Duck Island Cottage

An Historical Account of the Bird Keeper's Lodge in St James's Park
By Tim Knox

Duck Island Cottage, the picturesque lodge which serves as the offices of the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust in St James's Park, is aptly named - it occupies a site which has long been the haunt of these aquatic birds. Birds of various kinds have been kept here since 1612, when James I began converting the swampy chase of the Tudor monarchs into a formal garden. Here, along what is now Birdcage Walk, an aviary was established and waterfowl, both native and foreign, found refuge in the park despite the presence, elsewhere in the gardens, of two crocodiles. (1)

Duck Island Cottage, Summer 2010
Duck Island Cottage, Summer 2010
Duck Island Cottage, Summer 2010
Duck Island Cottage, Summer 2010

After the Commonwealth, Charles II restored St James's Park and laid it out in imitation of the fashionable French gardens he had seen and admired during his years in exile. The principal feature of the new formal gardens was a long rectangular canal, 2,800 feet long and 100 feet wide, which extended almost the entire length of the park. King Charles continued his grandfather's practice of keeping aviaries along Birdcage Walk and appointed Edward Storey as 'Keeper of the King's Birds' - a fact commemorated to this day by the entrance to the park at Storey's Gate.' (2) In 1664 John Evelyn found them 'stocked with numerous flocks of severall sorts of ordinary and extraordinary wilde fowle, breeding about the Decoy, which for being so neere so great a city and amongst such concourse of soldiers and people, is a singular and diverting thing'. Evelyn also noted 'withy-potts or nests for the wild fowle to lay their eggs in, a little above ye surface of ye water' and described two pelicans - the gift of the Russian Ambassador - and a crane with a wooden leg. (3) Hidden in a wilderness at the south-eastern extremity of the canal was another souvenir of Charles's Continental wanderings - a decoy created after the Dutch manner for the capture of ducks for the royal table. This comprised a system of irregular channels of water surrounded by shrubberies. (4) The island encircled by the canals became known as 'Duck Island', and the King created the post of 'Governor of Duck Island'- a sinecure with a small salary and bestowed it upon his favourite, the Seigneur de St évremond. (5)

Duck Island Cottage in the snow
Duck Island Cottage, February 2009
Duck Island Cottage in the snow
Duck Island Cottage, January 2013

Thes Decoy was extended and regularised in succeeding years, taking the character of an ornamental 'wilderness' and water-garden rather than a working decoy. Here William III built the first Duck Island Cottage - a 'tea house' in a 'grove beyond and between the miniature canals'. (6) By 1734 Duck Island was described as 'one of the most enchanting summer retreats imaginable ... a paradise in miniature', although 'as the waters in and about it are suffered to stagnate and putrify, they become almost as much a nuisance as an ornament'. (7) Throughout the eighteenth century it remained a secluded and romantic spot; the canals gradually silted up and its shrubberies became overgrown, rendering it ideal for wildfowl.

In 1733 Queen Caroline revived the post of 'Governor of Duck Island' and presented it to her protégé Stephen Duck, the celebrated 'thresher poet'. (8) Bishop Warburton remarked, now Mr Duck 'can both instruct our friend in the breed of the Wild~fowl and lend him of his genius to sing their generations'. (9) In later years Duck Island became a perquisite of the Ranger of St James's Park, an oddity which amused contemporaries. When Charles Churchill became Deputy Ranger of Hyde and St James's Parks in 1739, his friend Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams composed a droll poem, in imitation of Horace, to commemorate the occasion, imploring:

O Venus, joy of men and gods,
Forsake for once thy blest abodes ...
Quit Paphos and the Cyprian Isle
To reign o'er my Duck Island.

On the appointment of Lord Pomfret as Ranger of the Parks in 1751, Horace Walpole quipped that Lady Pomfret was now 'Queen of Duck Island'. (11)

In 1771 Duck Island, with its stagnant ponds and dense wilderness, was swept away - the 'stench' of the waters being the cause of its suppression - and replaced by a featureless expanse of lawn. (12) However, some fifty years later, in 1827, the island made a surprising reappearance when the park was extensively naturalised by John Nash. Under his direction the formal canal was recast into an irregular sheet of water which extended over the site of the former decoy. An ornamental island was reinstated on the site of old Duck Island and trees and shrubs were planted along the margins of the water. (13)

The new lake with its island and vegetation encouraged waterfowl to return to the park. In 1837 the Ornithological Society of London was founded to protect the birds and undertook to 'form and maintain a complete collection of Water Fowl - Swimmers, Divers and Waders kept, as nearly as possible, in a natural state (the lake in St James's Park forming a great natural cage)'. The Society appealed for support not 'to the scientific alone' but to 'all persons who are capable of appreciating the charm which the presence of the feather tribes lends to ornamental water'. (14) The Society enjoyed the patronage of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha and its printed prospectus is garnished with the names of its noble and distinguished supporters. (15) The membership was small and select - a fact ensured by an expensive subscription. (16)

The newly-founded Society at first contented itself with measures intended to encourage the birds. They petitioned the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, who were responsible for the Royal Parks, for the exclusion of dogs and proposed that a man be employed, 'constantly on duty .. whose sole business should be to protect the birds'. They also carried out various improvements on the island, such as the provision of nesting boxes, the shelving of the banks and the planting of reeds and other plants. (17)

In 1840 the Society submitted a 'Memorial' to the Commissioners seeking permission to build a house for a bird-keeper in St James's Park and a grant of £300 towards the cost of its construction. The document referred to the 'considerable sums [that] have been expended by the Society stocking the ornamental water in St James's Park with aquatic birds' and stated that 'the present means of protecting and regulating' the collection were inadequate. It was requested, as 'essential to the fulfilment of the Society's objects', that a cottage should be erected 'to serve as the residence of a keeper, upon the banks of the water'. The Commissioners were reminded that their contribution would also assist 'the cultivation of a new and intelligent interest in the thousands who frequent the Parks'. (18)

The petition was favourably received. The Commissioners agreed to pay for the erection of 'a cottage on the island ... according to the accompanying plans' although it was 'distinctly understood that the building if erected is to be the property of the Crown and the occupation thereof ... to be during the pleasure of your Lordships and this Board'. (19) The Society also secured a further concession - the Commissioners agreed to employ a keeper 'thoroughly conversant with the management of Birds' (20) Hitherto 'the care and management' of the rare and valuable birds had been 'chiefly intrusted to one of the ordinary labourers ... whose want of knowledge in rearing and managing such birds has undoubtedly prejudicial to the collection'. (21)

The architect John Burges Watson had been engaged by the Society to design the Bird Keeper's Cottage. Watson (1803-1881), an obscure architect whose 'taste was for rural subjects', produced a small, irregular composition, comprising a cottage and clubroom for the Society, trimmed with ornamental barge-boards finials and ridge-tiles. (22) The cottage was proposed to occupy Duck Island while the clubroom was to stand on a small promontory on the nearby bank, the two buildings were to be connected by a loggia-like bridge of tree-trunk columns and trellis, beneath which water flowed. This gingerbread Cottage Orné, of vaguely Swiss inspiration, was calculated to contrast with the increasingly monumental architecture of the Government Offices being erected in nearby Whitehall.

In December 1840 the architect requested approval from the Commissioners for an inscription to accompany a lithographic print of the building which he was to publish. (23) The print shows the picturesque building as executed embowered with climbing plants, complete with waterfowl and female and infant ornithologists in the foreground. (24) The building contractor, Mr Dickson of Earl Street, started work on the 1st of September 1840 and building was completed by April the following year. (25) Soon after, the work was pronounced to 'appear well executed in a sound and substantial manner', and in June 1841, at a meeting of the Council of the Ornithological Society, a vote of thanks was passed unanimously for the Commissioners' 'liberality and ready compliance with the wishes of the Council and for their continued aid in promoting the objects of the Society'. (26)

The new cottage on Duck Island focused public attention on the work of the Ornithological Society. The Gardener's Chronicle reported on 'the delightful collection of aquatic birds on the lake in St James's Park, being 'one of the least known and most interesting' of the sights of London 'which may be enjoyed without being paid for'. The article observed that 'there are many persons who are anxious that the lower orders of London should have rational amusement provided for them, but it is extremely difficult in such a metropolis to devise the best means of securing this end. The Ornithological Society meets the views of such philanthropists in the most unobjectionable manner, and deserves their warmest support'. The author noted that 'Prospectuses of the Society may be had at the very pretty lodge opposite the parade of the Horse Guards'. (27)

Despite its apparent successes, the Society was constantly frustrated in its efforts 'to maintain an exhibition worthy of the Metropolis'. (28) The birds suffered 'seriously from the mischief of children, and in 1853 four swans were stolen from the island. (29) Fishing parties were also a nuisance and, in the winter of 1854, ice skaters were inflicting 'Irreparable injury' to the birds and shrubs. (30) Nor was the Society without its critics: in 1852 the collection was described as 'most shamefully neglected' and it was asserted that the only birds which bred were Carolina Ducks. (31)

Worse was to come. In 1856 the Commissioners of Woods and Forests resolved to drain the ornamental water in St James's Park and demanded that all the birds be removed from its vicinity. The 'large and common birds' were to be sent to the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens and the 'smaller and more choice' specimens were despatched to Kew Gardens where 'they will be much benefited by the change'. (32) Attempts by the Ornithological Society to reduce the scope of the undertaking were rejected as being too expensive. The birds were duly evacuated and the following year the Society reported that 'not a single bird has been added to the Collection' - all the eggs having been stolen or destroyed, while at Kensington Gardens and Kew 'a very considerable number of birds have been lost in consequence of their removal' - indeed some of the rarest diving ducks were never recaptured and remained at Kew. (33)

After 1857 Duck Island was no longer an island but a promontory. It was linked to the mainland by a causeway, built to enable coal to be delivered to the pumping station which aerated the lake (34) This also caused problems - a wire fence had to be erected to prevent marauding cats destroying the birds at night. (35) The cottage moreover became increasingly decayed and cost the Society over £120 a year to maintain. (36) In 1859 the Society asked the Commissioners to take on responsibility for the repairs on account of 'the serious loss which the Society sustained in consequence of the indispensible removal of the birds ... when the water was drawn off in St James's Park (37) The Commissioners censured the 'dirty and discreditable' condition of the cottage but refused to take on the burden, being 'quite at a loss to understand how the removal of the birds from St James's Park ... can have had any influence in depressing the funds of the Society as the birds were removed, maintained during the time they were removed from the Park and brought back, all at public expense'. (38)

In 1867, perhaps in desperation, the Society announced its intention to unite with the Acclimatisation Society of Great Britain, a curious philanthropic institution which sought to introduce and naturalise foreign animals, birds and plants into Great Britain for useful and ornamental purposes. The combined societies 'hoped for the more effectual accomplishment of the objects at which they were respectively aimed' and requested permission to keep Duck Island Cottage as the waterfowl were not only 'most acceptable to the public in general but could also be very useful as studies of form and colour to all classes of art workmen'. (39)

However, the new Society languished and did little on Duck Island, apart from establishing a small 'fish hatching apparatus' there. In 1869 the affairs of the Society were wound up and its collections of birds in Battersea and James's Park were sold to the Government for £200, - a number of breeding cages and traps which remained on Duck Island were also thrown in with the transaction. (40) But it was only in January 1870 that the Commission were finally able to gain possession of Duck Island Cottage. (41) The premises were thenceforth entirely given over to the residence of the Bird Keeper, whose wages were now met by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests. (42)

Duck Island Cottage slid gently into obscurity, screened from view by shrubs planted according to a plan by Mr Browne in 1884. (43)) These served to hide a kitchen extension, with an ornamental chimneystack, added to the cottage in the same year. (44) From 1900 to 1953, the cottage was the residence of the veteran Bird Keeper, Mr Thomas Hinton, during which time further alterations were made, including the addition of a bedroom in 1930.(45) The building was also damaged in air raids in 1940 (Note 46) After Mr Hinton's death in 1953, the cottage was deemed to be unfit for human habitation and was abandoned. (47)

Empty and neglected, Duck Island Cottage seemed doomed. Officially it was considered 'not a particularly distinguished' building and the Bailiff of the Royal Parks doubted 'anyone with a family would appreciate the present house' - adding that 'wives have strong views on these subjects' (Note 48) Demolition seemed inevitable but, on account of it being 'so much in the public eye', it was agreed that the Royal Fine Art Commission should be consulted before its destruction. (49) Meanwhile designs being sought for a replacement cottage; W. Kendall's design costing £4,000 was rejected, probably on grounds of cost - as were those prepared by the Chief Architect, E. Bedford, 'a 'contemporary park-like structure' made out of logs. (50) Bedford submitted a further design in April 1955 but this too was rejected as 'lacking distinction'. (51)

Eventually, in July 1955, Marshall Sisson was asked to submit two alternative designs for the cottage - a compact two-storied house and a semi-bungalow. (52) Both were symmetrical compositions with green-painted tree-trunk loggias and roofed with Norfolk thatch. Mr Bedford - doubtless still smarting from the rejection of his own designs - protested that the thatched roof would soon be covered in bird droppings and that gulls 'would store bits of fish etc. in and beneath the straw'. (53) However at this juncture the Royal Fine Art Commission intervened and urged the preservation of Duck Island Cottage. (Note 54) In a surprising volte face the retention of the building was ordered for use as store. (55) Sisson, understandably annoyed, promptly exhibited one of the sketches in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in that year as An Abandoned Project for the Bird Keeper's House in St James's Park - to the intense embarrassment of all concerned. (Note 56) Nevertheless, Duck Island Cottage had been saved.

After emergency repairs, the cottage was used as a storeroom for equipment belonging to the Bird Keeper. (57) However, in 1959 it was vigorously remodelled and extended and once more given over to habitation. Coated in pebble-dash and shorn of most of its ornaments, the cottage provided a utilitarian home to two spinster park keepers who lived there until 1980. (58) It was only in 1982 that Duck Island Cottage was carefully restored, the later accretions removed and its full complement of decorative features reinstated - including the distinctive lozenge-latticed glazing bars. The channel of water beneath the rustic loggia, absent since its suppression in 1882, was also reinstated. After briefly serving as an office for the Bird Keeper and as a store for confiscated bicycles, Duck Island Cottage was allocated as the temporary headquarters of the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust in 1994. (59)

It is most appropriate that Duck Island Cottage has been bestowed upon the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust - a society concerned with the protection and enhancement of St James's Park. However, the philanthropic and didactic objectives of the Trust extend beyond the boundaries of the Mall and Birdcage Walk. They encompass parks and gardens throughout London - all historic pleasure grounds which, like St James's Park, continue to provide enjoyment and benefit for the residents and visitors to the Metropolis.


The author would like to thank Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, Jennifer Adams of the Royal Parks Agency and Chris Sumner of English Heritage for their help while researching this article.

  1. Larwood (pseud.), The Story of London Parks (London 1872) II, pp. 71-72
  2. Thornbury & E. Walford, Old and New London (London 1873) IV, p.47
  3. J. Evelyn, (edited by E.S. De Beer, &c.) The Diary of John Evelyn, 1995, pp.399-400; entry of 9 February 1665
  4. Duck decoys were introduced from Holland. The C18th Boarstall Decoy in Buckinghamshire, owned by the National Trust, is an interesting surviving example.
  5. H.B. Wheatley & P. Cunningham, London Past and Present (London 1891) II, p.294
  6. Thornbury & Walford, IV, p.50; see also the engraved 'Plan of Duck Island from a Drawing made in 1734...', published by J.T Smith in 1807 (GLRO loc. ref HE5479)
  7. James Ralph, A Critical Review of the Publick Buildings about London and Westminster (London 1734), PP.52-53
  8. R.M. Davis, 'Stephen Duck, the Thresher Poet' included in The Maine Bulletin, xxix, January 1929, no.6, p.67
  9. W. Warburton (edited by Bishop Hurd), Letters from a Late Eminent Prelate to One of his Friends (Kidderminster 1808), p.112
  10. Written by Hanbury-Williams in December 1739, quoted by Walpole to Henry Seymour Conway, 25 September 1740, W.S. Lewis, ed., Horace Walpole's Correspondence (Yale 1974) Vol.37, p.76
  11. Walpole to Sir Horace Mann, 9 February 1751, Walpole's Correspondence, Vol. 20, pp.225-26
  12. Larwood, II, P.213 quoting the General Evening Post 7-9 May 1771. See also Richard Horwood, A Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster (London 1819 ed.)
  13. J Summerson, The Life and Works of John Nash, Architect (London 1980), p.169
  14. PRO (Public Record Office) WORK 16/760. The Society also proposed to 'distribute duplicates gratuitously, among such Members as may be desirous of acquiring a collection of aquatic birds'.
  15. Including the Duke of Buccleuch, the Earls of Liverpool and Orkney, Sir Robert Peel, the Bishop of Norwich and the naturalist William Yarrell.
  16. WORK 16/760. The prospectus includes a list of birds in the Collection. These include common, Polish and black swans, bitterns, purple and night herons, storks, spoon-bills, 10 varieties of goose, 19 species of duck, mergansers, grebes, cormorants, gulls and gannets. There is also appended a list of desiderata. Admission to the Society was a guinea with an additional guinea yearly.
  17. WORK 16/12 June 1837, pp.25-26
  18. PRO, CRES 8/22, 19 June 1840 pp. 491-492.
  19. The accompanying plans have disappeared but there were evidently at least two alternative designs
  20. WORK 760, July 1840
  21. CRES 8/22, 24 July 1840, pp. 491-492. The Society paid the keeper 'a gratuity beyond the ordinary rate of labourer's wages'.
  22. The Builder, XL, no 1994, 23 April, 1181, p.521
  23. WORK 16/760, 7 December, 1840. It was a common practice for architects to publish prints of their own buildings - these were often dedicated to the clients and would have served as a prospectus for the undertaking as well as a discreet advertisement for the architect's own work.
  24. Examples of this lithograph exist in the collections of the British Architectural Library and the Greater London Record Office.
  25. WORK 16/760, 22 August 1840, 16 August 1840 & 16 April 1841
  26. WORK 16/760, 6 May 1841 & WORK 16/1758, 12 June 1841
  27. The Gardener's Chronicle, 3 April 1841, p. 211. Walford, in Old and New London, iv, pp.51-52, noted that the cottage contained 'a council room, keeper's apartments and steam-hatching apparatus' and observed that the 'pieces of bread and biscuit which are given daily to the ducks, geese and swans would well-nigh feed the inmates of a workhouse'.
  28. CRES 8/22, 19 June 1840, pp.491~2
  29. WORK 16/1758 12 June 1837, p.25-26, WORK 16/1758, 29 December 1853 & WORK 16/760, 25 May 1853
  30. WORK 16/1758, December 1854
  31. WORK 16/1758, September 1852
  32. WORK 16/1758, 3 Septerriber 1856
  33. WORK 16/1760, 10 November 1857. In the spring of 1871, the lake was again disrupted by dredging, five or six inches of ‘fearfully offensive’ mud being removed, necessitating its ‘deodourisation with chloride of lime’. Gardener's Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 20 May 1871, p.642
  34. HBMC (Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission) file no. CB66/3 PT2
  35. WORK 16/1760, 12 October 1857
  36. WORK 16/760, 10November 1857
  37. WORK 16/760, 27 December 1859
  38. WORK 16/760, 26 December 1859
  39. WORK 16/1758, 19 January 1867
  40. WORK 16/1758, 1867 & 4 August 1869
  41. WORK 16/1758, 4 January 1870
  42. WORK 16/1758, 4 August 1869 & 4 January 1870
  43. WORK 16/1758, 1884. Browne suggested that the plants required 'might be thinned out of existing shrubberies'.
  44. HBMC file no. CB66/3 PT2
  45. WORK 16/2035. By 'HM Office ofWorks', plans, elevations and section dated July 1929, executed in 1930.
  46. WORK 16/1758, 1956. Enemy action on the 10-11 May 1940 damaged the structure and destroyed the chimneystack of the kitchen extension.
  47. WORK 16/2035, August 1951
  48. WORK 16/2035, 1 November 1952 & 6 November 1952
  49. WORK 16/2035, 31 March 1953; 5 November 1953 (demolition actually ordered) & 23 November 1953 (postponed)
  50. WORK 16/2035, 10 February 1954. Kendall's design featured a carving of a group of pelicans - a 'very appropriate and agreeable feature' - 17 November 1954
  51. WORK 16/2035, 18 April 1955
  52. WORK 16/2035, 13 July 1955 & 12 November 1955
  53. WORK 16/2035, 30 January 1956
  54. WORK 16/2035, 16 December 1955
  55. WORK 16/2035, 3 January 1955
  56. WORK 16/2035, 20 March 1956 Exh. Royal Academy 1956, no.1173
  57. WORK 16/2035, 7 May 1956
  58. The extenssion comprised a new kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom. The interior of the cottage was extensively remodelled.
  59. HBMC file no. CB66/3 PT2, with additional information from Mrs Jennifer Adams of the Royal Parks Agency,