Tribute to Wiliam Hyla Pensom: Gentle Man of Pigeons

                                                                                      by G.B.Peterson **


                                                        Wiliam Hyla pensom1904-1968

The Birmingham Roller continues to be one of the most popular breeds in the history of the pigeon fancy. For the most part, this popularity is due, of course, to the incredible acrobatic teat from which the breed derives its name. Even people who otherwise pay no attention whatsoever to pigeons marvel at the aerial performance of this exceptional little bird. What a sight it is to see a flying pigeon suddenly execute a series of backward somersaults, apparently at will, with such extraordinary speed as to become a whirling wheel of feathers spinning swiftly through the air. And to see the frenzied cascade of a full kit rolling in concert is to witness something almost beyond belief.For those who appreciate fine live- stock in general and pigeons in particular, the Birmingham Roller is favored for its primacy of function, purity of form, variety of color, intelligent expression, appealing temperament, pleasing docility, strong flying, tight kitting - and for the supreme challenge bringing all of these qualities together presents to breeding theory and practice. To the true Roller fancier, nothing is more aesthetically pleasing in the air or in the loft than a classic Birmingham, and nothing is more intellectually challenging than trying to maintain, if not improve upon, this high standard of excellence. While Rollers are among the easiest of pigeons to raise in terms of fecundity and hardiness, they may be the most difficult to breed to perfection. That the challenge is not totally insurmountable, however, has been amply demonstrated by the master breeders of the hobby. And the knowledge of what others have achieved adds to the charm and wonder of the breed, causing the aspiring breeder to strive even harder to attain the ideal. In this connection, no one has inspired more breeders than the late William H. Pensom.

It has been 20 years since Bill Pensom passed away . Fanciers who were middle aged then have grown old, those who were young are now middle aged, and many who are presently discovering the bobby and the fascination it holds were not yet even born. Several of Pensom's contemporaries have also passed on, and some have been nearly forgotten. But while new names and new ideas have gained currency and old ones have faded from the scene, the legend of Bill Pensom has endured  

and many of today's most ardent fanciers still ponder and draw inspiration from the many things he had to say. Why? Who was this man? How did he become a Roller legend? Why is he venerated so?

William Hyla Pensom was born in 1904 in Birmingham, England, and if ever there was a "born fancier", he was. Because his father and grand- father were fanciers, his initiation to the hobby came early. By the time he was an adolescent he already had become personally acquainted with many of the actual founding fathers of the breed, men who had done critical foundation breeding in the 1800's and who had literally brought the Birmingham Roller into the 20th century. The significance of the achievements of those early breeders is made all the more remarkable by the fact that their work was done long before the discovery of Mendel's principles and the establishment of the science of genetics. But this was not unique to the origin of the Birmingham Roller. The British were early leaders in the field of practical animal breeding in virtually all areas, with impressive results having been obtained many years  before any  scientific understanding of the biological mechanisms involved was available. Developing distinctive breeds of live- stock was, to a considerable extent, a national preoccupation and source of pride. The founding fathers of the Birmingham Roller may have known nothing of chromosomes, genes, dominance, etc., but they shared with their fellow countrymen a well- honed ability to spot quality stock and an intuitive understanding of heritable variation and directional selection capable of producing results which modern breeders would be hard-pressed to match.

Thus, one of the reasons Pensom was so influential is because, for all practical purposes, when  the Birmingham Roller came into being, he was there. He was born into a culture rich in animal breeding tradition and achievement, and he was schooled in the whys and wherefores of the Birmingham Roller by some of the very inventors of the breed. These lessons were not lost on a lad of young Pensom's intelligence. He listened, he saw, he did, he under- stood, and he remembered.

By the time he was 25 years old, Bill Pensom was becoming recognized in the homeland of the Birmingham Roller as one of the experts of the breed. It was at about this time that he began to apply his considerable writing skill  to describing the Birmingham Roller, its breeding and  management, to the pigeon fancy of    'the world at large. His articulate and absorbing essays opened eyes throughout the English- speaking world as to what the possibilities in Roller fancying really were. Up to that time these possibilities had been realized primarily in and around the Black Country, his home region, even though tumbling pigeons were well known and had been kept around the world for centuries. Granted, others had written about Rollers before, but no one had ever presented such clear descriptions of management practices or ideals of performance, type, and expression as Bill Pensom did. His descriptions were so vivid and stirring that fanciers in North America were moved to import stock from England. It wasn't long before Roller fanciers all over the U.S. were trying the English way of doing things, and the English imports soon became the dominant strain in American lofts.

Although it was important that Pensom's essays were unusually well written, stimulated the imagination, and were widely read, there was something else about them that was far more important. The techniques he described worked! Fanciers discovered that when they applied the disciplined approach which Pensorn had outlined, their success with the birds and their enjoyment of the hobby dramatically increased. Suddenly there was a clear, practical method for training youngsters and for managing flyers. and a system (though perhaps not so clear) for choosing breeders and matching them into pairs. If one followed the method and the system, one reaped rewards far in excess of that which had attended the haphazard habits of the past. This standardization of method, in turn, gave a coherence to the hobby which it had never really had before, a coherence which fostered far more interaction among Roller fanciers. The common frame of reference which Pensom had provided gave fanciers a meaningful context within which to talk to one another. They could now compare notes on the effects of varying this or that aspect of the basic technique. Innovations began to emerge, and the hobby began to progress. Roller clubs, Roller newsletters, Roller books, in short, Roller culture began to evolve at an unprecedented rate, and the lives of fanciers were significantly enriched. To a great extent, this entire process was sparked by a single individual, William H. Pensom.

Thus, another reason Pensom was so influential is because he broke new ground in terms of the clarity and detail of his essays, presenting a well-specified, functional approach which served to bring together and then significantly advance the hobby. Furthermore, he came to be identified with a very popular strain of imported Birminghams to the point where the names "Pensom" and "Birmingham Roller" became vitually synonymous.

Another thing that helped make Pensom a legend was that he was, quite simply. an unforgettable character. Americans are always impressed by people with English accents, their figures of speech, choice of words, turn of phrase, etc., and this was, no doubt, part of Bill Pensom's charm. But it went beyond that. He was clever and witty, and he could be very entertaining. For example, he liked to play the banjo and sing, and could be cajoled, without great difficulty, into leading others in an old-fashioned singalong. And although he held the exalted position of world's leading Roller authority, he was never haughty or aloof., he was always more than willing to talk to or correspond with anyone. novice or expert, junior or senior, true fancier or pigeon keeper, treating all with courtesy, generosity, kindness, and grace. People felt good and had a good time when Bill was around, and so he became influential among pigeon fanciers for reasons of personality, good humor, and charisma, in addition to his interest in Rollers.

Fanciers identified with Pensom even further because he was also a "regular guy", a working man, a family man. He was not a rich man in fact, quite the contrary, and he was faced with the task of balancing his devotion to the hobby with meeting family responsibilities in the same way that other fanciers were. In doing so, he demonstrated that raising Rollers was not a trivial or frivolous pastime suitable only for boys or hermits, but a serious pursuit - a kind of calling - for mature, responsible men with families, homes, and jobs. Also, by example Pensom proved that one didn't have to be a rocket scientist or existential philosopher to think analytically about a problem or to write thoughtfully about it. This encouraged other regular working men to venture forth and to explore scholarly pursuits of potential relevance to the hobby, to indulge in a bit of scientific contemplation, and to attempt to express themselves in writing. For several, this brought added dimension and richness to their lives, and in some cases it brought singular  meaning  to otherwise rather mundane existences. It is understandable that they would be immensely grateful to Pensom for the part he played in this personal self-actualization, and that they would hold him in very high regard because of it.

Pensom is also remembered by many today because of the effect he had on the formation of their character. Most likely without being aware of it himself, Bill Pensom presented a wholesome model of adult decorum to young fanciers who were teenagers in the 50's and 60's. It is clear now that Bill Pensom served as a very good example to many youngsters of that generation, and that he had a positive influence on them which extended well beyond the backyard pigeon coop and their teenage years. His writings on the simple subject of raising pigeons taught how civility, scholarliness, and dignity could be brought to even the most ordinary aspects of daily life. To a number of budding young fanciers. Bill Pensom came to represent what it meant to have an earnest dedication to something, a disciplined commitment to an ideal. an unyielding perseverance. These are concepts which apply to life in general, not just to raising Rollers.

Finally. Bill Pensom's memory endures today because he endured. Through four decades he was the preeminent figure on the international Roller scene, steadfast and constant. Fads. trends, and personalities would come and go. rise and fall, but W.H. Pensom was always there. While some of the finer details of his conception of the Birmingham Roller changed over the years, his general interpretation and view remained remarkably constant from the 1930's through the 1960's. In other words, he stood for something that lasts. And although it is quite easy for the contemporary fancier, with the benefit of a modern education, to find the occasional illogical, nonsensical, or just plain false statement in Pensom's writings, the great mass of what he wrote is rich in practical wisdom and insight, and it will continue to advise and guide the serious student for a long time to come. Answers for the future are often found buried in the past.

Bill Pensom brought a patient gentlemanliness to the bobby of raising Roller pigeons the likes of which we may never see again. In a way, he was an ambassador from another era, bringing attitudes and knowledge from the past to the fanciers of the present. firmly but diplomatically pressing his cause, negotiating new ideas and perspectives, all of the while transmitting the values and skills of stewardship required to assure the successful transfer of the tradition to the fanciers of the future. There was a real uplifting of spirit and habit, sometimes even in other aspects of their lives, among those who took his advice to heart and emulated his manner. And by the many who practice the classic approach today. this gentle man of pigeons will never be forgotten.

**APJ May 1988