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The Late, Great Ralph Iley


The late, great Ralph Iley.

The sport of pigeon racing recently lost one of its best ever fanciers when the great Dr. Ralph Iley passed away, at the age of 83. I had the great pleasure of meeting Ralph several times through the years and visited his loft in the mid-1990s, with ‘Many Miles with Mott’ video team. He loved the sport and even after so many year racing pigeons, he always seemed to have the enthusiasm of a new starter. Ralph is famous for the good work he did in the sport, especially for his beloved Up North Combine. Another legend has left our sport!

Ralph had been president of the Up North Combine for well over 30 years, and said he had seen a lot of changes in our sport in that time. When visiting his loft a few years ago he told me he thought the main progression had been going over to the road transporter, since which the Up North Combine has never once failed to get all the birds to the racepoint, at that time. This is a fantastic achievement when you realise that on some Up North Combine races there are 15 road transporters and over 20,000 birds taking part. Ralph also told me that the Up North Combine is a limited company and has a wonderful team of workers behind it.

Ralph built his first loft as a schoolboy in 1939, and joined the Percy Main Club, and his first pigeons were obtained from his later to be father-in-law. He liked the middle to long-distance races, but had won his fair share of sprints and had been 2nd Open Up North Combine a fantastic seven times through the years, although he had never won the Combine. In 1991 he was 2nd Open Up North Combine in three races on the trot, from 360 miles through to 580 miles. A wonderful performance by a brilliant fancier!

On my visit to his loft, Ralph showed me his wonderful widowhood blue pied cock which had won 2nd Open Up North Combine Clermont (20,000 birds) in 1991, bred off Ralph's old Channel family. Ralph raced both widowhood and natural, but had never won a 600-mile race with a widowhood cock. His loft housed 90 widowhood cocks split into three teams, as Ralph raced in four clubs. He started to pair up his widowhood cocks during the second week in January, each team being paired up at a different time, at two-week intervals. The cocks raced at the beginning of the season and were put on widowhood after about four races. The reason Ralph liked widowhood was because you don't have to train the cocks; he said he had never trained a widowhood pigeon in the 18 years he had used the system.

Bill Porritt of Staithes.

Bill Porritt's loft was halfway up a cliff over looking the North Yorkshire coastal fishing village of Staithes. He had to cross a river on stepping stones, and then climb a long, steep path to reach his pigeons. Corn had to be carried up and the pigeons had to be carried down, which was bad enough in the summer, but must have been horrendous in the ice and snow. In spite of this hardship, this great fancier had won the mighty Up North Combine four times on a Saturday and once on a Wednesday.

The Bill Porritt pigeons were raced on a natural system, but were fed the widowhood method, with a light feed in the morning and a heavy one at night. Bill told me you feed pigeons according to what you want them to do, and said likewise you wouldn't pair up early if you want to win the late long distance races. He fed a good widowhood mixture; which was beefed up for the long-distance events. Birds were paired up at the end of February, and Bill liked races from 200 to 500 miles, declaring that these distances are true races.

Bill won his first race at 13 years of age and had at the time I visited his loft, had actually been in the sport over 40 years. He said he had won many premier races throughout the years, but his main achievement was to win the Up North Combine. Apart from his five wins in the Up North Combine, he had won countless other positions including 2nd, 3rd (twice) and 4th open Up North Combine.

On my visit to his loft, Bill showed me his champion blue pied Busschaert cock 'Shergar', which he said, was the finest pigeon that had ever been or will ever be. This fantastic cock has won many top prizes, including 2nd and 11th open Up North Combine in 310 mile races, and in north-west winds. 'Shergar' was also an ace breeder with Bill's good hen 'Blue Haze' which was inbred to the champion cock. This natural blue hen won 1st open Up North Combine Folkestone (22,000 birds) and was dam and grand dam of many winners. Another of Bill's top racers was the Janssen blue chequer hen Champion 'Diddy Girl' which won 35th open Up North Combine (22,000 birds) as a young bird, then went on to win 1st open Up North Combine (27,000 birds) Folkestone Old Bird National. This great hen had proved golden at stock, breeding many premier winners, their credit including 4th, 6th, 9th and 13th open Up North Combine. A fantastic pigeon!

Bill's families were Janssen, Busschaert and Geerts. He told me he had won the Combine with all of them. Because of carrying the birds down the cliff path, he never kept more young birds than he can get in two baskets, which was usually 35, and his main aim with the youngsters is the National race. Bill Porritt, one of the ‘all time’ greats of the Up North Combine!

George Wandless of Hetton-Le- Hope.

George Wandless first became interested in pigeons immediately after the Second World War. He was 12 when he and his friend Robert Lowery, who was then a retired police inspector, built a little 5ft loft to house two pairs of tumblers. He says he was not encouraged by any fancier, but the birds he got from Rutter Brothers, the late Tom Kilner (a very good friend), J. J. Horn and Tommy Mercer of Trimdon got him where he is today.

George is a retired miner, working at Eppleton Colliery for many years and today the 30ft Wandless loft, at Hetton- le-Hole in County Durham, houses both widowhood and natural racers and has put up some fantastic performances over the last 30 years, racing in two clubs, Hetton Workingman's and Croft P.C., including in 1985 sixteen times first in Channel and inland races; 1994: ten times first; 1995: eleven times first and 1996: ten times first prizes. George's biggest thrill was winning 1st open Up North Combine Clermont and the ‘Queen's Cup’ in 1991. Some of the loft's best performance birds were as follows: mealy pied hen 90HET4614 winner of 3rd club, 7th Federation Lilliers, 1st club, 1st Federation, 1st open Up North Combine Clermont and winning the ‘Queen's Cup’; blue hen 91HET2135 winner of 2nd club, 4th Federation Mansfield, 2nd club Grantham, 1st club, 2nd Federation, 80th open Up North Combine Abbeville, 1st club, 1st Federation, 1st Section, 1st FCC, 1st TRCC, 1st open Up North Combine Provins.

The loft has housed countless champions through the years and at present George calls his pigeons his own old breed, as he thinks this is only right after 36 years of blending. Through the years he has introduced Frans Van Wildemeersch, Vandies, Busschaerts, Staf Van Reets and Janssens and George maintains his birds are outstanding from 75 miles through to 560 miles. Only one of his sons, George junior, has been interested in the pigeons, and his wife has been around pigeons all her life, being the younger sister of the Rutter Brothers.

Soderlund & Bradley of South Shields.

Two fanciers I have admired for many years are Soderlund and Bradley of South Shields, Northumberland, and a few years ago I had the chance to visit their lofts in the North East of England. The pigeon partnership of John Soderlund and Sammy Bradley was formed 40 years ago, since which time they have enjoyed success after success. Their fantastic loft arrangement is sited on some allotments at nearby Parkside, where there is a small caravan on site, for a sit-down and a cup of tea.

The loft has produced countless racing champions through the years, the most noted being the famous champion 'Parkside Superman'. This great Busschaert blue pied cock was bred from stock obtained from John Palmer and Jim McKay and won countless premier positions racing, including 1st Federation twice and 2nd Federation twice. He won at six years old, after which he was retired to the stock loft and after a year at stock was purchased by Louella Pigeon World. John said he was a once-in-a-lifetime pigeon and one of the best Busschaert cocks that ever lived. He is often asked if he regrets selling champion 'Parkside Superman' and he says never, because the Massarella family made him world famous, a reputation this great pigeon himself deserves. 'Parkside Superman' has had countless Combine and National winners bred down from him. A truly wonderful pigeon!

John Soderlund has been in the sport nearly 50 years and says the partners' best performance was when they won 1st and 2nd International Beauvais with two Louella Pigeon World De Baere hens flown on natural. The loft had only gone on to the widowhood system in recent years and Sammy (Bradley) says the loft's performance is not really any better than when it was all on the natural system. Their natural pigeons have put up wonderful performances for many years, but the reason for going over to widowhood is the timesaving aspect to the system. They say it is so simple, with no training, and the cocks are always in the right form for inland races up to 300 miles. The 36 cocks are fed on a standard widowhood mixture, nothing special, and are broken down on Mondays and Sundays throughout the season. The partners normally show the hen on marking night, but have won races both ways, showing or not. The returning cocks get their mates all the afternoon on the day of the race, but there is no hard and fast rule about their widowhood system. The cocks only race inland up to 300 miles, with the odd one or two being sent to the long-distance races. The partners have a fantastic racing loft and the racing cocks are housed in three sections, 12 nest boxes in each. The widowhood cocks are paired up in mid- January and allowed to sit a round of eggs after racing. All the lofts are bright and clean with sand collected from a local beach on all the floors.

The partners race their 100 young birds on the darkness system. Sammy says they get daylight for eight hours a day, and this holds back the flight moult and puts the youngsters in better feather condition for their races. They are raced through to the Young Bird National (288 miles) to sort out the good cock birds, and training starts about six weeks before the first race with tosses every day. Young cocks and hens are housed separately, and are allowed to run together for a while before going to the marking station on Friday night. The 50 pairs of stock birds are kept in a fantastic loft, equipped with a massive wire flight, so they can get out in the sunshine for a bath. The stock birds are paired up in mid-December, and the partners like breeders to be from a long line of good Winners.

Jimmy & Keith Derbyshire of Blyth.

While at a North East Two-Bird Specialist Club prize presentation, held at Peterlee Leisure Centre, I had the pleasure of meeting the father and son Northumberland partnership of Jimmy & Keith Derbyshire. That year they had won the biggest prize in Combine racing in the NEHU, the Queen's Cup from Clermont (431 miles). The Derbyshires won this premier trophy with their champion yearling blue Busschaert hen, ‘Derby's Girl’, and she was sent to Clermont on chipping eggs, with 17,114 birds competing.

Both Jimmy's father and grandfather were pigeon fanciers, flying the 'milers', and as a lad he helped out in their loft. Later on he became loft manager for a local fancier and started up his own loft at the age of 17. He could not start, racing straight away, as he couldn't join a club until he was 18 years old. Jim won his first race in 1955 with a bird obtained from Billy Sharples and has been a premier flyer since the early 1960s. His first stock was Busschaerts from Tom Larkins, George Corbett and Ray Callender and they were the same pigeons he is racing today. Jim's first club was the one he still races in, Newsham HS, and his son, Keith, joined the pigeon partnership in 1995. Jim told me that he kept only a small team of pigeons in the early days and his biggest mistake was over feeding them.

The partners' loft was a 30ft, ‘L’ shaped structure with a Perspex canopy and open-door trapping, and deep litter was used in the stock section. The whole team was paired up the second week in January. The partners raced 12 natural pairs on the Channel and 12 widowhood cocks for inland events. The widowhood racers reared a single youngster and were put onto the system on their second pair of eggs. The widowhood cocks had only two short training tosses prior to the first Federation race and the naturals were heavy through the season from Durham (30 miles). The widowhood racers flew out for an hour in the morning and evening and were never broken down during the racing season. They were shown their mates on marking night and the time they were given the hens on their return was governed by how hard the race was. The cocks were given garlic, hemp and peanuts and were never repaired for the longer races. Keith told me that he liked his natural racers sitting 10 day eggs for the longest race from Bourges and the Channel birds were not overworked, being picked out for certain races. ‘Derby's Girl’, the Queen's Cup winner, was only lightly raced, scoring from Lillers before winning Clermont. The widowhood cocks raced every week inland, down to the south coast.

The partners kept 12 pairs of Busschaert stock birds, which were paired up at the same time as the racers, in January, and were fed on Irish mixture. When bringing in a new stock bird, Keith said, he went for good Busschaert winning lines and wasn't bothered about type. Jim maintained that when bringing in new stock you must be looking to improve your performances, as it gets harder and harder to win every season. His club, Newsham HS, won a fantastic fourteen times 1st Federation in 25 races that season. Keith said that there were four other lofts on their allotment and the racing was so 'hot' there that if you win the club, you have a very good chance of winning the Federation. One of the Derbyshires' best pigeons was a blue Busschaert hen that won 2nd open Amalgamation Beauvais (twice) and then had to go to the stock loft because she broke her wing. She was a champion racer and breeder, being the dam of many winners and grand dam of ‘Derby's Girl’, the 2002 Queen's Cup winner.

Jimmy & Keith had a team of 50 young birds each year and these were raced through the programme to Ashford. They were fed on a light mixture for the first three races, then went on to Irish mixture and were trained well from Durham. The partners put half the team on the darkness system from weaning until the Beauvais weekend and they were raced to the perch, but if they want to pair up, they were allowed to. Keith maintained that if youngsters were paired up and even sitting eggs, they raced better. The Derbyshires liked racing every Saturday, but enjoyed Channel racing best and said that one of their best performances was from Bourges, when there were only six birds home on the day from the 599 mile race in the Amalgamation and they had three of them. They recorded 3rd, 4th and 5th open Amalgamation and the dam of ‘Derby's Girl’, the Queen's Cup winner, was one of those pigeons on the day. The partners had won the longest race, from Bourges, many times and finished a fantastic 2002 season by winning 1st club, 1st Federation from this race point. They told me that their biggest thrill in pigeon racing was when they won the Queen's Cup that season, because it's the best of the best!

Trevor Rowland of Sunderland.

At the time of my loft visit, Trevor Rowland had started up in the sport 16 years previously and told me he has always done well out of Lillers, which was a 342 mile fly to his allotment lofts. In 1992 he won the ‘LNRC Cup of Friendship Trophy’ for the best two bird performance in Up North Combine Lillers race, recording 6th and 13th open. In 1996 season, Trevor hit the jackpot by winning 1st open UNC Lillers (16,248 birds) with a Busschaert blue widowhood cock. This game pigeon was only lightly raced as he got injured as a young bird, then recorded a good Combine position in the Folkestone National two weeks before winning 1st open UNC Lillers. The loft had won the Federation many times through the years, but Trevor rated his Combine win as his best performance.

The main family raced was Busschaert, one team on Natural for the long distance races and 40 cocks on Widowhood for sprint and middle-distance events. None of the racers were broken down in the race season as Trevor said the climate in the North East was wrong for this practice. For the short or long distance races he paired up on Boxing Day and had to pair the whole loft up that week because that's the only time he got off work. The birds were trained hard before the season started and they were never forced to exercise around the loft. Trevor never saved young cocks for the Widowhood system, the one time he did, he lost them on dodgy races the following year, because they hadn't any race experience. When bringing in a new stock bird, he had to have a good gut feeling and really fancy it, and they had to be from good winning lines. Trevor tod me the champion of the loft was his good Busschaert blue pied cock and he won twice 1st Federation, twice 2nd Federation and 6th open UNC Lillers. This 'Ace' was raced on Widowhood and was breeding winners in the stock partings.

Verrill & Armstrong of Staithes.

Verrill & Armstrong had their loft on the side of the valley overlooking the sleepy little fishing village of Staithes, a stone's throw from the five times Up North Combine winning loft of Bill Porritt. Matt said that the day they won the mighty Up North Combine from Maidstone Young Bird National in 1998, the wind was westerly and just right for their loft location on the east coast. He had been in the sport since 1960 and formed his highly successful partnership with Tom in 1978, winning many major positions in their favourite young bird races, including 1st open Up North Combine Harlow National in 1989; 5th open Up North Combine Folkestone National in 1982 and their latest Up North Combine win from Maidstone, with 17,076 young birds competing in 1998. The partners' Maidstone combine winner was a medium blue chequer white flight hen, bred from the best Mr & Mrs Whitehead of Co. Durham, Busschaert bloodlines. She was hatched on March 8th and put on the darkness system, after which she was raced to the perch playing around with an odd cock bird. She hurt her wing in the Peterborough race in 1998 and could not fly for three or four days. When she began to exercise well around the loft, she was entered in the young bird Maidstone National, to win 1st open Up North Combine, a wonderful performance!

The dam of the combine winner was a nice Busschaert light blue chequer which had won 10th open Up North Combine from 252 miles. Verrill & Armstrong liked young bird racing best and bred 25 youngsters each season for their sport. They went onto the darkness system in 1998 with outstanding success; the young bird team was put on the system on weaning and taken off at the old bird Bourges race. They were trained hard down the coast to Whitby and fed well on a good widowhood mixture, never being kept short of feeding. They were raced to the perch, being allowed to pair up if they wish and Tom said a big disappointment in the 1998 season was the nest mate of the Combine winner, being killed on some wires. All the young birds were raced through the programme to the longest race. The partners' loft was 30ft long, made up of three sections, two for old birds and one for the young birds, with all trapping done through the open doors. The five pairs of stock birds were all Busschaerts, originating from Mr & Mrs Whitehead and the old birds were raced on the natural system.

That’s it for this week! Over the years I have made many journeys up to the ‘Pigeon Mecca’ in the north east of England to do pigeon show judging, shoot films and articles, and over next few weeks we are going to look at some of the many great winning lofts I visited. Seven of the Up North Combine’s very best for your reading this time! I can be contacted with any pigeon ‘banter’ or news on telephone number: 01372 463480 or email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.