Oral history workshop

Fig. 1: Coalminer with racing pigeon in the 1960’s. Photo Credit: Coal Authority

Racing Pigeons by Rail

Pigeon Racing: An overview

Pigeon racing was a popular pastime in coalmining regions especially in towns like Kirkby-in-Ashfield and surrounding coalmining communities. It became popular by the advent of legislation, which limited the length of the working day and by the growth of the railway network in Britain, which opened up the possibility of affordable travel for the working classes.

Pigeon lofts could be seen in most coalmining communities and pigeon’s were said to be the poor-mans race horse. Pigeon racing became more formalised as it developed; rings were attached to the birds legs to aid identification, specialised clocks were introduced to record exact time of arrival and winners being determined by average speed rather than by arrival at a secondary location. Pedigree racing pigeons fetched high prices.

Kirkby Bentinck Miners Welfare Flying Club’s main aim was to provide competitive entertainment for the racing and showing of pigeons. Members had to have a racing loft within the club’s radius. In 1968, the President was Mr JE Wardle and the Secretary, Mr J Walton.

The Club was the headquarters for the setting and checking of competitors clocks for the North Road championships, the Great North Road Combine and the Nottinghamshire North Road Federation championship races.

Robin Hood Line

Fig 2: Pigeon train at Starbeck, near Harrogate, Yorkshire, in the early 1960’s.

Racing pigeons by Rail

Homing pigeon rail traffic ran from the early 1900’s until the 1970’s. Some were transported by ordinary passenger trains, being conveyed in the brake carriage, whilst other were transported on special trains which ran during the summer months for weekly races organised by pigeon racing clubs. Some were taken to the Channel Ports where the pigeons were transferred to ferries to be taken to the Channel Islands or the continent for longer races.

Robin Hood Line

Fig 3: Mr Bernard Roe with one his pigeons.  Photo Credit: George Roe

Mr Roe’s pigeons by rail from Kirkby Station

As part of the 2022 Steaming Back to Kirkby project, George Peat chatted about helping to take Mr Roe’s racing pigeons from Portland Street to Kirkby-in-Ashfield East station when he was a boy in the early 1960’s. (audio above).


“…The Roe family lived on Portland Street and in those days, the 1960’s, the pigeon society used to take them down to the station. We used to help Mr Roe…with a made up trolley and took them down to the platform and the train used to pick them up…”


Taking Mr Roes racing pigeons to Kirkby-in-Ashfield East station in the early 1960s.

by George Peat | Steaming Back to Kirkby project audio archive

Robin Hood Line

Fig 4: Mr Roe’s pigeon clock. Photo Credit: George Roe

George Roe, Mr Roe’s son, recalls taking the pigeons to the station on a home made trolley and lost pigeons being sent back by rail:


“We did have a trolley made from an old pram which the pigeon basket sat on when it was being taken to the railway station at Station Street”.


“My Dad and other pigeon fanciers definitely used the train to return birds that came to the loft in error. They would contact the racing club concerned using the ring number and then write to the pigeon fancier asking if they would like it back.”


Robin Hood Line

Fig 5: George Roe as a toddler at his Dad’s pigeon loft in the late 1950’s (left) and at the Ashfield Comprehensive School Class of 72 reunion in July 2022 (right).

Newstead & District Flying Club (Newstead West) – 1960’s

In the early 1960’s. the Jayrich amateur-dramatic group, made up of Kirkby railwaymen and coalminers, filmed Newstead and District Flying Club (Newstead West) on a race day in which the pigeons were taken to Starbeck railway station, near Harrogate, Yorkshire, for release.  The video clip shows the pigeons being prepared for the race, being released from their baskets at Starbeck sidings and returning to the loft of JH Toy, a Kirkby Summit coalminer, at Kirkby-in-Ashfield. 

Digital audio recorder

Fig. 6: Race Birds rail ticket on racing pigeons basket at Starbeck railway station in the 1960’s.

Pigeons are mentioned in Stanley Accrington’s nostalgic railway song, Last Train. He was the last Station Master at Rochdale in Lancashire and one of his duties would be to arrange for the release of the pigeons


‘At three in the morning when I used to sign on,

I lie awake all in a dream;

I’m a guard on a Special bound for the coast,

On a 4-6-0 getting up steam.

We’ve got packages for printers, pigeons to release,

Spare seats after Heywood? Not one.

But now they jump on a plane for a fortnight in Spain,

And the last train to Fleetwood has gone.’


Likewise, John A Smith mentions pigeons in his iconic 1988 poem, Kirkby Station;


‘Trains to Skegness and Blackpool too,

Day trips to Matlock and even Belle View,

Baskets of pigeons would coo and moan,

Ready for loading on the train today.’


Special pigeon carriages were used by some railways, preserved examples of these are at the North Norfolk Railway and the Great Central Railway, Loughborough. British Rail sought to discontinue the freight carriage of pigeons from 1st July 1976.



Alexander, L.  Pigeon Racing: A Miner’s World? History Today, Vol. 71, No.4, (April 2021)


Goulder, D.  Railway Songbook, (2012)


Kirkby-in-Ashfield Directory, (1969)


Media Archive for Central England (MACE), Full Circle Project, (2010-2013).


Murray, K & Amos, D.  Steaming Back to Kirkby, Poetry and Motion, (2020)


Oxford Companion to British Railways History, (1997).


YouTube, Miners Train Pigeons, Pathe News item, (1939).




Blog by David Amos

Posted by SB2K Admin

11th December 2022