Memories of Duck Island Cottage

Helen Ann Blackman with Derek Hinton and Annette Blackman

The London Parks & Gardens Trust is fortunate to have the picturesque Duck Island Cottage as its headquarters and office. Designed by John Burges Watson, the cottage was erected in 1840-41 and over the years has had a chequered existence. A fascinating insight into its history came to light in autumn 2016, when Annette Blackman dropped into Duck Island and introduced herself as the great granddaughter of the last bird keeper in St James's Park, Thomas Hinton (1879-1965). Mr Hinton held this historic post for 52 years and his home was Duck Island Cottage. Here Mr Hinton's granddaughter, Helen Blackman, with the help of her daughter, Annette, and cousin, Derek Hinton, recounts her memories of her grandfather and life in Duck Island Cottage.

The Early Years

‘My grandfather, Thomas Hinton was the son of a butcher in Tring, Hertfordshire. When Tom left school he worked at Tring Park, the home of Lord Rothschild (1868-1937), who had his own private zoo in the parkland with exotic birds and animals, including ostriches, rheas, a giant tortoise and zebras: the latter were seen in London being used instead of horses to pull Lord Rothschild's carriage. The museum founded by Lord Rothschild is still open in Tring – it is now part of the Natural History Museum – where his daily reports of life in the park, including details of wildlife sightings, general health and the weather reports are stored.

‘Lord Rothschild recommended my grandfather for the job of Bird Keeper in St James's Park (for which only married men could apply). Tom and Elizabeth [Derrick] were married hastily in 1900 and lived happily until her death in 1964. They had three children who all grew up on the island. My memories are mainly of the park and cottage during the late 1940s and early 1950s. I believe that during the 1914-18 War the park lake was drained and huts were erected to confuse the enemy. Wildlife was also moved to other lakes in the capital. In the Second World War only part of the lake was drained so that more wildlife were able to live normally. My grandfather was, at one time, the only person allowed to carry a gun in London and he was responsible for looking after all the wildfowl in the Royal Parks in London, including Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Green Park and Buckingham Palace.

Life on Duck Island

‘My favourite memories of visits to London were of the pelicans being fed and on occasions seeing Tom, accompanied by a police escort, rescue new-born ducks and other wildfowl from unlikely places – such as a water tank on the Foreign Office roof or from the garden at 10 Downing Street – and take them back to St James's Park lake. This was usually in single file across the roads and into the park, resulting in photographs in the newspapers and reports on radio and television. Tom was also responsible for making sure little boys did not steal birds' eggs or cause any harm to the wildlife in the parks. Every morning before the park got busy, he and his dog patrolled to check all the birds were safe and well and that nothing else had happened during the night to spoil the park for visitors. They patrolled again just before dark. On Duck Island itself, injured and sick animals, sometimes brought to the cottage by members of the public, were looked after. Tom was also partly responsible for nurturing a love of wildlife in small boys and girls who were often in the park asking questions, one of whom was Sir Peter Scott who founded The Slimbridge Wildfowl Trust.

‘Tom was called out to help when birds escaped from London Zoo, one of the most famous being 'Portuguese Jack', an African sea-eagle that he helped recapture in 1936. His advice was also sought when Goldie, a male golden eagle, escaped from London Zoo in 1965. Tom had long since retired but still an expert was sent to his home in Tring to get instructions as to the best method to recapture the eagle. It was impossible for Tom to make the journey to London: he would have liked to help but by then was too unwell.

‘Tom had his office and stores in "the fish place", which was next to the pump house and at times it was difficult to be heard above the engine noise. I helped with the preparation of food for the small birds, which was a corn mixture that we took to different parts of the park during the afternoon.The lodge was quite spacious with a kitchen range and an open fire, but in wintertime it was cold, especially when the lake froze over. The birds would then huddle together for warmth in a special corner of the lake near the cottage where the ice had been cleared.

A Bomb on the Bed

‘During the Second World War, my grandparents and aunt stayed in London using an outbuilding by the gate as an air-raid shelter. In 1941 they returned to the cottage to find an incendiary bomb sitting on my aunt's bed. Luckily they remained safe throughout, although some of the birds suffered shrapnel injuries. At that time I lived in Windsor but on one visit remember running with my mother across Westminster Bridge to Waterloo Station and seeing the flames over the City of London.

‘Tom Hinton was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1948 by King George VI and retired from his post in 1953 just before our present Queen was crowned!’

Further Reading

Duck Island Cottage: an Historical Account of the Bird Keeper's Lodge in St James's Park by Tim Knox, The London Gardener Vol.1 (1995-96)

Link to article »

‘This gingerbread Cottage OrnĂ© of vaguely Swiss inspiration was calculated to contrast with the increasingly monumental architecture of the government offices being erected in nearby Whitehall.’ (Tim Knox)

Photo of Duck Island Cottage
Duck Island Cottage in the 21st century

‘Birds of various kinds have been kept here since 1612, when James I began converting the swamp chase of the Tudor monarchs into a format garden.’ (Tim Knox)

Photo of Thomas Hinton feeding birds   Photo of Thomas Hinton feeding birds   Photo of Thomas Hinton feeding birds
Thomas Hinton feeding birds in St James's Park

‘1965: Goldie the eagle evades capture again A crowd of about a thousand gathered in Regent's Park today to watch the bird being chased by keepers, police, firefighters and even a BBC reporter’ BBC On This Day 7 March 1965