Albert Stratton has 80 pigeons, 56 medals, and two bird sheds. His garden isn’t much bigger than a bus shelter but over the years he’s bred more than 200 of London’s favourite pests.
Once neighbours complained and environmental health was called round – they photographed every inch of his roof and concluded that there weren’t an unsafe number of droppings. “No more than you’d expect for underneath the railway arches anyway,” chips in his wife.
Albert, who is now 84, was once an avid pigeon racer known in clubs up and down London for his sharp eye for a good bird. He lives in the same small, dark-brick house in a cul-de-sac behind the Bethnal Green train lines where he resided during his glory days of playing the sport. “Back then I was a force to be reckoned with!” he exclaims. “All them plaques up there – we boshed them! Cups and everything! We really gave them a run for their money.”
He waves towards his windowsill which is crammed with shiny dove effigies and bird busts. Instead of family photos there’s a keepsake box with the homing pigeons’ ankle rings. When I ask about his children, Albert pauses for a second. “Kids? Oh yeah. I’ve got one pest at university.” The humour passes him right by.
But it’s not that funny anymore. Pigeon racing is a dying sport, and with it, go his friends. “When I started in 1983, there were over 20 of us at the club house. Now there’re only three.” He breathes deeply into the muggy air, made thicker still by the lingering whiff of bird feed and sawdust and lets out a sigh. “It’s just Ixy, Smivvy and me… We just had one die. That’s the trouble.”
During the 1800s, pigeon racing was a flourishing sport. Albert reckons the club-house near Spitalfields Market that Charles Dickens wrote about is the same one he was a member of. “It used to be huge,” he explains. “The Queen is the patron. Her grandfather had lofts out in Sandringham. Mike Tyson does it too you know.” Indeed, the testosterone laced, rough-talking boxer who once bit the ear off an opponent is a devoted ‘pigeon fancier’ – and he’s a hero among racers.
Albert Stratton is a self-made champion. He’s won scores of titles, but he didn’t learn it from a trainer or his family. “As a kid I found a pigeon that got lost in the flats where we lived. No meat on him at all, he’d flown himself out. My dad ain’t a big one for animals but he’d do nothing to hurt ‘em. Built a little box for him, fed it up, got it right again. But he said it belonged to someone else so we let it go but it never went. It stayed. Just kept coming back, right through my bedroom window, for about two years. That’s what intrigued me.”
Two years ago Albert had a stroke. He’s lost the use of one leg and gets around with a walking stick. He has one placed below the stairs and one at the back door next to the lofts. “I spend more time with the pigeons now. It gives me something to do.” As he struggles to step down from the loft step, he lets out a frustrated sigh. Under his breath he mutters, “I tell you, what you don’t want is a stroke. It’s completely debilitating.”
But the pride he takes in his birds hasn’t waned with his strength. “They’re the cleanest animals on the planet!” he proclaims. Ken Livingstone called them ‘flying rats’ and feral birds are well-known carriers of disease. But not kept pigeons. Albert bathes them every other day in a small plastic tray with bath salts – and they love it. The best racing birds fetch thousands. He once paid £500 for a star breed, but he can’t tell his wife.
Homing pigeons can fly 50mph, and the longest races are 600 miles – up to the tip of Scotland. You do lose birds now and then; hawks are ravaging the skies. Let free by ‘do-gooders’ tuts Albert. Safe in their coops, his well-kept prize pets babble away.
Albert once lost a five-time winner – he says it was heartbreaking. “But when you’re standing in your garden and a pigeon you expected at half past arrives on the hour, it really makes your heart pound. You think to yourself, woweee, I’ve really got a good one here.” He whistles the ‘woweee’ and you can feel his pride. Albert is an old man now, but he physically straightens up, puffs up his chest and coos with glee. His pigeons do the same.