Orpingtons and the Family That Created Them
The four most prominent all-purpose breeds of poultry in America were the Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Wyandottes and Orpingtons. The Orpingtons are quite lovely and have thick feathers making them appear even larger than they actually are.
In 1890-91, the first Orpingtons shown in America were presented in Boston under the guidance of the Massachusetts Poultry Association. The first variety was the single comb black. The Buff Orpington single comb followed in 1899 in Madison Square Garden. William Cook’s son later noted that his father worked on developing the Black Orpington some 10 years before he achieved a bird he thought worthy of introduction.
Orpingtons were noted in the “Transactions of the Highland Agricultural Society of Scotland” in 1905, both black and buff. No date was found for their initial introduction into Scotland, but it was probably soon after they were first bred in Orpington, England.
In 1912, Thomas McGrew said, “The first Buff Orpington fowls were made by William Cook, of Orpington County, Kent, England (1886), who set out to produce the best all-purpose breed by crossing, Minorca cocks with Black Plymouth Rock hens, then clean-leg Langshan cocks were bred to the above hens.” Another account says Golden Spangled Hamburgs and Buff Cochins were crossed and then those offspring were bred to dark or colored Dorkings. Those offspring were then bred to Buff Cochins and thus was born the Buff Orpington.
“When Mr. Cook decided to give to the world the Orpington fowl he did a service to the poultry fraternity that never can be repaid. It consisted in furnishing us with one of the best and most popular varieties of fowls that has ever been dreamed of. They surely can be termed the sporting and utility variety as there is no better variety for family use, or one that gives the poultryman more genuine pleasure to produce and exhibit.” The article noted that Wm. Cook & Sons had taken more than 13,000 first place prizes, not counting any of the others for second or third place. “Suffice it to state that they have won at all the largest and most important shows in America from one end to the other.” – The Poultry Item. January and April 1914.
One of the goals in breeding them was to get a white-skinned dual-purpose breed for the English market. While Americans preferred yellow-skin, the English had different notions. Mr. Cook compared his original Orpingtons to turkeys in flavor and color of the meat.
Mr. Cook, proprietor of William Cook & Sons, said himself that he showed two of his Orpingtons at the Crystal Palace, and he received orders for birds he could not fill because he only had the stock birds he was using as breeders. He later sold some 200 sittings of eggs and, in 1887, Orpingtons were acknowledged as a pure breed. A club was established the same year to promote the breed. (The Crystal Palace was built in 1851 and stood until it was destroyed by fire in 1936 so it is difficult to attach a date to Mr. Cook’s presentation.)
Cook was a talented breeder and an even more phenomenal businessman. The marketing strategy for pure Buff Orpingtons worked so well, it was impossible to keep up with the demand and some poultry yards sold chicks as Buff Orpingtons, which were actually just the offspring of Buff Cochins and Dorkings. One English breeder said up to 75 percent of chicks sold as Buff Orpingtons were not. “Anything bearing the name Buff Orpington was saleable, or as a Lincolnshire breeder wrote us, ‘If I call my birds Lincolnshire Buff, I cannot get more than 4 s. each for them; if I call them Buff Orpingtons, they readily sell at 10 s. each’.” There is little wonder that advertisements for Cook & Sons promised only pure bred chickens from the original strain.
After the initial black, Cook added buff, white, Jubilee (speckled) and Spangled (mottled). A.C. Gilbert, Mr. Cook’s son-in-law, is credited with the blue (lavender) and the Cuckoo although Cook’s daughter, Elizabeth Jane, has also been credited with having bred the first Cuckoo in 1907. The Jubilee Orpington was named for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (a commemoration of the queen’s 60 years on the throne). Perhaps one of Cook’s crowning achievements was in gifting some Jubilee Orpingtons to Queen Victoria during her Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
It is unclear whether the confusion stemmed from the children each seeking his or her share of fame, or whether the press sometimes got their stories twisted, but after the creation of the black, buff and white by William Cook, the subsequent Jubilee, Cuckoo and blue varieties have been attributed to A.C. Gilbert, Elizabeth Jane Cook Clarke and Percy Cook. Percy said, in an article he wrote and submitted to The Field Illustrated in 1919, work on the blue was started by his father prior to his death and finished by himself in the U.S. and by, “one of my family on the other side.”
Owners could appreciate no real difference in productivity or flavor between one color and another. It came down to simply personal preference with regard to color. “The Orpingtons have made a reputation for themselves as the best winter egg producers we have, and the reputation is increasing by leaps and bounds, because the fowls live up to expectations when given half a show.
“The chicks are hardy, quick growers, and until they begin to run to leg are always ready to sell for broilers or fryers. As roasters they are world beaters and the most remarkable feature of the Orpington hen is, that it continues to pay its board until six or seven years old. At three years old, they are in their prime and will lay quite as many eggs as in the first year if kept from putting on fat. This can be done with exercise and correct feeding.”
Orpingtons lay somewhere between 175 and 200 light brown eggs per year on average, and continue to lay through winter. They are considered dual-purpose, valued as much for meat as eggs. They are good mothers and if allowed to set, reproduce quite well.
The Black Australorp was bred from the original Black Orpingtons as created by Cook. It came about in an effort to tailor the Orpington for South African commercial production. William Cook also bred Orpington ducks in several colors.
Let’s look at the Cook family and what seems the most likely origin of the subsequent Orpingtons.
An article in the Northern Advocate dated January 26, 1901 (p. 5), noted a local man had ordered Orpington fowls and ducks from William Cook & Sons of Orpington House, St. Mary Cray, Kent, whom the writer referred to as one of the greatest poultry breeders in England, if not the world.
“He exports hundreds of birds every year to all parts of the Empire, and on a recent trip which he made to Australia he brought out no less than 200 thoroughbred fowls. It was on his farm of 3,000 acres in Kent where he keeps no less than 8,000 birds that the now famous breeds of Orpingtons were produced, taking their name from his house and farm. Mr. Cook is among that unfortunately small number of breeders who believe in breeding for utility more than for ‘show points.’ Before the Orpingtons were introduced, it was thought to be well nigh impossible to combine in one fowl all the best qualities of the table and laying varieties. But Mr. Cook by judicious selection and crossing at last succeeded, and all those who keep fowls for profit owe him a debt of gratitude.”
William Cook was born in 1849 in St. Neots, Huntingdon, England. He began work as a carriage driver in Kent in 1863. He was breeding poultry by 1869 and established a poultry business at St. Mary Cray, near the town of Orpington, Kent, England, in 1886. He began publication of the Poultry Journal in 1886. He was a keen businessman who promoted his poultry with tours, lectures, and the magazine which he edited and also contributed articles to. He called it, William Cook’s Poultry Journal. The title was later changed to William Cook & Sons’ Poultry Journal. The journal was informative and appreciated by a large readership, but its main purpose was as a platform from which to advertise Cook’s poultry – namely the Orpington chickens and Orpington ducks.
The blue duck (1896) was the first of the Orpington ducks followed by the buff (1897). They are good layers and quick-growing meat ducks. Apparently they were first shown in the U.S. in 1908, and were admitted to the American Standard of Perfection in 1914.
All of Cook’s children had a hand in running the business. There were Elizabeth Jane, the oldest; William Henry, the oldest son; sons Albert Lockley and Percy A. Cook; and a young daughter, Lily, who married Arthur C. Gilbert. No indication was found that Lily took part in the business, but her husband did.
Albert Cook was noted as a member of the British Dairy Farmer Association for the years 1916, ’17 and ’20 at which time his address was Orpington House, but aside from brief accounts of his having started a branch of William Cook & Sons in South Africa not much else is known about him. This is perhaps because South African newspapers and magazines are not readily available for research.
Elizabeth Jane married R. Wakeman Clarke. She is credited with being the first to ship poultry via airplane and some accounts credit her with having created the Cuckoo Orpington (it is possible that distinction should go to, or be shared with, her brother-in-law, A.C. Gilbert).
Elizabeth Jane took charge of the poultry yard when her father was away on business or in seclusion writing and became quite talented in raising poultry so it was only natural that she would manage the business after her father died.
William Cook & Sons created a bird hospital and sold medicines, vitamins and feed for poultry. There were Cook’s Poultry Powders, Cook’s Roup Powders, Cook’s Improved Insect Powder, Ointment for Destroying Nits on Fowls, W. Cook’s Fattening Powders, Poultry houses, sitting coops, drinking fountains and corn bins, W. Cook’s book, The Poultry Keeper’s Account Book, W. Cook’s Flint Grit, etc. They clearly launched one of the most successful advertising campaigns of the 19th century.
William Cook was also a horse breeder and developed products for horses including W. Cook’s Horse Powders.
William Cook wrote in 1901 that the Orpington ducks were being marketed under a different name by a different party. He named no names, but his children would not prove to be so discreet. He may have meant Mrs. A. Campbell who is credited with having created the Khaki Campbells, Miss N. Edwards who came up with a fawn colored example, or he most likely meant his son, William Henry Cook, who by that time had left the firm and gone out on his own. It has been written that the family squabbles stemmed from William Cook having lent William Henry money to buy his home, Elm Cottage.
A terrible tragedy occurred June 27, 1903, which took the life of William Cook’s wife, Jane. She accompanied her son, William Henry, and daughter-in-law, Catherine, on a visit to Lily and A. C. Gilbert’s home. Afterward, she went to the property owned by William Henry and Catherine, which was undergoing restoration. A gas chandelier was found lowered and when William Henry raised it, the flame touched off an explosion that rocked the house and nearby neighborhood.
William Henry first carried out his wife who was closest and then returned inside for his mother. All three suffered serious burns. Jane Cook died the next day, June 28, 1903. William Cook died almost one year later of emphysema at age 55. In William’s obituary it was noted that all his children (Elizabeth Jane was now the wife of R.W. Clarke) and Lily’s husband, A.C. Gilbert, would be running the business. Mr. W.H. Cook was said to have relinquished his connection prior to his father’s death. Elizabeth Jane seems to have bought out her other two brothers’ and her sister’s interests in the English branch of the business.
William Henry received nothing from his father’s estate. He was called “Poultry Farmer of the Model Farm” in documents related to his father’s estate. When William Henry advertised his poultry claiming as the eldest son, he had managed his father’s concern until 1903, his sister, Elizabeth Jane, did some advertising of her own claiming her brother had no ties to William Cook & Sons and that all correspondence meant for the business should be addressed to her. That battle would blunder on for quite some time.
One of those ads in the International Poultry Book noted William Cook & Sons, originators of all the Orpingtons, had been in business upwards of half a century. “The Original Cook Strains are only obtainable from their one address in England, St. Mary Cray, Kent. They have NO BRANCHES ANYWHERE and no connection whatever with anyone else of same name.” – Woodard, George. Victoria Australia. 1913.
William Cook and Sons became an international entity, operating simultaneously in England, South Africa and the U.S , each under the care of a different child of William and Jane Cook.
In 1909, Percy Cook attended the Crystal Palace Show after which he brought home to New Jersey 250 Orpingtons, several of which had won first prizes at the show. (This may have been the same year his father showed at that facility.) In 1914, he was elected vice president of the American White Orpington Club and served on the Executive Committee. – American Poultry Advocate. April 1914. Poultry Journal. April 1909.
After William Cook showed Orpingtons in Boston, New York, Chicago, etc., demand was high, and Percy opened the breeding yard at Scotch Plains, New Jersey, also named Wm. Cook & Sons, to help fill orders for chicks and eggs. “Every one of the old school remembers Peggy the Kellerstrass White Orpington hen valued at $10,000, a 99 score fowl. The many eggs laid by that hen and her prodigy sold at $5 an egg.”
“About 1,500 fowls, including all the varieties of Orpingtons are kept constantly on hand and fresh pedigreed birds are imported from England at the rate of 400 to 600 a month. Thus purchasers are sure of stock directly imported from the offspring of the original flock or from birds raised in America from the same stock; the same may be said of the eggs. A careful record is kept of every bird sold so that if a buyer wishes unrelated fowls for the sake of new blood they can always be furnished to him. All fowls coming from the Wm. Cook & Sons Farms are guaranteed to be in good condition.” – Country Life in America. March 1905.
American Poultry Journal called William Cook & Sons the, “well-known originators of all the Orpingtons.” They voiced the opinion that Scotch Plains would have been better called Cookstown, “as nearly everything belongs to them anyway.” Their record was more than 12,000 first prizes won in U.S. shows and the exhibition at the Crystal Palace in England. – June 1910.
“Cook’s Farm,” operated by Percy Cook, was once owned by Wesley Roll, a local farmer. It sat on the “old Springfield Road” between Springfield and Scotch Plains, New Jersey. The Roll home was torn down prior to 1855 when Wesley Roll died. Ownership of the property probably passed to another party who then sold it to Percy Cook. – Franz, R.J. The Roll Family Windmill: Genealogy of the Roll Family. 1977.
“During the World War, Percy joined the forces of the United States in Uncle Sam’s uniform, and the plant at Scotch Plains discontinued furnishing stock, but under a skillful poultryman the breeding stock was kept up and increased in order to take care of the demand after the war. I had a long talk with Mr. Cook a short time ago and he told me he was proud to say that his stock is better than ever and the stock and eggs he will sell will sure make his customers happy. Besides being the originator and breeder of Orpingtons, Mr. Cook breeds most every kind of water fowl and ornamental bird. He is also a lover of animals even to lions. One large African lion used to be chained like a huge dog on the front lawn. Instead of a flivver Percy Cook rides in an airplane.” – Poultry Success. June 1921.
“The ornamental fowl shown by William Cook & Sons, Scotch Plains, New Jersey, in Atlantic City included: cranes from Austria, India and Madagascar; white and gray Java Sparrows; Cut-throat and assorted Finches; Austrian Paraquets; talking Beebee Parrots; Brazilian Cardinals, Canaries, and the Dove with the bleeding heart. Besides, they showed Buff Orpington Ducks from England; Cayuga Ducks from East Indies; Mallard, Pin Tail and White Call Ducks from America; Rouen Ducks from France; Famosa Teal Ducks from East Indies; Chinese Mandarin Ducks from China; Tree Ducks from Japan; and a White Trumpeter Swan from America. He also showed Black, Buff and Blue Orpington chickens.” – American Poultry Advocate. September 1913.
Many of the land birds were lost or scattered when a storm blew away the aviary in which they were housed. There were 12 species of cranes, “some costing up to $200 each,” many pheasants and other birds. “Up to the present all the cranes, peafowl and storks have been caught, and a number of the pheasants but some three dozen are still at liberty but around the place, they will now be left to roam around the gardens and make rather a pretty sight. …The damage done amounted to about $2,000 but no part of the poultry plant suffered.” Percy had won 170 first-place and 106 second-place prizes during the year 1913 alone.
It must have taken a great deal of confidence for other growers to exhibit their Orpingtons against the family known far and wide as the originators of the breed. Indeed, Percy wrote to the Reliable Poultry Journal that he’d been asked not to exhibit his stock at one of the largest eastern shows as there was “some hesitancy on the part of other exhibitors to enter into competition with their Orpingtons.” It was arranged then that Percy would be a judge and not an exhibitor at the show.
Arthur C. Gilbert, Cook’s son-in-law, continued to show Orpingtons after William Cook died, exhibiting birds in a show at Madison Square Garden in February 1905 for which he took several prizes and was still showing blue Orpingtons in Madison Square Garden in April 1918. He was almost certainly living in the U.S. at that time as the American Poultry Journal noted that “A.C. Gilbert, who for a number of years was manager of William Cook & Sons plant in England, has accepted the position of assistant manager of the American plant. P.A. (Percy) Cook is still active manager and will continue to personally attend to the selection of all orders. Both Mr. Cook and Mr. Gilbert are well known in Orpington circles.”
William Henry Cook moved his business to Orpington and seems to have profited greatly, enjoying, in addition to his orders, increased chance sales at his farm from passengers arriving or leaving from the train station as his property sat closest to the station and the name Cook was easily recognized by everyone interested in poultry.
His sister, Elizabeth Jane, produced two editions of her father’s book, “The Practical Poultry Breeder and Feeder.” She managed William Cook & Sons until 1936 when the company was pronounced bankrupt. She died in 1947 at home in Orpington House. Some accounts say she died of a massive stroke, another says she was attacked and may have died afterward. Her actual cause of death remains unknown.
William Henry Cook operated his business until he retired at age 75 in 1949. He died the next year in London.
Thompson, J.M. “The Orpington Ducks.”
The Livestock Conservancy, formerly the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
Nielson, Bent. “The Story of Orpington.” Translated online.
The Poultry Item. April 1918.
Drevenstedt, John Henry. “Standard-bred Orpingtons, Black, Buff and White. 1911. Quincy, Illinois.
Wheeler, Arthur Stanley. “Profitable breeds of Poultry.” 1912. London.
Swaysgood, Susan. “California Poultry Practice.” 1915. San Francisco.
Basley, A. “Western Poultry Book.” 1912.
The Field Illustrated. March 1915 and June 1919.
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