For centuries domestic pigeons were kept in dovecotes, also known as a columbaria; pigeonnaire; or pigeon house. They were easy to breed and provided a meat considered to be a delicacy by the wealthy and their manure was considered to be the best fertilizer available. Pigeon dung has a very high nitrogen content and has to be allowed to compost before it can be used otherwise it “burns” plants.
The increasing use of gunpowder in warfare after the mid-1300’s also made pigeon dung very valuable due to its high nitrate content as it was then one of the few sources of the saltpeter [potassium nitrate] needed to manufacture gunpowder. Saltpeter became so valuable in the 16th and 17th centuries that dovecotes were often guarded to prevent the theft of the dung. Pigeon dung continued to be an important source of saltpeter until well into the 1700’s.
Dove feathers were also a valued resource and used for stuffing mattresses and pillows.
After the Norman invasion and occupation of England after 1066 the keeping of domestic pigeons, which were descended from rock doves, gradually became common among the aristocracy and gentry. The building of a dovecote was a feudal right [Droit de Colombier – the privilege of possessing a dovecote] restricted to the upper classes, including lords of the manor and the heads of religious institutions. Their pigeons were allowed to fly free and feed on the countryside around the dovecote, often to the detriment of the local inhabitants crops who just had to accept it.
There is no known record of the Colkyns having a dovecote, but records regarding their property during their tenure at Esole and Freydevill are few and far between, but as lords of the manor they would have been entitled to have one. The 1349 St. Alban’s Abbey manorial rent roll for Esole records Sir John de Beauchamp as having “a messuage with dovecote”, as does Sir John’s Post Mortem Inquisition of 1360. There was most likely a dovecote at Esole after the Boys family acquisition of Fredevyle and Beauchamp [Esole] in the 1480’s, at least until they built the house that was to become known as Fredville mansion in the present Fredville Park. After the Boys’ move to their new house Beauchamps then appears to have become an ordinairy farm house, and there is no specific mention of a dovecote when the house and associated buildings were sold to Thomas Hammond of St. Alban’s Court in 1558. This may be because it was no longer the residence of the lord of the manor and therefore there was no entitlement to a dovecote.
The right to build a dovecote was a visible sign of the high status of its owner, and they were usually built in front of the owner’s house to be seen by visitors and passers-by. The Esole dovecote is therefore probably under what is now Beauchamps Wood, which was then the forstall, or open space, in front of the Esole manor house.
Fourteenth century dovecotes were usually round and built from stone, so the Esole dovecote would have almost certainly have been built from flint with walls probably a yard or more in thickness with the nesting holes, which had to be dark, private and dry, built into the flint walls from the bottom to the top. After the arrival of the brown rat into England in the early 1700’s the first row of nest holes were built a couple of feet or more above ground level to prevent the rats from getting into the holes and destroying the eggs and squabs.
The inside walls of dovecotes were often plastered and painted white as the birds are attracted by white surfaces, and this helped to encourage them to stay. Some dovecotes had L shaped nesting holes, they are thought to have been made in that shape to accommodate the birds’ tails and in imitation of the nesting hole shape most favoured by wild birds. There was usually a ledge just below the entrance to the nesting hole which provided a perch for the birds.
A ladder was needed to reach the nesting boxes to harvest the eggs and squabs, but larger circular dovecotes had a potence. This was a revolving wooden pole which was mounted on a plinth and had arms onto which ladders could be attached and suspended a few feet off the ground. Instead of having to continually move a conventional ladder around the wall the harvester could simply rotate the potence through 360 degrees to move round to fresh nesting boxes.
Pigeon meat was considered a delicacy with, usually, only the young birds, known as squabs, being eaten. In the 14th century humorist medical books stated that squab was “hot and moist” food, but the meat of older pigeons was hot, dry, and “barely edible”.
Pigeons feed their young on regurgitated “pigeon milk” which means they can begin to hatch their young as early as March and continue on into October or even early November. The squabs were harvested when they were around 28-30 days old, as they were by then large enough to eat but unable to fly and therefore easy to catch. A number of birds were allowed to mature to provide future breeding stock. Various fourteenth and fifteenth century, and later, household accounts indicate that peak harvest times were April and May, and then from August to early December. There would almost certainly be no squabs from December to late March so the de Beauchamps and their successors at Esole would have enjoyed a ready supply of squabs for nine or so months of the year.
When restrictions of the building of dovecotes were lifted in the late 1500’s they were commonly built by all classes from aristocrats to country cottagers and many examples of sixteenth to nineteenth century dovecotes are still to be found. The keeping of pigeons for food declined in the nineteenth century as much cheaper meat became more readily available all year round.