The surprising history of Victorian dog shows

Modern dog shows first began more than 150 years ago. Here, Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys look at the ‘Dog Fancy’, a fashionable Victorian phenomenon which attracted controversy then as now.

This article was first published in the June 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine

Dogs board a special railway carriage en route to the Manchester Dog Show 1909

Dogs board a special railway carriage en route to the Manchester Dog Show in 1909. (Credit: Getty Images)

 

The first modern dog show, on 28–29 June 1859 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was an added attraction to the annual cattle show. Its country character was clear, as only setters and pointers – sporting breeds – were shown and the prizes were guns. It was a low key start to what would be, by the end of the century, a hugely popular pastime, with dog owning fashionable among all classes of society, and which had huge implications for canine breeding.

The first show to include non‑sporting breeds was held in Birmingham later in 1859 and was such a success that a year later, the Birmingham Dog Show Society ran the first National Dog Show, for which there were 267 entries, with 30 breeds, judged in 42 classes. The main organiser was Richard Brailsford, a gamekeeper on the Knowsley estate of the Earl of Derby, then leader of the Conservative opposition and three-time prime minister. The earl’s pointer, Juno, won a prize in 1862, indicating how rapidly participation in dog shows spread to the country’s elite, making dog fancying fashionable and respectable. By the end of the 1860s, the National Dog Show was attracting over 700 dogs and 20,000 paying visitors.

 

Dog show extravaganza

The provincial phenomenon came to London in 1862 with the first show at the Agricultural Hall in Islington. In 1863 there was a week long extravaganza at Cremorne Gardens in Chelsea. The new respectable ‘Dog Fancy’ came of age with this event. There were 100,000 visitors, including the Prince of Wales, and it was the occasion of the season. The number and size of dog shows then grew rapidly.

Across the country, shows were established by local enthusiasts, often with particular characteristics. For example, at Belle Vue zoological gardens in Manchester, dogs shared the limelight with poultry for many years. Events were of variable quality and more importantly repute, and such was the unease among elite dog fanciers, that, under the leadership of Sewallis Evelyn Shirley, MP, the Kennel Club was founded in London in April 1873 to regularise shows. Among its founder members was JH Walsh, who had been a judge at the first ever show in 1859. He did so much to popularise the showing of pedigree animals that he has been called ‘the father of the modern dog show’.

The first show organised by the club was at Crystal Palace in 1873, which became their favoured venue, along with a second London show at the Alexandra Palace. By this time, the best shows had become grand affairs, requiring professional organisation to ensure good order, fairness and a profit.

The first entrepreneur-manager was John Douglas, though he was later surpassed by Charles Cruft, whom contemporaries styled the ‘British Barnum’, after the famous American showman, PT Barnum. Cruft entered the world of the Dog Fancy from his position as general manager of Spratt’s Patent Limited. Through selling dog biscuits to aristocratic owners with packs of hounds, and association with the specialist breed clubs that grew up among fanciers, Cruft saw the potential of dog shows to promote the business further. The first show that he organised was in Paris, as part of the L’Exposition Universelle de 1878, followed by events in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Brussels. 

Cruft’s strengths were first as a publicist, using the press effectively with advertisements and stories, and second in organisation and innovation; for example, he designed special railway carriages to help ensure national entries. His first London venture wasthe Great Terrier Show in 1886, though it was not until 1891 that the all-breed show that still bears his name was established. By then, there were over 40 shows licensed by the Kennel Club each year, along with many smaller local and single breed shows.

Before 1900, Cruft’s shows were looked down upon by the Kennel Club and leading breeders. They were said to be about the quantity of dogs on show rather than breed quality, to offer poor facilities to owners and animals, and to be associated with commercialism and  sharp practice. For example, Cruft exaggerated the number of dogs to attract news coverage and had rules which meant that only ‘subscribers’ could win prizes. The man and his high profile London show threatened to reverse what many breeders and exhibitors saw as big improvements made since the 1860s in the quality of the dogs, exhibitors and visitors.

Commentators observed that the early shows had been patronised by ‘extremes’: by ‘toffs’ with their aggressive sporting dogs and by ‘roughs’ with their terriers, with both more likely to kick than stroke their animal. Over time these types had been squeezed out, so that by the 1890s shows were patronised by all classes, from royalty, through the middle classes, to the respectable working class. At the same time, the increased number of breeds ensured that there were show classes for all tastes and pockets. 

The balance of entries shifted and non-sporting breeds dominated, with ‘Toy’ classes being particularly popular with women. Visitors now attended to view ‘Dogdom’ in all its varieties, to promenade and be seen, while exhibitors sought pride and prestige in winning classes and displaying their rosettes and cups. However, competition and commerce was never far away, as winning raised the value and stud fees of top dogs, and some shows continued to offer cash prizes.

 

Doggy identity fraud

Judging was always controversial. First, there was the question of the qualifications and integrity of the judges. Were they born with an ‘eye’ for the right conformation, or could they be trained? Were judges biased towards friends and business associates? Could judges be bought by unscrupulous owners? Fierce competition meant that ‘faking’ was widely practised, or at least suspected. Tricks varied from trimming ears and colouring a dog’s coat to ‘identity fraud’ – substituting a superior for an inferior animal. There were even reports of the same dog winning across the country in the same week, being moved after judging days, while their ‘doubles’ sat out at their previous appearances. 

Most important of all were the criteria for judging. This question had arisen at the very first show in Newcastle in 1859, when sporting dogs were assessed on their look and shape, rather than their abilities in the field. Indeed, there were complaints throughout the Victorian period that the quality of English sporting dogs was in decline because breeders looked for “a good neck, bones and feet”, rather than “intelligence, a good nose and stamina”. 

One solution to the problem of judging standards was the system of standardised ‘points’ – that is, a list of desirable features for parts of the dog’s body. For example, a minimum height, a preferred shape of head, and a required conformation of front and hind legs.

The Kennel Club was also challenged over the welfare of dogs. Owners reported that some shows were centres of contagion, spreading fleas and the much-feared distemper. Thus, Jeyes Sanitary Company became as important a sponsor as Spratt’s Patent. There were also reports of dogs choking on the chains that secured them to benches, while the close confinement of dogs in strange surroundings produced interminable noise, which turned to pandemonium when dogs escaped their leashes to fight and run amok.

To validate pedigrees and identities, the club established a Stud Book, in which owners could record the lineage of their individual dog or kennel. Registrations were allowed to be back-dated to 1859 and after 1880 it became the national register of pedigrees, after differences with the Birmingham Society were settled in 1885. The Stud Books became important in the selling and buying of dogs, as proof of good breeding could alone increase an animal’s value.

The Kennel Club also became the arbiter of breeds and breed standards. Since the 1860s, there had been a proliferation of recognised breeds, with new types coming from many sources: the sub-division of existing breeds, as with terriers; the revival of ‘extinct’ breeds, such as the Irish Wolf Hound; the importation of foreign breeds, such as the Pekinese; and the ‘manufacture’ of new breeds, as with the Doberman Pinscher, first produced in 1890. 

 

Lapdog controversy

At the same time, the improvement of breeds towards ‘perfection’ was controversial. While there was approval for the greater regularity of type, many fanciers complained that standards were being set on arbitrary, largely aesthetic grounds by enthusiasts in specialist clubs, without concern for utility or the health of the animal. This meant that breeds were changing, and not always for the better. For example, the modern St Bernard was said to be a beautiful animal, but would be useless in Alpine rescue work. 

In the late 1880s, veterinarians worried about the physical and mental well-being of ladies’ lapdogs – anticipating the recent controversies between the Kennel Club, RSPCA and the BBC. One vet, JH Steel, wrote of a toy dog, “whose stomach refuses all but the most delicate morsels artificially prepared, whose limbs can scarcely support his weight, whose natural atmosphere is that of a close and heated room, and who has become petulant and snappish through the enervating influence of his surroundings”. However, vets reported that overall the health of pedigree dogs was no worse, and perhaps better, than that of mongrels.

Dog shows were a phenomenon of the Victorian era, which spread from Britain around the world. Paris held its first show in 1863 and the premiere American event began in 1877. Shows appealed to the public as entertainment and became symbols of progressive canine breeding and ownership. Viewing and showing dogs crossed boundaries of gender and class, and allowed all to join in polite competition. 

Of course, the shows changed the lives of dogs. They initiated the public preference for pedigree over mongrel dogs, hence, dividing ‘Dogdom’ into hierarchies and classes that mirrored Victorian social structure. They made dog owning fashionable, accelerating the trend towards dogs becoming well-treated, domestic companions across British society.

Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys are the authors of Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Rabies in Britain 1830–2000 (Palgrave, 2007).

On 25 February 2017, BBC History Magazine will be returning to Bristol's M Shed for a day of talks exploring the Victorian period. To find out more about our Victorian Day, and to buy tickets, click here.

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