A Short History of Cochin Chinas

Reader Contribution by The Historic Foodie
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A little bit of research revealed some interesting facts about Cochins poultry. They were kept by Queen Victoria and, per the “Illustrated London News,” Dec. 23, 1843, were obtained from China some time prior to that publication date. In both England and the U.S., they were initially called Cochin-Chinas. Another source stated her Cochins were a gift from the Chinese ambassador when the Chinese ports opened after the war. The war referred to was almost certainly the First Opium War with China (also referred to as the Anglo-Chinese War), which lasted from 1839-1842.

The Queen and Prince Albert had a keen interest in poultry matters at, “the home farm,” (Windsor).

Photo: iStockphoto.com/fuchs-photography

“The British minister in 1843 secured what he supposed unquestionably to be a very choice lot of the colossal poultry of China, which he sent to London for the Queen’s world-renowned aviary.”

“Her Majesty’s collection of fowls is very considerable, occupying half-a-dozen very extensive yards, several small fields, and numerous feeding-houses, laying-sheds, hospitals, winter courts, etc. It is, however, in the new fowl-house that the more and curious birds are kept, and to these – as the common sorts are well known – we shall confine our attention. The Cochin-China fowls claim the first consideration. These extraordinary birds are of gigantic size, and in their proportions very nearly allied to the family of bustards, to which, in all probability they are proximately related – in fact, they have already acquired the name of the ‘ostrich fowl’. In general colour they are of a rich glossy brown, tail black, and on the breast a horse-shoe marking of black; the comb cleanly and neatly formed, with shallow serrations; the wattles double.

“Two characters appear to be peculiar to them – one, the arrangement of the feathers on the back of the cock’s neck, which are turned upwards; and the other, the form of the wing, which is jointed, to fold together, so that, on occasion, the bird may double up its posterior half and bring it forward between the anterior half and the body. The eggs are of a deep mahogany colour, and of a delicious flavor. These birds are very healthy, quiet, attached to home, and in every respect suited to the English climate. They are fed, like most of the other fowls, on a mixture of boiled rice, potatoes, and milk.”

Photo: Fotolia/Julia Mashkova

The notion that Cochins were related to bustards was pointed out to be ridiculous, and some claimed that native peoples in Cochinchina were completely unaware of them. The wattles were not at all double, but were perceived as such because of the “largely developed ear-lobes.” The article quoted from (1867) noted there were buff, cinnamon, black and white Cochins.

Many wrote that the Shanghai and the Cochin were the same by different names. Numerous accounts discussed the difference in the first Cochins brought to England and those common in the 1870s, primarily the presence or absence of feathers on the legs (absent in 1849, present in later stock).

The diminutive Cochin Bantam was featured in the Crystal Palace poultry exhibition in 1862, shown by Mr. Kerrich of Dorking. 

Numerous writers documented the enormous popularity of the birds after they were reported to be kept by the royal couple. “This consignment created a wondrous furore among the lovers of poultry; and the royal ‘Cochin Chinas’ were the town talk for months after their arrival upon British soil.”

Photo: Fotolia/Julia Mashkova

Let’s see when they arrived in the U.S. and by what means. 

“The Queen presented a prize pair to Lord Heytsbury, then lord-lieutenant of Ireland; and he sent them to J. Joseph Nolan of Bachelor’s Walk, Dublin, to breed. I communicated with Mr. Nolan and finally purchased two cocks and four pullets of this Queen Victoria Cochin China stock, which were the first Cochins imported into America (Massachusetts to be precise) by a citizen of the United States, by at least two years in point of time.”

In 1850, a premium was awarded to George P. Burnham at the Exhibition of Poultry in Boston for his “Royal Cochin Chinas” and their progeny bred with care from his imported stock. To elaborate, his Cochins were bred from the Queen’s stock and obtained “by Mr. Burnham last winter, at heavy cost, and are unquestionably, at this time the finest thorough-bred Cochin Chinas in America.” He declined an offer of $120 for 12 birds and $20 for choice of pullets. That was a substantial amount of money in 1850.

The following men were known to possess a pair obtained from the Rev. Mr. Dixon thought to have descended from the Queen Victoria stock: Mr. Devereux of Boston, Mr. H. Lawrence of Mobile, Mr. Taggart of Northumberland, Pennsylvania, Mr. Hugh Wilson of South Carolina, Mr. Evans of Baltimore, Mr. Knorr of West Philadelphia, the Rev. Mr. Goddard and Messrs. Remington and E. R. Cope of Philadelphia, “besides many others whose names I cannot now recall … .”

Photo: Fotolia/Becky Stares

Poultry magazines were carrying advertisements for them by the early 1850s in the U.S. and “The Farmer’s Magazine” (January 1854) set out to determine what prompted so much interest in them that farmers would pay considerably more for them than a comparable breed. Their rarity and the fact that the queen kept them seemed to be their only advantage over other chickens in the same size and class.

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