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The Norman Southwell Series- Part1


The Norman Southwell Series by Gareth Watkins


The name of Norman Southwell may not be well known to many present day fanciers – except of course to the large number of long distance enthusiasts in the southern counties of England who will be eternally grateful to him for providing the strong foundations on which their successful long distance families are based.

Obviously no-one can now claim to own pure Southwells as Norman Southwell ceased racing in the mid 1960s. Nevertheless, such top-class long distance fanciers as John McLaren 1st NFC Pau; Ernie Deacon 1st NFC Pau; Ray Fossey 1st Open NFC Y.B. National 1971; Albie & Jan Deacon 4x 1st BICC plus 2nd Open NFC Pau; Jimmy Shepherd 4 x 1sts BICC including 1st BICC Barcelona plus 3rd Open NFC Pau; Paul Stone 1st BICC Barcelona plus Tony Leggatt, Richard Withall, Alan Holdaway, Maurrie Newman, Terry Barnard and the late Ned Hammond, to name just a few are all long standing, top flight long distance fanciers whose teams have been beneficially influenced in varying degrees by the use of Norman Southwell bloodlines.

The late, great Ron Michieson of Winchester made no secret of the fact that his number one stock hen was gifted to him by Norman and she figured prominently in the breeding of “Queen Guinevere”, Mr Michieson’s 1963 1st NFC Pau winner and a host of other long distance winners for the Winchester loft. In addition to this, the Southwells, via the Michieson No1 stock hen, when crossed with birds from George Stubbs, appeared in the breeding of John Woodsford’s “Black Velvet”, 1st BICC Perpignan plus many other winners for the Woodsford loft. Geoff Hunt and Son of Westmarsh in Kent enjoyed many, many years of success in long distance International races. A number of years ago I featured the Hunt loft in a Pictorial article and I remember Geoff telling me that the Southwells, amongst others, featured in the make up of his marathon family through pigeons obtained from Bill Dray who got them from Norman Southwell. The sire of D.C. Turner’s great “Solent King”, winner of 1st Open Solent Fed La Rochelle and 1st Solent Fed Pau for which he was awarded an Osman Memorial Trophy, was also bred at the Southwell loft. This is merely a list of fanciers known to me, who have enjoyed top-class success by incorporating the bloodlines of the Hampshire farmer into their breeding programmes.

There are no doubt very many others unknown to me who have also been successful with birds of the same origin. During my research for this article I have seen letters from fanciers in Japan, Taiwan and China, all of whom achieved great success after importing pigeons from Lower Farm, Petersfield. I’m sure that the reader will agree that the above constitutes a very impressive record of success in its own right. However, when you add to this, the fact that in a ten-year period between 1952 and 1962 in NFC races open to all England, entrants from the Southwell loft finished NINETEEN TIMES IN THE FIRST ELEVEN of the OPEN results and recorded a sheaf of other top 100 Open finishes plus the fact that Norman Southwell’s name appeared on the result of EACH AND EVERYONE of the first THIRTY FOUR NATIONAL races in which he entered, then you begin to appreciate the incredible depth of talent developed by Norman Southwell in his lofts at Petersfield. Incidentally the above list of Open positions include 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 10th, 10th & 11th Open in NFC Pau Nationals. Also winning The Orchardson Trophy for best 3 Bird Ave from Pau with the NFC on five occasions. It is not surprising therefore that he was regarded as the “King of Pau”. Unfortunately, Norman Southwell never achieved his ultimate ambition of winning 1st Open National, but the aforementioned examples of incredible consistency at the highest level bear testimony to the superb skills of a world class fancier.

The type of long distance racer developed by the Hampshire farmer was, generally speaking, small to medium sized, and usually dark chequer, black velvet, dark grizzle, red and occasionally mealy in colouration. The birds had excellent bone structure plus superb feather quality and were always light and buoyant. Family members all possessed a sinewy strength and an iron hard constitution allied to unlimited stamina. These dominant characteristics were bred into the birds to such an extent that they are still evident today even after more than 40 years and innumerable crosses in the various lofts to which they have been introduced. Put simply, they stamp the Southwell type on any bird that they are crossed with, quickly becoming, in genetic terms, the dominant phenotype in much the same way as the Jan Aardens and Janssens of today. The reader will more readily appreciate this fact when viewing the photographs which articles in this series.

Although they initially excelled in long distance races the family has proved to be extremely adaptable as the Southwells are quite capable of “turning on the gas” in middle-distance races. Another example of their adaptability is their ability to race either natural, roundabout or widowhood. Once again this adaptability will be demonstrated later in this series when I outline the various racing methods of some of the present day fanciers who have cultivated Southwell-based families of racers.

A further dominant characteristic of the original Southwells was their temperament. To say that family members were highly strung or “flighty” would be an understatement as many of the best were “as mad as bats”. This was no doubt due to the fact that they lived a semi wild existence for most of their lives, enjoying an open loft for 24 hours a day 365 days a year. During this time they could come and go as they pleased and roamed for miles over the Hampshire countryside picking up slugs, snails and other tastey morsels. When the birds needed to be basketed for a race or training toss, Norman had to approach the loft after dark so that he could be sure that all were inside – if he disturbed them before dark many would make a sharp exit not to return until the following morning!

Having hopefully whetted the readers appetite with the foregoing I think I should now turn to some background information regarding the man himself and the origins of the Southwell strain.

Norman Southwell was born in November 1917 into a fairly wealthy family in the Southampton area. The family owned one of the biggest dairy products distribution companies in Hampshire and when he was old enough Norman entered Sparsholt Agricultural College near Petersfield where he studied the most modern farming methods of the day. On graduation in the late 1930s, Norman’s father set him up in farming by purchasing Lower Farm, Ramsdean, near Petersfield and stocked it with a herd of Freisian cattle. At the same time some of the best long distance bloodlines were purchased from Chivers Brothers of Tunley in Somerset. These were basically of the old Grooters strain and had consistently excelled with the NFC out to San Sebastian. Toft Brothers of Liverpool were contemporaries of the Chivers Brothers and they were also turning in some excellent results from San Sebastian at close on 700 miles. Needless to say some of the Tofts’ “Record Cock” blood was also obtained and these, along with a pair of Stassarts and a feather legged Gits cock known as “Trousers”, were interbred with the Chivers blood and the resultant offspring tested at the distance to produce the early progenitors of the Southwell strain. By testing successive generations at the distance and only breeding from the top class winning survivors Norman Southwell quickly established his family of long distance pathfinders.

In the 1940s a grizzle cock, later named “Butterfly”, was obtained from George Stubbs of Cosham in exchange for a quantity of corn. This grizzle was bred down from all the best Stubbs distance performers of that time and included the lines of “Trixie” the Lerwick/ Faeroes hen, and “The Barcelona Cock” a winner of 2nd International Barcelona. “Butterfly” proved to be a good stock cock and was the Grand Sire of Dark grizzle cock Ref A. Although Ref A was a class act at racing every one of his offspring and brothers and sisters proved to be complete duffers as all were lost as youngsters. He could therefore be regarded as a “one off” or in genetic terms a “sport”.

In the early years between 1939 to 1950 all racing was done on the north route through to Thurso and Lerwick. When the team was turned south some lines within the family excelled whilst others did not adapt and were subsequently lost. However, those that did adapt, quickly established the Southwell loft as one of England’s greatest, producing outstanding National results over a ten year period that were unsurpassed. On two occasions during this decade of unbroken success the Southwell team won the Langstone Gold Cup, awarded annually by the NFC for best average all National races. At that time, the three races which made up the competition for this coveted trophy were Nantes [250 miles] and Pau [530 miles] with old birds plus the young bird National from France [approx 160 miles]. Thus once again demonstrating that, from the outset, the Southwells possessed an “extra tank of fuel” and a “full set of gears” and could never be said to be one paced plodders.

His whole approach to pigeon racing seems to have been simple no nonsense methods allied to the strict application of the Darwinian principle of “survival of the fittest” and “like breeds like”. This proved to be a devastatingly effective combination in the hands of an outstanding stockman.

What also emerges from my research into the Southwell story is the fact that Norman Southwell appears to have been a larger than life character who was certainly his own man. He was a man of great integrity and an exceptionally likeable disposition. Visitors to Lower Farm in the dead of winter were often taken aback to find Norman going about his work bare chested, clad only in Wellington boots and a pair of football shorts! He was a fitness fanatic and despite being quite short in stature was incredibly strong being able to lift a 56lb weight above his head using just his little finger. This he could accomplish up to sixteen times in quick succession!!! He could also clap two 56 lb weights above his head!! This personal strength, toughness and iron hard constitution were the very characteristics that he sought in his pigeons.

Quite apart from his prowess in long distance pigeon racing Norman Southwell was also a top class farmer as he developed one of the best dairy herds in Hampshire. His Freisian cow “Folly” broke all milking records in the county during the 1940s. An amusing story concerning Norman’s farming activities involved his constant companion, a large white Alsatian dog which followed Norman everywhere and acted as his “minder”. One of the bulls on the farm had taken an intense dislike to Norman and on many occasions it was only the presence of the dog that prevented him giving the boss a good going over. If this bull became a little headstrong the dog would set about it, biting its legs and driving him off to the far side of the field out of harm's way.

Unfortunately Norman’s wife died in 1962 and with two young daughters to care for and a thriving dairy farm to run single handed, the pigeons had to take a back seat. As a result not much racing was carried out after 1963 but the pigeons were kept on for some years and continued to produce long distance winners for fanciers throughout the U.K, Europe, Canada, U.S.A. and the Far East. Following a bout of ill health and two major operations the great Norman Southwell sadly passed away in 1992.That then is a personal appreciation of Norman Southwell – a man who unfortunately, I never had the pleasure of meeting, but one whose performances and methods I have admired since I was first able to pick up and read a pigeon journal.

This is the first in a series of articles that I have prepared on the Southwells. A series which would have proved impossible to produce without the help and cooperation of a number of fanciers. These fanciers’ lofts and birds will appear in subsequent articles in the series. My personal thanks therefore go to Albie and Jan Deacon, Tony Leggatt, Richard Withall, Jimmy Shepherd, Ray Fossey, Alan Holdaway and last, but certainly not least, John McLaren, a King’s Cup winner in his own right, and one of the finest fanciers in England. John, as a teenager, was Norman Southwells “right hand man” during his decade of super success. No one alive today knew more about Norman Southwell and his pigeons. He has proved to be of invaluable assistance to me in producing this article. Many thanks John. Thanks also to Bryony Southwell and Jenny Hennings, Norman’s daughters, for providing me with the photos and additional information on their father’s latter years.

The Southwells were dominating long distance races at the time that I was born and they are still going strong today, 50 years later. Long may it be so.

Photos kindly supplied by the Southwell family.