Speak of THE DEVIL:
A Curly Coated Retriever wins the first ever retriever field trial in 1871.
Let’s set the scene: Bangor, England, in the year 1871. Mr. Assheton Smith, a well-known and avid pointer and setter owner/breeder, generously donates the use of his beautiful estate, “Vaynol”, for pointer and setter trials.
In a new twist, the pointer and setter owners who had been holding field trials for several years decided to add a few retriever stakes.
Retrievers were the up and coming hot dogs—pardon the pun—of the era, due to the improvement of shotguns and the ability of shooters to more accurately shoot birds at a greater distance. That meant a shooter didn’t necessarily need a pointer or setter to mesmerize and hold the birds until the shooter could walk up to just a few feet near the bird before it flushed.
If accompanied by an accomplished retriever, and armed with an improved gun, a shooter could shoot from farther away AND depend on the dog to reliably retrieve any crippled birds and find any downed birds.
Most of the retrievers entered—and there were just 11--were from show dog breeding, according to George Teasdale Buckell, who served as the secretary of the trial. An entry of 11 sounds small but the number of pointers and setters entered was only about three times that. Trials for pointers and setters had started six years earlier and often were held two or more times a year.
Judges for the trial included the “father of conformation dog shows’ and the person to write the first dog standards Dr. John H. Walsh. Author of numerous dog books and articles, sometimes writing under the pseudonym “Stonehenge”, Walsh was considered one of the top canine experts for several decades in the 1800’s. His books are considered to be doggy ‘bibles’.
Another judge was S.E. Shirley, the first chairman of the English kennel club and considered to be the “father” of the Wavy Coated Retriever (now called the Flat Coated Retriever.)
The third judge, William Lort, completes the triumvirate of judges who, interestingly enough, ALL owned and hunted Curly Coated retrievers in their day. Even Shirley, who is famous for his involvement in the development of flat coats, owned and exhibited curlies.
Walsh writes in one of his book about exhibiting at a conformation show a dog who was a cross between a curly coated retriever and a collie (spelled “colley” by Walsh). By his own admission, Walsh’s dog wasn’t attractive or representative of a “proper retriever” as they were so often called in the mid-1800’s.
All three judges and the official gunner at the first retriever field trial were curly coated retriever owners at one time or another.
The official gunner (called a "shooter" back then) at the first retriever field trial was R. J. Lloyd Price, a wealthy and eccentric land owner, whiskey distiller, curly coated retriever, pointer and setter breeder, author, and all-around sportsman.
Price later acquired the curly coated retriever who won this first trial.
The illustration of Price is from an 1885 edition of Vanity Fair. He is depicted in typical shooting/hunting clothes of the time.
Price owned the Rhiwlas estate of approximately 18,000 acres in near Bala, in Northwest Wales.
The estate was the site of many a pointer and setter field trial and, in 1872, hosted the first ever sheepdog trial.
Price bred several litters of curly coated retrievers.
Scroll Down to Read More of the Story of the first Retriever Field Trial.
That Ugly Ol' Devil
At the 1871 Vaynol trial, there were two stakes: one for OLD dogs and bitches, and one for puppies. Seven old dogs and bitches competed against each other for the silver cup. In these trials, dogs ran as braces just like pointers and setters did.
Victorious and in first place was a liver dog named The Devil. Owned by T. Ellis, The Devil was actually a local dog born in Wales. His performance was so good he would be sold to the gunner at the trial R.J. Lloyd Price. Obviously, Mr. Price liked what he saw of Devil at the trial!
One of the judges, John Walsh, also liked what he saw of The Devil. Writing in “Dogs of the British Islands” his book on all things dog in the 1870’s, Walsh said The Devil was the best working retriever he had ever seen (to that point).
But folks believed The Devil was ugly and was not a purebred curly coated retriever.
Some people weren’t too happy THE Devil had won. Devil was described 30 years as grey muzzled and grey whiskered. George Buckell, who was at the trial, wrote the grey hairs made The Devil resemble an otter hound.
Walsh also thought The Devil wasn’t pure curly. He described him as probably a cross between a poodle and some kind of hound. That description may be why the myth of poodle ancestry in curlies was started. (Thanks to the doggy genome project, most people now discount the theory of poodle ancestry in curly coated retrievers--something most long-time curly breeders discounted for decades.)
His grizzled muzzle and grey whiskers weren't the only things people probably found unattractive. The color liver didn't do The Devil any favors. By the 1870’s lots of retriever men were not enamored of, and even objected to, liver colored retrievers. Objections were often based on the fact many spaniels were liver colored and retriever breeders and owners didn't want that color for their up-and-coming new fangled type of dog dubbed the wavy or curly coated retriever!
Color preference and objections reached an all time high in retrievers when SOME Labrador retriever breeders routinely euthanized chocolate or liver colored puppies.
Others actually believed livers were better retrievers (more on that in a later article).
Walsh and Buckell may have doubted The Devil’s ancestry but the English Kennel Club registered him in the first stud book as a liver retriever. He was probably part spaniel but that is really the ancestry of curly coated retrievers anyway. They are spaniels with a dash of the retrieving or Llanidloes setter tossed in.
Not only is The Devil registered as a retriever in the official Kennel Club records but so is his son! In the first Kennel Club stud book, The Devil is registered as “Devil” but we know it is the same dog because of the notation in the stud book indicating he won the retriever trial at Vaynol.
The Devil’s son, also a liver and bred by Mr. Price, was named Country Rector.
Adding to the probability of The Devil being purebred curly, or as purebred as retrievers came in those days, is R. J. Lloyd Price’s history of breeding and owning curly coated retrievers. Price bred and owned quite a few of the breed.
AWorking Liver Curly
CH. Brio's Olives At Belaggio, MH
Sired by my Ptarmigan Cruiz'n Dakota out of Ch. Sun Devil Dreaming of Chantico, MH
The Devil, You Say?
Preacher Gets Up in Arms.
Why was The Devil’s son named Country Rector? Seems a local parson who read ar article in the newspaper about The Devil winning the field trial went all fire and brimstone about the name. The preacher found it highly objectionable to name a dog after The Prince of Darkness.
To answer the preacher’s criticism, Price named The Devil’s son Rector. Rector (officially Country Rector) was also run in some trials but apparently didn’t do as well as his sire.
After a few retriever events, folks just sort of gave up on retriever trials for several decades. Buckell postures this is because a retriever as homely (at least to him) won at Vaynol and the conformation show minded objected to an ugly retriever winning a trial.
“He won handsomely enough,” Buckell wrote, supporting the idea that handsome is as handsome does. But Buckell recognized, as did many of the canine experts of the late 1800’s, that conformation shows were destroying some of the effort to breed working dogs.
He wrote “preconceived notions of what a retriever should look like got too much of a facer (a blow to the face) to induce those who like beauty to take too much trouble about future field trials for retrievers, which, if given, seemed likely to result, as they had in the past, in the easy defeat of all that is handsome.”
Today we hear many gun and working dog breeders echoing some of the same sentiment.
Talking about the ancestry of curly coated retrievers, it is quite fascinating that Rhiwlas, the 17,000 acre estate of The Devil’s owner, was located just 60 miles from Llandiloes, home of the curly retrieving setter. In the 1800’s, that’s an 8 hour journey by horse and carriage but trains were already running in Wales by that time and the journey could have been made in a couple of hours.
Editor's Note: There was a trial held previously to that featured above which had two retrievers competing. The competition was apparently a spur-of-the-moment event and is not considered to be anything more than an informal competition between two owners who happened to be attending a pointer and setter trial.