Two blocks north of Lake Morton, where the regal descendants of Queen Elizabeth II’s white swans still glide across its waters, a wreath honoring her life, her contribution to the city, and her passing on Thursday stands in the City Hall lobby.
City Communications Director Kevin Cook said City Manager Shawn Sherrouse came up with the idea Friday and Cook’s team ran to a craft store for the materials.
“I felt that showing Lakeland’s appreciation for the Queen, who gifted us our iconic swans back in the 1950s, is a fitting way to pay homage to the lasting impact her generosity has had on our community,” Sherrouse said. “Lakeland is very proud of this unique historical connection and I wanted to show our respect for the benefactor of our beloved community symbol.”
Patrick Patterson, the city’s creative services manager, put together a display of silk lavender roses, burgundy peonies, pale pastel violets, cream hydrangeas, along with greenery and gold and purple ribbon, which all surround a portrait of the queen and a black circle, marking the year of her birth and the year of her death. It reads, “Her Majesty’s Legacy Lives on in Lakeland.”
The swans’ story is legendary in the city.
By 1926, most of Lakeland’s downtown lakes had a natural swan population, with a census of 20, and the city established a Swan Department to help oversee their care. But in 1954, the last swans passed away.
Lakeland native Staff Sgt. Robert Pickhardt, who was serving in England, and his wife heard about the problem and wrote to the then-young queen to request a pair of her swans. One of the queen’s lesser-known titles is Seigneur of Swans, as the royal family is owner of all British swans since the Middle Ages, the city’s website states. The queen agreed to the Pickhardts’ request, but Lakeland would need to cover the costs of Her Majesty’s Swan Keeper wrangling and crating the birds, along with licensing and transporting them via air cargo, all of which totaled about $300.
“The Lord Chamberlain is willing to let you have, as a gift, a pair of swans which are surplus to Her Majesty’s requirements,” a July 1956 letter from the Royal Society For The Prevention of Cruelty To Animals reads. According to Wikipedia, The Lord Chamberlain of the Household is “the most senior officer of the Royal Household of the United Kingdom, supervising the departments which support and provide advice to the Sovereign of the United Kingdom, while also acting as the main channel of communication between the Sovereign and the House of Lords.”
A fundraiser was held, with New York tourist Mrs. Randle Pomeroy paying almost all of the fee, and the royal birds were caught along the Thames River.
“Unfortunately, an oil-carrying barge sank, spilling its contents, which contaminated all birds, including the two bound for Lakeland,” the city’s website states. “The quarantine and process to restore the birds to good health took over five months. Their import license and flight arrangements were all reworked. Their final leg of the journey was a two-week impound in New Jersey.”
The pair of mute swans made their final flight from London to Lakeland, arriving in February 1957. City officials prepared a small green swan house with shingled roof along Lake Morton, which was surrounded by a fence to protect the town’s new guests. The Lakeland Ledger generated a “Name the Swan” contest and invited the whole town, especially any British subjects, to be on site for the pair’s welcome.
On their first morning in Lakeland, their official keeper, Harvey Brock, found the female — dubbed Lady — floating alone in Lake Morton and Sir, her mate, nowhere to be found. All of Lakeland began looking for him. He was spotted on Lake Parker, brought home and both their wings were clipped in short order so they couldn’t fly off. Tragedy struck when an unspecified mishap led to his death. City officials found a commoner for her to mate with and soon, fuzzy gray cygnets were paddling alongside their mother.
The city’s flock has grown, with more than four dozen counted in the last Swan Roundup in October “because of the queen’s generous donation so many decades ago,” Cook said. Some wild swans have also joined the flock and had their wings clipped, just like their royal feathered brethren.
Starting in 1980, each October city officials armed with nets, a good eye and steady hands ride in boats to catch the ornery, elegant birds. The swans were first cared for by now veterinarian emeritus and original “Swanvet” W.G. Gardner. Dr. Patricia Mattson then oversaw the birds for several years and now My Pet’s Animal Hospital contributes their expertise to care for Lakeland’s swan flock.
The city tries to keep the population close to 50 swans, with a count of nearly 55 in 2021 and 84 in 2018. Some swans had to be sold from that large flock.
The swan has become the mascot of Lakeland, with photos of children feeding the birds and their duck, geese and ibis friends along Lake Morton, a rite of passage. A colorful, stylized swan is also on the town’s logo and multiple swan statues are seen throughout the city.
“The Lake Morton swans are a community icon and families have been interacting with the birds for decades,” Director of Parks & Recreation Bob Donahay said during last year’s roundup. “It is very important to us to make sure our Lakeland flock is doing well so we schedule the Swan Roundup each year with the primary purpose to check on the health of our birds.”
Great Britain is currently in 10 days of mourning the loss of Queen Elizabeth II, who was 96 and ruled for 70 years. Her funeral is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 19.
Cook said the city of Lakeland will forever be linked to Queen Elizabeth II because of her generosity with part of her royal flock.
“For her contributions, we say thank you,” Cook said.
Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native. She can be reached at email@example.com or 863-272-9250.
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