Chickens have lived alongside humans for thousands of years. Over millenniums, they have provided eggs and meat for sustenance and feathers for warmth and comfort, and continue to do so. So what’s the history of chickens in Britain?
It’s generally believed that all domestic chickens originate from the red jungle fowl, a small Asian pheasant. First documented in China, Babylonia and ancient Greece, the Spanish are credited for bringing chickens to the West, though it was the Romans who first bred chickens in Britain (they also introduced a breed with five toes in AD47, which is still possible to buy). The word ‘chicken’, meanwhile, is thought to have derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘cicen’.
Although people have kept poultry for centuries (and cracked chicken jokes; the first was noted in a lewd 15th century verse) it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that poultry breeding standards were introduced. This was thanks to Queen Victoria who banned the grisly blood sport of cockfighting in 1849 and was, by all accounts, a bit of a bird fancier. A chicken craze followed, resulting in the creation of clubs, competitions and exhibitions.
As well as featuring in literature (though not always favourably – ‘Chicken Licken’ was hardly an ambassador for avian intelligence) chickens in British history are becoming increasingly relevant. There are now a number of chicken genome mapping projects, collated on the ChickMap Project, the data of which will help to improve breeding, while students at universities in Nottingham and Bournemouth are researching the history of chickens and their unique relationship to us. Called the Chicken Coop project, its aim is to scrutinize ‘the social and cultural impact of this important but under-studied species’, as well as look at the ‘exploitation of feathers, cock-fighting, religion and medicine’.
Of their association with Britain, Dr Mark Maltby of Bournemouth University explains: “Chickens in Britain go way back to possibly as long ago as 500BC.” His colleague identified the bones of a hen “that had been placed in a pot buried in an enclosure ditch at West Deeping in Lincolnshire, probably in the 1st Century BC or early 1st Century AD. Chickens would have been regarded as rare and exotic creatures recently introduced from continental Europe. This bird had clearly been given special treatment, perhaps offered as a sacrifice.”
Today, chickens remain as important a source of food to us as they did to our ancestors. Hopefully, with British welfare standards improving slowly but surely, today’s chickens are valued birds.