During the Golden Age of shooting, the flatcoated retriever was the gundog of choice. But as David Tomlinson relates, it was soon to be eclipsed by the lab
During the Golden Age of shooting, flatcoated retrievers were the gundogs of choice. David Tomlinson takes a look at how the flatcoat was supplanted in the line by today’s most popular dog the world over – the labrador.
For more on flatcoated retrievers, their susceptibility to cancer must be addressed. Read flatcoated retriever: the flatcoat’s fatal flaw.
For the Edwardian country gentleman there was little choice when it came to choosing a gundog: it had to be a flatcoated retriever, the dominant canine shooting companion of its day. His gamekeeper was likely to have a curly-coated retriever at his heel, while the beaters would have been accompanied by a variety of spaniels. It wouldn’t be long before the upstart labrador started to challenge the flatcoat’s supremacy but the labrador was only recognised as a breed in its own right in 1903.
Until the start of the 20th century, spaniels were a motley lot. Big liver-and-white or black-and-white dogs were most likely called Norfolk spaniels, probably because there were a lot of them in Norfolk, while most of the others were known, somewhat loosely, as field or cocker. Weight played a major role in determining a breed. If it was under 25lb then it was a cocker, but you could give that cocker a good dinner and turn it into a field. It wasn’t until 1893 that cockers gained their place in the stud book as a proper breed, while the springer was given official recognition by the Kennel Club in 1902.
According to Dorothy Morland Hooper, writing in her classic book The Popular Springer Spaniel (1963), “great interest in the working ability of Spaniels developed during the 1890s and the first field trial was held by the Sporting Spaniel Club on Mr William Arkwright’s estate at Sutton Scarsdale, Derbyshire, on January 3, 1899… none of the winners was a Springer.” She goes on to note that it wasn’t until 1901 that a springer, a dog called Tring, won a trial for the first time.
Today, the Clumber spaniel has enjoyed something of a renaissance as a shooting dog but its peak of popularity in the shooting field was in the later years of the 19th century, when it enjoyed royal patronage. King Edward VII was, as Prince of Wales, a passionate sportsman and well aware of the importance of good dogs to a successful day’s shooting. The kennels at Sandringham housed his pack of Clumber spaniels, a breed he was particularly fond of, believing them to be the best dogs for working the heavy cover, bracken and rhododendrons of his mother’s 30,000-acre Norfolk estate. King George V was also a Clumber enthusiast and was, arguably, the last great patron of a disappearing breed.
The first retriever trials were held in the early years of the past century. There were only a few each season and they were highly sociable affairs, with the owners typically partying at a nearby country house. Participation was by invitation only. However, despite a delightfully amateur approach, there was serious prize money at stake. The initial trial held in conjunction with the Kennel Club took place at Horstead Hall, Norwich, in November 1906. First prize was £50, with £30 for the runner-up. Allowing for inflation, £50 then is equivalent to nearly £6,000 today. Prizes in trials haven’t kept pace with inflation: the winner of the most recent IGL Retriever Championship received a cheque for £100.
EARLY RETRIEVER TRIALS
Those early retriever trials were dominated by flatcoats, and successful dogs sold for considerable sums. In 1908, H Reginald Cooke, the doyen of the flatcoat world, turned down an offer of 260 guineas (about £30,000) for one of his champion dogs. However, the days of flatcoat dominance were nearing their end. The following year saw a labrador bitch called Dungavel Phoebe win the first-ever retriever championship, held at Little Green, Havant. Owned by the Duchess of Hamilton, Phoebe was handled by J Alexander, who was no doubt a professional dog man.
Such a significant labrador victory saw the sporting gentlemen of the time reaching for their pens, firing off furious letters to The Field arguing the merits, or otherwise, of flatcoats and labradors. One correspondent, who mysteriously signed himself as M, noted that flatcoats were inclined to be “slack on a hot day in the heather”, and that the labrador was “the better dog for certain work, such as picking-up after grouse or partridge drive”. M clearly tried to be fair but his concluding remark suggests his loyalty. “Given a good scent, I notice the Labrador easily beats the Flatcoated and has birds quicker. Given a bad scent, the Flatcoated will equal the Labrador, and probably beat him.”
In 1912 a flatcoat did win the Championship, the one and only victory scored by the breed in more than 100 years of competition.
The rise of the labrador was astonishingly rapid, leading to the almost total eclipse of the flatcoat. Curiously, the Kennel Club first allowed the registration of golden retrievers in 1903, as flatcoats, yellow or golden, and it wasn’t until 1913 that they were finally recognised as a breed in their own right. They soon became popular as both companions and working dogs, but their impact on the world of trialling was minimal and it wasn’t until 1937 that a golden won the Championship for the first time.
Today, looking back to what many regard as the pivotal period in the development of the modern gundog, it’s difficult not to feel nostalgia for a world when gundogs didn’t die of inherited diseases and you couldn’t check a dog’s COI (coefficient of inbreeding) on your computer. Remove the rose-tinted spectacles and it was probably not that wonderful – but it was certainly interesting.