The Kennel Club is a canine club in a class of its own and this year celebrates 150 years. Melanie Cable-Alexander takes a look at its long and rich history

Picture this: you are a tourist in the middle of Mayfair, perhaps staying in the Sheraton Park Lane or The Ritz if you are lucky. You cross the road from Green Park via Buckingham Palace and you come across a gentlemanly type of fellow sitting in an upholstered chair in the middle of a back street just off Piccadilly. Then you spy a policeman strolling over to the said gent. You’d be forgiven for thinking the sitting figure would be marched off in handcuffs but no. Instead, you hear the policeman query: “Are you OK, Sir?” And – do we imagine it? – “Would Sir like a cup of tea?”

This isn’t a scene from a Richard Curtis-style movie, though it could be. Actually, it is a “truly comical” episode in the Kennel Club’s recent history, which is being relayed by the Club’s library and collections manager, Ciara Farrell. We’re in the basement of a smart building in Clarges Street, where the Kennel Club is located. She’s describing the time in 2016 when the Club had to move five doors down from its former home to where it is situated now. Only it wasn’t as easy as it sounds: “because of the one-way system. You have to go round and round in a nightmare journey. So one of our dear members sat himself in the middle of the street to hold the parking space.”

A very special birthday for the Kennel Club

The Kennel Club celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. It has a long and rich history entwined with The Fields, and is one of those extraordinary, quintessentially British institutions that many of us think we know an awful lot about because we are a dog-loving nation but in fact we don’t. Who, apart from its close-knit group of 1,200 or so members, knew that its headquarters is a private members’ club in the heart of Mayfair? Who knew it has a fine art collection and research library to rival that of any leading gallery? And who knew that one of The Field’s late-19th-century editors, John Henry Walsh, masqueraded himself under the pseudonym of ‘Stonehenge’ so he could write several independent volumes of canine history?

The cover of The Field celebrates the distemper vaccine. The magazine did much to champion this Kennel Club initiative

The cover of The Field celebrates the distemper vaccine

This extraordinary organisation was founded in April 1873 “for the specific purpose of governing two new and popular activities in the world of dogs: showing and field trials”, explains Farrell. “These two activities had become popular in the 19th century.” To put this into a socio-historical context, she adds: “You are seeing a couple of interesting shifts as a by-product of the industrial and agricultural revolutions: a growth in keeping dogs as pets and companions and, on the shooting side, the development of new technology that changes the way that people do competitive shooting. The sport of field trials grows from that.” 

Born out of humble beginnings

So one day, a group of 12 men gather – probably over a pint of port or two – in a flat in Victoria, hosted by a politician called Sewallis Evelyn Shirley. Known colloquially by the Club as SE Shirley, he “had been involved in putting on dog shows prior to that in Crystal Palace”. The group’s aim was to look after canine welfare in these two occupations. “From these humble beginnings,” Farrell says, “the Kennel Club was formed.” Possibly, it is now one of the most influential clubs in the world, looking after and monitoring “the births, deaths and marriages” of purebred breeds, canine health, welfare and training. It also runs and owns Crufts, the most famous dog show in the world, founded in 1891 by the eponymous Charles Cruft and acquired by the Club in 1948. 

One of its earliest members was The Field’s JH Walsh. Initially, he trained as a surgeon before becoming a top rural sports journalist. Under his pen name, he wrote books on canine and equine subjects. Some say he influenced the Kennel Club’s foundation. The Club was certainly, as Farrell describes it, “a powerful group” that could bend some important ears. Take, for example, the distemper vaccine campaign launched by The Field and the Kennel Club in the early 1920s. Its chief champions were the Dukes of Beaufort and Portland (listed then as chairman and vice-chairman, with The Field’s editor being honorary secretary).

The Field’s role in the Kennel Club distemper vaccine

The campaign came under a big advertising banner of ‘Saving the Lives of our Dogs’, which indeed it achieved. Distemper is now almost ruled out thanks to the vaccine made universal in 1933 and which featured on the front cover of The Field as a celebration of its victory at the time. It was only able to achieve that thanks to its powerful readership and also, unexpectedly for the era, some tremendously powerful, behind-the-scenes women. These include a certain Duchess of Newcastle who in 1903 gave King Edward VII his most beloved dog, a fox terrier called Caesar, who became a much-celebrated canine in the Kennel Club.

The Kennel Club has a superb collection of art

A view of The Kennel Club Art Gallery, courtesy of The Kennel Club

In its art collection, there is a truly magnificent print of a painting, on loan from the American Kennel Club, by the canine artist Maud Earl. Called Silent Sorrow, it depicts Caesar mourning the absence of his master, chin resting upon a poignantly empty armchair shortly after the King’s death. So much of the Kennel Club’s history is recorded in its art collection, today managed by one of its curators, Marianne Walker, who is fascinated by the role women play within it. The Club has 800 works of wall art and several hundred more exceptional pieces, including sculptures, medals and trophies. These are available for anyone to see “as long as they give us a ring first”. The Kennel Club may be rich in its membership but it is a not-for-profit organisation.

Ahead of its time

One element that is particularly striking about the collection is the number of female artists it represents. Walker has calculated informally that there are 83, an astonishing figure given that the National Gallery has only 17 in its entire collection. The explanation? “Women couldn’t go to art college in the past, so what could they draw but dogs?” In fact, the Kennel Club has been very supportive of women for a club based in the heart of traditionally male-dominated clubland and founded by 12 men. As Farrell puts it: “Women were neither prevented from nor encouraged to participate in dog showing or field trials. And by the end of the 19th century, they constituted about half of all dog show exhibitors. And because the labrador retriever was a popular shooting dog for women, this encouraged their participation in field trials.” They were also granted “a limited membership with the creation of the Ladies’ Branch in 1899”.

All this is meticulously recorded in its library. “We have our minute books, published stud books of dogs – originally licensed to The Field – going all the way back to the beginning of the club.” What develops then is a register of dogs’ identities and ancestry “and a development of interest in pedigree because you are beginning to gather the equivalent of genealogical information for humans. So you can tell a lot about the dog because you have a record of its ancestry, which is now a useful tool for health in the dog population, though it started as a means for identifying dogs.” In its most recent development, the Kennel Club can now ‘fingerprint’ dogs using DNA, which is particularly useful for those preserving rare breeds.

Crufts in the 1950s: the Kennel Club catalogue and enquiry office

Crufts in the 1950s: the Kennel Club catalogue and enquiry office

The Kennel Club: leading the way with dog shows

Dog shows and field trials started in 1859 and 1865, respectively, on the simple basis of having pointers and setters. “By the time the Kennel Club was founded as a national governing body for both, there were 40 breeds of dog participating in dog shows, though field trials were still for pointers and setters only in 1873, soon to be expanded to include spaniels and, later, retrievers,” Farrell explains. From there, individual breed clubs formed that the Kennel Club maintains records for and also those of a “sporting record, not all of whom have to have a purebred or pedigree behind them, so might be involved in agility or working. Sheepdogs have mixed ancestry. Most people today who are involved with dogs in the UK are not necessarily members of the Kennel Club but are likely to be members of a breed club. They will ultimately belong to a body that is affiliated to the Kennel Club.”

The Kennel Club’s history is showcased in an exhibition reflecting its 150th years, an extraordinary feat given its heritage. Noting that the Club has been located in Clarges Street in the middle of Mayfair’s clubland for nigh on a century, Farrell says: “We are clubbable in the best sense of the word.” However, many  photographic records were destroyed or left behind in the Blitz. Photographs weren’t considered worth saving as much as the art. This is something Heidi Hudson, curator of the Club’s photographic collection, mourns. “Photographs capture a wonderful social record,” she says. “I’m always thinking of what will survive and be recorded in the next 200 years,” says Marianne Walker. It was clearly what that fellow in a chair was thinking as he held up traffic to allow the Kennel Club’s collection to be moved safely. It goes to show what we all might do for the love of dogs. And long may institutions like this last.

Want to learn more?

If you love dogs as much as we do, you’ll enjoy some of the fabulous gundog content in The Field. Click here to read our guide to the best gundogs breeds from overseas. We tell you about the famous sporting dogs about everyone should know about and we sing the praises of show-bred gundogs.