In the latter part of the eighteenth century a certain Lieutenant Cartwright, RN, travelled extensively in Newfoundland. In his book on his travels, he writes: ‘Providence has even denied them [the aboriginal Indians] the pleasing services and companionship of the faithful dog.’ From this statement, which is reliable, I think we may suppose that there were no dogs in North America. If we accept this statement, it seems reasonable to assume that the Labrador Retriever was brought by Europeans to those parts when they began to settle there.
Labrador is said to have been discovered in the year 1000, but it was not until 1498 that Englishmen first went there in search of fish. The English were followed one hundred and fifty (approximately) years later by men from other nations — Portugal, France and Spain.
Reports are written of the inroads made by wolves, but the author adds that these were kept from camps by fires, dogs and other means. In the early days trade, mainly in fish, was carried on with the West Country. In England in those days the black hounds of St Hubert were much prized and it is well within the bounds of possibility that some of these dogs found their way back to Labrador and that they were the ancestors of the modern Labrador.
It is doubtful if the real origin of the breed will ever be decisively settled, but it is certain that as the fishing industry increased in Labrador a breed of dog was founded there that has become world-famous. It seems an established fact that there were two distinct types of this dog, a larger, stronger and long-haired dog and a lighter smooth-coated variety. The larger, heavier dogs were used as draught animals to pull sleighs and generally make themselves useful. The lighter, smoother coated variety were taken by wildfowlers and fishermen and were used to retrieve game from rough seas, and also to retrieve fish which would otherwise have escaped. Both these varieties found their way to these shores and attracted attention. They were known as Newfoundland dogs — which, of course, was confusing.
Finally, about 1812-1814 Colonel Peter Hawker sought to make the matter clearer and called the larger dog the Newfoundland and the smaller the lesser Newfoundland, or the Labrador or St John’s dog.
Lord Malmesbury lived near Poole, in Dorset, in those days. He was greatly attracted by the smaller variety and he and Colonel Peter Hawker bought several dogs from the fishermen from Newfoundland, who doubtless found a brisk and remunerative trade to repay them for their enterprise. Colonel Hawker in his book Instructions to young Sportsmen, written in 1814, describes the Labrador ‘as by far the best for every kind of shooting’, and continues:
Oftener black than of another colour, and scarcely bigger than a pointer, he is made rather long in the head and nose, pretty deep in chest, very fine in the legs, has short or smooth hair, does not carry his tail so much curled as the other [presumably the Newfoundland] and is extremely quick in running, swimming and fighting. . . Poole was till of late years, the best place to buy Newfoundland dogs, but now they are become scarce owing [the sailors say] to the strictness of those . . . tax gatherers!
The Duke of Buccleuch, Lord Malmesbury and Lord Home were all favourably impressed by the Labrador as a worker on land and in water. In 1867 a picture was made of Lord Home’s Nell, then about eleven years old. Apart from four white feet, she is a typical specimen of the breed so popular. The Border Country down to the present time has ever been a stronghold of the breed.
The owners of these original kennels were proud of the breed and did their utmost to keep it pure.
To encourage the breeding of sheep a law was introduced into Labrador in 1885 for the destruction of practically all Labradors. In a matter of ten years or so the quarantine laws came into force in England and these two laws virtually ended any extensive trade in dogs between Labrador and this country. At the time this must have seemed hard, but on the whole it probably did good, for once it became extensively known that to trade in Labrador dogs was a lucrative business no doubt there would have been an influx of inferior dogs: so possibly out of evil came good.
This is an account of his early history as far as I can discover. From this beginning the breed has developed into the Labrador of today — a dog which excels in working ability, is a valued companion to man and a dog which has abundantly proved that he can hold his own with all breeds at shows. Surely if a motto is needed for the Labrador it could very aptly be ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’
In 1878 a dog called Malmesbury Tramp was born. He can be described as one of the tap roots of the modern Labrador. From him came Avon, a well-known dog which was in the Duke of Buccleuch’s Kennel. Avon was born in 1885 and when mated to Buccleuch Gyp produced Buccleuch Nith. This dog did a great amount of good. He was mated with Munden Sarah, this union producing Munden Sixty, a dog which exercised great influence for good in Lord Knutsford’s kennel and in other kennels of that time.
Another dog which also did much good in the 1880’s was Kielder. It was really through the mating of this dog with a bitch named Susan that the real foundation of the famous Munden kennel was laid. In direct descent from them came Waterdale Gamester, which when mated with Birkhill Juliet produced the illustrious Peter of Faskally, a dog which proved himself to be one of the great field trial Labradors of all times.
Born in 1908, Peter was bred by Mr Watson of Birkhill and passed into the hands of Mr David Black, who has owned so many famous dogs. Later Peter was acquired by Captain A. E. Butter in whose name, and when handled by him, was so brilliant at field trials. His wins included the Champion Stake. It is interesting to know that Peter was the sire of F.T. Ch. Patron of Faskally, which also won the Champion Stake, as did Patron’s son F.T. Ch. Tag of Whitmore, thus making the record of three generations winning that distinction.
I believe Mr Twyford considered Tag one of the best, if not the best, field trial dog he ever owned, and he certainly owned a goodly company.
Returning to Peter, he can surely be accounted as a dog which did untold good to the breed. No fewer than thirty-two of his progeny actually won, or were placed in field trials. He sired a Bench (Show) Champion in Withington Dorando and two field trial Champions in Peter of Whitmore and Patron of Faskally. Peter of Faskally did a very great deal to popularize the Labrador Retriever.
Amongst other sons of Peter’s was Scandal of Glynn, a dog which owing to the 1914-18 war, was prevented from competing at field trials. He sired only one litter. In that litter the only dog was Dual Ch. Banchory Bob. From Bolo came many famous Labradors.
To return to the main tap roots of the breed, great prominence must be given to Netherby Boatswain — from Boatswain came Brayton Sir Richard and Warwick Collier, the latter being the sire of such famous dogs as Esk, Brocklehirst Bob and Kinmount Don. Brayton Sir Richard’s progeny included Brayton Swift and Munden Sovereign, names which appear in so many pedigrees.
Boatswain when mated to Netherby Jill produced Kielder, a dog whose name is very famous in old pedigrees. Among other dogs he produced was Lord Verulam’s Sweep, born in 1889. Among his sons was Netherby Tar, a dog famous in the Border country, from which came so many famous dogs.
Another dog which did an immense amount of good, and would have done more had it not been for the 1914-18 war, was Ch. Ilderton Ben, bred by Mr Thompson in 1913. He was by a dog called Bobby (Smiler — Athol Lass) ex Nell (Rover — Jet.) He passed into the hands of Mr Reay, of Northumberland, for whom he won third prize in the Gamekeepers’ National Association’s Trials in 1915 and qualified as a Bench Champion. I acquired Ben in 1916 and kept him until he died in 1924. He was one of the best-proportioned dogs I have seen, and a beautiful Labrador. He did much good at stud and would doubtless have done more but for the war. He sired one Dual Ch. namely, Banchory Sunspeck, three champions, Grately Ben, Teazle of Whitmore and Baree of Faircote, and four winners field trials and others that gained recognition. Certainly, outstanding was Banchory Don, a dog which, owing to an injury to his head, could never be shown but which did much good to the breed.
Tramp, Boatswain and Ben seem to have been the tap roots from which modern Labradors have descended; their names appear in nearly all pedigrees today.
It is also stated that in the period 1450-1458 a merchant, a native of Bristol named John Cabot, sailed from Bristol with a crew of Englishmen and later claimed to have discovered Labrador. He took with him on this voyage his son Sebastian, who went on to Hudson Bay and was much taken with the sleigh dogs and the dogs owned by fishermen there.
There can be no doubt that the Labrador owes a very great deal to the Dukes of Buccleuch and their family. They have from the very first given every support to the breed and have always kept a most representative kennel at Langholm, going to endless trouble to find suitable dogs and import them to benefit the breed.
A most informative book has been written on the breed by Lord George Scott, which gives a full and varied history of their breed. In the book kept by the late Lord Knutsford which has very kindly been lent to me by his son, the present Lord Knutsford, I have found much of interest. In the cuttings from various newspapers, and in the pictures it contains, there is a great deal of information. A cutting dated May, 1896 taken from a paper called the Country House states:
Poole in Dorset and Labrador, and it is a fact that by these trading vessels the breed (Labradors) was first brought to England and that excellent sportsman, the then Earl of Malmesbury, became possessed of them. So highly was he pleased with their work, especially in water, that he kept them until his death. About the same time, or perhaps a little later, the Duke of Buccleuch, the Earl of Home (who died in 1841) and Lord John Scott imported some from Labrador. They were kept pure for many years.
Lord Knutsford himself writes of the breed: ‘I believe the Labrador Retriever to be unequalled for sporting purposes either on land or in water.’
The main early supporters of the breed in the North and in the Border Country at that time were, as far as I can discover, the Duke of Buccleuch, the Earl of Home, Lord John Scott and Sir Richard Graham of Netherby. Later Mr A. Nichol, the head keeper at Brayton, was also a very strong and ardent supporter of the breed. His dog Ch. Brayton Swift in later years was a big winner and was sire of Ch. Type of Whitmore, one of the great winners of his age.
A gentleman who refused to divulge his name and wrote over the name of ‘Preserver’ stated that the Labrador did not come from Labrador at all, but was the result of a cross between a Pointer and a Newfoundland. In his argument against this, Lord Knutsford wrote to The Field that: ‘Preserver’ having been proved wrong over this statement, produces further mystification by quoting various sayings from mysterious individuals whose names are not to be divulged.
Lord Knutsford goes on: that if the Labrador is indeed the production of a cross, it is curious that like all cross breeds they do not throw back! That is one of the remarkable things about them, how strong the Labrador blood is.
On looking at the photographs in that book I am greatly taken with the one of Avon (1896) which bears a great resemblance to Ch. Ilderton Ben and of Nero, about the same period. . . to Ch. Withington Dorando. In that book also appears a photo of a dog called Rufus, reproduced from the Sporting Magazine of 1832. It does not state if the dog is black, yellow or chocolate; one of the two latter colours seems suggested by the name. Rufus is not what one might call a typical Labrador, his tail being rather feathered but not what is usually described as really ‘Flat Coat’. He had apparently very strong, well-shaped hindquarters, well-bent thigh and his hocks are well set under him. He appears long in back and slack of ribs. His ears are not well set and are inclined to be sheep-doggy and semi-folded in head; he is distinctly snipy and cut away in muzzle, which is too long and pointed. He has white toes on all four feet but has good straight legs but lacks bone. His coat appears rough and long. Ongoing through various newspaper cuttings in Lord Knutsford’s book, which contains different theories expounded by different people as to the origin of the Labrador, I found in a letter to The Field written in 1930 an answer to an article written on the Labrador, to which Lord Knutsford responded:
As far as I can ascertain — and I have been trying for many years — the statement that the present Labrador results from a Pointer cross is without foundation. Certainly, some of the founders, Lord Malmesbury, Sir R. Graham, the Duke of Buccleuch, Lord John Scott or Lord Verulam never tried such a cross, and I have bred Labradors ever since 1893 and have never used a Pointer. I believe that the attenuated look of many of the so-called Labradors today arises from breeding anything and everything so long as it has a smooth coat and a sort of look of a Labrador, but such curiosities cannot be called Labradors.
If Lord Knutsford wrote this in 1930 I wonder what he would have written of the dogs masquerading under the name of Labradors which appeared after the 1939 war and which still appear, alas, at field trials, and also at shows. Of course the modern craze for speed makes this light, racy and whippety dog popular. I believe in America there is also a craze for speed, and lightly built leggy dogs with no bone or substance are winning. This is all wrong; these dogs may be racing machines but they are not Labradors. I am convinced that the old type of Labrador, which did not gallop too fast for its nose, collected more game in the aggregate than some of these what may be called speed merchants do today. Moreover, there was less game left uncollected, and left for an official picker-up to collect later.
In going through the pedigrees in Lord Knutsford’s book one is struck by the recurrence of the names of dogs like Kielder from Sir Richard Graham’s kennel at Netherby — Avon, Nith and many others from the Duke of Buccleuch’s kennels, and Ned bred by Lord Malmesbury, also a dog from his kennels called Sweep (1877) apparently imported from Newfoundland: also the names of dogs from the kennels of Lord Ruthven and Lord Wimbome, Lord Home and others. There are two photos of Lord Home’s Nell, one standing and one lying down. She appears to have been a typical Labrador, her main fault being white toes on three of her feet (two fore feet and the off hind foot), as was so frequently the case in early days. She appears to have a beautiful and very sagacious head with good width between well-placed and shaped ears, and has what the Scots call a ‘wise-looking’ head. She was whelped in 1855 and the photos I have before me were taken in 1867; beyond a white muzzle, she does not show signs of age and must have been a real `laster’. On the opposite page appears a photo of Munden Solo (Dual Ch. Banchory Bolo ex Banchory Betty) whelped 1923 and it is amazing how similar the two are in type, which is further proof of the purity of the breed.
Stranger, as his name implies, was an imported dog, originally from Labrador, but as far as I can gather the late Mr W. Stuart Menzies of Amdilly, Craig Ellachie, found him in Norway. He wrote about Stranger to Lord Knutsford, in a letter dated May, 1911:
“What I must have told you was that I found Stranger on the quay at Trondgerin, Norway, and his owner, an emigrant agent, said he had brought the dog over from Newfoundland via Canada, but I found out no details. There is a photograph of Stranger which shows him to be a very good-looking dog, with good bone, beautiful neck and shoulders. Well set-on good tail with powerful quarters. I cannot trace any of his progeny, which is a pity because his appearance suggests that he ought to have done the breed much good.”
Among the letters in Lord Knutsford’s book there is one from Colonel Cotes of Pitchford Hall, Shrewsbury, dated, July 16th 1908, who wrote:
I enclose you a photograph from a picture of Jim, my father’s Labrador, that was bought at Poole by Mr Portman, father of the present Lord Portman, 1832. He was an extraordinarily good dog in the Field and is the ancestor of my present retrievers. The Captain of the ship who sold him to Mr Portman said he was one of the best bred dogs in the Island. He had a certain amount of coat more than the present Labradors have.
There is a letter from Sir Richard Graham, dated October 21st, 1907, who wrote:
It is quite true, about 40 years ago there was a dog here which came Edenhall very like a Labrador to look at which was half Mastiff and was called Tar; he was an excellent retriever and a very good night dog.
He was never used as a stud dog except for breeding rabbit catchers’ dogs of which he sired some very good ones. The first Labradors were brought here about 50 years ago by James Cran who came from the Hirsel (Lord Home’s) and I think they came from Langholm originally.
On November 3rd, 1907, Sir Richard Graham wrote to Lord Knutsford:
I have got 9 old Labradors and 7 puppies at the moment — 1887 I think is as far back as any of my Labradors go back. Lord Malmesbury may have kept their pedigrees longer as a good many now go back to Lord Malmesbury’s Sweep 1877 and his Juno 1878. In Lord Knutsford’s book there are a number of groups of Labradors and also many single ones. One cannot help being struck by the type of Labrador he was so deeply attached to. There is a study of four Labrador heads — Munden Saba, Sandfly, Sorrow and Sovereign — which are so typical of the breed and of the type he kept and bred. So many of the photos of the dogs he had seem so similar to the best of those one seen today. Judging from these photographs, and from various conversations I had from time to time with him, he would not tolerate anything in the shape of a lightly got up or leggy dog. He always stressed the point that a Labrador is a dog which should stand up to a really hard day’s work and that the dog’s somewhat broad chest enabled him to do this. He was also very particular about the right Labrador coat which, in some cases, we appear to be losing. He also liked a dog with a broad skull, not finely chiselled like the flat coat, with a pronounced stop and large expressive eyes, not dark and piercing, but of hazel or burnt sugar colour. I feel that if we follow Lord Knutsford’s ideal Labrador we shall not go wrong; we certainly shall not be doing something that might result in irreparable harm to the breed.
Material reproduced for educational purposes from:
The Labrador Retriever
Lorna, Countess Howe and Geoffrey Waring
Published by Arco Publishing Company, Inc, New York – 1975
Chapter 1 – Origin, pages 17 – 25