© Anna Kucherova Raven pictured June 2011 - perhaps someone knows who it is....
The following is an extract from my newly published book Beastly London and it contains some research I did, which should be of interest to certain historians (mentioned) and also the Tower of London.
"Another ‘grave’ black bird that lived in London in large numbers, only to disappear, was the raven: they last nested in the wild in Hyde Park in 1826. Today, they still inhabit the Tower of London and are probably the one ‘wild’ animal that tourists associate with the City. A visit to the Tower is not complete without seeing the [now] six ravens which saunter around the grounds, keeping a beady eye on the visitors and waiting for someone to ignore the ‘BEWARE: RAVENS BITE’ sign.
Legend has it that the ravens, traditionally considered bad luck, were introduced to the Tower by Charles II; it is not clear why he did this, but he was more than willing to kill them off when the Astronomer Royal complained that the birds were interfering with his star-gazing activities in a turret of the White Tower. However, when Charles gave the order to dispatch the ravens, someone informed him of a prophecy that said, ‘If the ravens left the Tower, the White Tower would collapse and a great disaster would befall the kingdom.’ Charles took the prophecy so seriously that he ordered the observatory to move to Greenwich, and that at least six ravens should be kept at the Tower to prevent any catastrophe.
However, Geoff Parnell, the official Tower of London historian, recently scoured records dating back a thousand years and found no reference to the raven prophecy, until an article in 1949, reporting feral cats attacking the Tower ravens. But the ‘lore’ of the prophecy must have been known before this, as during the Second World War the ravens were all killed, or pined away, during the air raids and their deaths were not made public. When the Tower reopened in 1946, there was a full complement of six ravens.
Parnell also found no reference to resident ravens at the Tower before an 1895 article in the RSPCA journal the Animal World, where an Edith Hawthorn referred to the Tower’s pet cat being tormented by the ravens, Jenny and a nameless mate. However, this author [me] has found a ‘factional’ piece in The Star newspaper in 1888, which relates a country girl visiting the Tower of London for the first time: ‘She puts up her pince-nez and looks down at the Tower raven, that is peering down at the brass plate that marks the old place of execution.’[i] Presumably there was a raven at the Tower at this time and the naturalist W.H. Hudson, writing in 1898, writes of two or three ravens being kept at the Tower ‘for many years past’.[ii] Either way, Purnell believes that the presence of the ravens only dates back to the late-Victorian period, and the raven prophecy to last century. He concludes that the story of the ravens, ‘says much about the effectiveness of the machinery at the Tower for manufacturing legends.’[iii]"
[i] ‘The Modern Country Cousin’, The Star, 18 December 1888.
[ii] W.H. Hudson, Birds in London (London, 1898), p.27.
[iii] Geoffrey Parnell, ‘Riddle of the Tower Ravens almost resolved’, London Topographical Society Newsletter, No. 65; November 2007, pp.5-7. Boria Sax has also come to the same conclusions about the Tower ravens: 'How Ravens Came to the Tower of London', Society and Animals, 15 (2007), pp.269-83.
Update: Boria Sax got in touch (as I hoped he might) and he has found an image from 1883 of the ravens at the Tower (from London Town by Thos Crane and Ellen Houghton). It still means that the ravens were a Victorian invention, probably introduced to enhance the gory atmosphere of the Tower as a site of executions.
according to Boria) when a Ministry of Works' memo noted that Watney's Brewery in Plimlico had a raven as a good luck mascot, but it had died and the workers/owners were desperate for a replacement bird to protect them against all the bombs flying around... ravens were well known as an early warning system as they would call out when they saw/heard danger approaching. Boria has written City of Ravens which tells the definitive history of ravens in London.