Field Trials – Past Achievements Part III (from 1946 - 1990)
Written by George Jenkin and published in The Labrador Retriever Club 1916-1991 ‘A Celebration of 75 Years’
The start of the War in 1939 saw the end of the 'up-stairs, down-stairs' age of paternalism. If the patricians held sway and set the tone in field trials in the inter-war period, then from the end of the last war onwards we saw the start of the age of the common man. The membership of the Labrador Retriever Club when war ended was only slightly reduced from the 1939 total, but in a short time, the change in composition was to be most marked. Those noblemen, aristocrats and their families that had supported the Club from its inception, and had generously provided ground for trials on their private shoots, declined severely in number, as did that of their gamekeepers and dog handlers too. In 1946 gamekeeper Members made up about twenty percent of the total membership, some ten years on, the percentage of the total occupied by them had shrunk to three percent.
If gamekeeper handlers declined in numbers at trials, that of owner/handlers increased: indeed in the first season (1946) after the war it was reported that, "the majority of the stakes were won by dogs handled by their owners”.
Only one dog emerged with its title that first season, FT Ch Blackhambleton Skell, owned by the famous jockey, Mr Gordon Richards (later Sir Gordon); she was bred and handled at her trials by Captain Stephens. Skell went on to win the Retriever Championship that year when only five runners contested for the title, the smallest number ever. The stake was judged by Major Portal, Mr V. Routledge and Captain Medlicott. It must have been one of the last that Major Portal judged in his distinguished career.
The Labrador Retriever Club held two field trials in 1947, with a full card for each. The Non-Winner Stake was won by Mrs Williams Owen's Treveilyr Swift, a dog that was to go on that season to take fourth place in the Retriever Championship when handled by the late Andrew Wylie and to culminate his career by winning the Championship in 1948. He was yet another dog in descent from FT Ch Peter of Faskally. Among the winners that season was Mr Ronald MacDonald's Rockstead Footspark, which was to become one of the last Dual Champions. The number competing in trials in 1948 had increased again, but it was still below the pre-war total. It was not until the early fifties that numbers reached those proportions. Even by the season 1957/58 the number of retriever meetings had only reached 47, not a large increase from pre-war years. A significant change took place by 1970 when 87 meetings were held; this was the first explosion in numbers to be followed by further large increases until within nineteen years the total had soared to over 190 licensed trials.
A number of reasons may be given for this rapid change. By the late 1950's the economic malaise that Britain had lived under since the end of the war began to lift. Prime Minister MacMillan told the nation in 1958, “most of our people have never had it so good." Standards of living began to improve, as did the mobility of the population with the production of cheap, small cars which allowed the townsman easy access to the countryside, and to country sports and pastimes. Dog ownership, particularly thoroughbred dog ownership, increased. Among the new owners were many that had adopted the Labrador as their favourite breed. All these new ranks of owners found that their new favourite required discipline if it was to become an acceptable member of the household. Training classes organised by the branches of the United Retriever and other clubs were well attended. Working tests to examine the progress of trainee handlers after a session of lessons were held. These were developed to try and simulate conditions in the shooting field, or even field trials, and became popular. New books, overtly designed to inform Guns how to train their dogs to retrieve the game which they shot were published, and usually included some reference to field trials, such, that the reader might be excused for thinking that the ultimate test to which his newly trained tyro could ascend, was a field trial. These books were eagerly consulted by converts to dog training who now had a new goal to aim for besides working tests - field trials - which would allow them to participate in their new found hobby throughout the autumn and winter months. These recruits to field trials came from all walks of life and a wide variety of backgrounds. Some of these people were country based, but a considerable proportion came from towns.
Many of those who entered trials did not realise that they and their dogs had only completed part of the necessary training to make a complete gundog for shooting, let alone trials. They failed to appreciate that the working test they had so proudly won was only testing their ability to handle their dogs to an inanimate object, either a canvas dummy or may be a freshly defrosted pigeon or game. Nor did they know that their dog's gamefinding education, much of which takes place out of their sight, was utterly deficient. To many of these people the word ‘Novice’ included the handler as well as the dog, and the result was that we had dogs at trials that did not know what to do with a shot bird even if they managed to find it. We even had handlers who did not appreciate that they were going to be called upon to retrieve game. And so secretaries of field trial societies were driven to including notices with their trial schedules reminding members that their dogs should have had experience of retrieving freshly shot game before they entered a trial - a situation which would have seemed incredible seventy years ago.
The secretaries' problem, with the rapid growth in their membership, often spread throughout the country, was that they had no idea, when they received an entry, whether the dog was experienced or not (in the old county societies, the secretary usually knew each member personally). A side effect of this phenomenon has been that hosts, familiar with field trials, became reluctant to give ground for Non-Winner stakes and limited their generosity to Open stakes, where they and their Guns had an opportunity to see some good dog work. Others, having seen that they were providing sport for competitors who seemed to come from all corners of the British Isles except their own, limited their generosity to their county field trial society which usually had a geographical restriction on membership.
It is a truism that field trials cannot exist without shooting. For a time the new input of contestants wishing to join the field trial fraternity had their desires met by the growth of driven game shooting throughout the land. New hosts, often syndicates, were prevailed upon to provide ground for trials. Many took a keen interest in the dog work and continued to give trials. As private shoots, which were the former hosts, declined, new patrons took their place; but not all did so with the same degree of willingness, and if the gamekeeper was not in favour, disaster, or near disaster could arise, usually only averted by the skill of the senior judge and the diplomacy of the field trial secretary. If the trial had been burdened with incompetent handlers and dogs, additional difficulties had to be coped with. Some hosts were, and still are, reluctant to conduct a trial on their shoot because of disturbance to their main coverts. If the trial is then held on outside territory scarcity of game may result and the trial is finished having had the minimum head to get through the card, and obtain a winner.
The difficulty in finding suitable grounds for trials has driven some societies to purchasing shooting by the day (very few two day stakes, considered essential when trialling started are now held). Various ways of funding such days have been devised, but whatever the means employed, with the cost of shooting increasing annually there is a limit that societies may be able to afford without trials becoming once again, a rich man's sport. And with a financial restriction on the number of head that may be shot, there is a further limit to the amount of game that the dogs may be called upon to retrieve.
Perhaps the situation is best illustrated by looking at the head of game shot at the Retriever Championship held at Sutton Scotney in 1953, when that devotee of field trials, Lord Rank, was the host for three days. The total head of game shot and retrieved by the 24 competing dogs was 259, of which 54 were picked by the eight finalists on the last day to produce a worthy winner in FT Ch Oxenden Dan, handled by Mr Keith Chudley. At the two day Championship held in Devon on a commercial shoot in 1989, the total head of game shot for the 29 competing dogs was 166. The two top dogs had eight retrieves each in the trial. There is no doubt that those leading dogs in the 1989 Championship could hold their own with many in the past. The figures are not quoted to denigrate their performance, they did all that asked of them, and no doubt would have done more given the opportunity. But, this may be a symptom that all is not well. That there are many worthy FT Champions around today is beyond question, however, if some dogs are gaining their title having made only a minimum of retrieves for the judges to obtain a winner, then it is suggested that something is wrong which needs attention.
In the early 1970's a member of any field trial society usually had one chance in three of gaining a nomination in the ballot for places in a Non-Winner stake. By the season 1989/90 the odds of getting a run in such a stake had risen in some societies to ten to one against. The demand for places at trials has completely outstripped the available supply even though there has been an enormous increase in the number of meetings in the past decade.
The working test movement has provided a large number of entrants to the ranks of field triallers. From them have come some outstanding handlers; and there have been many who have joined teams of pickers-up, responsible for retrieving wounded game at shoots throughout the country. There are hardly any full time dog handlers left in private service, whence the movement drew strength between the wars. There are a few well known gamekeeper handlers entering trials, but with the increased costs of rearing birds little time may be spared in the midst of a shooting season to train dogs and run them in trials. Some public or commercial trainers use trials as a shop window for their skills, and if their dogs are made up to Field Trial Champion status they may fetch good prices or command substantial stud fees. The bulk of the entrants to trials still come from the ranks of amateur handlers - very few of them shooters who have taken up competitive gundog work - practically all the dogs entered in field trials today are not only handled by their owners but are trained by them too - many also breed their own dogs.
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It is impossible in a celebratory review such as this to comment on all worthy Field Trial Champions that have been made up since the end of the war, nor is it the British way to set up a 'Hall of Fame' to honour our great dogs and handlers. But with the help of Mrs Jean Heywood-Lonsdale, Mrs Joan Hayes and Mr Philip White, the writer submits that the following would deserve to have their names writ in gold.
FT Ch Glenhead Zuider. Black dog. sire Glenhead Jimmy dam Ariston Jet. Owner/handler Mr John Annand, Alyth, Perthshire. His influence on the breed is still felt today. Winner of the Retriever Championship 1949.
FT Ch Greatford Teal. Black dog. sire Greatford Pettistree Shadow dam Mackland Honeysuckle, (this mating also produced FT Ch Oxendon Dan, Retriever Champion in 1953). Owner, Major H. Peacock. Handler Mr J. Chudley. This dog was probably the best one of Major Peacock's famous kennel. (Teal sired Lady Hill-Wood's FT Ch Hiwood Dipper, Retriever Champion in 1960.) Teal won the Championship in 1955.
Ch Norham Blackie. Black bitch. sire FT Ch Glenhead Zuider dam Venny Queen. Owner Mrs B. Harcourt-Wood. Handler Mr George Meldrum. Mrs Harcourt-Wood had the renowned prefix 'Glenfarg'. Blackie won the Retriever Championship in 1956. She was the G.G.Grandmother of FT Ch Palgrave Edward, sire of FT Ch Swinbrook Tan.
FT Ch Galleywood Shot. Black dog. sire Int. FT Ch Staindrop Murton Marksman dam Hiwood Peggy. Owned by W. Lawrence Taylor. Handler R N (Dick) Male. "A superb handler with a brilliant dog in roots" (JH) Shot the sire of FT Ch Sendhurst Zelstone Tinker. Shot won the ,Championship in 1957 and 1958.
FT Ch. Sendhurst Zelstone Tinker. Yellow dog. sire FT Ch Galleywood Shot dam FT Ch Zelstone Moss. "A class dog" (J.P.W.) See review about Bob Baldwin.
FT Ch. Cornbury Ruro Teal. sire FT Ch Cornbury Regent dam FT Ch Ruro Snipe. Owner Mr O. V. Watney. Handler Mr A. White-Robinson. Declared to be “one of the best, if not the best," in this illustrious company, (J.P.W.).
FT Ch. Scotney Crickleybarrow Pebble. Black dog. sire Shelcot Punch dam Creedypark Gay. Owner Lord Rank. Handler Mr A. Manners. A brilliant dog on runners dog on runners. "you didn't want Pebble behind you as fourth dog down on a runner at a trial!" (J.P.W.).
FT Ch. Berrystead Bee. Black bitch. sire FT Ch Roffey Dunlop dam Glenbruar Beauty. Owner Mr Charles Williams. Handler Mr Dick Male. "Bee was an incredibly clever bitch and brilliant game finder" (Mrs J. H.).
FT Ch. Beinnmhor Tide. Black bitch. sire Beinnmhor Venom dam FT Ch , Cornbury Ruro Teal. Owner Mr D. MacKinnon. Handler Mr P. J. White. Retriever Champion 1969, 1970. "An exceptional gamefinder", (Mrs J.H-L)
FT Ch Holdgate Willie. sire Holdgate Steven dam Wing of Ruckley. Owner and handler Mrs G. Benson. Retriever Champion 1971. A brilliant dog on runners, his influence on the working Labrador has been enormous.
FT Ch Hedenham Park Holcot Fay. Black bitch. sire FT Ch Hallingbury Wild Duck dam Holcot Brackenbank Heidi. Owner and handler Mr Frank Clitheroe. Retriever Champion 1973 & '74. Considered in this illustrious company to be one of the greatest trial dogs since the war if not the greatest in the hands of Frank Clitheroe, who in turn may be placed on the same level as any of the greatest handlers before him.
No doubt many readers will ask why was ... left out and name their own favourite dog. What is certain is that the above dogs could not be excluded from those that contributed so much in the period up to 1980. There were other great dogs, but none greater than these.
Despite the recent pressure of numbers of would be entrants to field trials, the hardcore of the fraternity devoted to the sport remains relatively small. Many of them belong to all, or nearly all, of the societies holding trials, so it is difficult to assess their number; but at a guess one must think in terms of hundreds rather than thousands. That they have striven successfully to achieve one of the original objectives of the Labrador Retriever Club when it was founded, namely, "to protect the type of Labrador that has proved itself so eminently suitable for work", is beyond question - may they continue to do so with grace and good humour until the Club's centenary and beyond