October 30th 1926 was a sad day for Fleet Street, London. One of its most famous characters had just passed away, succumbing to pneumonia after years of entertaining the crowds in the ancient watering hole Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.
The death was marked by obituaries in around 200 newspapers from across the globe, while an announcement was broadcast from 2LO (the London station of the BBC). The news had ‘gloomed half London’ according to the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette.
Tears weren’t being shed over one of the great writers, journalists or judges often found on this street, but over a parrot named Polly. She was an African Grey, birds who are renowned not only for their longevity (Polly was in her 40th year when she died), but also their great skill at mimicking noises. And Polly was a truly exceptional and celebrated talent.
From the mid-1880s the pub famed for its association with story tellers like Dickens, Thackeray, Boswell and Johnson had a new kid on the block, and his fame grew with age. The Angus Evening Telegraph declared that Polly was known for ‘his knowledge of Scottish words which he ejaculated continually and his imitation of the popping of corks’. According to the Hull Daily Mail, Polly said ‘Rats!’ to customers and ‘gave fictitious orders galore’.
The legend grew, and when in August 1905 Polly disappeared after his cage was left open, the hunt for the bird was big news. According to the Dundee Courier, “Mr Moore the Cheese landlord was in tears, organising a search party of fleet footed waiters who were to be seen spying among the chimney pots and telegraph wires of Wine Office Court, Kings Head Passage and adjoining streets. Policemen were offered gold to find Polly dead or alive and return him to the Cheese. Later in the evening when all seemed lost, a man walking along Farringdon Avenue was asked ‘give me a kiss darling’ to which he replied ‘certainly not’, with the phantom voice then demanding ‘pudding and two veg!’ and ‘Hurry up!’ It was of course Polly, who was caught and with much rejoicing returned to the pub.
Towards the end of 1919 Princess Mary, daughter of King George V, is said to have met Polly while officially opening the new City Women’s Club in adjacent Wine Office Court. Among the assembled crowd, Polly sat perched on the wrist of the head waiter of Ye OIde Cheshire Cheese and Mary stopped to stroke the parrot’s head. The Hull Daily Mail writes ‘To her abiding credit Polly did not indulge in that profane kind of chatter for which she is famous’. According to the excitable journalist in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, Princess Mary ‘insisted on being introduced to Polly. It had to be done, but it aged the manager’.
Acting royalty were also drawn to the famous parrot, with Charlie Chaplin’s ramble through old London and visit of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in 1921 being described by the Nottingham Evening Post: ‘…he tried the famous toasted cheese and talked to the equally famous grey parrot. And the parrot talked to him…Polly chattered like a real lady and even sang a song’.
This article is not only revealing about the fame of Polly, but also indicates confusion (or indifference) to whether it was male or female!
Other legends developed over the years, with stories of Armistice Day 1918 when Polly imitated so many corks popping that he passed out.
But even the brightest - and bluest - of flames eventually go out, and despite ‘frequent doses of whiskey’ Polly passed away in 1926, to the sadness of all those people whose life he had touched.
Headlines around the world pronounced his death:
‘Expert of Profanity Dies’ (New York Times)
‘Famous Parrot of Cheshire Cheese is Pneumonia Victim’ (North China Star)
‘Passing of Polly’ (Calcutta, India)
‘A Loss to Fleet Street’ (Christchurch, NZ)
‘Parrot that cried “Scotch!” at Ancient Fleet Street Tavern to be Stuffed’ (The Sun, Baltimore)
According to the Gloucester Citizen, initially he was ‘stuffed and placed in a hotel, a collecting box beneath appealing for subscriptions to found a cot at St Bartholomew’s Hospital to her memory’. But today Polly is back in her rightful place, above the bar in the pub where he made his name.
After his death, there was a competition to find an appropriate epitaph. This was the winning entry by a G. Rostrevor Hamilton:
‘The pop of corks, the gurgle of wine. Kissing and human speech were mine
Accomplishments that could not save me from the dry and silent grave.
Enough! No maudlin tear be shed: Not all of Polly shall be dead
Though silent, here upon the shelf
I stand – in memory of myself’