During the late 1800s “Hen Fever”, that great public interest in strange and
wonderful new chicken breeds from around the world, started to die down and
in its aftermath a love of poultry remained, now tempered by a desire for
practicality. Dual-purpose American chicken breeds were just reaching England
where they were respected for their practical qualities, but disparaged for
their yellow skin (the British preferring white skin). William Cook was a
humble coachman living in the Kentish town of Orpington, in England, and he had
an idea. He began crossing Minorca roosters with Black Plymouth Rock hens, and
then the offspring to clean-legged Langshan chickens. His goal was to develop a
hardy, fast growing chicken that laid well and yet had the table qualities the
British market sought. In 1886 he introduced his creation to the public – it
was a success and within 10 years Orpington chickens were well established in
England and began to be exported to other countries.
William Cook enjoyed a rare commodity – success – and his fortunes grew. But
it is not his entrepreneurial spirit that is to be celebrated, but his skill in
breeding. Mr. Cook focused his breeding efforts on developing the body and
productive traits of his poultry; in the process many birds came as they might
in color pattern. Thus Mr. Cook had the bright idea to create many varieties of
his Orpington chickens. He first introduced the Black, and then the White
Orpington, the Buff, the Jubilee [Speckled], and the Spangled [Mottled]. His
son-in-law, A.C. Gilbert, created the Blue and the Cuckoo Orpingtons.
Orpington chickens reached America by 1891. In 1903 William Cook himself
brought over a large importation and showed them in America. Farmers of the
mid-western states favored the Buff Orpington chicken for its generally
superior table-qualities, and its unique color – different than most
general-purpose breeds. Orpingtons continued to boom until the poultry industry
experienced a depression about 1912.
The qualities that won all the Orpington chicken varieties recognition were
fast rate of growth, excellent egg production, and excellent table-quality.
Historically, Orpington chickens made excellent broilers weighing 2 to 2.5 lbs
at 8-10 weeks of age, excellent roasting chickens at 5 months of age, and
excellent old fowl for the table as well. They are first-rate layers of large
light to dark brown eggs. In fact, they were entered into the first egg-laying
contest, held at the North Yorkshire farm of Simon Hunter of Northallerton,
England, in 1887.
Orpington chickens were recognized by the American Poultry Association as a
standard bred in four varieties: Buff, 1902; Black, 1905; White, 1905; and
Blue, 1923. Males weigh 10lbs, females 8 lbs.