Field Trials – Past Achievements Part I to 1914
Written by George Jenkin and published in The Labrador Retriever Club 1916-1991 ‘A Celebration of 75 Years’
The sight of a Gun with his Labrador sitting in front of him, hopefully untethered, while he shoots driven pheasants, is common enough in this the 75th year of the Labrador Club's history. But, it was not always so. Look at any old photographs taken a hundred years ago while a battue was in progress; and what do we see, the Gun, a loader, perhaps two, and a lad fourteen years old whose job was to fetch and carry cartridges but rarely a dog. And if there was one it would more than likely be a Flat Coated Retriever held on a lead by a dog handler. To have allowed this animal off the lead while the drive was in progress would have courted trouble. Indeed, it would only be let off when the Guns had left the field, then it was used to pick up.
To understand the development of field trials, with which the Labrador Retriever Club has been intimately connected, one must go back a few years before the formation of the club in 1916 - in fact to the year 1899.
Attempts had been made at various Pointer and Setter trials in the 1870’s to hold some sort of retriever competitions to test 'nose', “Stonehenge", the Editor of The Field in the 1870' s, mentioned that a trial was held at Vaynol, North Wales in 1871, and later, a few gamekeepers in Perthshire made an attempt to hold a trial. Spaniel trials had been proved to possible, and, encouraged by their success, a Mr. Smale offered to run a retriever meeting, provided a shooting man would lend suitable ground. Mr. BJ Warwick proved to be a willing host, and a stake for retrievers was included in the programme of a spaniel meeting at Compton, on the Hampshire-Sussex border in 1899. There were 10 entries which included one Irish Spaniel, two Clumbers, a Field Spaniel, five Flat Coats, and one Curly Coated Retriever. Two days were allotted to the trial. The result was that the Flatcoats won the first three places, and to quote the report, "Mr. Smale proved to the satisfaction of everyone present that retriever trials were not only practicable but might be made very interesting:" and so a Retriever Society was started as a branch of the International Gundog League. The constitutional rules of this Society stated that, "its object was to promote the breeding of pure retrievers, and to develop and bring to perfection, their natural qualities" It was suggested that a working trial should, if possible, be held annually - words subsequently echoed in the objects of the Labrador Retriever Club. The first meeting of this new Society was held at Little Green, near Havant, on Friday and Saturday, October 12th and 13th 1900 on ground provided again by Mr. Warwick. The judges were Mr. Warwick and Mr. Arkwright. The rules governing this trial were a success from the beginning – and it may interest today's field trial competitors that some are .still incorporated in the current field trial rules of the Kennel Club, word for word - a fair test of their usefulness over the years.
There were 10 runners in this stake, and a goodly number of spectators came to see what it was all about. The first day was limited to driven game. It was reported that two competitors were thrown out because they took their dogs to where the birds had fallen rather than let them range out! On the second day, the dogs were tested walking in line in a field of roots, probably turnips. A pattern was thus established which has not changed significantly to the present day, except that not only the Guns, but also the owners and their handlers (often their gamekeepers) were armed, and were expected to shoot. This is evident from the photograph taken at Gwernyfed, Brecon, where Capt. Glen Kidston was the host. This requirement was later dropped as being too dangerous as some of the handlers were erratic shots! Certainly if this requirement were to be re-introduced it might tax some of our modern handlers to carry a gun and also handle their dog, let alone shoot as well.
The second trial of the Retriever Society took place in 1902, and is noteworthy for two facts. Firstly to attract a good entry a first prize of £20 was offered (in today's devalued currency worth about £2,000): secondly, a special prize of £3 was offered by Capt. A. Glen Kidston for the best looking retriever in the awards. It was clear that some owners of the day were conscious that there was room for improvement in the looks of some of the competing dogs.
By 1904, there was still only the I. G. L. Retriever Society holding trials. This year was a momentous one for the Labrador breed, not only was it the first time that a Labrador ran in a trial, but what is more, it was awarded a Certificate of Merit. This dog was the Hon. A. Holland-Hibbert's Munden Single.
Holland-Hibbert, (later Lord Knutsford) had owned Labradors since 1884 when he obtained a bitch from Viscount Grimston at Gorhambury, near St Alban’s; this bitch was basically Netherby/Gorhambury breeding. Holland-Hibbert had shown his dogs for some time, (Single had won a CC in 1904) but this was the first time he had competed with one at a field trial.
Clearly Single’s performance made an impression on the watching gallery, and there was fulsome praise in the reports on the trial on her work. Subsequent press interviews with the Hon. A. Holland-Hibbert soon informed the sporting public about the amenable nature of the Labrador, and its value as a game finding dog, little known until then outside the tight circle aristocratic and patrician homes.
The year 1907 was also an important year for Labradors. Firstly, it saw the advent of an entry by a lady owner, it was the Duchess of Hamilton and Brandon’s bitch, Dungavel Juno, which won third prize in the Non-Winner Stake held by a newly formed field trial association, the Scottish. This lady, and her dogs, trained and handled in trials by her gamekeeper, Mr. J. Alexander, as well as herself, were to feature in a number of trials in the future, but of all of them Juno proved to be the strongest bitch line. She was mated to Flapper to produce D. Phoebe, the winner of the first Championship run for retrievers at Little Green, Havant in 1909. In build, Juno was on the short side but Mr. Alexander claimed that, "she was one of the best workers he ever saw, and that no runner could get away from her”.
Clearly with a Duchess running a dog, trials immediately became an acceptable diversion for Edwardian ladies, as was evident from the picture taken at the IGL. Open Stake in 1911 at Gwernyfed, Brecon that year.
The next item of importance that took place in 1907, was the 2nd All-Aged Stake held by the Kennel Club on November 26th & 27th. In a field of 20 runners there were fifteen Flat Coats, three Labradors, and two others. The Labradors were Mr. Portal's Flapper, The Duchess of Hamilton's Dungavel Juno, and Holland-Hibbert's Munden Single. So foul was the weather on the morning of the first day that a vote was taken of handlers and guns whether to continue after lunch - a situation known to many hardened field triallers. Fortunately, they voted to continue, which gave an historic result. Flapper was first, Juno was second and M. Single gained the fourth prize. The Labrador had arrived on the field trial scene with a vengeance. Flapper, who became a FT Champion, was handled by Maurice Portal, a man who, as Vice Chairman, was to play a major role in the direction of the Labrador Club in its formative years. This was the first time a Labrador had won a major stake. Flapper was 5 years old when he won this trial and was to continue to win further honours. He was to become a powerful stud force siring many litters. It was Flapper more than any dog to date, whose brilliant accomplishments made an enormous impression on the shooting public. More than any other dog he convinced the public of the superiority of the Labrador over the previously ubiquitous Flat Coats.
The year 1907 also saw the arrival of Capt. Glen Kidston on the field trial scene as an extraordinarily generous and popular host. Glen Kidston was a wealthy Scot, known as an outstanding shot. It is on record "that as a shooter of the driven grouse, only two men in the world, the famous Lord Ripon and Mr. Rimington-Wilson could be named as quite in the same class with him". He became deeply involved with the development of the Labrador and field trials, hosting trials and running his dogs very successfully in them, in particular his Gwendoline (Peter of Faskally ex Juniper) who won the IGL. Open and was 2nd in the Retriever Championship. Kidston's generosity led him to mount the second Championship in 1910 at his shooting in Brecon, and to finance the whole event including the giving of valuable prizes, not the least being the magnificent silver trophy, still awarded to the winner of the Championship.
But for his untimely death in 1913, he would undoubtedly have been involved in the formation of the Labrador Club in 1916. He was on terms of close friendship with many of the first committee members, and his brother-in-law, Major M. Portal D.S.O. as already mentioned, was the first Vice-Chairman. On his death one of his dogs, Snipe, went to Mrs. Quintin Dick. The report on the IGL’s trial in 1907 at Glen Kidston's shooting at Rushmore, near Salisbury makes interesting reading; among the comments of the writer was the following, "In one respect the trials have certainly done much good; they have secured the breeding of a class of dog that is not incapacitated by its formation, as the show dogs are; and, although one of these lumbering animals actually got third prize last season, he always had one or more failures at runners." Our Edwardian grandfathers, or great grandfathers, certainly did not pull their punches when reporting on what has become a long standing controversy. The year 1908 marks the first year that a trial was held in which there were more Labradors running than Flat Coats, the previous most numerous entry, a position of dominance the Labrador was to consolidate in the next two years.
In 1909, Mr. A. E. Butter CMG., made his debut as a Labrador handler. Previously he had trained Pointers and Flat Coated Retrievers with success. Archie Butter's contribution to the development of working Labradors is exceptional and important. Butter came from Riddell, in the Border country of Scotland from where came many good dogs and where he had ample opportunity to train his dogs. His great contribution to the breed was that he appreciated more than his contemporaries the willingness of the Labrador to be trained. And, he brought that up to a level that had never been achieved before in the handling of his dogs, firstly with F. T. Ch. Peter of Faskally, and then that dog's son F.T. Ch. Patron of Faskally.
There have been great trainers since Archie Butter, but it is arguable if there have been better. Above all he was an innovator: he appreciated that if a dog was to be really useful as a shooting dog and successful in trials, then it had to be under complete control, and capable of being guided by its master up to any distance within hearing. Butter realised that the greater the means of control he had over his dogs the quicker dead or wounded game could be gathered, moreover game would not be unnecessarily disturbed. To achieve this he adopted and adapted the methods used by shepherds in his native Border country when handling their Collies. He was the first handler at retriever trials to use hand and whistle signals to achieve this end. Butter realised that if a dog had not an opportunity to mark the fall of a bird, then the quicker it could be handled down wind of the quarry, the better the chance it had when left alone, of using the instinctive scenting power of its nose, to find it.
Men like Charles Alington and Corbet made use of his ideas and achieved success (Alington won the Retriever Championship three times): others, with lesser dog sense, who could not imitate his ways of handling, described them as 'sheep dogging'. What concerned his detractors was that his methods, "if misapplied, would result in 'over-breaking' and the obscuration of natural working qualities." While Charles Eley, a noted competitor of those days wrote, "it is at least possible that field trials may, through unwise control, evolve a type of 'field trial dog' that is as undesired by shooting people as dogs bred for show points alone, and that judges may favour a standard of breaking so severe as to limit the number of dogs that are capable of winning, and even to obscure their natural gifts." Today, when Butter's methods of control have been adopted by the majority of Field Trial handlers, the controversy that ranged through the sporting press in his day seems strange yet, echoes of it still come back into discussion when the subject of competitors, schooled in working tests, enter trials and over-handle their dogs
Because of the controversy, Butter's methods were slow in being adopted generally; indeed, years later a Scottish gamekeeper, named Dave Elliot, ran a Labrador in field trials, including the Labrador Club's stake for gamekeepers, and gained 2nd prize using similar methods to Butter, which he had also copied from shepherds in the South of Scotland where he lived. At one trial he attended in 1930 he was told by another handler' 'Do you know that you and I are the only two in the country who can handle our dogs in this way?" Whether they were the two handlers working their dogs in this manner is doubtful, but clearly Butter' s methods were not adopted readily for some time (Elliot later made mark as a trainer in the USA). If Butter's methods of handling were not readily adopted his dog F.T. Ch. Peter of Faskally certainly was.
FT Ch. Peter of Faskally, bred by Mr. Geo. Watson in 1908, was sired by Waterdale Gamester, a dog in direct descent from Malmesbury Tramp, and was whelped by Birkhill Juliet. In Peter we have one of those rare combinations that arise from time to time in field trials, a great dog in the hands of a gifted trainer. Peter entered trials in 1909, and from the start towered head and shoulders in his performance over his contemporaries, when at the height of his fame, he won the Retriever Championship in 1911, at Fakenham, the first occasion when the field in the classic was composed entirely of Labradors (his daughter Gwendoline owned by Capt. Glen Kidston was second).
As a stud force FT. Ch. Peter of Faskally was pre-eminent, and he left his imprint on the annals of the breed which the roll of time has endorsed. From the 22 he mated, no fewer than 32 of his progeny were winners or placed in stakes. He sired one very important Champion to the breed in Withington Dorando, as well as two Field Trial Champions, Patron of Faskally and Peter of Whitmore. FT. Ch. Patron of Faskally won the Championship Stake in 1913, at the time considered the finest competition since the institution of retriever trials. Ch. Withington Dorando, later owned by Lorna, Countess Howe, when put to W. Jess produced a dog W. Bream, who in turn sired Ch. W. Banter, another dog owned by Lady Howe. From Banter came Duke of Kirkmahoe, and from him Ch. Ingleston Ben.
Ben's contribution to the further development of the breed is hard to evaluate, other than to say it was enormous (see review by R. Edwards). Ben was of course mated to a large number of bitches, and produced field trial and show bench winners; not the least was of course Dual Ch. Bramshaw Bob, but in addition, from Ch. Ordchardton Dawn came Ch. Orchardton Donald whose union with FT. Ch. Kinpurnie Kate produced Ch. Kinpurnie Kam, a yellow, who in turn whelped Glenhead Jimmy. Jimmy's dam, Knappies Lass, was the daughter of Dual Ch. Bramshaw Bob - thus Jimmy was line bred to Ch. Ingleston Ben, and so both his male and female lines were in direct descent from Peter of Faskally. The importance of this to breeders of field trial dogs is that since 1956, every winner of the Retriever Championship has one, and in many cases more than one line in its pedigree going back to Glenhead Jimmy and thus to Peter of Faskally. It would seem that this male line is a sine qua non for success in competitive trials.
Archibald Butter served on the Committee of the Labrador Retriever Club from its foundation until his death in 1928, at the early age of 54; his wife, Helen, who had been a member since 1921 was given the rare distinction of being made an Honorary Member.
Figures and statistics normally make boring reading, but nothing illustrates better the dominant position assumed by the Labrador in this short period than the entries recorded in field trials in 1913, the last full season before the Great War. There were 14 field trial meetings held that year with a total entry of 247 dogs, of which 50 were Flat Coats, 13 Golden Retrievers, one Curly Coat, and 179 Labradors. The Labradors had assumed an unassailable position.
The year 1914, marked the start of the Great War. Field trials dwindled to a mere handful, and ceased by 1915.