The first regular pigeon race in Great Britain was in 1881. The British Royal Family first became involved with pigeon racing in 1886 when Albert Prince of Wales, the future King George VI, was gifted racing pigeons from the King Leopold II of Belgium.
The future Edward VII responded with enthusiasm to this unusual gift. On a site at Sandringham a few hundred yards from where his son George would shortly build his loft, Edward commissioned a small but handsome loft, whose inmates were supplemented several years later by a second gift of birds from Belgium. From 1893 onwards, George’s birds were raced not in his own name but that of a schoolmaster from neighbouring West Newton, Yorkshireman Joseph Walter Jones, known as Walter. Although the Royal Household never formally employed Mr Jones as a member of staff, he went on to enjoy a long and versatile association with the King’s family. Jones became the favourite teacher of the King’s second son, Prince Albert, for whom he continued to assist at the royal pigeon lofts. Under his supervision, both monarchs bred and raced a clutch of first-class birds.
By 1899, contemporary newspapers were able to focus on one particularly outstanding bird, prosaically called 189, which ‘won for the King the coveted first prize’ in the National Flying Club’s Grand National.
"The good bird… flew from Lerwick to Sandringham, a distance of 510 miles, 1,705 yards, at an average rate of 1,307 yards per minute. Many a pulse beat strongly with loyal gladness when it was flashed along the wires that 189 had come in first, and nobody was more pleased than King Edward VII himself.’
reported one newspaper".
A letter to The Times in 1899 claimed:
"Since the Prince of Wales won the race from Lerwick a national interest has been taken in racing pigeons, as is shown by the announcements in the daily papers, and there is every indication that the sport will become more and more popular as it becomes more understood: indeed, I go so far as to say that it is only through ignorance of the fascination of the sport of pigeon racing that there are not many more good men in our ranks at the present time."
Walter Jones evidently knew his business: George’s alias was rumbled and his pigeons soon acquired the same prestige as those of his father, despite the latter’s seven-year head start. In 1901, pigeons belonging to Edward VII came first and third in the Grand National organised by the National Flying Club. The bird that came in fourth belonged to the King’s son, George.From that day to this there has been a Royal loft at Sandringham and Her Majesty the Queen is patron of the National Flying Club today.
26 Pigeons from the Royal Loft were used as carrier pigeons during the First and Second World Wars, with one bird – ‘Royal Blue’ – winning the Dickin Medal for Gallantry (widely called the ‘Animal Victoria Cross’)
“For being the first pigeon in this war to deliver a message from a forced landed aircraft on the Continent while serving with the RAF in October, 1940.”
Following the war, the royal pigeons returned to racing, notching up further wins in national and international races. Today HM The Queen maintains an interest in the Royal pigeon lofts and regularly visits when in Sandringham and is said to be extremely knowledgeable about pigeon rearing and racing. 160 mature pigeons are currently kept in the lofts along with 80 young pigeons. Though some of these are ‘stock’ birds used purely for breeding, the majority are used for racing.
The old birdhouse is in the cottage garden of Royal loft manager Peter Farrow, who has held the post for four years. Shortly after his appointment, Mr Farrow said: ‘When the Queen visits, she wants to know how they are all doing.’
In Feburary 2016 HM The Queen came to the aid of tearful schoolchildren by donating one of her racing pigeons - after a cat wiped out the pupils' own flock.
Devastated youngsters at Longshaw Primary School, in Blackburn, Lancs, were left heartbroken when a hungry cat broke into the birds' enclosure on an allotment and killed them all.
When well-wishers heard of their plight, new birds were kindly donated to the school and a free trip to the Royal Loft at the Queen's estate of Sandringham was organised.
And while there, Her Majesty saw to it that the stunned youngsters were given one of her own prized pigeons as a gift.
The bird, which has not yet been named by the youngsters, is one of a select few pigeons in the world that can wear a ring on its leg bearing the initials "ER".
Over the years, there have been five royal employees who have been specifically hired as experts in their field to look after the approximate two hundred and forty pigeons in the queen’s racing lofts. The birds race almost every week. When Carlo Napolitano, who had looked after the queen’s pigeons since 1992, died in May 2011 there were hundreds of applications for his job from pigeon experts from around the United Kingdom. Current Royal Loft manager Peter Farrow has been in charge of Her Majesty’s pigeons for almost three years, and has been racing his own pigeons for more than 30. Speaking soon after he took over at the Royal Loft, Peter was impressed by the Queen’s in-depth knowledge of pigeon rearing and racing. “When she visits she wants to know how they are all doing,” he said.The Queen’s pigeons take part in local and national races and it was the royal pigeons, which he now looks after, that first inspired Peter. His uncle lived next door to long-serving Royal Loft manager, Carlo Napolitano, who passed much of his expertise to Peter. Until 2012 Peter, of Terrington St Clement, was a landscape gardener, with a passion for pigeon racing. His own loft was well respected but he said he was deeply honoured to be trusted with the Queen’s pigeons. “You can’t get any higher than being Royal Loft Manager!”
The Royal Family have set a record by being the family holding the longest continued Membership in the National Flying Club, one hundred & twenty years. Their loyalty & continued support is a tremendous feat setting an example for pigeon fanciers throughout Great Britain.