets - 'upped' at Pangbourne Reach.
©Robin Back, 2000
2004:The Uppers at work. Click for larger image in a new window

The Uppers team comprises two skiffs from each of the Dyers and Vintners companies and two supplied by the Queen's Swan Marker. Each is crewed by two or three watermen who mostly draw a living from working on the river during the rest of the year. In some instances, teams have a distinctly family ring with sons following fathers over time.

The Dyers team is lead by our Bargemaster. In April 2014 David Reed, who had been a Swan Upper for over fifty years, handed over the role of Bargemaster to Jerry McCarthy, and they are pictured below at the time of the handover here

with David Reed wearing the gown of the Company's Beadle and Jerry McCarthy in the Bargemaster's splendid uniform. Jerry McCarthy also acts as Ceremonial Beadle and Toastmaster at Dyers functions.

The latest statistics are shown below.


The whole voyage is very colourful and gives much pleasure and delight to onlookers who include large numbers of school children. However, this should not be allowed to obscure the important research into the condition of the birds on the river. For many years the Queen's Swan Warden, Christopher Perrins, Professor of Ornithology at the University of Oxford Dept. of Zoology has been accumulating data on the health of the river's swan population. The introduction of ringing some years ago has allowed this work to flourish and give greater insights into the population. For example, it has long been thought that swans mate for life but some evidence is emerging that this may not necessarily be the case.

2004:Fishing line removed from a swan - which survived! Click for larger image in a new window

Swans are majestic and graceful creatures but sadly they are vulnerable to many threats. Birds are regularly discovered entangled in fishing line, or with hooks caught in their feathers. In many instances, such birds are spotted in good time to be rescued and restored to full health. This is the work of the Swan Sanctuary at Shepperton the Swan Lifeline near Eton and more recently Swan Support. Occasionally birds are also found with airgun wounds or injured by collision with cars for example.

Natural predators of adult birds are relatively few but natural disasters such as flooding can destroy nests and immature young and dramatically affect the swan population. Once hatched, the cygnets can be vulnerable to other birds such as herons or magpies or even fish such as pike!

Historically a natural predator was of course ... man. Swan was a prized delicacy at large banquets in medieval times, throughout the country, and certainly not limited to Royal or Livery Company Feasts.

2004:Eating swan - 21C. style! Click for larger image in a new window

Cygnets marked on recent voyages:

YearBroodsCygnetsMarked for DyersMarked for Vintners
20113011427 26
2012 nil      
2013 37 106 23 23
2014 34 120 31 32
2015 25 83 18 20
2016 28 72 18 18
2017 38 132 33 33
2018 29 106 26 26
'Marking' = 'Ringing'. Unmarked birds remain the property of The Queen.

The 2012 Upping Voyage could not take place owing to dangerous river conditions.

2004:A pen with her cygnets. Click for larger image in a new window
2006:The Calming touch of a Swan Upper

Up until 1996 the Dyers' and Vintners' Companies' birds were marked by a nick, or two, on the beak; one for the Dyers and two for the Vintners, but since then it has been thought more appropriate to mark them by placing a ring on the leg of the birds. A problem of the practice of ringing sometimes arises when the birds are too small and the rings simply fall off if applied. In the majority of cases this doesn't matter since unmarked birds are the property of the Sovereign. Vintners and Dyers' birds however are marked with a small webtag so that, should they be picked up in the future, as adult birds they can be properly ringed at that time.


The weighing and measuring of each of the broods picked up remains a key part of the exercise and Professor Perrins work in this context is of national importance. The abundance of food supplies in recent years has also permitted the continuing growth of flocks of Canada, Greylag and Egyptian geese. In 2011 for the first time a pair of black swans were spotted.

The Swan Uppers speak to parties of children at Oakley Court and Marlow and David Barber presents the children with a certificate to mark the occasion.

2006:A healthy pen after measuring

The report on the 2005 voyage has been moved here.
The report on the 2006 voyage has been moved here.
The report on the 2007 voyage has been moved here.
The report on the 2008 voyage has been moved here.
The report on the 2009 voyage has been moved here.
The full report on the 2010 voyage is here.

The full report on the 2011 voyage is here
The full report on the 2012 voyage is here.

The full report on the 2013 voyage is here.

The full report on the 2014 voyage is here.

The full report on the 2015 voyage is here.

The full report on the 2016 voyage is here.

The full report on the 2017 voyage is here.

The full report on the 2018 voyage is here.


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