For some 18 years of her life Mary Millington lived on the outskirts of Dorking in the leafy Surrey countryside. Dorking is an affluent and pretty market town, 13 miles east of Guildford and nestling in a quiet valley between the twin points of Box Hill and Leith Hill. Apart from Mary, and Sir Laurence Olivier – who was born in the town in 1907 – Dorking’s other claim to fame is that it was once home to the biggest cock in England. No, this isn’t a dirty joke, and nor am I talking about Big John English. As the Dorking Tourist Information centre boasts: ‘The town is truly proud of the famous Dorking Cock, a special and rare breed of male chicken recognised across the world’.
Naturally enough, the Dorking Cock has, for over 150 years, been the cause of much sniggering in the town. It is believed that the breed may have originated in Italy during Roman times, but somehow the fancy bird was introduced to Britain and bred in huge quantities in the renowned Surrey poultry farms during the 17th century. Noted for their tender white meat and delicately textured eggs, Daniel Defoe, Edward Lear and Charles Darwin all wrote about the breed. The Dorking Cock was famed for its huge height and weight, and in 1870 local farmer John Martin bred what was reputed to be the biggest cockerel ever seen in England. His prize bird – unsurprisingly named ‘Champion’ – was a multiple cup winner at agricultural shows in Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Wales, Ireland and London.
As a result of the Dorking poultry breed’s global reputation, Dorking adopted the bird as its official mascot in the 1894, and it first appeared on the town’s coat of arms in 1951. The fact that Britain’s most celebrated porn actress hailed from a town famed for the size of its ‘cock’ was not lost on Mary, or those who knew her well. ‘She used to joke about it,’ recalls one of her friends. ‘We found it quite funny.’ I’m a frequent visitor to Dorking, and today you can barely walk 100 yards through the town without seeing a depiction of the cock. It adorns signs along the Reigate Road; can be viewed along the Dorking Heritage Trail; is painted on the side of pubs, and appears as an emblem on tea towels, badges, mugs and framed prints. A few years ago, a stuffed cockerel used to sit proudly in the window of the Dorking Museum too, but it now welcomes visitors indoors, alongside a stiff female companion.
Most famously of all, an enormous 10-feet-high steel version of Dorking’s most beloved feathered friend stands on the Deepdene roundabout on the main A25 approach into the town. Erected in 2007, the gleaming bird has remained a very controversial figure in Dorking, much like Mary herself…
All words strictly © Simon Sheridan 2015