The Development of the Labrador BreedT




Page updated

The Development of the Labrador Breed
and its Eventual Recognition by the Kennel Club

1896 - 1916

A Summary of the talk given by Mr Richard Edwards
to the members attending the AGM of the Labrador Retriever Club 2013

In May 1896 an article was published in The Field magazine titled “Labrador Dogs”; the author was John Kerss, the Head Keeper to the Duke of Buccleuch at Langholm in the Scottish Borders.  It was the first substantial article written on the breed for a national publication.  When Kerss was appointed around 1880, the Duke’s retrievers were not as good as they had once been – “a mixed bunch”.  Kerss was instructed to bring the quality and numbers of the inmates back to its previous high standard and ensure that each of the Keepers had their own dogs.  The Buccleuch Stud Book shows how, in the early years, Kerss brought in dogs from various kennels to re-establish the lines though by the time the article was published, the kennel was breeding mainly from its own dogs, just occasionally bringing in fresh blood.

To set up the article, Kerss went to see James Craw, by then 80 years old, who had been Keeper for the Earl of Home at The Hirsel, Coldstream before moving in 1858 to Netherby near Carlisle to work for the Grahams taking two Labradors with him.  Kerss plainly respected Craw… (he) “knows more about Labrador dogs than any living man…” Craw described...  “the old strains as rather larger than the modern Labrador…that the head should be flattish and long.  The ears should be set well up on the head, but not rising above the cantle and should lie close to the cheeks; they should be rather small and V-shaped.  The eye should be black (neither hazel nor grey colour being correct).  The roof of the mouth should be black, and the neck rather strong.  The legs should be straight, the feet fairly round and the ribs well sprung.   They should be fairly strong in the loins, with thighs well let down.  The tail should be straight and strong, like that of an otter, should have no fringe and should not on any account be curled.  A strong, hard, straight coat without wave or curl and a thick undercoat…colour mostly black but some of the old strain had brindled legs and yellow-coloured dogs were sometimes seen.  … I have tried all kinds of retrievers on all kinds of game, and for sagacity, stamina, perseverance, quickness and nose none can come up to the Labradors.”  Craw admitted that some Labradors could be hard mouthed.

A number of pictures of Buccleuch dogs were sent to The Field and from them the famous artist Wardle drew a composite of three dogs to illustrate the article; Kerss was not impressed by the rendering.  On a copy of the article, on the drawing itself, in Hon.  Arthur Holland Hibbert’s studbook is written, … “Kerss told me that the above was a poor likeness.  Particularly poor of Avon looking like an ordinary flat-coated retriever.  A H H 1896”

This point raises a number of issues that come together in this story.  I wonder if Kerss, granted an important man in his own milieu, would have had enough influence to get an article published in The Field or did Arthur Holland Hibbert (Munden) help? It is obvious from the note in his studbook that they were in communication.  Lorna, Countess Howe calls the Hon.  Arthur Holland Hibbert… “The breed’s greatest benefactor.” Also, the promotion and rise of the Labrador was at the expense of the Flat-coated Retriever and there was a definite tension between the two sets of owners.  The Flat-coated had been the retriever of choice for the majority of sportsmen everywhere but the Border country.  Many of the Flat-coated owners stressed the dual-purpose nature of their breed arguing that not only should they work well but look good too.  When the Labrador took over from the Flat-coated as workers, especially at trials, something that happened very quickly once they were recognised as a breed by the Kennel Club, some Flat-coated owners bemoaned the fact that the Labrador people did not seem to care what their dogs looked like so long as they worked well.

Although the breed was not recognised by the Kennel Club until 1903, Labradors were being entered in Flat-coated classes at shows before that, particularly at Carlisle and in the Tyne valley.  In time, various canine societies started putting on classes at shows for Labradors.  One of the earliest national shows to put on a class was the Gamekeepers’ Dog Show held at Westminster in the summer of 1900.  There was one class for Labradors drawing just two entries, both from Cumberland.  One of the owners was Andrew Nichol, Keeper at Brayton to Sir Wilfred Lawson.  Nichol was an important person in the Labrador world right up until his death in the 1930’s.  The judge’s report was short – basically - just two dogs present and neither much good.  The judge was a Flat-coated enthusiast and Nichol was forever complaining that the Flat-coated judges did not understand the Labrador.  The same society held another show in 1901 which drew a bigger entry of five exhibits including one dog entered in both the Flat-coated classes and the Labrador class.  Incidentally the value of a 1st.  prize at this show was £3-00.

Some Labrador breeders were registering their dogs at the Kennel Club even though the breed was not recognised by the Club.  The Labradors were listed on the Flat-coated register.  Early evidence of this happening is in 1899 when Mr F C Arkwright registered two Labradors, one bred by Andrew Craw, the gamekeeper son of James Craw.  Andrew Nichol registered his well-known (Brayton) Sir Richard; this is recorded in the Kennel Gazette again on the Flat-coated Register, August 1901.  In the Gazette of January 1903, there appear eight Munden Labradors of various ages belonging to the Hon.  Arthur Holland Hibbert on the Flat-coated register, this still before the breed was officially recognised as separate from the Flat-coated.

Many of the people involved in what appears to be a concentrated effort to get the breed, known, recognised and involved in Gundog activities, knew each other.  At one level there were close family ties for Sir Wilfred Lawson MP lived at Brayton, Cumberland and in 1884 his daughter, Ellen, married Hon.  Arthur Holland Hibbert of Munden, Hertfordshire.  In 1884 the first Labrador arrived at Munden from Gorhambury, St.  Albans, Hertfordshire, the home of the 3rd.  Earl of Verulam himself the son-in–law of Sir Frederick Graham of Netherby, Cumberland.  The Keepers were connected too: James Craw was Keeper to the Grahams at Netherby as was his son Alex; Andrew Nichol had been a Keeper at Netherby before becoming Keeper to Sir Wilfred Lawson at Brayton.  John Kerss, Keeper to the Duke of Buccleuch, lived just across the border at Holmhead, Langholm, Dumfriesshire.  This was a group connected by family, employment and area.

At a meeting of the General Committee of the Kennel Club July 1903 a letter from Miss Aleen Cust was noted.  She asked of the likelihood of Labrador Retrievers being recognised as a distinct breed and was it permissible to exhibit these dogs in any variety or Foreign classes irrespective of classes for Flat-coated Retrievers even though they be registered as such.  She was informed that there were not enough of the breed in the country to warrant a classification but classes would be provided at the forthcoming Kennel Club show and the entry there would have a bearing on any future decision.  Their reaction to Miss Cust’s letter seems strange since many of the important Kennel Club members were shooting men; indeed five of the ten members of the Field Trial Committee were Flat-coated owners – perhaps that was the reason! Surely, they must have known that there were significant numbers of Labradors in the country albeit a rather long way from London; perhaps they were a bit fearful of the competition.

(Brayton) Sir RichardMiss Cust lived at the time in Northumberland, she was a well connected member of the English aristocracy but she is most famous for being the first woman to qualify as a Veterinary Surgeon though at the time the Royal College would not admit her since she was female, apparently some regarded it as “unseemly” for a woman to be a Vet.  The 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act forced the Royal College to allow her take their examinations and in 1922 at 52 years of age she became a member. 

In October 1903 the class for Labradors at the Kennel Club show drew fourteen entries, nine of them from Arthur Holland Hibbert himself or by people with his breeding, the rest of the entries were from the Borders - by Sir Richard Graham (Netherby), Alex Craw, Andrew Nichol and Miss Cust.  Clearly this entry did not happen by chance.  Whatever the circumstances, the entry seemed to satisfy the Kennel Club and in that November the Club decided to allow the breed a classification on the Register as Labradors, not Labrador Retrievers, and they were to be placed with the Foreign Dogs.  Arthur Holland Hibbert and others were not happy with this at all and in 1905, after lobbying, the breed was reclassified a variety of Retriever.

In October 1904 Munden Single was awarded a Certificate of Merit at the IGL trial near Warwick, despite “mashing a bird up”; not much in itself maybe but the start of the ascendency of the Labrador and the fairly rapid decline of the Flat-coated Retrievers.  At first the Flat-coated people seemed to be in denial of the Labrador’s abilities.  Writing in The Field of December 1908, under the nom de plume of Aye Ready Aye, the correspondent noted that “Labradors have been much in evidence lately but I do not think it be permanent… they will gradually recede to the dark corner whence they came”  - an unpleasant and incredibly mistaken reaction. 

It was surprising how quickly the Labradors dominated the Field Trials and only one Flat-coat, F.T.Ch.  Meeru winner of the 1912 Retriever Championship, really threatened the Labs after1910, though a few Golden Retrievers have also won at the highest levels over the years, though it must be remembered that a yellow Labrador was introduced into the Golden working lines around 1930.  Perhaps the Labrador breed struck lucky from the start with a number of top quality workers immediately to the fore.  FT Chs Flapper (b.1902) and Peter of Faskally (b.1908) set very high standards of work and they bred on with top class working progeny and the Duchess of Hamilton had a number of good working bitches who also bred on.  One reaction of the Flat-coated community was to use Labrador stud dogs on their Flat-coated bitches.  It was the Flat-coated people who out-crossed not the Labrador people who seemed very confident in their breed.  At this time an owner could register dogs at the Kennel Club on the basis of looks alone, thus an interbred Labrador/Flat-coated could be registered as either a Labrador or a Flat-coated depending on the owner’s wishes.  However, experience tells us that when mating a Labrador to any other breed of similar size and proportion the offspring tend, to varying degrees, to look like Labradors; many of the resulting interbreds of Labrador/Flat-coated matings were registered as Labradors.  One correspondent wrote to The Field saying that the Flat-coated owners were defeating their own purpose and undermining their breed by default by registering interbreds as Labs.  Even so the interbreds were retrievers and as far as working went it could be argued that so long as these matings were improving the working abilities of the dogs, then it could be justified.  These sentiments could not be applied to shows where breed type and its purity were crucial.

Around 1908 Mr TW Twyford of Staffordshire set up a kennel of Labradors; he had inherited his family pottery business that produced the most essential of pots, sanitary ware.  Mr Twyford was rich and had leased Whitmore Hall near Stafford and was living the life of a country gentleman.  In the next few years he spent large sums of money buying in top class Labradors both for work and show.  From Andrew Nichol he bought Ch Brayton Swift despite the dog being in late middle age and bought in a Swift son who became Ch.  Type of Whitmore.  Mr Twyford employed John Cady who developed into one of the great trainers producing Field Trial Champions, Champions in the ring and Dual Ch Titus of Whitmore for Mr Tywford.  Under Cady, Mr Twyford’s dogs won the Dog Challenge Certificates at Crufts four years running, 1912-1915.

In January 1916 a handsome black retriever, Horton Max, won the Labrador Dog Challenge Certificate at the National Dog Show.  However Max was an Interbred and his pedigree revealed him to be three-quarter Flatcoated and one quarter Labrador, the Labrador blood was from his maternal grandmother Vesper Belle; she was not even registered.   Understandably, Mr Tywford was not happy, while accepting that Horton Max was a handsome dog, no matter how good he looked, he was not a pure bred Labrador.  In response Mr Twyford called a meeting to be held at Crufts on February 10th 1916, the day after Gundog day to discuss the registration of Interbreds and the possibility of forming a club to protect and promote the interests of purebred Labradors.  As if on cue, the day before the meeting, Horton Max won the Labrador Dog Challenge Certificate under Major Harding Cox, a famous Flatcoated breeder/exhibitor/judge.  Later, rightly, Major Cox made the point that he did not make the rules he just judged the dogs put in front of him.  Even so Andrew Nichols’ point that the Flatcoated judges sometimes failed to understand Labrador type may have been accurate.

Mr Twyford had done his preparation for the meeting.  Despite this being the middle of the First World War he had sent out forty-three circular letters and had received thirty-five replies – some from serving soldiers at the Front.  The vast majority of the replies and of the people present at the meeting wanted the Kennel Club to stop registering Interbreds as pure breds.  Mr Reginald Cooke the great Flat-coated breeder and Mrs Charlesworth, the pioneering Golden breeder, also wanted the situation resolved in favour of only pure breds being registered as such.  Mr Twyford read out a letter from the Front from Lord Faversham (Nawton) … “something should be done to prevent half-breeds being described as Labrador” but continued saying… “if shows could be confined to dogs which have gained at least a Certificate of Merit at trials I should have no objections to them”.  Lord Faversham was killed shortly afterwards.  Interestingly and perhaps reflecting Lord Faversham’s concerns about dog shows, while there was a majority in the meeting for the setting up of a breed club, there was a significant minority who did not want a Labrador breed club.

The meeting sent a petition to the Kennel Club asking that they act on the matter.  The Kennel Club acted very promptly setting up an Interbred register and ruling that these Interbreds could compete in trials but not in classes for pure breds at shows.  These regulations were not retrospective and all dogs registered as Labradors to this point would be considered Labradors. 

In the mean time Horton Max had been sold to an American anglophile living in Britain, Mr J Scott MacComb, who took out advertisements pointing out that the dog was still a Labrador according to the regulations but Max did not go on to complete his show title nor was Max of a significant influence to the Labrador bloodlines.

As far as the setting up of a breed club went this too was acted upon without delay.  The first meeting of the Labrador Retriever Club was held on April 5th.  1916; Mr Twyford was elected Chairman pro-tem.  A small group of enthusiasts were asked to draw up a breed standard and an application was made to the Kennel Club asking for the recognition of the Club which was duly given. 

In the first Club handbook issued in 1917 the list of officers included the Hon A Holland Hibbert as Chairman, sixteen General Committee members and Mrs Quintin Dick as Hon.  Secretary and Treasurer.  The handbook contained the newly accepted Breed Standard and a list of one hundred and twenty nine members.  Very interestingly among the great and the good, the aristocrats, senior Army officers and the wealthy businessmen on the Committee was one Andrew Nichol, gamekeeper.

Looking back at this period, the contribution made by the wealthy landowners to the breed cannot be denied, their enthusiasm and their money made a big difference.  At another level the contribution of two men of a lower social status should be recognised.  The part played by the Buccleuch Labradors in providing the early breeding stock for other kennels was considerable and the Buccleuch kennel was put together, no doubt with the approval of his employer, by John Kerss, gamekeeper at Langholm.  Andrew Nichol never failed to press the claims of the breed throughout his long and distinguished career as a keeper; their roles should be recognised too.

Richard Edwards