I honestly would not have known what people were talking about if I heard them say “swan upping.” Quite logically, it must have something to do with swans. But what about swans?
Well, in the UK, swan upping is somewhat of an important event. It is actually an activity that has a dual purpose – both ceremonial and practical. Every year, the mute swans in the River Thames are rounded up and then marked and then released back to the “wild.” Swan upping is normally held around the third week of July.
Tradition has it that there are three groups of people involved in the activity. There are the Queen’s Swan Uppers, the Vintners’ Swan Uppers, and the Dyers’ Swan Uppers. These three groups come from a 15th Century Charter wherein two Livery companies in London had the right to share the ownership of the swans with the royalty. As such, these three groups would comb the River Thames in an effort to mark which swans would belong to which group.
So how are the swans marked? The swans caught by the Queen’s Swan Uppers would not be marked. The swans caught by the Vintners’ Swan Uppers would be ringed on both legs. The swans caught by the Dyers’ Swan Uppers would be ringed on one leg.
It used to be that the swans were caught and marked for practical purposes – to be eaten eventually. Today, however, the swans are rarely eaten, except perhaps during State Banquets.