A Tale of Two Stuffed Owls

In a pub in the Cotswolds is a pair of stuffed owls in a glass case. They are quite kindly looking, soft and white with calm stares. Considering their age it’s remarkable that their feathers look so fresh. They have lasted much better than the dried flowers and grasses that surround them in their case. They have outlived many owners.

I like visiting this pub. When I was small it was for the rope swing and the dark canal that runs alongside it – sunken, overgrown and gloomy. Now it is for the food and the open fires. And the owls. Whenever we visit I have to say hello to the owls. I feel I should, being one of a handful of people who know a reasonable amount of their history.

They began (as they ended) life at some point in the mid 19th century, at which time they were in the possession of a wealthy middle class family from Barnet. It wouldn’t have been unusual for a Victorian living room to be adorned with such things. Stuffed animals were quite the rage, all part of that characteristic fascination with human superiority and the expanding domain of knowledge. And dead things.

The grounds of this house were tended by one of a long line of gardening men, whose father and father’s fathers had similarly worked the leafy gardens of the burgeoning upper middle classes around North London. Eventually, the owls were gifted to this gardener, Henry Lansbury, and his wife, Emily, who was in service in the same house. Perhaps they had long been coveted by one or the other – a favourite feature in a daily routine of dusting, or cooking, or sweeping grates. Perhaps they were a birthday present, or a thank you for years of service. Perhaps they were one of a number of hand-me-downs. For the recipients, living in relative poverty compared to their employers, they would likely have been one of the grander objects in their possession, out of scale with the tiny terraced house they occupied.

Eventually the owls passed into the hands of this couple’s middle child, Alfred, and were installed in a similarly cramped Victorian terrace, dark with pipe smoke and stuffed with ornaments. Visitors, if they weren’t billeted next door at Mrs Parker’s, were sent to a draughty guest room with a chest-high brass bed and a nightstand with a drawer full of old spectacles. All was presided over with Victorian frugality by the hulking, crotchety figure of Alf and his tiny wife Mabel.

In the clearing of the house after Alfred died, the owls skipped a generation, passing to the daughter of one of Alf’s nephews. She requested them, and another Victorian curiosity, a matchstick model of a huge dark mansion, also in an impressive glass case, as a memento of this gothic household she had known as a child, a time capsule from another age. Her dimly recollected story is that the owls were shot by a nightwatchman keeping an eye on a cemetery. I did not know that owls liked to hang around in pairs. Nor that they were a particular menace to graveyards. For these reasons I partly suspect this tale was one concocted by Uncle Alf to scare wide-eyed little girls.

So at the age of about 100, the owls left Barnet for the first time, and for a while decorated a bedroom in Glasgow, before moving back down South with her, to a flat in Cirencester. The caged mansion did not fare so well, the victim of a sleepwalking accident that shattered its case.

After a few years, oddly out of kilter in a newbuild flat decked out by Ikea, or perhaps just tiring of their macabre stares, Uncle Alf’s great-niece sold them to a collector of stuffed animals, something of a local eccentric. This man also ran a country pub, festooned with bric-a-brac, old signs, curios, and part of his collection of stuffed animals. The owls were warmly welcomed to a new home. The collector has since departed, but the pub thrives, as do the owls, above a fireplace in a poky little back room, watching countless diners tuck into gastrofare.

It occurred to me, looking at them this time, at the randomness of the things that remain. What happened to all the other prized items of that Victorian household? It seems unlikely that these owls are the sole legacy of that family, or what they would want to be remembered by. They may not have cared for them at all, which would have made it easier to give them away to a gardener. But how often that objects are the only tantalising clues that remain about people long gone, leaving us to guess at the rest.

And, in some ways, how remarkable that they have survived given that the craze for preserved dead animals as interior design was a relatively brief one. Although they have not survived with their original meaning intact: this has shifted as the owls passed through time and owners. From one of presumably a number of possessions intended to indicate wealth and status, to a family heirloom valued mainly as an aide-memoire, to a vintage curiosity, provenance largely forgotten. If objects like this could store up their histories and retell them, what a fascinating source of social history they would be.

Also passed on from that first household was an oriental vase. This has not been relegated to an eccentric pub, but remains a domestic ornament, on a bookshelf, surrounded by family snapshots. Both were heirlooms of similar origin, but one is no longer as acceptable adorning a living room wall. Vases endure. The poor owls have been cast out. So if you are ever visiting the Tunnel House Inn, pop into the back parlour and say hello to the Lansbury owls.

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