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The Curly Coated 'Mother' of the Labrador Retriever

If you own a Labrador or Golden Retriever, you own a tiny piece of a Curly Coated Retriever.


Some owners of Labrador and Golden retrievers—the most popular retriever breeds by a long, long shot—might be surprised to learn their dog just might have a curly coated retriever ancestor (or two or three).


The curly coated retriever “Lord Grimston’s Susan” was one of the important foundations of the Labrador retriever breed.


For Golden retriever owners who can trace their dogs’ pedigrees back to the famous English Champions Michael of Moreton or Cubbington Diver, you will find a curly coated retriever named Rajah. This article features the curly lab connection. 

Eng. Ch. Michael of Moreton

Susan, the Curly Coated Retriever 'mother' of the Labrador Retriever

When Lt.-Colonel Lord George Scott began researching the pedigrees of some of his family’s Labrador retrievers, he had a distinct advantage over those of us who pursue retriever history by poring over old books, letters, and pictures. Scott's advantage was being able to speak with some of the early Labrador owners and breeders and family members.


Scott owned Buccleuch Daniel (born 1926). Scott’s niece, Mrs. Hill Wood, owned Hiwood Chance (1928). Both these Labradors are well-known, important foundation dogs of the breed. The Buccleuch and Hiwood kennel names are some of the most revered and important in retriever history. Hiwood, in particular, would go on to produce many English field trial champions and winners.

 Scott’s research into the pedigree of the two dogs eventually led to the  Lord Grimston portion of the early Labrador pedigrees. Let’s let Scott tell the story of Susan as he did in his 1936 book The Labrador Dog, Its Home and History:


… there is one which may for convenience be counted as of the foundation, although she never was claimed to be a Labrador. Lord Grimston, afterwards third Earl of Verulam, son-in-law of Sir Frederick Graham, procured Kielder, (1872)*, probably in 1879, and mated him with his Susan. The progeny were called Labradors, and Lord Grimston inbred incestuously to these for several generations. From this it is evident that Lord Grimston's Kennel of Labradors was originally only half bred.

Sir Richard Graham, brother-in-law to Lord Grimston, described Susan as having “No pedigree so far as I know. She was a small black curly-coated good retriever: the sort that has completely died out.'”

(End of book quotation.)

What exactly Lord Grimston's brother-in-law Sir Graham was referring to when he stated Lord Grimston's foundation dam was the sort of curly coated good retriever whose sort has completely died out we don't know. Sir Graham presumedly made his remarks sometime near the time Scott's book was published in 1936. 

We know curly coated retrievers, during the time Lord Grimston was participating in the development of the Labrador retriever breed, were smaller than most modern-day curly coated retrievers. During Lord Grimston's breeding career, curly coated retrievers were also considered the best or nearly the best retriever gun dogs, particularly for water work and rough shooting (in which the dog works ahead of the hunter, finds, flushes and retrieves the game.)

Sir Richard told Scott Susan had no pedigree, but Scott was able to put together what he termed "a pedigree of a kind" and reproduced it in his book. While short, it is a pedigree. 

Curly Coated Retriever Susan Pedigree. Foundation for Labrador Retriever breed.

Tracing Modern Lab Pedigrees Back to Susan

I did some research and can trace some of the current American Field Trial and Amateur Field Trial champions all the way back to Susan, the curly coated retriever.  Field dogs with such noted kennel prefixes such as Arden and Nilo  go back to our little curly coated “Labrador” mother Susan. And because Lord Grimston mated sons and daughters of Susan together, there is a LOT of her blood in the origins of Labradors.


Getting rid of Susan’s curly hair in the offspring or future generations would be fairly easy if the sire did not carry, or was heterozygous for, the keratin gene mutation or mutations. Curly hair is usually recessive or incompletely dominant to non-curly hair. (Other modifying genes can also affect the incomplete dominance of curly hair.)

It is likely our “mother curly” is behind many, if not most, modern day Labrador retrievers--the show champions as well as the field champions!


Here is what Scott said about that (remember, though, he was writing in 1936):


“Although not a Labrador, Susan appears occasionally in almost every pedigree of a Labrador retriever, and were it not for Susan the strain of Netherby Kielder 1872 would not exist now.”

Labrador retriever Buccleuch Daniel

The Labrador Retriever 'Buccleuch Daniel', owned by Lord George Scott, author of the book The Labrador Dog: Its Home and History (1936). Scott traced Daniel's pedigree back to the curly coated retriever Lord Grimston's Susan. 

Lest you think Scott was some kind of crackpot, he was a Lt. Colonel and British Lord. He would later manage the kennels of one of his relatives—the Duke of Buccleuch.

Scott’s co-author was Sir John Middleton, K.C.M.G., K.B.E.,  formerly Governor of Newfoundland. (Yes, the Canadian Newfoundland.)

The foreward to the book was written by the English Kennel Club’s Secretary, H. T. W. Boutwell, Esq.

So the history contained in this book isn’t something made up by a bunch of guys who had a few beers together, got bored and said “Hey, let’s make up some dog history!”

Next time you see a fast, high-powered field trial lab, wouldn't it be fun to ponder out loud just how much of that talent came from Susan, the curly coated mother of Labrador retrievers? Just kidding! (Okay, maybe not completely kidding--I have to admit it would be kind of fun.)

* Kielder's official, registered name is Netherby Kielder.

Primary source for this article is this book: The Labrador Dog: Its Home and History, by Lt.-Colonel Lord George Scott and Sir John Middleton, K.C.M.G., K.B.E.  Foreword by H. T. W. Bowell, Esq., Secretary of the Kennel Club, 1936.

More Labrador Curly Coated Retriever Connections

There are other connections between curly coated and Labrador retrievers including the 12th Duke and Duchess of Hamilton and Brandon and the 13th Duke and Duchess of Hamilton and Brandon.


In the 1800's, the Duke and Duchess were curly coated retriever owners, breeders and exhibitors.  They owned and exhibited the curly coated retriever champion Baron in conformation dog shows. Other curly coats they owned that were shown include a dog named Baronet and a dog named The Chief.


The successor of the 12th Duke owned some talented field Labradors who were ancestors of many of today’s top field Labradors. One of the Duke and Duchess' female field trial winners,

Dungavel Juno, goes back to the curly coated retriever Susan. Juno’s pedigree on her paternal side is known only as far as her sire. Juno was bred by M.J. Gordon, born in 1905, and her sire was the Earl of Shaftesbury’s Ben. The rest of her paternal ancestors are unknown.

Cross breeding was not uncommon and allowed by most kennel clubs and registries until the 1940’s so finding curly coated retriever ancestors in Labrador and Golden retriever pedigrees isn't surprising.  

(I will be writing about the curly coated retriever ancestor in Golden retriever pedigrees and some important Golden/Labrador crosses in a later article.)

It should be noted the Duke and Duchess of Hamilton and Brandon were not the only aristocrats who bred, owned and exhibited curly coated retrievers. The curly histories which say the breed was bred, worked trained and owned only by gamekeepers and/or meat hunters, including poachers, is quite a romantic history. Records indicate otherwise.

While it is true gamekeepers for large estates owned by royalty and aristocrats did most of the dog training and often made the breeding decisions, that wasn’t the case in all situations. Some gamekeepers kept and bred curly coated retrievers as their own personal dogs, but other curly coats were owned by aristocrats and landed gentry, who not only owned the dogs, but made the breeding decisions.

Duke of Hamilton picture and brief biography.

I've counted at least six aristocrats in just the first 20 years of registered curly coated retrievers who are listed as the breeders of curlies. 

Included in these breeders are the Lords Pomfret, Campbell, Hill, Chesterfield, and the Earls of Lanesborough and Durham.

In at least two cases if a gamekeeper in employ of a member of the peerage was responsible for the breeding, the gamekeeper is listed as the breeder. An interesting example is the black bitch "Till" (#1975), who was bred by Mr. Jones, keeper to the Earl of Durham. Mr. Jones produced Till by breeding "Nell", a curly female he owned, to "Jeno", a dog owned by the Earl of Durham.

Well-bred dogs who performed important tasks related to food gathering, property protection, and other jobs, were valuable animals in the 1800's. Hence the involvement in their breeding and ownership by wealthy and sometimes royal families. 

The sale of hunting and hound dogs was often a large part of estate auctions and property dispensation. 


Pure-bred dogs with pedigrees were so valuable, according to S. E. Shirley, founder of the English Kennel Club, Americans were willing to pay almost as much for a dog as for a pedigreed short horn bull. 


(Shirley was a noted breeder of Flat coated retrievers, was considered the 'father' of that breed but also owned, bred and exhibited curly coated retrievers.)


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